The day I saw 248 girls suffering genital mutilation


It’s 9.30am on a Sunday, and the mood inside the school building in Bandung, Indonesia, is festive. Mothers in headscarves and bright lipstick chat and eat coconut cakes. Javanese music thumps from an assembly hall. There are 400 people crammed into the primary school’s ground floor. It’s hot, noisy and chaotic, and almost everyone is smiling.

Twelve-year-old Suminah is not. She looks like she wants to punch somebody. Under her white hijab, which she has yanked down over her brow like a hoodie, her eyes have the livid, bewildered expression of a child who has been wronged by people she trusted. She sits on a plastic chair, swatting away her mother’s efforts to placate her with a party cup of milk and a biscuit. Suminah is in severe pain. An hour earlier, her genitals were mutilated with scissors as she lay on a school desk.

During the morning, 248 Indonesian girls undergo the same ordeal. Suminah is the oldest, the youngest is just five months. It is April 2006 and the occasion is a mass ceremony to perform sunat perempuan or “female circumcision” that has been held annually since 1958 by the Bandung-based Yayasan Assalaam, an Islamic foundation that runs a mosque and several schools. The foundation holds the event in the lunar month of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and pays parents 80,000 rupiah (£6) and a bag of food for each daughter they bring to be cut.

It is well established that female genital mutilation (FGM) is not required in Muslim law. It is an ancient cultural practice that existed before Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is also agreed across large swathes of the world that it is barbaric. At the mass ceremony, I ask the foundation’s social welfare secretary, Lukman Hakim, why they do it. His answer not only predates the dawn of religion, it predates human evolution: “It is necessary to control women’s sexual urges,” says Hakim, a stern, bespectacled man in a fez. “They must be chaste to preserve their beauty.”

I have not written about the 2006 mass ceremony until now. I went there with an Indonesian activist organisation that worked within communities to eradicate FGM. Their job was difficult and highly sensitive. Afterwards, in fraught exchanges with the organisation’s staff, it emerged that it was impossible for me to write a journalistic account of the event for the western media without compromising their efforts. It would destroy the trust they had forged with local leaders, the activists argued, and jeopardise their access to the people they needed to reach. I shelved my article; to sabotage the people working on the ground to stop the abuse would defeat the purpose of whatever I wrote. Such is the tricky partnership of journalism and activism at times.

Written By: Abigail Haworth
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  1. There are no words that adequately express the disgust and contempt I feel for these butchers.

  2. What a loathsome thing this is.

    Damn these people in every possible way for their disgusting crimes, their shit-filled hearts and vapid, empty minds. 

    How difficult would it be to organise a fund to pay these families 90,000 rupiah and 2 bags of food for every daughter they DON’T mutilate? Does the RDFRS get involved with such things?

    This must stop, and something makes me suspect that convincing these hideous cretins that children shouldn’t be mutilated with arguments would be nowhere near as effective as appealing to their pitiful, piddling self-interest. And yes, I understand that they are largely poor and uneducated; forgive me if I don’t consider that a justification for their barbarism.

  3. I would have thought that this have presented religion with the perfect opportunity to really do something good. The Islamic and Christian churches have moved into regions where FGM was previously practised. They were then in a position to stop it! A better position than anyone else.

    They didn’t. They didn’t I guess because it would have impacted on their ability to convert people. So they just incorporated it into their practice in those regions even though it was unknown to them and remains unknown in other Islamic/Christian regions. Just like early christianity incorporated pagan rituals like christmas to gain converts.

    That is another reason why religion is corrupt. Not only does it bring bad things it refuses to halt bad things that aren’t part of it.

  4. That was one of the reasons how the Jewish cult of Pauline Christianity got so popular. The less favourable traditions of Judaism could be dispensed with, e.g. circumcision and the dietary restrictions, while the favourable Gentile traditions could be maintained, e.g. the happy clappy festivals.

  5. Vomit worthy behaviour. Is the pleasure of sex really such a bad thing that children must be mutilated to prevent them experiencing those feelings?

