FGM in the Horn of Africa

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What’s Islam got to do with it?

The Horn of Africa has the highest prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in the world, including in its most severe forms. Islamic texts are often used to justify FGM/C in this region - this despite the fact that the majority of the world’s Muslims do not practise it.

While there is clear support in the Sunna (the Prophet Mohamed’s teachings and actions) for male circumcision in Islam, there is none for FGM/C. The support for male circumcision in Islam has been wrongfully applied to women. There is not a single verse in the Qur’an that can be used as a basis for FGM/C; on the contrary there are many verses that condemn the practice. There are strong stipulations in Islam that uphold the sanctity of the human body; causing harm to the human body without any religious justification is strictly prohibited.

Definition of FGM/C and prevalence in the horn of Africa


Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. More than 130 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM/C is concentrated. FGM/C has emerged as one of the most significant challenges affecting women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health in the horn of Africa where the prevalence of FGM/C is particularly high. In the age group 15 to 49, the prevalence in Somalia is currently at 98%, Djibouti at 93%, Sudan at 88%, Eritrea at 89% and Ethiopia at 74% (UNICEF report).

The most severe form of FGM/C (infibulation), often referred to as pharaonic, is most commonly practiced in Somalia, Djibouti, and Sudan where the prevalence is the highest in the world.

International, regional and national law

FGM/C is a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights. FGM/C is condemned by a number of international and regional treaties and conventions, as well as by national legislation. FGM/C violates the right to health and bodily integrity as stipulated in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In other international conventions FGM/C is regarded as violence against women, a form of torture, and a traditional practice harmful to the girl child.

Regionally, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter) and its Protocol on the Rights of Women (Maputo Protocol), in addition to the Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, have emphasised the promotion and protection of women’s rights. The clearest and most explicit language is found in Article 5 of the Maputo Protocol, which prohibits “all forms of FGM” through legislative measures and sanctions. FGM/C has been criminalised in most countries in the horn of Africa: in Djibouti (1995, amended 2009), Ethiopia (2004), Eritrea (2007), and Somalia (2012). There are ongoing efforts to criminalise it at the national level in Sudan, but conservative religious and political actors have blocked these attempts deeming them against Islamic law.

FGM/C and the link to Islam

There is a range of reasons given for the practice of FGM/C, one of which is closely related to the control of women’s sexuality; it is a necessary rite of passage to womanhood that ensures ritual cleanliness, virginity and marriageability (1). In fact, Arabic speakers often refer to circumcised women as mutoharat (cleaned or purified) and to uncircumcised as ghulfa’a (unclean or impure) (2). In the Horn of Africa there are both Christian and Muslim communities who practice FGM/C, often believing that the practice is required by religion. Yet nearby societies in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa of the same religion do not engage in FGM/C, and worldwide the overwhelming majority of Christians and Muslims do not follow the practice.

The use of religious terms to refer to the practice has given it an Islamic identity and strengthened the belief that Islam requires FGM/C. The Sunna is used to legitimise type 1 of FGM/C employing Islamic justifications. But there is no consensus between the four law schools in Sunni Islam, known as Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali. It is only the Shafi’i law school which regards circumcision as obligatory for both men and women (3). With the exception of Sudan, all the countries in the Horn of Africa follow the Shafi’i law school (4).

The practice of FGM/C pre-dates Islam which makes it difficult to separate culture and tradition from Islam, especially within the realm of control of women’s sexuality which is often embedded within both custom and religion (5). It is clear that patriarchal ideals placing women in a shame/honour paradigm reinforce the practice of FGM/C (6), and Islamic arguments have been used to legitimise the practice in areas where FGM/C was already prevalent before Islamisation (7). This has made it even more difficult to abandon the practice, including through criminalisation, as efforts to eradicate FGM/C often face both religious and cultural arguments for the continuation of the practice.

If efforts to eradicate FGM/C have funding or support from the international community, then these efforts are often deemed ‘Western’ or ‘foreign’ by conservative political and religious actors. In Sudan for example, efforts to criminalise FGM/C in all its forms by both civil society - even the Islamist government itself - have been met by a stark counter-mobilisation by the Salafi movements (a conservative trend inspired by Wahhabi Islam.) In addition to regarding criminalisation of FGM/C as contrary to Sharia, they view the attempt as Western cultural imperialism (8).

