Though the Indonesian government banned female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) four years ago, experts say religious support for the practice is more fervent than ever, particularly in rural communities.
A lack of regulation since the ban makes it difficult to monitor, but medical practitioners say FGM/C remains commonplace for women of all ages in this emerging democracy of 240 million - the world’s largest Muslim nation.
Although not authorized by the Koran, the practice is growing in popularity.
With increased urging of religious leaders, baby girls are now losing the top or part of their clitoris in the name of faith, sometimes in unsanitary rooms with tools as crude as scissors.
“We fear if [FGM/C] gets more outspoken support from religious leaders it will increase even more. We found in our latest research that not only female babies are being circumcised, but also older women ask for it,” said Artha Budi Susila Duarsa, a university researcher at Yarsi University in Jakarta.
While the procedure in Indonesia is not as severe as in parts of Africa and involves cutting less flesh, it still poses a serious health concern.
“Even a small wound on the genitals can lead to sexual, physiological and physical problems,” Duarsa said.
Indonesia forbade health officials from the practice in 2006 because they considered it a “useless” practice that “could potentially harm women's health”.
However, the ban was quickly opposed by the Indonesian Ulema Council, the highest Islamic advisory body in Indonesia.
In March this year, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Muslim organization, issued an edict supporting FGM/C, though a leading cleric told the NU’s estimated 40 million followers “not to cut too much”.
“It is against human rights,” said Maria Ulfah Anshor, a women’s rights activist and former chair of the women’s wing of the NU. “For women there is absolutely no benefit and advantage.”
FGM/C traditionally existed as a sign of chastity; a symbolic practice performed by shamans, or local healers, who used crude methods such as rubbing and scraping.
With shamans largely falling out of favour, the religious are turning to midwives who rely more on cutting instead.
“Midwives don’t know what they are doing. They were never taught the practice at school, so they do the same with girls as with boys: they cut,” Anshor said.
During the 32-year Suharto dictatorship, outspoken religious expression was discouraged, but since his fall in 1998, people started looking for their religious identity, with stricter interpretations of Islam being adopted by scores of municipalities.
More Indonesian Muslim women wear a headscarf now, claiming it is more accepted than it was 15 years ago.
Forbidden, but unregulated
The 2006 ban prohibited FGM/C, but in practice there is no oversight.
Photo: Ester de Jong/IRIN
|Despite the 2006 ban, many mothers opt for the practice|
Yarsi University researchers found that in spite of the ban, the practice continues unabated in hospitals and health centres.
A midwife at a state hospital in Jakarta told IRIN on condition of anonymity that she cuts newborn girls: “When mothers ask me to do it, I tell them about the upsides and downsides of circumcision,” she said.
But when asked to explain the benefits, she declined further comment.
According to Yarsi University’s research, most incidents happen in secret, sometimes unhygienic, back-street operating rooms - creating a big risk of infection.
“If there are problems, it is because the practice is not done in a sterile way,” Duarsa said.
An official standard?
The demand for FGM/C makes it hard to control the practice, said Minister of Women’s Empowerment Linda Amalia Sari Gumelar.
“That’s why we encourage female circumcision to be medicalized and practiced by trained health personnel to avoid further harm.”
Gumelar is working with the Ministry of Health to make an unsafe practice safer, even though it is outlawed and has been condemned by a large number of treaties and conventions, and ratified by most governments of countries where FGM/C is present.
The development dismays women’s rights fighter Anshor.
“I would advise not to circumcise your daughters at all,” Anshor said. “If women are circumcised, people believe they become more beautiful and not as wild and will make men more excited in bed. For women themselves, they don’t get any excitement at all.”
It is hard to tell what impact, if any, government action will have on people like grandmother Dede Jafar, who had never heard of the ban but does not like it.
“That is so sad because Muslims have to be clean,” she said, sitting outside her home with her 10-month-old granddaughter who was cut eight months ago. Jafar noted that every woman in her family has undergone the procedure.
"Even if it is forbidden, we still have to find someone to do it. It is obligatory. We should always try to find someone to do it for us, because we have to.”