Yassmin’s Story – “cultural” problems in Islam and female genital mutilation (FGM)

Following on from last week’s blog post which reviewed Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s memoir, Yassmin’s Story, I wished to comment further on the below excerpts[i] (bold emphasis mine):

Page number Quote
pp. 289-290 The fact that women in collective societies often go along with societal traditions does not make ‘all Muslim women oppressed’ or ‘all Arab women pushovers’. When a woman in Sudan chooses her own path, this is often ‘claimed’ by the West as a ‘win against the barbarians’; this is insulting to her and to her culture, because the culture is something she most probably still values.

Yes, there are women around the world who are oppressed and some of them happen to be Muslim. But their Islam is not the cause of their oppression; the cause is usually the regime they are in, their economic circumstances, or the patriarchal environment and culture. To me, this is very clear, but it is something that seems to be difficult to communicate. The women I grew up with – my mother and the other women in my family and community – are nothing like the images of a ‘Muslim woman’ that are sold to ignorant audiences. The public commentary about Islam (and Africa!) is so far removed from my actual experience of it that sometimes I find it difficult to believe the commentators are talking about the faith I hold dear and the values by which I live my life.

Western societies need to appreciate that there is more than one way to do things and more than one way to be ‘right’. There needs to be a move away from the idea of the implied superiority of Western civilisation. The choices women from the East make are not anyone’s to control or dictate.

I often ask myself: is it wrong to continue partaking in traditions you know are based on patriarchal or potentially problematic historical contexts, in order to keep the peace? I don’t know the answer to that question just yet.”

pp. 306-307 (describing her feelings after a tense conversation with a co-worker regarding Islam) That conversation played on my mind for the remainder of the day. It saddened me that although he’d lived and worked with Muslims, his experience was not positive. I could understand why – the issue wasn’t the religion but the practices of the people and how he was treated. There are so many other facets to his experience – socio-economic, educational, postcolonial – but it still made me dejected that some Muslim countries had retrograde attitudes that flew in the face of Islam. I was also frustrated that, for some reason, this had legitimised the superiority of the West. ‘We aren’t like that’ was not a new sentiment, but it grated – oh, how it grated – because people like that guy had no problem highlighting negative issues in less developed countries, even though they got sensitive when similar problems in the West were pointed out. The hypocrisy is galling; people are unwilling to recognise problems in their own backyards – the effects of violence against women, of conscious and unconscious bias, and the current violation of international human rights. The peak of this hypocrisy is that other cultures, with the same kinds of problems, are rendered unworthy of respect when viewed through a Western lens. Why won’t all cultures learn from each other?

Essentially, Abdel-Magied believes the problems of Islamic countries have to do with “economic circumstances”, the “patriarchy” or “culture” and nothing to do with Islam. Indeed, on Q&A, when Jacqui Lambie pressed Abdel-Magied about women’s rights under sharia, Abdel-Magied stated that it was important to separate “culture” from “faith”.

However, religious beliefs influence culture and, in some cases, can enshrine existing cultural practices into religious orthodoxy. I believe this is relevant with regards to female genital mutilation (FGM) in Islam – whilst Abdel-Magied doesn’t speak specifically about FGM in her memoir, she would most likely attribute this as another problem due to “culture” that has nothing to do with her faith.

Indeed, female circumcision has been a cultural practice that existed before Islam and is today practiced by non-Islamic, as well as Islamic, cultures. Yet, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a victim herself of FGM from a young age) explains (bold emphasis mine):

By far the most extreme method of safeguarding virginity is female circumcision. The process involves the cutting away of the girl’s clitoris, the outer and inner labia, as well as the scraping of the walls of the vagina with a sharp object – a fragment of glass, a razor blade, or a potato knife, and then the binding together of her legs, so that the walls of the vagina can grow together. This happens in more than thirty countries, including Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan. Although it is not prescribed in the Koran, for those Muslims who cannot do without the labor that girls perform outside the walls of their home, this originally tribal custom has practically become a religious duty, and is defended as such. Proponents point to the fact that the circumcision of women existed in the period before and during Muhammad’s time, and that the Prophet Muhammad did not explicitly prohibit it. The so-called infibulation (literally “stitching up”) offers a guarantee over women and is implemented under the watchful eyes of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other female guardians.[ii]

Hence, Mohammed did not prohibit female circumcision and Islam adopted this cultural practice. Yet, further to Hirsi Ali’s point, whilst female circumcision is not mentioned in the Koran, it is mentioned in the Hadith, one of the canonical sources within Islam which Muslims refer to. For example, Sunan Abu Dawad, Book 41, Number 5251 says:

Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:

A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.