The Qur’an makes no mention of FGM/C, but Prophet Mohamed’s actions and teachings, the Sunna, makes reference to it. There are a range of Hadiths that the proponents of FGM/C use to justify the practice (the hadith of Ummu-Attiya, the hadith of Al Hajjajibnu Arta, the hadith of Abdallaibnu Umar, the hadith of Aisha, and the hadith of Abu Hureira) (9). The most commonly quoted of these is the hadith of Aisha. In this hadith, the Prophet, is reported to have said “if the two circumcisions meet, then it is obligatory to take ritual bath”. This is regarded as a statement about ritual cleansing after sexual intercourse. Intercourse in this context refers to “when the two circumcised [genitals] meet”. This statement can be taken as evidence that FGM/C existed at the Prophet's time, but on the other side there is no authentic directive that the woman must be circumcised according to Islam. In contrast, there are clear guidelines on how and when male circumcision should be done. Proponents have argued that FGM/C is Islamic, because the practice can be compared to male circumcision. This argument is based on a principle in Islamic jurisprudence called qiyas which translates into analogical deduction. Both religious scholars and activists argue that such comparison cannot be made as the two practices do not share a common feature or cause (10).

Islamic teachings against FGM


While it is only the Shafi’i law school which regards Sunna circumcision as an obligation for both women and men in Islam, the other law schools regard female circumcision as optional and/or honourable. But there are contemporary religious scholars and Islamic feminists who argue against its eradication in all its forms. In their opinion it is neither obligatory nor honourable and they argue that the hadiths which are employed as evidence for FGM/C are weak; evidence can only be taken from those hadiths with a strong chain of transmission. Further, it is a pre-Islamic custom that has been erroneously read into the Islamic texts in certain areas like the Horn of Africa.

Scholars such as Ziba Mir-Hosseini are deconstructing Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) by interrogating the stereotyped constructions of gender. She points out that classical fiqh was based on men's experiences, male-centred questions, and the overall influence of the patriarchal societies in which they lived. The patriarchal societies in which FGM/C prevailed prior to Islamisation used the practice to control women’s (and not men’s) sexuality.

The most common argument against FGM/C is that it is a custom, and that Islam condemns harmful practices that contradict the teachings of Islam. FGM/C in all its forms should be deemed against Islam, like female infanticide - a practice which also existed in pre-Islamic Arabia. It is a fundamental teaching in Islam that where there is conflict between religion and a cultural practice, Islam takes precedence. In the words of Mohamed Lutfi Al Sabbagh: “Since female circumcision is not something required and no evidence from religious sources proves that it is either an obligation or a Sunna, what remains is that it is an absolute damage that has no benefit.”

The other most frequently cited argument against FGM/C within a religious framework is that causing harm is unlawful in Islam. The guiding principle in Sharia states: “Cause no harm and do not reciprocate harm.” FGM/C is clearly a harmful practice that affects women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health. If an action has both benefits and harm, it is allowed if the benefits outweigh the harm. Male circumcision may be viewed as harmful. However, it has been proven to be a religious practice and that the resulting benefits are also significant. These benefits are both religious (male circumcision enhances cleanliness) and medical (male circumcision can reduce penile cancer and HIV transmission). FGM/C on the other hand, does the exact opposite (11). This is further strengthened by the Qur’an, which stipulates that the beauty of a human body is to be left as it was created by God unless there is an authentic basis allowing interference with it.


While there is strong support in Islamic sources for male circumcision, the evidence found in the Sunna upon which proponents of FGM/C rely is weak at best. Further, there is no mention of FGM/C in the Qur’an. Even the Islamic jurists (Hanbali, Maliki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i) during the 8th and 9th century found absolutely no evidence for the most severe form of FGM/C, namely infibulation.

Yet in today’s Horn of Africa, infibulation is widely practiced using religious arguments. According to contemporary scholars and activists, FGM/C is a pre-Islamic custom based on patriarchal ideals about the control of women’s sexuality which have been erroneously read into the religious texts by men. The guiding principle in Sharia is that causing harm is unlawful and clearly FGM/C causes great harm to women’s and girl’s sexual and reproductive health. (12)


1. Ibrahim Lethome Asmani and Maryam Sheikh Abdi (2008), Delinking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting from Islam, Population Council Frontiers, pp.2

2. Ibid, pp.3

3. See the entry on “Khitän” in the Encyclopedia of Islam (2nd edition) edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E Bosworth, E. Van Danzel and W.P Heinichs

4. Sudan has traditionally followed the Maliki law school which views FGM/C as obligatory for men, but sunna (optional) for women.

5. Ellen Gruenbaum (2001), The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective, University of Pennsylvania Press, pp.50

6. Ibid, pp.36-47

7. Anne Sofie Roald (2001), Women in Islam: The Western Experience, Routledge, pp.244.

8. Liv Tønnessen and Samia Al Nagar (2013), “The Women's Quota in Conflict Ridden Sudan: Ideological Battles for and against Gender Equality”, Women’s Studies International Forum,41, pp.122-131

9. For details on these hadiths, see Lethome Asmani and Sheikh Abdi (2008), , pp.8-13

10. Lethome Asmani and Sheikh Abdi (2008), pp.16

11. Ibid., pp.18-20

12 Ibid, pp. 18

Based on a paper by Ibrahim Lethome Asmani and Maryam Sheikh Abdi (2008)

From Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)