Working at ARROW opened my eyes to the realities of women in many countries and contexts. I was often flooded with emotion after hearing stories, even without being able to relate to, or even fathom them. One such story was from Malaysian gender activist and International Development consultant, Nabila Nasir. As promised in my last blog, here I have asked Nabila some questions regarding FGM.

 Can you please describe your experiences with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?

I experienced type 2 FGM, which is the removal of the clitorial hood at the age of 4, when my grandparents brought me to see a traditional birth attendant. It is one of my most vivid and painful childhood experiences that I carry with me until today. I didn’t know what I had gone through until I attended a short course on Islam, Gender and SRHR at the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Talking about the issue with my own mother and grandmother is a very difficult conversation I continue to have as they still believe that it is part of the Quran and Islamic teachings.

Can you speak to FGM in the South East Asian context? And in relation to Africa?

In South-East Asia, there is an insistence to call it “female circumcision” to water down the effects of the practice. This is because only Type 1, 2 and 4 of FGM as per WHO’s classification is practiced, and it’s a much newer practice as compared to Africa. Due to the lack of severity compared to the FGM in Africa, the practice is more trivialized in the Southeast Asian region. Also, in Africa, it is not confined to the Islamic community, as it is in this region. FGM is like an “open secret” that everyone knows is happening, but doesn’t talk about. Dialogue on the issue is scattered, and there is no concrete data to be analyzed and reacted to. It is not near enough to the level of conversation that is happening in African region, to start campaigning for the criminalizing the act or have it included as part of legislation.

In Indonesia, the discussion has centered around including female circumcision as part of the medical syllabus to make it more sterile and hygienic, and in Malaysia the practice has been made compulsory and legal as per the 2009 National Fatwa that was issued by the Federal Islamic Institution of Malaysia. Even though fatwas are not legally binding, but it is often taken quite seriously when it comes to policing women’s bodies and sexuality in the country. That, and there is a codified law in Malaysia preventing people from challenging fatwas and what is perceived to be an Islamic practice.

How does one navigate cultural rights, traditional rights, religious rights, and women’s rights?

Cultural and religious rights have always been used to protect the “sanctity” of FGM, but it is now becoming a public health concern. These rights do not take into consideration the issue of consent by the child, as more often than not, FGM is performed on the girl child at a very young age. There needs to be more outspoken voices within the community itself, for the campaigns to be taken more seriously. And by men of the communities too, as per in Africa.

What, if anything- do you see/suggest that non-community members do? Is there any level of awareness raising or ally-ship possible?

Speak to as many FGM survivors as possible, get testimonials of the ones that are opposing the practice and try to be neutral when conveying the issue. Try to make the issue a very human one and not too clinical either. Focus on the side effects and no health benefits of the issue. Do not disregard the cultural rights angle that the opposition always use.

Do you think that experiencing FGM has influenced your role in women’s rights activism?

Yes definitely. Having gone through the practice myself makes me understand first-hand the daily struggles and makes me more compassionate and determined to raise awareness so that other girls don’t have to go through it too.

I think that my conversation with Nabila is an important one. I cannot relate to FGM, but I don’t want toignore it. In my opinion, ignoring an injustice is akin to condoning it- and FGM is not something that I want to condone. With that being said, I also think that I am not the one to speak out against FGM. As Nabila pointed out, one of the best ways for me to be an ally is to listen. Through listening, I can ensure that I don’t base my opinion on inaccuracies, and that I don’t take the space for a survivor to speak out.

Thanks for reading, and please do share, what are some other important tenets of ally-ship?

– Bridget