  6.  I read the article and it makes me want to vomit. I agree with Agrajag – I can think of no words to express my disgust or convey my sympathy.

  7.  How many excuses does humanity have to make for this barbarousness?  The eradication of FGM is entirely irrespective of its origins.   It lies with the religions that maintain the tyranny! 

  8. I don’t think it has as much to do with the pleasure of sex being bad per se as to do with making sure it isn’t pleasurable so the women don’t go seeking it out with other men. If they don’t enjoy it they won’t look for it particularly and have no incentive other than to stay with the man they’re with.

    I’m not sure where exactly that would have originated from, perhaps it the same rationale as the burkha? I suppose once it is in place it becomes what men look for as attractive and desirable in a  woman like the ancient practise of feet binding in China.  I can’t see how sex with someone that must be in pain and not enjoying it can be much fun for the men either. Nor can I imagine how anyone could hurt another human being that much for any reason. Least of all their own daughters. It must be a really warped sick mindset.

    As for getting rid of it, anything that can be used to get rid of it should be used. Even religion if they could be made amenable. The fact they didn’t stop when the religion first arrived in those areas is a disgrace even for the religious. The fact they still don’t stop it is a disgrace. Especially when they don’t proactively try to stop it in countries like Britain. I’m sure immams or leaders from whatever christian sects sanction it could be way more effective in putting pressure on those that do it to stop than the police or social services. I guess we know they never will do something that is actually morally right though 🙁 

  9. The lack of sexual pleasure will not be the only hardship these girls will experience in their adult life. It is my understanding that they may experience extremely painful menstrual periods, complications during pregnancy, infant mortality, infections, and psychological damage.

    On another topic, it is being discussed how science education is mediocre to awful. Somewhere else a Muslim girl is being denied education. Elsewhere people suspected of witchcraft are being victimized and tortured. What will it take to create change? Today, countless people are in church “sending” loving and healing energy to people in need around the world. What good does it do to be hidden away from society to pray. Does praying help clean up the debris and wreckage from a tornado? I think praying is an elaborate scheme to justify not doing anything. (…and I would add – the same way talking about an issue without doing anything is equally a game we play.)

  10. I applaud the author of this article.  However,  while I recognise the instinct in an article like this, to point out that islam doesn’t demand circumcision and that the practice existed before islam is ridiculous.  Almost always the justification for this barbarity is islamic.  It’s like pointing out that condom use is not forbidden in the bible so the catholic stance has nothing to do with catholicism.   This is the left playing silly semantic games.  If cutting off the genitals is not islamic then lets see islamic leaders condemn it widely and clearly.  Until they do this then don’t say its nothing to do with islam.  

  11. Yes, the religious and their apologists love to play semantic games. It’s one of their greatest defences and it’s amazing how many people are fooled by it. Just because genital mutilation is not carried out by all Muslims does not mean that it is not a fundamental part of the religious practice of those Muslims who do carry it out. Islam, or any other religious belief, is what anyone wants it to be.

    Another thing that infuriates me is when people say FGM is a “cultural” practice and not a “religious” one. Since when did religion and culture become separate phenomena? Religion is wholly cultural.

  12. filthy,sick,depraved,barbaric,cruel,obcene,heartless,abusive,vile,disgusting,pathetic excuse for a culture.
    To violate little girls in such a way is the most shameful act. Are they unaware of the complete disgust the modern world holds for their stoneage attrocites.  NO they are proud of it the sick bastards.

  13. I agree with you about the passive ‘game we play’.  I wish we could actually DO something constructive about many issues that we only write about like , for example in this case, writing to the Indonesian government as a group (RDF) and actually insisting on a reply. We have all signed many a petition for various causes but has that ever achieved anything? We need to find a way of voicing, as RDF, our collective outrage at abominable practices such as FGM outside this Forum, and also naming and shaming the perpetrators, be it whole countries even, also outside this Forum, especially if they refuse to provide a reply.  We have our freedom of speech, we should use it more collectively and strongly, and straight to the source, or am I just too naive?

