“I didn’t realise I had a choice”, stated Minni, a twenty-something Malay-Muslim, on being circumcised. She participated in the role play1 along with her peers and took on the role of the ‘woman’ who listens in on the conflicting arguments put forth by the following characters:
- Government leader needing to implement the zero tolerance policy on female circumcision (“Female circumcision is defined as a form of Female Genital Mutilation. Our government ratified CEDAW2 albeit with reservations so we are held accountable or we’ll risk being blacklisted by human rights agencies”.)
- A religious or village leader opposing the zero tolerance policy on female circumcision (“Circumcision is part of our cultural and religious identity. It’s simply a rite of initiation not only into adulthood but also the Muslim community at large”.)
- A feminist health worker dissuading parents from circumcising their daughters (“It’s your daughter’s right to decide on the reproductive health of her body not yours”.)
- A mother imparting the aims of the ritual of female circumcision to her daughter (“My mother did it. I did it. And so shall you, my child. There’s no pain, just a needle prick. It’s cleaner this way. And you’ll be more desirable to men when you grow up, when it’s time to marry and bear children”.)
- A Government health official offering food and medical support for villages who do not circumcise their daughters (“Do not do this for love of your daughters. As an incentive, here’s food and medical supplies for those who are ready to leave ‘barbaric’3 cultural practices behind! It doesn’t make you less Muslim if you don’t circumcise your daughters”).
Pedagogically, the role play was designed to enable undergraduates (enrolled in a subject called ‘Genders, Sexualities and Religions in Southeast Asia’ that I had written) to experience the tension between the universalism of women’s human rights often positioned as secular at a global level that stands in opposition to cultural relativism practiced at a local level. And I am gratified that the learning objective was to a large extent realized as they were left with more questions that gently sidelined prior misconceptions:
- Should FC be equated with FGM if it is not a harmful practice for the girl-child?
- How can one bring conventions home so that human rights are recognizable as an ‘Asian’ value?
Minni’s epiphany is, as such, instructive. As there should not be absolute answers to these particularized questions that need to be weighed within social-cultural specificities, the first and last guiding principle is that of choice. And the choice to uphold one’s bodily integrity can be both sustained by a rights and religious discourse.
1 Adapted from Mertus, Julie, Flowers, Nancy and Dutt, Mallika (1999) Local Action, Global Change: Learning About the Human Rights of Women and Girls. NY: UNIFEM and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership: 71.
2 Convention on the Elimination Of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which Malaysia ratified in 1995.
3 Dina Zaman (2011) ‘FGM: It Happens in Malaysia Too’, The Malaysian Insider, February 3, 2011, accessed 27 August 2012, available at: http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/features/article/fgm-its-happens-in-malaysia-too/ According to Dina, neither the prevalence nor type of FC practised in Malaysia is clearly documented.