Debate in Indonesia over UN plan to ban female circumcision | Asia Pacific

Debate in Indonesia over UN plan to ban female circumcision

Debate in Indonesia over UN plan to ban female circumcision

Updated 23 January 2013, 22:07 AEDT

One of Indonesia's largest Islamic organisations has created controversy by objecting to a UN plan to ban female circumcision.

The Indonesian Ulema Council claims that female circumcision is part of Islamic teachings and a constitutional right.

The comments were made in response to the approval last month of a non-binding resolution calling on UN members to legislate for and enforce laws against female genital mutilation.

Correspondent: Katie Hamann

Speakers: Professor Terry Hull, Australian Demographic & Social Research Institute, Australian National University; Justina Rostiawati, member of the education commission at the National Commission on Violence Against Women

HAMANN: Female circumcision has been performed in Indonesia for centuries.

According to Javanese tradition, it is part of a series of rituals which honour the girl child.

Professor Terry Hull is with the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute at the Australian National University.

HULL: The traditional birth attendant who went to a woman's house, assisted with the birth, cooked a meal, cleaned up and did all sorts of things around the family, and also said prayers and rubbed tumeric against the genitals of female children, as part of the whole birthing process traditionally, was all part of creating the woman.

HAMANN: Professor Hull says it's only more recently that the practice has been embraced by Indonesian Muslims, some of whom have a vastly different interpretation of female sexuality.

HULL: The notion traditionally, was that male circumcision uncovered the male genitals to increase male sexual prowess, and female circumcision cut some of the female genitals, to reduce female sexual urges, and that this would 'even up' what one Islamic teacher in Surabaya said, was an "imbalance" in human beings.

Now, of course, to many people, including myself, this sounds like a ridiculous argument, but it was picked up by various Islamic teachers in eastern Java, and it's been promoted for the last twenty or thirty years now.

HAMANN: The practice of female circumcision was officially banned by the Indonesian Ministry of Health in 2006 on the grounds that it was potentially harmful. But the government created confusion when, in 2010, it issued a ministerial regulation outlining how the practice should be carried out by medical doctors.

Justina Rostiawati is a member of the education commission at the National Commission on Violence Against Women. She says the 2010 regulation was an acknowledgement that the earlier ban on female circumcision was failing.

ROSTIAWATI: When the hospital or the health services in that area refused to the circumcision, the mother will take the female baby to the midwife, or just to a traditional healer, or birth attendant. It's even more dangerous.

HAMANN: Professor Hull says female circumcision is on the rise in Indonesia and alarmingly the practice is becoming more brutal.

HULL: Over the past two decades, there's been an increasing medicalisation of the practice, where medical personnel are taking part in what they interpret as Islamic rituals, and they are drawing blood and sometimes cutting away skin from the clitoris and sometimes from the labia.

HAMANN: As the UN moves to stamp out the practice of female genital mutilation across the globe, Indonesia is likely to face increased pressure from groups such as the World Health Organisation. But Professor Hull says, with an election cycle looming, groups such as the Ulema Council may use their influence to derail such initiatives.

HULL: This is precisely the sort of environment where political parties and particularly political parties from a religious bent, are going to be looking around for issues that they can ride into, the next election. And this is the sort of issue that everybody likes to have an opinion about, but very few people have any knowledge about. So it's a ticket to ride for politicians.

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