In the second of a series of four essays by students at Dubai Women's College, Wafa Al Marzouqi examines social attitudes about female circumcision, which are bound up in tradition and social custom that are running up against medical evidence of its harm.
Fatal traditions: Female circumcision in the UAE
This is the second in a weekly series of four essays by students at Dubai Women's College in Al Qusais that have been published in Desert Dawn, the biannual student magazine. Most of the people quoted in this essay have been granted anonymity, and their names have been changed.
"I was 8 years old when my mother took me and my sisters to the hospital. I was really terrified because I didn't know what was going on. I entered a white room and was told by the nurse to lie on the bed. A few minutes later, I felt severe pain and then everything ended," Asma Obaid, 21, says about the day her mother took her, together with her five sisters, for "a quick trip".
Female circumcision is a controversial topic in UAE society since people still argue about whether it is recommended Islamically or simply practised because of tribal traditions. A significant number of UAE nationals follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents without questioning the practice.
If Islam encourages female circumcision, why do experts consider the practice medically and psychologically harmful to women? Is there any religious text people should refer to? What is the medical point of view? Are there benefits to this practice? Many questions need answers.
Female circumcision originated in Egypt in 100BC, when pharaonic circumcision was established. It is based on the mutilation of the sensitive female genital area, which leaves only a small aperture for the passage of urine and menstruation. This type of female circumcision is still popular in some Arab countries such as Egypt and Sudan. In the Gulf countries, and specifically in the UAE, female circumcision is to some still a tribal tradition and to others a religious tradition. Although it has been banned in Government hospitals, it is still performed secretly in the country. The common type of circumcision in the UAE is the one in which a small portion of the female genitalia is removed.
Opinions on female circumcision vary because of cultural sensitivity and different levels of education. In a Desert Dawn survey of 200 Emiratis of both sexes on the subject, 34 per cent of female respondents said they were circumcised because of customs and tradition. Forty per cent of circumcised female participants were in favour of female circumcision and said they would circumcise their daughters. Eighty-two per cent of female respondents opposed the practice, as did 99 per cent of male participants.
Mariam Humaid, a 21-year-old university student, was 7 when she was taken to the house of her grandmother, who was known for her medical knowledge in the tribe.
"I was feeling every needle prick as I was circumcised without any painkillers," Humaid says. She says that female circumcision is a "must" in her tribe; those who are circumcised will be respected and appreciated while those who are not will be looked down on. "Of course, I will circumcise my daughters and if my husband doesn't like the idea, I will do whatever it takes to persuade him."
Humaid tells the story of her friend, Alia Saeed, 22, who was circumcised against her will when a man proposed to her and made the circumcision a condition of marriage.
"I researched the topic and discovered that if it was done in the correct way, it is all right," Saeed says. So she agreed and married him.
Sara Ali, a 23-year-old university student, was circumcised at the age of 9 with her six sisters at a Government hospital before the ban. One of her sisters was not circumcised after the authorities banned the practice.
"My father didn't like the idea of female circumcision," Ali says, "but the pressure from my grandmother and aunts was greater than his wish." Ali believes female circumcision violates women's rights.
Fatma Essa, a 22-year-old bank employee, is the only circumcised girl in her family, even though she is the youngest. Her mother took her with the mother's friend and daughter to get both daughters circumcised.
"I don't know the reasons behind the circumcision and I don't know whether I am for or against it," she says. "But I'm sure that my mother won't do anything that will cause me harm." She says every mother wants the best for her daughter and so if circumcision were harmful, her mother would not do it.
Mona Ahmed, a 22-year-old student and mother of two boys, says she will circumcise her daughter if she has one. She will do as her mother did to her when she was only two days old.
"In case my husband refused to circumcise our daughter," she says, "I won't object to him because my only objective for circumcising her is to follow the sunnah of the Prophet." She says, however, that if she circumcises her daughter, it will be in the girl's early days and not when she grows up.
On the other hand, Um Reem, a circumcised mother of two girls, did not circumcise her daughters because she believes the practice does not offer any benefits.
"When I know that the damage caused by girls' circumcision is much bigger than its benefits, what's the point of endangering the lives of our daughters?" she asks.
