CHILDREN IN THE ARAB-MUSLIM WORLD AND MALE AND FEMALE CIRCUMCISION

CHILDREN IN THE ARAB-MUSLIM WORLD


Arab boy and girl

Children are greatly cherished in Muslim cultures and are regarded as a family’s greatest asset. Children have traditionally been valued as a work force and security for parents when the reach old age. The Qur’an repeatedly mentions the obedience of children to their parents. Management of the property of minors is controlled by the father or other male kinsmen.

Births, especially those of boys, are celebrated events and are often accompanied by non-Islamic rituals such as burying the mother’s placenta to protect the mother and her baby from evil spirits. A child’s first possession is often an amulet to ward of malevolence. Great effort is made to make sure the first words a baby hears are Allah. Arabs tend to not praise their children directly, which is regarded as bad luck. Instead they attribute the good qualities to God. When the hair of a child is cut for the first time. the weight of the hair in silver is supposed to be distributed among the poor.

Islamic law allows adoptions but distinguished them greatly from true kin. Adopted children according to Muslim law have no inheritance rights. Children who have a foreign parent are often denied citizenship. Among other things this sometimes means they can not enroll school.

According to the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: “Arab boys and girls are treated very differently. Boys are given great affection and pampered by their mothers. Girls are also given affection but are weaned much earlier than boys and are not pampered...Boys are especially taught—often harshly—to obey and respect older males. “

In rural Arab societies: “Children are given adult responsibilities and sex-specific socialization early in life. Boys works in the fields, and girls help their mothers cook and care for siblings. Adolescents have no contact with the opposite sex outside the family, and girls are watched closely to protect their chastity. A girl’s primary protector is her older brother, who continues to watch over his sister even after she is married.”

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org;

Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia

Muslim Birth Rites


Muhammad as a baby

According to the BBC: “Muslims have some very simple rites for welcoming a child. The Muslim call to prayer or adhaan ("God is great, there is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come to prayer.") are the first words a newborn Muslim baby should hear. They are whispered into the right ear of the child by his or her father. [Source: BBC, August 18, 2009 |::|]

“The baby's first taste should be something sweet, so parents may chew a piece of date and rub the juice along the baby's gums. It was a practice carried out by the Prophet Muhammad and is believed to help tiny digestive systems to kick in. |::|

“There are a number of events that take place on or after the seventh day. After seven days the baby's head is shaved (a tradition also carried out by Hindus). This is to show that the child is the servant of Allah. Although Hindus may take the baby's hair to India and scatter it in the holy river Ganges, Muslims weigh it and give the equivalent weight in silver to charity. |::|

“Ideally, Muslim baby boys are circumcised when they are seven days old although it can take place any time before puberty. It is also tradition to choose a name for the baby on the seventh day. The aqeeqah is also traditionally carried out on the seventh day. This is a celebration which involves the slaughter of sheep. Sheep are sacrificed (in Britain the meat is ordered at the butchers) and the meat is distributed to relatives and neighbours and also given to the poor. |::|

Circumcision of Boys

According to the BBC: “Muslims are still the largest single religious group to circumcise boys. In Islam circumcision is also known as tahara, meaning purification. Circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur'an but it is highlighted in the Sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad's recorded words and actions). In the Sunnah, Muhammad stated that circumcision was a "law for men." The main reason given for the ritual is cleanliness. It is essential that every Muslim washes before praying. It is important that no urine is left on the body. Muslims believe the removal of the foreksin makes it easier to keep the penis clean because urine can't get trapped there. Supporters of circumcision also argue that excrements may collect under the foreskin which may lead to fatal diseases such as cancer. Some Muslims see circumcision as a preventive measure against infection and diseases. [Source: BBC, August 13, 2009]


Abraham and Ishmael being circumcised

“For the majority of Muslims, circumcision is seen as an introduction to the Islamic faith and a sign of belonging. In Islam there is no fixed age for circumcision. The age at which it is performed varies depending on family, region and country. The preferred age is often seven although some Muslims are circumcised as early as the seventh day after birth and as late as puberty. |::|

