Health & Medicine

The custom of female circumcision remains good business in Indonesia

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A baby girl lays on a bed as doctors prepare to perform her circumcision in Bandung. Indonesia.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Komariah says she’ll show us how female circumcision is done. She grabs a tangerine on the kitchen table, peels it and takes out a segment. She picks up a huge knife from a shelf. Then she bursts out laughing.

“I’m just kidding,” she says, before taking a much smaller pair of scissors. She sits at the table, holds the tangerine segment up, and carefully makes a small incision at the top. “That’s it!” She laughs again. Her daughter watches, shyly smiling. She was “circumcised” three days after she was born, 13 years ago.

At a midwives clinic in Jakarta, Sri Helmi Yuli is very firm. “Things have changed since then,” she says. “We used to cut a bit of the clitoris hood. And yes, there was a lot of blood. That used to be the right way to do it.”

Not anymore, she says. In the past 10 years, she says social campaigning by health workers — as well as government regulations — have forced the practice of female genital mutilation into the fringes. It is no longer an accepted practice in Indonesia. While the worst forms of female circumcision have largely fallen out of custom, the subtler practice still persists in potentially harmful ways.

“Now we only scratch the hood with a needle, drawing no blood,” says Sri Helmi Yuli, who is the head of the clinic. She tries to convince her patients that even this is not necessary, but says traditional beliefs in the benefits of female circumcision are stronger. “They see imams on TV saying they should do it and that influences them. So I just do the scratch.”

Indonesia is home to some 210 million Muslims, the world’s largest population. Researchers believe most Muslim women here are circumcised. The authorities banned the practice in 2006, but backpedaled in 2010 following pressure from some of the country’s powerful religious organizations.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), an influential quasi-government body of Muslim scholars, was one of them.

“The MUI met with the health ministry, and explained that banning female circumcision was against human rights, and sharia law,” says Huzaemah Yanggo, the vice-president of the council’s fatwa commission.

She says female circumcision is not mandatory according to Islamic law. But in some interpretations it is “strongly recommended.”

“It will lead to a much purer and healthier life” for women, avoid infections, preserve their dignity, and help “stabilize” their libido, Yanggo adds. “If it’s not done, women will become oversexed.” The last point is the main argument Komariah gave for circumcising her daughter, like most people who support female circumcision in the country.

Government guidelines released in 2010 detailed how trained medical personnel should perform female circumcision. The instructions infuriated women’s rights activists, who saw it as a clear indication that the government condoned the procedure.

Health ministry officials insisted this wasn’t the case, arguing that it was better to provide guidance for a practice it couldn’t possibly prevent.

“We prefer the circumcision was done by a trained health worker rather than some random shaman or traditional healer, which may not be safe,” said the ministry’s former director of mothers’ health, Ina Hernawati, at the time. The decree allows “scratching the clitoral hood, without injuring the clitoris,” which the government argued was largely symbolic, and couldn’t be equated to female genital mutilation.

Yanggo, from the Ulema Council, claims, “We’re not like Sudan,” or other countries in parts of Africa and the Middle East, where female circumcision consists of removing part of or the entire clitoris. “What they do is not Islam, mutilation is of course forbidden. We don’t touch the clitoris,” she insists. She believes the government regulation helped reduce “bad practices.”

In Bandung, West Java, mass circumcisions are held every year for girls, from new-borns to 12-year-olds, but organizers say they replaced “scissor snipping” with “pin pricking” several years ago.

A 2003 study found that 22 percent of 1,307 female circumcision cases were excisions (meaning part of the clitoris or labia was removed). Almost 50 percent involved incisions, 28 percent were “symbolic.”

There are no recent national statistics but experts believe the situation has improved in the past decade.

Atas Habsjah, vice-chairwoman of the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI), acknowledges a transition from “scissor snipping” to “needle scratching,” but says it’s not enough. Most Indonesian girls, she says, still undergo some kind of circumcision. She argues that many clinics continue offering female circumcision because it’s “good business.” Female circumcision, like ear piercing, is charged as an optional extra to delivery.

“They shouldn’t do anything at all. There is no medical indication, and it’s not in the Quran. We say don’t touch the genitals, it’s against human rights,” she says.

The World Health Organization defines four types of female genital mutilation, all of which are banned. Type 4 includes “pricking, piercing or incising” the clitoris, and activists argue that’s what needle scratching is. 

A 2012 UN resolution banning female genital mutilation seems to have had an impact. GlobalPost visited a dozen clinics and hospitals in Jakarta and its suburbs, and most of them said they systematically recommend against female circumcision since the resolution.

“Older parents insist, but it’s easier to convince young parents that it’s not necessary,” says Reni Sejahtera, the head of a midwives clinic in Depok, in the suburbs of Jakarta. 

Riana, 34, says she knows the issue is “controversial.” She didn’t circumcise her first daughter because her doctor told her not to, but she’s now pregnant with a second one and is considering it. “I will Google it, I know it must be a good thing if everyone does it,” her husband says.

Esti’s daughter is 10 months old, and not circumcised. “I can’t do that to her body without her permission,” she says. Still, she won’t tell her neighbors, and says she’s under a lot of family pressure to do it.

“Every time I go visit my family, the subject comes back to the table,” she says. Her husband also wants their daughter to be circumcised, so they made a deal. “He has until she’s 2 years old to find and show me where in the Quran it says that I have to circumcise my daughter.” She laughs. “Until now, he hasn’t found anything.”