Filzah Sumartono was a teenager when she found out that as a baby she had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). In a common practice in Singapore’s Malay Muslim communities, young female babies undergo a type of FGM known locally as “sunat perempuan.”
The procedure, which involves the removal of the clitoris, is legal in Singapore and practised by both traditional midwives and medical doctors. It is categorised as Type 1 by the World Health Organisation and can be extremely painful for the child, damaging sexually sensitive tissue.
Sumartono says that 99 percent of the 253,300 Malay women in Singapore are Muslim, and almost all of them undergo sunat perempuan as babies. Sumartono’s own mother was against the custom, but her female relatives demanded she have her young daughter cut.
Today, as project coordinator at women’s right group AWARE, Sumartono works to raise awareness of the practice of sunat perempuan.
Women & Girls: Why is AWARE working to raise awareness about sunat perempuan?
Filzar Sumartono: We advocate for gender equality and we view sunat perempuan as a violation of women’s rights. In Singapore, FGM is usually done when a baby is less than one year old. A baby cannot give consent or have a say over a procedure that is permanent and will change their life forever – their rights to their bodies are taken away at infancy.
We believe that FGM is a form of violence against women. When FGM is performed at infancy, it is the starting point of a cycle of violence and control over women.
We also feel that FGM hypersexualizes the baby because it prioritizes the community’s fear of her as a sexual being over her health and well-being.
Women & Girls: How does undergoing sunat perempuan impact the life of a woman?
Sumartono: There isn’t any research [specifically] on the consequences of FGM Type 1, and because of that we know very little about the health impacts.
We have anecdotal evidence that we hear from girls. Some women we speak to feel angry that they did not consent to the procedure, and yet it was done to them. We also see from the community that there are women who do not see an issue to the practice, because they feel that it has not impacted their sexual life and because they feel that it is part of their culture and community.
Women & Girls: Is sunat perempuan only practiced in Malay Muslim cultures in Singapore? If so, what makes the Malay community different from other Muslim communities in Singapore?
Sumartono: We found that it is only practiced within the Malay Muslim community [in Singapore] and not other [Singaporean] Muslim communities. The Malay follow the Shafi’i school of thought, which makes the practice of sunat perempuan compulsory. No other Muslim sect in Singapore makes FGM obligatory for women.
The Shafi’i have very conservative ideals about women, and these ideals are justified by religion. But these ideals go beyond culture – it is just more entrenched in the Malay culture because religion is used to justify it.
Women & Girls: How do you dismantle the practice of sunat perempuan since it is justified by religion?
Sumartono: In the local context, sunat perempuan is considered to be very different from FGM, although if we go by WHO definition, sunat perempuan is FGM Type 1. But the local community does not view sunat perempuan and FGM as the same thing.
We [at AWARE] are not religious scholars, but there are many religious leaders and scholars who have spoken out against it. In Singapore, the community still thinks sunat perempuan is a religious requirement, so it is helpful and makes our jobs easier when Muslim leaders speak out against it.
Women & Girls: Has AWARE petitioned the Singaporean government to make sunat perempuan illegal?
Sumartono: We are focused on community engagement right now, increasing awareness about sunat perempuan. It cannot be a top-down approach because a blanket ban on the procedure may cause it to go underground, or the community may just go overseas to have the procedure done.
We recently published a book called “Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out,” which includes stories of women speaking about their experiences.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.