“There is no equivalent of a Jewish 'mohel' in Islam. Circumcisions are usually carried out in a clinic or hospital. The circumciser is not required to be a Muslim but he must be medically trained. In some Islamic countries circumcision is performed after Muslim boys have recited the whole of the Qur'an from start to finish. In Malaysia, for example, the operation is a puberty rite that separates the boy from childhood and introduces him to adulthood. |::|

“Circumcision is not compulsory in Islam. The ritual dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. According to tradition Muhammad was born without a foreskin (aposthetic). Some Muslims who practise circumcision see it as a way of being like him. “Dr Bashir Quereshi, author of “Transcultural Medicine,” said: "Every Muslim is expected to follow the way and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, all Muslims - devouts, liberals or seculars - observe this ritual. Muslim are obliged to follow not only Allah's message in the Holy Qur'an but also what the Prophet said or did, as proof of their dedication to Islam." Traditionally, adult converts to Islam were encouraged to undergo the operation but this practice is not universally endorsed, particularly if the procedure poses a health risk.” |::|

Mass Circumcision in Kosovo


party for a boy on the day of his circumcision, Istanbul

Reporting from Gornje Lubinje, Kosovo, Nicholas Wood wrote in The New York Times, “It is hard to place the inhabitants of this unusual village in the web of identities that make up the Balkans. They are neither Serbs nor Albanians, the main ethnic groups vying for control of the internationally administered province of Kosovo. Perhaps the closest match would be to call them Bosnians, which is how these Slavic-speaking Muslims who form a minority here in Kosovo describe themselves. But the language spoken here, a mixture of Serbian and Macedonian, with a few Turkish words thrown in, is not the same as any other in the Balkans, including Bosnia. And Gornje Lubinje's customs, as well as those of its neighboring village, Donje Lubinje, are unlike those of any other people in Kosovo. [Source: Nicholas Wood, The New York Times, July 31, 2006 \=/]

“Every five years, the inhabitants of the two villages, high in the Shar mountain range, close to the boundary with Macedonia, come together for an extraordinary festival - its version of a Muslim rite of passage. For three days, upward of 3,000 people gather here to feast, sing and dance and take part in traditional Turkish sports like wrestling. In a region sharply divided along ethnic lines, Gornje Lubinje's festival this year has attracted Serbs, Albanians and members of Kosovo's diaspora from as far away as Switzerland and Germany. \=/

“But the distinguishing feature of this festival is the ceremony of Sunet, or circumcision, that takes place in one day for all of the host village's boys age 5 or under - 111 of them this year in Gornje Lubinje. (Donje Lubinje will perform the rite next year.) The tradition, whose origins date from beyond living memory, is viewed by almost all residents with almost universal pride as it has come to symbolize this place's special identity. "It gives us a sense of unity," said Rafik Kasi, a local journalist from Gornje Lubinje, whose nephew was being circumcised. Zaber Kaplani, who had traveled from Donje Lubinje, farther down the Zupa Valley, to join the ceremonies, said: "When parents have a boy, they spend months and years preparing for this ceremony. This is one of the greatest traditions we have." \=/

“Some parents chose to send their children to be circumcised at the village's clinic, where this year, on Saturday, two surgeons and a doctor performed operations on 24 boys under local anesthetic. But the vast majority opted to put their children in the care of the nimble hands of Zulfikar Shishko, 69, who normally works in the Ekspres barber shop in the nearby city of Prizen. For €25, or about $32, each, Shishko performed the operation in the boys' homes, without anesthetic. He was accompanied by two burly assistants dressed in red aprons whose task it was to restrain the boys during the operation. ("We have a special technique," said Hajrulla Osmani, one of the assistants.) \=/

“With a scalpel, a bottle of iodine and some scouring powder to help clean his hands after each operation, Shishko had the air of a man possessed as he proceeded to circumcise 87 boys in just over 12 hours. At that pace, Shishko spoke hardly a word as he scurried from house to house. "I would work even faster if they let me," he said, explaining that too many people wanted to talk to him.

