Is female genital cutting a religious requirement?
Last month leaders from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities in London met to bust a major FGC-related myth. The ‘Faith Against FGM’ Conference was convened by Manor Gardens FGM Forum, and sounds like it was a real meeting of minds. They got together to challenge the misheld belief that FGC is rooted in religious doctrine. Orchid investigates how far FGC is supported by the teachings of the world’s major faiths. We’ve also got some new webpages on the way about religion for more detail.
Does FGC come from religion or tradition?
Although we know that FGC has been practised since 2,200 BC and predates Christianity and Islam, many practising communities maintain that cutting their daughters is a religious obligation. For many of those practising, FGC is a marker of communal identity thought to be based upon religious custom.
Female genital cutting and Islam
FGC is not a traditional Islamic practice in most Muslim countries. Nahid Toubia, author of Female Genital Mutilation: A Call for Global Action, points out that FGC is not practised in predominantly Islamic countries, and, communities which do practise, tend not to have a full understanding of Islamic doctrine.
There is no direct call to undertake FGC in either the Qur’an or the hadith. The majority consensus rejects a connection between Islam and FGC. The Muslim Women’s League asserts that FGC violates Islamic doctrine. They point to the Qur’an’s teachings on the importance of mutual satisfaction within marriage.
Several sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad ascribe the importance of giving and deriving pleasure from marital intimacy. The potential of FGC to debilitate a woman’s pleasure during sex is therefore an argument from Islamic teachings against the practice.
Muslims who advocate for FGC from a Sunni perspective commonly quote the hadith to argue that it is a required practice:
A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (pbuh) said to her: Do not cut too severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.
These words attributed to the Prophet can be taken as a recommendation for less extreme practices of FGC, but not an obligation for Muslims to carry out the practice. However it does not make explicit the form of FGC that is being advocated. What can be ascertained is that the more severe practices of cutting such as infibulation, are not held up by the Prophet’s teaching.
In 2006, German human rights organisation TARGET, facilitated a conference of renowned Muslim Clerics at the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. Leading scholars met to discuss the practice and declared that FGC is a criminal offence and not in keeping with Islamic teaching. They wrote the ‘Golden Book’ a sacred text denouncing FGC as not Islamic. 
Jewish teaching on FGC
Under Jewish law, male circumcision and Brit Milah, the Jewish circumcision ceremony, is mandated by the Hebrew Bible and regarded as one of Judaism’s most fundamental commandments. There is however no mention of female circumcision or FGC in Jewish doctrine. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion states that female circumcision has never been permitted in Judaism. Leviticus 19:28 instructs Jews and Christians alike:
You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you. (Leviticus 19:28, New Living Translation)
Christianity and female genital cutting
FGC is not discussed in the Bible, nor is it part of the Christian faith system. Christians believe that the human body is made in the image of God and a vehicle for the Holy Spirit. They believe the body is not to be altered or mutilated.
Don’t you realise that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? (I Corinthians 6:19, New Living Translation)
As with Islam and Judaism, Christianity spread to Africa when missionaries brought their evangelism across the continent. Later, many convert communities responded to an intrusion on their traditional customs by creating independent Churches that maintained some of their cultural practices. Despite FGC not being present in the Bible, many Christians in Ethiopia practise FGC, as the population is split almost evenly between Christianity and Islam.
Busting myths about FGC and religion
As the name ‘Faith against FGM’ advocates, female genital cutting goes against the teachings of the major faiths. It is a distortion of these religions to use them as a platform upon which to argue the continuation of the practice.
Any movement to end FGC is dependent on an understanding of the practice as embedded in ideas of religious and cultural identity. Agencies and organisations must continue to work with religious leaders in order to bring about a change in thinking about FGC as rooted in religion.
The role of religious leaders as stakeholders in local communities is vital in securing the abandonment of FGC. In the countries where UNFPA-UNICEF’s abandonment programme currently works, 6,356 religious leaders publicly advised their communities that FGM/C should be abandoned in 2010.
In Dijbouti, on the horn of Africa, a network of female religious leaders has initiated dialogues about FGC with local women’s groups, while in Guinea-Bissau, the National Committee for the Abandonment of Harmful Practices is working with the country’s Muslim leaders to enact change.
Videos from the Faith Against FGM Conference
 Nahid Toubia, op cit, New York: 1993 p.32.
 The hadith is a collection of Islamic teachings through the Prophet’s saying that have been recorded from oral histories after his death, rather than his direct teachings in the Qur’an
 ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ by Muslim Women’s League, http://www.mwlusa.org/topics/violence&harrassment/fgm.html
 Muslim Women’s League
 Muslim Women’s League.
 UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation-Cutting: Accelerating Change, New York: UNFPA, 2011, pp.12-13.