Female Genital Mutilation – Who is to Blame?

The recent banning of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria has sparked or  better,  fanned the embers on the debate which had quieted down in the recent times that, Muslim Culture should take the blame on this along with a multitude of other issues that the western socio-political commentators so love to shift the burden on.   This, along with the resurfaced videos of renowned host Bill Maher and Reza Aslan’s back and forth with each other on this issue has managed to capture the attention of youth back here in Bangladesh.

Female Genital Mutilation is one of the most political areas of women’s health. Worldwide it is estimated that well over 120 million women have been subjected to it. Supporters of the practice say it is an important part of cultural and religious life, and some compare it to the practice of male circumcision that is more widely accepted in the Western world, but opponents say that not only is it potentially life-threatening – it is also an extreme form of oppression of women. Female circumcision is mainly carried out in large areas of Central Africa, Kurdish population in the Iraq-Iran region and in some cultures of South-East Asia. It’s also known to take place among immigrant communities in the USA, Canada, France, Australia and Britain, where it’s illegal. In total it’s estimated that as many as two million girls a year are subjected to genital mutilation.

Countries with high degree of FGM practice

Countries with high degree of FGM practice

There are three main types of circumcision: The removal of the tip of the clitoris; total removal of the clitoris and surrounding labia; the removal of the clitoris and labia and the sewing up of the vagina, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood – a process known as infibulations. So drastic is the mutilation involved in the latter operation that young brides have to be cut open to allow penetration on their wedding night and are customarily sewn up afterwards.

Bill Maher is known to be anti-religious and given the current standing of the Muslims globally, we often have to cop flack from him and this issue had been no exception.  The other western commentators and feminists organizations have followed suit. Reza Aslan has tried to point out that FGM is not an Islamic issue, rather than it is a Central African issue which is technically true as WHO and UNICEF data on FGM suggests 27 countries in Central Africa continues this practices as opposed to a couple of Middle east nations and Malaysia and Indonesia has also come up on this list.


Many have opined that there are more cases of FGM in Asia but they remain unreported as opposed to the public nature of the rituals in Africa. Although Reza Aslan is technically correct on the issue, WHO data show that there is a large significant positive correlation between the percentage of women subject to FGM, and the prevalence of Islam. Both variables are non-normal, so technically we should report a Spearman’s correlation: rs=0.54, p=.003. The correlation between FGM and Christianity is negative (rs=-0.48, p=.01). Naturally correlation does not prove causation. Why there is this relationship between Islam and FGM is a separate question altogether. Certainly the outliers—Senegal, Yemen and especially Niger suggest that there is necessary any connection between Islam and FGM. Therefore, other factors are maybe at work namely poverty, education and healthcare.  Here are some UN development data for the same 28 countries: Gross National Income / capita, life expectancy, years of schooling, and a composite Human Development Index (HDI). Of these, Islam remains the single best predictor. And surprisingly, there is no relationship between FGM and income, life expectancy or development and there is a negative relationship between education and FGM (-.44).

All these data simply points out that even though the practice of FGM may have originated as a Central African phenomena, the presence of it in various Islamic countries suggests that Islam has helped spread it into other continents. Bill Maher and Reza Aslan both can be held true to their comments but rather than labeling it as spawning from a single religious issue, there should be legitimized discussion and debate on this other than slinging in the Talk-Shows.