Fatma Al Marzouqi, a 25-year-old in Abu Dhabi, opposes female circumcision, saying it is a violation of women's rights.
"Most people who circumcise their daughters are people who cling to tribal traditions and customs that have nothing to do with religion or medicine," she says.
Agreeing with Al Marzouqi, Maitha Mohammed, a 22-year-old student, encourages the Government to act.
"The authorities must play a better advocacy role," she says. "We are suffering today from the lack of resources and information regarding the circumcision of girls, which prevents individuals from gaining the knowledge about such procedures, especially if it was carried out by unqualified doctors or individuals."
According to the Desert Dawn survey, the vast majority of UAE men agree there is no point to female circumcision, rejecting the idea because of its many disadvantages, especially if it is performed improperly.
Mohammed Ahmed, a 28-year-old bank employee, opposes the practice because, he says, it leads to physical and psychological problems. "Many who circumcise their daughters have misunderstood Islam and most of them perform it due to cultural reasons which do not have anything to do with religion," he says.
Majed Ahmed, a 19-year-old university student, agrees. "The real reasons behind female circumcision are the traditions and customs without referring to the advice of experts," he says. He believes the practice of circumcision is unjust to females.
"Many people are afraid their daughters will misbehave, so they circumcise them," Ahmed says. "Good manners and sticking to real Islamic practices will guide the girls to proper behaviour. Circumcising them won't make them better behaved."
With reference to the origin of female circumcision in Islam, Dr Ahmed Al Haddad, Grand Mufti of the UAE and director of Ifta Department, notes that, historically, Arabs always knew about female circumcision, but only "medicine women" performed the procedure. He quotes the Prophet Mohammed as saying to a woman whom he saw circumcising a girl: "Cut off only the foreskin but don't cut deeply, for this is brighter for the face [of the girl] and more favourable with the husband."
While circumcision is performed on men and women, there is no evidence from the Quran or sunnah requiring female circumcision, says the Grand Mufti. The four Sunni schools of jurisprudence in Islam have slightly different interpretations. The Al Shafi'i school views circumcision as obligatory for both men and women, but on a small scale for women. The Hanbali and Hanafi schools believe female circumcision is desirable, and the Maliki school thinks it is an honour for the girl.
Dr Ahmed Al Qubaisi, former president of the Department of Islamic Studies at the University of Baghdad, and recently at the UAE University, agrees with Al Haddad that circumcision is a personal, not religious, choice. To him, many Muslims do it without any clear evidence from the Quran or sunnah. He cites the significance of the statement released by the United Nations two years ago that prohibits female circumcision and the harm it causes.
"Even if the simplest female circumcision is beneficial to men," Al Qubaisi says, "we should not forget that it may harm the girl physically and psychologically and in Islam we are not allowed to favour one party over the other."
Dr Yusuf Al Qaradawi, an Islamic scholar noted for his study on women's issues in Islam, writing on his website (www.qaradawi.net), rejects the notion that people, including doctors and scholars, support female circumcision to prevent females from committing sins: "Many Muslim countries do not circumcise their women and we do not notice increased levels of females' sinful acts there."
Al Haddad argues that if female circumcision is to be performed, it should be done at birth and not later, which is forbidden in Islam. "It will harm the girl and reveal her private area," he says. Men, however, can be circumcised at any age for hygienic reasons.
Medically speaking, and according to one female doctor who asked not to be identified, male circumcision is a must because it prevents serious infections that could cause diseases such as cancer. She argues, however, that female circumcision is medically unacceptable since there is no benefit to the practice other than reducing the female's sexual desire. Pharaonic circumcision, in fact, can be deadly as it may cause bleeding and infections during intercourse or while giving birth.
The role of the Government in putting an end to this fatal tradition is being questioned and a clarification is needed on the legality of female circumcision in the country. If it is banned in Government hospitals, why is it performed in other health facilities? Many health officials refused to talk about female circumcision, preferring to keep silent. But how effective is that?
Wafa Al Marzouqi, 22, earned a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Dubai Women's College in 2010. Her story here was recognised by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and was awarded second place in Habib Media Innovations 2011. She works as a research analyst in the International Relations department of the Emirates Competitiveness Council, which is part of the Prime Minister's Office.