Sahih Muslim, Book 3, Number 684 speaks about when “the circumcised parts” of men and women “touch each other” (bold emphasis mine):

Abu Musa reported:

There cropped up a difference of opinion between a group of Muhajirs (Emigrants and a group of Ansar (Helpers) (and the point of dispute was) that the Ansar said: The bath (because of sexual intercourse) becomes obligatory only-when the semen spurts out or ejaculates. But the Muhajirs said: When a man has sexual intercourse (with the woman), a bath becomes obligatory (no matter whether or not there is seminal emission or ejaculation). Abu Musa said: Well, I satisfy you on this (issue). He (Abu Musa, the narrator) said: I got up (and went) to ‘A’isha and sought her permission and it was granted, and I said to her: 0 Mother, or Mother of the Faithful, I want to ask you about a matter on which I feel shy. She said: Don’t feel shy of asking me about a thing which you can ask your mother, who gave you birth, for I am too your mother. Upon this I said: What makes a bath obligatory for a person? She replied: You have come across one well informed! The Messenger of Allah said: When anyone sits amidst four parts (of the woman) and the circumcised parts touch each other a bath becomes obligatory.

Importantly, based on the Hadith, Islamic legal schools have developed rulings on female circumcision. ‘Umdat al-Salik (‘The Reliance of the Traveller’), a manual of Islamic law within the school of Shafi’i jurisprudence, was compiled in the 14th century by Ahmad Ibn Naqib al-Misri. In 1991, this manual was translated into English and certified by the most important learning institution within Sunni Islam – the Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Dr. Mark Durie, the highly esteemed theologian and author on Christianity and Islam, astutely notes how female circumcision is actually justified in ‘Umdat al-Salik yet, ironically, the English translation disguised the Arabic language on this point. In addition, Durie mentions how this ruling affects Islamic populations that adhere to the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (please note: bold/underline emphasis is original):

In Februrary 2007 Dr Muhammad al-Mussayar of Al-Azhar University, referring to reliable hadiths from Muslim and al-Bukhari, stated:

“All jurisprudents, since the advent of Islam and for 14 centuries or more, are in consensus that female circumcision is permitted in Islam.  But they were divided as to its status in the sharia.  Some said that female circumcision is required by the sharia, just like male circumcision.  Some said this is a mainstream practice, while others said that it is a noble act.”

Of the four Sunni schools of sharia, it is the Shafi’is who have said that circumcision of girls is compulsory. The Reliance of the Traveller, a respected manual of Shafi’i jurisprudence, states  “Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the clitoris” (section e4.3).  [The English translation by Nuh Ha Mim Keller (certified by Al-Azhar University) disguises the true meaning of the Arabic text by offering the following bogus English ‘translation’: “For men it consists of removing the prepuce from the penis, and for women, removing the prepuce (Ar. Bazr) of the clitoris (n: not the clitoris itself, as some mistakenly assert).”]

As Indonesia is a country in which Shafi’i Islam predominates, it is hardly surprising that female circumcision is commonly practiced among Indonesian Muslims, from Java to Aceh. There is a close correlation between Shafi’i Islam and the frequency of FGM.  Regions where the Shafi’i school predominates are also the places where FGM is more frequent.  These include Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. The oft-recited claim that FGM is not a religious practice is proved false, not only because it is more frequently found in Shafi’i areas, but also because it was introduced, along with Shafi’i Islam, into Southeast Asia, a part of the world where it had previously been unknown.[iii]

Statistics bear out Durie’s assessment: according to a relatively recent UN report, at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries are estimated to have undergone female circumcision – half of them in Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Egypt and Indonesia are where the Shafi’i school predominates.

