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Naya, wearing a bright yellow dress, has just reached the seventh month of her life, and today’s party is for her. It’s her molubingo, the customary practice that has given Gorontalo Province in Sulawesi the highest rate of circumcised women per year (link in Bahasa Indonesia) in Indonesia. It’s a tradition once banned but still deeply rooted across the archipelago.

Naya’s mother takes her into a room with a traditional midwife, or hulango, armed with a knife barely sharp enough to cut into an unripe orange, which will be used to remove part of Naya’s clitoris. The men reciting a Muslim prayer outside say this is how a woman enters Islam.

Naya’s cry of discomfort becomes a scream, and the hulango quickly finishes the procedure under a white sheet. “There’s no blood,” says the hulango, Martin A Upingo. “If there’s blood it’s not good.” The 68-year-old removes a piece of Naya’s flesh, the size and color of a grain of rice. She claims that if no blood is drawn, there’s no injury, and therefore it’s only symbolic.

“If it’s not removed, the woman will grow up with unlimited, uncontrolled lust,” Deka Usman, the former head of Gorontalo’s Customary Council (Dewan Adat), tells New Naratif from his home the day after the ceremony. “Lust has to be managed. That’s the first reason.”

Female Genital Mutilation in Indonesia

New research from the National Commission on Violence against Women, also known as Komnas Perempuan, says that less than 2% of female circumcision cases in Indonesia are symbolic, which means that no physical damage has been inflicted. The majority of cases, like Naya’s, actually damage or remove part of the clitoris. This is why the United Nations and Indonesian women’s and children’s rights groups consider this practice, held in Gorontalo as a neighbourhood party, a violation of human rights.

Opponents of the practice face pressure from family and friends as well as lasting fatwas (non-legally binding pronouncements on Islamic law) from the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s most powerful Islamic body chaired by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s vice presidential candidate pick, Ma’ruf Amin.

Female circumcision, often referred to as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), affects almost half of girls under the age of 11 in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. Citizens of Gorontalo, once deemed Indonesia’s equivalent to Medina in Saudi Arabia for its conservative brand of Islam, cut more than four out of every five of their daughters.

FGM/C can range from light scraping of the clitoris to invasive sealing of the vagina, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Research released in July 2018 by Komnas Perempuan found that Indonesian practices of FGM/C involve the removal, partial removal or damage of the clitoris, as opposed to the full sealing of the vagina. Traditional midwives or medical professionals use knives, tweezers, needles, coins, nail clippers, or even their bare fingers to circumcise girls.

Traditional midwives or medical professionals use knives, tweezers, needles, coins, nail clippers, or even their bare fingers to circumcise girls

Indonesian law defines female circumcision as scratching off the top layer of the clitoris without injuring the clitoris itself, but the definition hasn’t convinced the UN, which wrote in 2012 that it was particularly concerned by Indonesia’s medicalisation of the practice because “all forms of female genital mutilation including female circumcision is a violation of the human rights of women.”

The UN shocked observers two years ago when they added Indonesia to their list of statistics on global FGM/C. Because of the island nation’s size, the number of girls who had FGM/C worldwide jumped from 70 million to 200 million. Indonesia is the only country in Asia, and outside Africa and the Middle East, where the UN has conducted a nationwide study on FGM/C. The UN estimates that 3.9 million girls are cut worldwide every year, a number that will jump to 4.6 million by 2030, because of rapid population growth in places like Indonesia and Nigeria.

In 2016, data from the UN placed Indonesia in the same category as countries in Africa and the Middle East in terms of the prevalence of the practice, but many Indonesian observers, such as MUI, rejected the research, citing Indonesia’s less invasive form of FGM/C. Many insisted that the practice was only symbolic in the Southeast Asian archipelago. Komnas Perempuan’s new study turns that argument on its head.

“It’s not symbolic at all”

“Our research has opened eyes to what happens in Indonesia, that it’s not symbolic at all,” the vice chair of Komnas Perempuan, Budi Wahyuni, tells New Naratif in a phone call. “Some children are pricked with a needle, others are slit with a knife.”

The organisation’s study consisted of surveys and interviews with 4,250 households in 17 districts across 10 provinces, in collaboration with the UN Population Fund, the Australian government, and the Center of Population and Policy Studies at University Gadjah Mada. Parents in 60% of cases reported that their child had their genital organs cut or scraped; only 1.2% said the procedure had been purely symbolic.

