BANDUNG, INDONESIA – Thrashing wildly, 5-year-old Reta wails as she is hoisted onto a bed during a circumcision ceremony in a school hall-turned-clinic on Indonesia’s island of Java. “No, no, no,” she cries, punching and kicking as her mother cups her tear-soaked face to soothe her.
Doctors cheer encouragingly. One of them gently swipes the girl’s genital area with antiseptic and then swiftly pricks the hood of her clitoris with a fresh sewing needle, drawing no blood. The ordeal is over in seconds.
Doctors say the procedure will have no effect on the girl, her sexual pleasure in later life or ability to bear a child.
“I’m happy. My daughter is now clean,” her mother Yuli, a 27-year-old seamstress who goes by one name, said at a mass circumcision of 120 girls at the Assalaam Foundation’s Islamic school in the city of Bandung.
She believes the ritual will nevertheless have an effect.
“Many girls are getting pregnant out of wedlock these days,” she noted. “Circumcision hopefully will prevent my daughter from becoming oversexed, and will make her less amorous when she grows up.”
Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, argues that this form of circumcision is largely symbolic, not harmful and should not be seen as mutilation.
The U.N. thinks otherwise. In December, it passed a resolution banning female genital mutilation, which extends to the form of circumcision practiced in Indonesia. Procedures such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, cauterization or burning that are carried out for nonmedical purposes are classed by the WHO as mutilation, along with practices that alter or remove any part of the genitals. The more extreme practices can lead to severe bleeding, urination problems and complications during childbirth, according to the WHO.
A ritual dating back thousands of years and typically seen in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, its most brutal forms require stitching together the inner and outer labia, or excising all or part of the clitoris.
Indonesia says genital cutting does not take place and that it has worked to eradicate other more extreme circumcisions as it seeks compromise between conforming with international standards and placating cultural and religious traditions. It banned female circumcision in 2006 but backtracked in 2010, arguing many parents were still having their daughters circumcised, often by unskilled traditional doctors who often botched the procedure.
In response to the ban, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Islamic clerical body, issued a fatwa in 2008 allowing the practice but did not make it compulsory.
While no official data is available to measure the extent of the practice in Indonesia, it is common among its 240 million people, according to aid agencies. A 2003 study by the Population Council found that 22 percent of 1,307 female circumcision cases were excisions, meaning part of the clitoris or labia was removed. Of the rest, 49 percent involved incisions while 28 percent were “symbolic.”
Jakarta issued a 2010 regulation allowing “scraping the clitoral hood, without injuring the clitoris” — a practice that is nevertheless defined by the WHO as mutilation — while criminalizing more severe procedures.
Islamic foundations such as the Assalaam Foundation in Bandung say they ditched scissor-snipping for pinpricks. “In the past, we had used one or two doctors and more traditional healers and they used scissors to snip a bit on the hood. We abandoned that method many years ago,” said the foundation’s coordinator, Eulis Sri Karyati.
Health Ministry official Budi Sampurno said Indonesia wants to replace scraping with swiping “with a cotton bud,” hoping the U.N. would not view this as mutilation. Jakarta has not indicated how it would enforce it.
Despite the U.N. resolution, the custom still has deep meaning for Indonesian Muslims and will likely remain, officials say.
Housewife Tita Lishaini Jamilah, 28, said Indonesia should not bow to the U.N.’s ban on the practice, insisting that the ritual was safe. “Why would any parent hurt her child? If any doctor were to mutilate my daughter, I’d be the first to protest,” she said.