“Villagers here say the performing of all the circumcisions on one day has a simple explanation: poverty. "It dates from a period of crisis when people had no money," said Kasi, the local journalist. "It was simpler for everybody to come together and share the expenses." Nobody here could say when the ceremonies were first held in such large numbers. But villagers said they had on occasion been interrupted, by the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 and then World War I. There are other Bosnian Muslim villages in the Zupa Valley that once held mass Sunet ceremonies, but now only Gornje Lubinje and Donje Lubinje keep the custom going. \=/

“In each house the scene was virtually identical. Shishko entered and was followed by his assistants and a young imam. In the next room, the mother, grandmother, aunts and sisters stood dressed in white dresses and waistcoats embroidered in gold and waited for the operation to finish. When the job was done, a Romany band struck up outside, and relatives squeezed their way to give money to the boy, who was lying covered on the floor or a bed. Screams of pain and pulsating music punctuated the day, but Kasi said, "Our trust in God gives the boys strength to overcome the pain." \=/


male circumcision rates by country: 1) more than 80 percent (orange); 2) 20 to 80 percent (yellow); 3) less than 20 percent blue


“It was hard to find anyone to criticize the pace or the skill of the practitioner. "He's better than a surgeon," said Ibrahim Bilibane, a construction foreman from Donje Lubinje. In the Bajrami household, Sehizada Bajrami, 23, was visibly distressed as Shishko entered and approached Selhan, her 30-month-old son. With tears running down her cheeks, she whimpered, "I can't decide what I feel." But her father-in-law, Advi Bajrami, 83, intervened. "She's full of joy," he said.” \=/

Female Circumcision

Female circumcision is still performed in some parts of the Middle East, particularly Egypt, and to a lesser degree in Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Muslim Africa but is by no means widely practiced in the Arab-Muslim world. Some Muslim law schools endorse the practice. Many Christians and women in sub-Sahara Africa also have it done. According to this custom, young girls have their clitoris removed, apparently to keep them from enjoying sex and straying from their husbands when they get older. Attempts are being made to eradicate this practice, and even traditionalists say it has no basis in Muslim law.

Female circumcision can range from clipping of the end of the hood (labia minora) of the clitoris to removing the entire clitoris and part of the vagina to amputating the external part of the woman's sex organs. The practice is very common in Africa and performed to a lesser degree in the Middle East. Despite the widespread belief that circumcision is an Islamic ritual, the operation is not performed in most Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. Both Muslim and Christian girls are circumcised and the basis of the custom seems to be cultural rather than religious.

According to the BBC: It is sometimes carried out by a midwife with anaesthetics, but more often than not there is nothing to ease the pain. Another objection concerns the inability of some young women to make a choice. Cutting takes place when a girl is young vulnerable and unable to make an informed decision. In a small village community pressure to take part is enormous.

In some communities Muslim women are being given "dictionaries" by Muslim feminist groups with verses from the Qur’an that help them argue against female genital mutilation and for education for girls. Among other things they learn that defaming a decent women, according to Muslim law, can be punished with 80 lashes. [Amy Schwartz, Washington Post]

Often performed without anaesthetic and the cause of serious infections, the painful operation involves the cutting away of the clitoris of the inner lips of the vagina. The operation is designed to make sex less desirable for female to prevent wives from straying from their husbands. Many women who have had done say it proper.

According to Reuters: Genital mutilation predominantly occurs in 28 African countries, including Sudan, Chad, Sierra Leone and Djibouti, but it also takes place in some Middle Eastern nations, like Saudi Arabia, among immigrant communities in Europe and North America, and parts of Asia, including Indonesia. [Source: Reuters, March 10, 2007]



Female Circumcision (Female Genital Mutilation) and Cultural Tradition

According to the BBC: Genital cutting is widespread within some African cultures and ethnic groups. It is seen as the climax of initiation, something that both boys and girls have to take part in before they are accepted as adults in the community. Those opposed to genital cutting prefer to use the term female genital mutilation. some communities the controversial practice is a female rite of passage and remains an important religious and cultural tradition. In regions where a new religion has become dominant, the tradition of genital cutting does not necessarily die out.