“People are allowed to conserve their culture, like the kinds that are in Gorontalo,” Wahyuni continues, “but you don’t have to do it to the point of circumcising women… Doing it with any kind of cutting is not symbolic.”

FGM/C is most prevalent in Gorontalo, but Bangka Belitung, Banten and South Kalimantan provinces all follow close behind. The most populous province in Indonesia, West Java, and the capital city of Jakarta have a female circumcision rate of at least 70%, according to a 2013 government survey (link in Bahasa Indonesia). 97% of cases are carried out before the child is three years old; Komnas Perempuan’s research found that respondents believed this would prevent them from remembering the procedure and telling others about the experience, including any pain felt.

“Why don’t we just ban it?”

The UN has long spoken out against FGM/C. In 1979, it adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which Indonesia ratified in 1984. According to WHO, female circumcision presents no health benefits and can instead lead to infections, severe bleeding, urination complications, as well as an increased risk of newborn deaths due to the mother being circumcised. Komnas Perempuan found that 50% of cases caused bleeding, 18% caused death, and 2% caused infertility.

Officials in the Gorontalo Public Health Office say they’re are not required to monitor female circumcisions at all, and that there’s no way to check if it’s is done with sterile tools. Some of Gorontalo’s residents are certain that the practice must draw blood in order for it to be considered successful; one worker says his own daughter bled onto her underwear for a few days afterwards.

Rizky Mardianti is a mother divorced from an abusive husband and works at a small shop until 3am in Gorontalo. She’d never spoken to her parents about being circumcised. It was only until after FGM/C discussion spread across Indonesian media in 2016 that she realised that it was likely the cause of her inability to climax, as well as life-long complications while urinating.

“I didn’t know what the effects were before [the media reports] and after I know the effects for women who are circumcised are this severe, I wondered why we don’t oppose this tradition for our health,” the 27-year-old tells New Naratif.

Salwa in her party dress before her ceremony. Credit: Ian Morse

Proponents of the practice in Gorontalo say that decreasing a woman’s sexual pleasure after marriage is actually the point. Komnas Perempuan’s research revealed the decision to circumcise for some prioritises a man’s sexual pleasure. A fifth of respondents sought to decrease the woman’s sex drive, and the same ratio said it would increase the husband’s sex drive. Over half the respondents said that it had reduced the woman’s sex drive.

“People in Gorontalo believe that as long as [that part of the clitoris] is attached to the woman, she will keeping looking for more men and never be satisfied with whatever she gets,” says Sance Lamusu, a researcher of and advocate for Molubingo. “She’ll be promiscuous. If she has a husband, she’ll look for another.”

Neither Lamusu, a woman, nor Usman, the male traditional council leader, could answer why the same doesn’t happen to men. Their argument—although the UN doesn’t agree—is that as long as there’s no blood drawn during the procedure, female circumcision can’t be considered a violation of human rights.

If Mardianti has another daughter, she says she’ll definitely avoid molubingo, and plans to resist pressure from her parents to do it. “I’m just confused why, if the effects can be bad, why don’t we just ban it?” she asks.

The role of Indonesia’s religious groups

Indonesia had banned doctors from circumcising girls in 2006, but a fatwa from the MUI pressured the health ministry to retract the ban. The ministry chose to medicalise FGM/C, thereby entrusting the practice, still without medical justification, to licensed professionals.

While that may be safer than seeking out the informal village healers who usually learn from their parents, anti-cutting activists have argued that it the regulations have made the practice more accessible. In 2014, the health ministry removed all guidelines.

“One of our arguments about female circumcision is that the view that reduces women to dirty women creates excessive regulated control of a woman’s body”

Budhis Utami, who helps direct women’s rights group Kapal Perempuan, believes that just proving that the practice is unhealthy isn’t enough. She believes there must be an eradication of the view that a woman’s body is dirty.

“One of our arguments about female circumcision is that the view that reduces women to dirty women creates excessive regulated control of a woman’s body,” she says. “In Indonesia, men like wives who are calm and obey orders, not ones who can enjoy sex. Then men also aren’t satisfied and find a woman outside [the marriage].”

Komnas Perempuan says the biggest obstacle to legal change regarding FGM in Indonesia is the MUI and the Ministry of Religion, both of whom have said publicly that circumcised women are noble in Islam and can enter heaven. Religious experts including the Women’s Ulama Congress of Indonesia, however, question the Quran’s justification of FGM/C.

