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“A Tiny Cut”: Female Circumcision in South East Asia

The Islamic Monthly, 12.3.2013

I am a Muslim of Malay ethnicity, who was born in Singapore, where Malays are an ethnic and religious minority today, and lived there until I was 24 years old. The Malays, of whom 99 percent are Muslim, are the indigenous people of Singapore and the Malay archipelago. Until the arrival of the British colonizers in the early nineteenth century, this area (which covers what is south Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and south  Philippines today) shared many cultural and linguistic similarities.

When I was about six years old and attending a kenduri, or ritual feast, for two male cousins who had just been circumcised, I whispered to my mother, “Are girls circumcised too?” Growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, boys were commonly circumcised before puberty (around eight or nine) – making it seem like a rite of passage into adulthood. The six year-old me observed the fuss and attention they got: they were not allowed to eat certain foods, they could only bear to wear a kain sarong for up to two weeks due to the pain, and had to be fanned at night to keep the wounds dry. These ritual feasts to celebrate a boy’s circumcision are less common today, partly due to the increasing use of doctors to carry out circumcision, and usually on infants a few weeks old.

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