Whilst Islamic scholars have disputed the Hadith on this matter, nonetheless, today female circumcision still exists in Islamic sources and sharia. Furthermore, according to the Shafi’i school, female circumcision is obligatory; for other Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, it is either highly recommended or permitted.

Obviously, this does not mean FGM is practiced by all Muslims, but the justification for it is contained in and derived from Islamic sources and codified in the sharia; as such, there is an “Islamic case” Muslims can make and do make to justify female circumcision. As long as this is left unreformed, Islamic doctrine and sharia law will continue to allow young Muslim girls to be subjected to such an evil, heinous act.


In her memoir, Abdel-Magied says the West needs to:

· Accept there are other ways of being

· Learn from other cultures and learn to respect other peoples’ beliefs

· Understand the choices Eastern women make are not anyone’s to control or dictate

· Appreciate there is more than one way to do things & more than one way to be right

I am in favour of cross-cultural co-mingling i.e. learning what another culture eats, how they dress and what music they listen to. However, when it comes to the values cultures exhibit, and how these shape a particular outlook and the actions they take, then it is vital we study these to determine what is objectively better. This is imperative when it comes to analysing what cultures believe and practice with regards to freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, women’s rights, homosexual rights and the treatment of minorities – the most treasured and important rights individuals possess.

This is why I find Abdel-Magied’s imploring “all cultures” to “learn from each other” somewhat perplexing. At what level does she think all cultures should learn from each other? What can we learn from a culture that mutilates its girls by cutting off their clitorises at a young age? In Abdel-Magied’s world, if Islam and sharia law seriously has nothing to do with the various problems that plague Muslims, what could we possibly learn from cultures that allow the following?

· Pakistan – attacking women with acid for refusing an arranged marriage

· Indonesia – giving a woman 100 lashes for sex outside marriage

· Indonesia – imprisoning people for “blasphemy”

· Sudan – sentencing a young woman to death by stoning for adultery

· Sudan – woman faces whipping over refusal to cover her hair

· Sudan – finding a pregnant Christian woman guilty of adultery and apostasy

· Sudan – amputating a man’s foot and hand for robbery

· Sudan – demolishing a church building for being in a “Muslim” area

· Sudan – cracking down on Christians celebrating Christmas and again, demolishing churches

· Sudan – imprisoning and torturing a Sudanese pastor

· Sudan – giving a Christian girl 50 lashes for an ‘indecent’ knee-length skirt

· Sudan – threatening a Christian woman with 40 lashes for wearing trousers

If Abdel-Magied thinks there is “more than one way to be right” and the West needs to “accept there are other ways of being”, would she think these statements really apply to the above examples?

What values will she adopt to say why the above are right or wrong? I would like to know her answer.


[i] Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Yassmin’s Story. Vintage, Australia, 2016.

[ii] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Caged Virgin. Simon & Schuster, London, 2007, p. 23.

[iii] Andrew Bostom, Clarification of Islamic Law Support for Female Genital Mutilation, by Dr. Mark Durie. Andrew Bostom blog, 2008. Accessed 11/03/2017: https://www.andrewbostom.org/2008/01/clarification-of-islamic-law-support-for-female-genital-mutilation-by-dr-mark-durie/


2 thoughts on “Yassmin’s Story – “cultural” problems in Islam and female genital mutilation (FGM)

  1. I’m wondering what exactly is “the four parts of a woman” that one might sit amidst.

    Every guy watching a YouTube video of a man being hit in the testicles, no matter how comical, will automatically flinch. It’s understandable. Trying to imagine being cut this way is horrible enough but there was an image on line of the practitioner using pliers, ordinary hardware store pliers to grab a girl’s clitoris before slicing it off that I can’t get out of my mind. The disregard and distain toward the most sensitive part of a woman’s body was so revolting I can’t get past it. Permanently disfiguring her body and destroying her ability to have pleasure for the rest of her life is a true evil. Anyone justifiying this practice is nothing more than a barbarian.


    1. It truly is – trying to visualise the grotesque, evil horror of this act is bad enough. And yet poor young girls are subjected to this evil act everyday. There really are no words to describe this….


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