“Young people leave home to be trained in the ways of adult life. For girls this means learning practical skills before returning to their homes as women. According to supporters, the process of female genital cutting has practical merits in a physically harsh society. It is proof that the woman is mentally strong and able to deal with the difficult responsibilities of adult life. It also has religious and social significance. The shedding of blood is seen symbolically as a stream connecting the woman to the rest of her close-knit community. In a small community oneness is very important. |::|

“The ritual is also seen as an essential preparation for marriage. After the initiation rituals women begin looking for a husband and hope to start a family. Even in the United States, 10,000 girls are believed to be at risk from illegal operations within their own communities. It has also been reported that young women in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK have also undergone similar operations.” |::|

Female Circumcision in Egypt

In the 1990s, an estimated 70 to 90 percent of all Egyptian women and girls have been circumcised. Officials were stunned by a government survey that found that 97 percent of married women between 15 and 45 have been circumcised. Among women with daughters, 87 percent reported that at least one girl had been circumcised or would be. Until the procedure was banned in 1996, health officials estimated that approximately 250,000 female circumcisions were performed every year. [Source; Caryle Murphy, Washington Post, August 28, 1994]

Female circumcision in Egypt received international exposure in September 1994 when CNN videotaped a barber, assisted by a plumber, performing a circumcision on a screaming 10-year-old girl. The two men plus the girl's father were later arrested by police.

Some scholars believe that Egyptian women have been getting circumcised since Pharonic times. Some Islamic clerics say there is a saying in the Qur’an that justifies it. Most Egyptian claim the practice is not done for religious reasons. One woman told the Washington Post, "My mother was ignorant and stupid. They just did it because everyone else did. One generation gave it to the next generation. That's just how it was."


Female genital mutilation map

Beliefs About Female Circumcision

Some parents in Egypt believe their daughters will become prostitutes if they are not circumcised even though most Egyptian prostitutes are themselves circumcised. An uncircumcised girl is supposed to be "very hot" and many parents believe she will have difficulty finding a husband. A mother told Washington Post reporter Caryle Murphy that she insisted her 14-year-old daughter be circumcised because "it had to be done, because a woman cannot be like a man. And if I don't, my daughter will get sexually excited."

"Women have to be circumcised," one woman told Murphy, "so they can feel their femininity in Egypt. So she feels that she's a woman." Another woman said that an Egyptian wife "has to be very reserved, a lady."

On female circumcision, one Egyptian cleric said: "It prevents diseases like AIDS and bad smells. It makes the woman control her sexual urges." Another said, unless a girl is circumcised, wearing tight clothes "will make her want any man, any boy, for sex." One cleric at Cairo’s respected Al Azhar university said that "girls who are not circumcised have a sharp temperament and bad habits.

Painful Female Circumcision Medical Procedure

Female circumcision usually involves the cutting or removal of the clitoris. This area of the genitals is very sensitive because it contains the most nerve endings. The side effects of female circumcisions include infection, uncontrolled bleeding, anemia, painful intercourse, problems in childbirth, infertility and reduced sexual desire. Hospitals, the Washington Post reported, "regularly admit girls in shock from hemorrhaging after botched operations.

Genital cutting is a painful practice that is often poorly carried out, and endangers the health and lives of millions of girls, particularly in Africa. Girls have died from bleeding, seizures, infections and other causes. In 1996, two girls died at the hands of the same doctor on the same day. One who was only four years old died of complications with the anesthesia. "When I did my two eldest daughters," a woman told Murphy, "It was four days of torture. They were crying and in pain for four days."

According to the BBC: “The operation involved varies widely from culture to culture. In its most extreme form (infibulation) it can involve the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching up of the labia leaving only a very small opening for sex, urination, menstruation and giving birth. This often makes a later operation necessary to create a larger opening. Many objections to the practice of genital cutting are concerned with the particular circumstances in which it is done. Amnesty International, a human rights organisation, reports that the operation is often carried out using blunt tools (penknives, fragments of glass or tin cans). A particularly brutal operation can leave a woman with haemorrhaging, infections, abscesses and sometimes a lifelong loss of sensation during sex. The Pan-African Committee on Traditional Practices estimates that two million girls in Africa each year undergo some kind of genital cutting which endangers both their health and their lives.”

One Family Planning official said that she is concerned about the psychological scars of the operations. "When they hold [a girl] down to do this circumcision, she gets a complex. She remembers the day always. She has bleeding and sexual problems. “


Types of Female Genital Mutilation


Female Circumcision Medical Procedure in Egypt

The female circumcision operation in Egypt is usually performed by a barber or midwife while the surprised girl is held down by relatives when she is between the ages of 4 and 12. Occasionally three years olds endure the procedure. These days, more mothers take their daughters to a doctor for the operations. There the girls get "total anesthesia" and the circumcision is "more comfortable," the instruments are clean, and the bleeding is controlled.