  14. According to islamQA, circumcision is prescribed for girls and boys:-

    Nowadays we hear that many doctors denounce the circumcision of girls, and say that it harms them physically and psychologically, and that circumcision is an inherited custom that has no basis is Islam .
    Praise be to Allaah.Firstly: Circumcision is not an inherited custom as some people claim, rather it is prescribed in Islam and the scholars are unanimously agreed that it is prescribed. Not a single Muslim scholar – as far as we know – has said that circumcision is not prescribed. Their evidence is to be found in the saheeh ahaadeeth of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), which prove that it is prescribed, for example: 1- The hadeeth narrated by al-Bukhaari (5889) and Muslim (257) from Abu Hurayrah (may Allaah be pleased with him), that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “The fitrah is five things – or five things are part of the fitrah – circumcision, shaving the pubes, cutting the nails, plucking the armpit hairs, and trimming the moustache.” This hadeeth includes circumcision of both males and females. See here:

  15. Jumped Up Chimpanzee – As far as I am aware it is not a specific part of any religious doctrine at all, and pre dates most of the worlds modern religions. So attributing it solely to Islam is not completely correct or particularly helpful if trying to get rid of it. It crosses into other religions as well as not being routine for all muslim women. In some countries like Tanzania it is more likely to be practised by christian groups I think.

    Sometimes just telling people that helps to stop it.

    A more fuller understanding of the nonsense behind it would be more useful to stop it, including pointing out the lack of any religious need to religious and superstitious people if at all possible.

    In terms of religious leaders the WHO state that some do believe it is part of their religion, some that it is irrelevant and others are actively involved in trying to stamp it out. I would imagine the latter group are the ones most likely to succeed in ever getting rid of it. Perhaps trying to educate the other two groups that it is not good or religious might also be useful. More useful perhaps than a petition from atheists.

    The other issues that might be important in stamping it out are the other beliefs that surround it. It will induce fear of sex and pain so can be seen as a way to control fidelity in women. That is cited as a strong reason. The other beliefs that seem to be associated with it are that female genitals will continue to grow and dangle down that they are dangerous to men or babies. Those are a matter of education.  

    A bigger problem is that it is also linked socially to ideas about beauty and what constitutes beauty in a women – and that is going to be a very hard notion to get rid of. According to Amnesty the hardest people to convince that it is wrong are mothers who believe their daughters will not be attractive to men if it isn’t done. I’m not sure how you tackle that at all, all cultures have notions of what is attractive that people try to live up to.

    Any medical professional who carries it out should be named and shamed!

    But it has to be stopped by whatever means are actually effective. Even if it means trying to deal with people you cannot like or respect at all. Otherwise what do you achieve?

  16. It makes me extremely sad to think that all it takes to encourage a mother to bring her daughter to get this done is £6.00 and some food.

    This is just another tradition akin to the desire to obtain a
    virgin upon marriage (amongst other tactics like marrying a female off before puberty,
    modest dress restrictions, and menstrual taboos). What’s worse is that this is maintained by a system of
    religious shame/honour which
    markets “virtuous women” as commodities and facilitates male dominance over women.

    This is particularly impressive since men do not have to actively enforce this tradition and are not involved in it directly – it’s all cultural.

  17. How about the barbarity of male circumcision? The constantly exposed
    glans is the most touch-sensitive part of a male body and unremitting exposure dulls
    the excitability to virtually zero at around age fifty. Originally introduced
    to a nomadic desert tribe, circumcision may have made sense as hygiene could
    not always be assured and fatherhood at age eighty-five (my age) had serious economic
    consequences, but with water, soap and family planning readily available, sanity
    should trump malicious disfigurement and religious tyranny any time. Parents
    who subject their children to such draconian and irreversible mutilation should
    be punished by law for disfigurement of their defenceless children. 

  18. Given that we have had other threads on related topics very recently where the question of male circumcision has been extensively discussed, and given that the situation described in the OP is so very extreme, may we ask users to stick with the issue of FEMALE genital mutilation in this thread, please? 

    Thank you.

    The mods

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