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Indonesia under pressure over female genital cutting

Many were shocked on 6 February, when the United Nations Children’s Fund ranked Indonesia third behind Egypt and Ethiopia in the global practice of female genital mutilation and cutting. Indonesia’s inclusion in the Unicef report was largely responsible for raising the global tally from an estimated 130 million to 200 million (link is external) women and girls who have undergone the practice. The international community turned on Indonesia, asking why a country long considered to offer a “moderate” interpretation of Islam suddenly seemed little different to other more “conservative” Muslim nations.

Many Indonesians rejected the Unicef report, not wanting to be mentioned alongside African countries as leading exponents of genital cutting. Indonesians are quick to point out that female circumcision in Indonesia is different to the form practiced in Africa. In most cases it is a symbolic procedure, involving only a slight scraping or pricking, usually of the clitoral hood. This type of genital cutting is classified by the World Health Organisation as Type IV, and is considered to involve less harm or risk than the other three categories, which involve removal of genital tissue.

The defensive response to the report could partly be due to the procedure’s strong association with Islam. Although the Unicef report does not link the problem to religion, most of the countries where female genital cutting and mutilation is practiced are majority Muslim. In an environment of escalating global (or western) hostility toward Islam, many Indonesians may be reluctant to accept what international organisations such as Unicef (which is seen by many to represent western values and interests) have to say about their country. For many Indonesians, the report implies that Islam is a religion that subjugates women and girls, and they are not happy about being painted in this light.

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