Indonesian Government's Backward Step on Female Genital Mutilation
by Irfan Al-Alawi
Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting (FGM/C) is increasing in Indonesia, with the issuance in June 2011 of official guidelines from the Ministry of Health for its infliction – even though the Indonesian authorities banned the practice in 2006.
Indonesian media report that the new government regulations on FGM call for "scraping the skin" but not "cutting" the clitoris of Muslim girls. While the Jakarta government had forbidden FGM altogether because it "could potentially harm women's health" and was "useless," a lack of state oversight allows its prevalence and increase, especially on the island of Java.
Indonesian women's rights groups have called for abolition of the regulations permitting FGM. The Indonesian Family Planning Association, through its spokeswoman Frenia Nababan, warned, "This gives a justification for health practitioners to damage women's bodies."
FGM in Indonesia was traditionally carried out by Javanese shamanic healers or "dukun," whose ritual magic predates the coming of Islam to the archipelago. FGM is now, however, more commonly performed by midwives, as recourse to healers has declined.
The various forms of FGM found across the globe are concentrated among non-Muslim – animist and Christian – as well as Muslim women in Black Africa. The atrocious custom has no foundation in Islam but has been assimilated into Islamic law in countries where it previously existed, including Iraqi Kurdistan, which has similarly passed a law against it.
Indonesian victims of FGM in the past included mainly newborns or girls up to five years old, but local experts say adult women now go to medical doctors for the operation. Artha Budi Susila Duarsa, a university researcher at Yarsi University in Jakarta, said, "We found in our latest research that not only female babies are being circumcised, but also older women ask for it." Duarsa emphasised, "Even a small wound on the genitals can lead to sexual, physiological and physical problems." FGM has been identified as a cause of infections of the bladder and urinary tract, cysts, and infertility.
Researchers in Indonesia say that FGM is much less extreme in Southeast Asia than in Africa, where it may involve removal of a woman's entire external genital anatomy. But according to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Indonesian government protocol on FGM could encourage its frequency, as it appears to approve or endorse it.
The Indonesian Ministry of Health stated it has not legalized or legitimized the custom, but, rather, seeks to discourage its application by traditional healers. According to the Indonesian authorities, "It is feared that community members who want to circumcise female babies will therefore go to traditional healers for this procedure, and it will increase the number of [medical] complications. If this procedure is done by health professionals, then it has to be done in accordance with the ministerial instruction 1636, and this will guarantee the protection of the female reproductive system."
Last year, the current Indonesian Minister of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection, Linda Amalia Sari Gumelar, said, "We encourage female circumcision to be medicalised and practiced by trained health personnel to avoid further harm." Gumelar said she was working with the Ministry of Health to make an unsafe practice safer, notwithstanding its prohibition under law.
When the Indonesian government banned FGM in 2006, the decision was strongly opposed by the Indonesian Ulama Council, the national Muslim clerical body. But to the surprise of many Indonesians and foreign observers, Nadhlatul Ulama (NU, also spelled Nadhatul Ulama, and meaning "Revival of Islamic Scholars") issued a religious opinion in 2010 approving FGM but advising against "cutting too much." NU is considered a moderate Islamic group, and counts up to 40 million members. It is associated with Sufi spirituality in Indonesia, and supports a country-wide network of universities, boarding schools, and community organizations.
Like the Indonesian government, NU is caught in a major contradiction. While NU issued religious guidance permitting FGM, its women's branch, Fatayat Nadhlatul Ulama, also declared last year that FGM, along with domestic violence and early marriage, were among the main problems with which NU women must contend across the sprawling country. The NU women's group further criticized inequality in marriage, unwanted pregnancies, and unsafe abortions.
As the NU women's league, Fatayat NU has found itself at odds with the movement's national leaders on such issues. According to The Jakarta Post, Maria Ulfah Anshor, former chair of Fatayat NU, denounced the religious directive permitting FGM. "It is against human rights.," she declared. "For women there is absolutely no benefit and advantage." Anshor warned that with midwives increasingly performing FGM, "They were never taught the practice at school, so they do the same with girls as with boys: they cut."
Anshor has chastised NU for keeping its leadership in the hands of men; for reflecting retrograde Islamic thought, and for failing adequately to support the efforts of NU women to broaden the rights and freedoms of female Indonesians. When the government announced its plan to make FGM "safer," even though it is prohibited, Anshor declared, "I would advise not to circumcize your daughters at all."
Another NU women's leader, Suririn, who like many Indonesians has only one name, and is the coordinator of Fatayat's research and development department, has pointed out that in rural Indonesia, NU's support for gender equality, embodied in reproductive health campaigns in 11 provinces, may be blamed incorrectly for divorce and promiscuity.
With 246 million people – 86 percent of them Muslim – Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world. The country has mainly followed moderate Islam, and is constitutionally defined by its "five principles" (pancasila) integrating belief in God with human dignity, Indonesian unity, democracy through deliberation, and social justice. The government recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Its residents also include "unrecognized" animists in rural areas and in the western half of the island of Papua (former Dutch New Guinea), and atheists.
The Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group, which denounced the Indonesian constitutional order and demanded it be replaced by an Islamic state, is allied with Al-Qaida, and organized the 2002 and 2005 terrorist bombings in Bali, as well as similar attacks on the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in 2003 and 2009, and the terror blast at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004. Abu Bakar Bashir, founder of Jemaah Islamiyah, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in June 2011 for directing a jihadist training camp. But the apparent abandonment of the Indonesian law against FGM, together with approval of FGM by NU, demonstrate that the country faces a serious problem of increasing Islamist ideological influence.