Many mothers however still take their daughters to midwives. The operation performed by a midwife with a barber's razor and can of anesthetic spray cost around $7 in the 1990s. According to ancient custom, the excised pieces are dipped in salt and wrapped around the girl’s arm in a cloth. After seven days the pieces are thrown in the Nile. "If you throw them anywhere else, she won't have children," a mother said.

One Egyptian woman told Murphy she spared her two daughters from the operation because a circumcised woman "hates to have her husband lie with her...and this may mean many troubles. This is very important, for the woman to be happy with her husband and not hate this meeting. Grandparents sometimes steal their granddaughters away from their mothers on the weekend and have operations performed without the mothers knowing about it.

Laws Against Female Circumcision in Egypt

In the 1950s, the Egyptian government tried to stop midwives from performing the custom, while allowing doctors to do so - fearing that otherwise families who insisted on circumcising their daughters would have the operation carried out in unsafe conditions. But in 1996, the health minister imposed a total ban on the practice.

In July 1996, a law was passed in Egypt that made female circumcision illegal. The law banned all female circumcisions: those performed in hospitals and clinics by doctors and those performed with razor blades in backrooms by midwives and barbers. Under the law, doctors and hospitals that perform female circumcisions can have their licenses revoked.

Some doctors criticized the decision on the grounds of health and basic rights. "Doctors know ethically this is not to be done," a physician told Murphy. "But their answer is that they are saving girls from being mutilated by midwives and barbers. If a doctor cuts the clitoris legally he is committing a crime. But this is not enforced. Enforcing the law is impossible."

In June 1997, an Egyptian court overturned the decree than banned female circumcision. Islamic leaders celebrated the decision while human rights advocates were disappointed. The decision removed the ban on circumcisions performed by doctors but maintained the ban on circumcisions performed by midwives and barbers, which had been in effect before the July 1996 ruling.


age range of female genital mutilation by country


In 1998, the July 1996 ban on all female circumcisions was upheld by the Supreme Administrative Court on the grounds that Islam does not demand the operation, which gives the government the right to demand a ban on the procedure if they want. The ruling was final and could not be appealed.

Female circumcisions continue to be done. The enforcement of the ban is considered lax. The practice has gone underground where its more likely to be done by midwives and barbers because if they get caught they don't have as much to lose as doctors.

Muslim Scholars Rule Female Circumcision Un-Islamic

A Egyptian conference of Muslim scholars from around the world declared female circumcision to be contrary to Islam and an attack on women, and called today for those who practice it to be punished. Associated Press reported: “The conference, organised by the German human rights group TARGET, recommended that governments pass laws to prohibit the tradition and that judicial bodies prosecute those who mutilate female genitals. "The conference appeals to all Muslims to stop practicing this habit, according to Islam's teachings which prohibit inflicting harm on any human being," the participants said in their final statement. [Source: Associated Press, November 24, 2006]

Egypt's two top Islamic clerics, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, the foremost theological institute in the Sunni Muslim world, and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, attended the conference, which drew scholars from as far afield as Russia. Tantawi's and Gomaa's edicts are considered binding.

Female circumcision continues to be practiced in many places despite numerous campaigns against it. Those men who support the tradition believe it lowers a girl's sexual desire and helps maintain her honour. They also believe it is required by Islam. The scholars said circumcision inflicts physical and mental harm on women. Furthermore, they said, Islam considers it to be an aggression against women. Those who perform it should be punished. "The conference reminds all teaching and media institutions of their role to explain to the people the harmful effects of this habit in order to eliminate it," the scholars said in their recommendations.

"The conference calls on judicial institutions to issue laws that prohibit and criminalise this habit ... which appeared in several societies and was adopted by some Muslims although it is not sanctioned by the Quran or the Sunna," the scholars said, referring to Islam's holy book and the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad. Although many countries have outlawed female circumcision, the law is poorly enforced and prosecutions are rare.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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