Komnas Perempuan’s research found that parents in only 10% of cases sought guidance from a religious leader, and no religious leader could provide examples of hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that supported FGM/C. The foundation of the MUI’s argument is based on a hadith that mentions the practice, although Islamic scholars have questioned its authenticity.

“In the Quran there’s not one verse that mentions a requirement to carry out FGM/C,” Maria Ulfah Anshor, former head of the Indonesian Commission for the Protection of Children, said. “Actually there’s hadith after hadith after hadith that are too weak to be a foundation for law. From the theological perspective there’s not benefit or sin [to female circumcision].”

Anshor, who has a degree in Islamic law and now runs her own advocacy organisation for gender equality in families, says she disagrees with the commission she used to head, which stands by the MUI’s fatwa and declares that Islam requires FGM/C. Komnas Perempuan, while free from political interference, remains stymied by the power of the MUI, which holds potent influence over Islam in Indonesian politics and daily life.

At the grassroots

When parents want to learn about the practice, Utami says, they learn from local cultural and religious experts. Utami’s organization, Kapal Perempuan, wants to fill in that gap in knowledge before others do. She prefers to work from the ground up; Kapal Perempuan carries out training in six provinces and 50 villages, and each teaching seminar held means that more students are learning about the practice and growing up to oppose FGM/C for their own children. Utami says she has seen progress, but the fight has gotten harder because people feel their culture is increasingly under attack.

Atay Hala also works on the ground as a women’s rights activist with Women Institute for Research and Empowerment of Gorontalo (WIRE-G), focusing on domestic violence. She had her daughter undergo the procedure just last month “because it’s tradition”. She doesn’t remember her own circumcision and doesn’t believe she’s had any problems with it, but she made sure to tell the hulango not to make her daughter bleed. “She has the right to have sexual desire, right?” she says. Her daughter still lost part of her clitoris.

There’s been some progress in opposing FGM/C, progress, but the fight has gotten harder because people feel their culture is increasingly under attack

With the presidential race getting into full swing ahead of the elections in 2019, the future doesn’t seem bright. At the time the MUI issued the fatwa against the ban on female circumcision, Ma’ruf Amin chaired MUI’s National Sharia Council. In August 2018, Jokowi chose Amin, who now chairs the entire council, as his vice presidential running mate.

“We are also disappointed in Jokowi for having selected Ma’ruf Amin, who is not pluralistic at all, but it’s about political considerations,” Utami says, adding that she hopes a more progressive candidate fills his position as chair of the MUI, if he succeeds in the election. There have however been conflicting reports of whether Ma’ruf will indeed step down. Wahyuni of Komnas Perempuan says the fight against FGM/C will continue, regardless who sits in the president’s seat.

At a local level, there also seems resistance to change. A recent press release from the National Ministry for the Empowerment of Women and Protection of Children in Gorontalo only mentions that it vows to protect children from physical and mental violence, bullying, unhealthy food, bad environments, bad characters, smoking, drugs, and natural disasters.

Komnas Perempuan found that 97% of husbands and wives believe the practice should be continued. When asked why the practice is conducted, half of respondents brought up health benefits—such as the belief, propagated by some academics and doctors, that it improves hygiene—and a quarter mentioned social pressures.

But perhaps there are glimmers of hope for change. In September 2018, the director of Family Health at the National Health Ministry, Eni Gustin, made a statement about FGM/C in which she said, “The injured organ can become infected. It’s the most sensitive part of the body during sex, imagine losing it. In Indonesia, there are light circumcisions that are only scratched, sliced, or cut. But that is not allowed and it’s a form of violence against children and women.”

Although it was likely an off-hand comment at an event encouraging mothers to give their children vitamin A, the topic still persists in the health ministry, which has the power to ban the practice in the country again.

Three hours from the city, in Paguyaman in Boalemo District, Salwa’s second birthday party is forming surrounded by rice fields and banana trees. Her hulango takes unusually long and makes two passes with a rusty knife between her legs, each time cutting off a new layer of flesh.

It’s dark, so wearing the traditional sheet isn’t a possibility. When I ask the hulango about the procedure afterwards, she can barely get a word in before the men in the room answer:

“There’s never been blood. It’s only so she can enter Islam and become a follower like us.”

Ian Morse

Ian Morse is a journalist based in Gorontalo and covering eastern Indonesia and Kalimantan. He tweets @ianjmorse.