There is currently a conversation raging in the American Muslim community about female genital mutilation (FGM). First there were the arrests of Bohra Muslim doctors in Michigan accused of performing this procedure on young girls. Then came the public lecture, and online video of said lecture, of an imam talking about the topic in less then condemnatory language. That imam was Shaker ElSayed, a lead imam at the Virginia-based mosque, Dar Al-Hijrah.
During his lecture on “The Rights of Children,” Shaker stated that, while Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is forbidden by U.S. law, female circumcision “when done right” is different and necessary to protect women from being “hypersexual.” Imam Shaker further advised congregants to consult with a Muslim gynecologist before proceeding. Understandably, many people took great exception to his statements. A group of congregants from within and outside of Dar Al-Hijrah released a statement rebuking his comments and asking that the mosque take action to reconcile the damage and utter confusion his lecture had caused.
In response, Dar Al-Hijrah wrote a statement affirming that FGM is forbidden, but did not specify in its definition of FGM that it included the female circumcision Imam Shaker had said was permissible. The Imam also issued an apology for his comment on “hypersexuality” and condemned FGM; notably, however, he, too, failed to define the prohibited FGM to include female circumcision. He was placed on administrative leave by the mosque’s Board of Directors after pressure from community members. One day later, a senior board member and Imam Shaker recanted their respective apologies during a community Taraweeh prayer. They reassured the audience that pushback against the original lecture on FGM was coming from individuals outside of Dar Al-Hijrah, and that, with time, the whole controversy would be forgotten.
Given these recent events concerning Dar Al-Hijrah and the statements made by Imam Shaker regarding the religious permissibility of female circumcision (i.e. Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting – FGM/C), I feel the strong need to share points of discussion that aren’t being considered in most circles. Given that I have worked extensively in the field of sexual health and not religious scholarship, many of my points relate to the former field with some elucidations to religious contexts with the support of an expert.
For those who are not aware of the situation, this recent Washington Post article will shed some light.
The following points are worth considering:
1. A valid explanation of “hypersexuality” is the following: “While some people mistakenly think that hypersexual disorders and sex addiction merely refers to an unusually high sex drive, it is much more complex than that. It is very similar to other addictions, which is evident upon closer examination of the various sex addiction signs.” Hypersexuality is not included in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness, Fifth Edition, which is used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental illnesses. Looking at other sources of information relating to hypersexuality elucidates that it consists of a complex and interwoven set of factors and symptoms that should not and cannot be simplified to “overactive libido/sexual desire.” Women (and men at that) who experience sexual desire and arousal are NOT hypersexual – they’re normal. Therefore, Muslim women and men who experience sexual desire and arousal are NOT hypersexual.
Furthermore, groundbreaking research in the field of female and male sex desire points to one conclusion that completely shatters the use of the term “hypersexuality” in the context used during Iman Shaker’s talk: only 15% of women experience spontaneous sexual desire whereas 85% of men do. Women’s sexual desire is more linked to context, not spontaneity. If anyone is going to be hypersexual in the manner the term is used in Imam Shaker’s talk, it’s men, not women.
Source: Emily Nagoski’s research on male and female sex drives
And while we are on the topic of hypersexuality – albeit in the context used by Imam Shaker – it’s only fair to mention the increasing rates of pornography use and addiction by Muslim men and the double standard regarding this topic being discussed in public forums. For example, the recent LaunchGood campaign for “Purify Your Gaze” which had immense success in their fundraising and received positive attention and praise from many community circles. The same certainly doesn’t hold true in relation to sexual health issues faced by women, especially when the most prevalent – sexual assault/violence and sexual dysfunction – are not as a result of choices women make. Women are victims and survivors in both of these cases. While many argue that men “fall victim” to pornography, that’s certainly not the case during the initial stages of accessing pornography under their own free will. While pornography addiction (experienced by a large number of men who access pornography, but not all) down the road involves the neurological circuits of dopamine and neurologically changes how a man is aroused, again, the initial stages of pornography use are under free will/choice. Sexual health education is needed to prevent this epidemic.
Therefore, using hypersexuality to credit female circumcision/FGM/C is not only based on false premises and contradicts research in the field of sexuality, it’s also incredibly hypocritical.
2. The center of sexual desire and arousal for both men and women are NOT their genitalia – it’s their brain. We must steer away from a genital-centric view of sexuality. Scientific research into the sexual response cycles of women and men clearly point towards the brain as the most powerful sexual organ. So too does Islam, as it was revealed in the Quran that the prescribed (cognitive) methods to enjoin chastity by both men and women is to practice modesty, lower the gaze, control one’s thoughts and seek marriage – not the removal of genitalia (Quran 24: 30 – 33).
3. The problem is also a pseudo-interpretation that is based on misogynistic culture that views ‘women as fitna‘ (inherently bad) due to their sexuality and that they are temptresses for men that need to be controlled and subdued. Unfortunately, this feeds this type of understanding and the global double standard that male sexuality is fine yet female sexuality is a problem that needs to be controlled. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) made it clear that the sexual act was to be enjoyed equally for both the husband and wife and they are a source of peace and tranquility to each other.
4. The other key issue is that it is important to contextualize the practice in relation to the maqasid of sharia(objectives) of Islam which are: Protection of life, Faith, Lineage, Sanity and Society/Property. FGM/C violates all these objectives. It is a practice that pre-dates Islam and has its roots in ancient Egypt with the most extreme practice being the Pharaonic method and again, the way of the Prophet was to differ from and distance from the practices of jahiliyah (pre-Islamic practices). Also, as far religious scriptural evidence, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) did not practice this with his daughters and wives. The hadith that are often used in support of FGM are incredibly weak.
5. There are various types of FGM/C, but all of them impact the clitoris. The clitoris has one function and one function only – pleasure. Meanwhile, the penis has four: sensation, penetration, ejaculation and urination. The clitoris is not solely “the little nub on the top of the vulva.” Rather, it is “far-ranging mostly internal anatomical structure with a head emerging at the top of the vulva.” (Nagoski, 2015). Research into female sexual pleasure indicates that only 30% of women will achieve orgasm with intercourse whereas 70% through clitoral stimulation. The clitoris contains a myriad and complex network of nerve endings that as described above, travel down through the vulva and surrounds both the urethra (where women urinate from) and the vagina. Given that the sole function of the clitoris is pleasure, and the Islamic rights given to wives in the context of marriageto receive sexual pleasure during intimacy (and before her spouse at that with the added right that she can divorce her husband if she is not sexually satisfied) – are all indicative of the Divine design of female sexuality. The clitoris was designed with this intentional purpose – and going back to the above mentioned point – the Quran provides cognitive-based techniques for enjoining chastity among both men and women.
The conclusion of this argument is that female circumcision/FGM/C not only has dire medical, psychological and spiritual impacts, but it also has irreversible consequences on a woman’s experience of pleasure during sex. Female circumcision/FGM/C denies women their Islamic rights to sexual pleasure and is additionally debunked by the vast amount of research in the field of female sexuality.
I have said this many times, and I will continue to repeat the mantra: Our community is in dire need of comprehensive sexual health education.
This recent incident shows that as Muslims, we lack sexual health literacy from both scientific/health perspectives and Islamic orientations. Education is prevention for so many of the sexual health issues we’re seeing among Muslim communities – and that also exist within greater society. I’m sure that even within this post, I have used terminology that may not be familiar to many readers. That is completely alright and it gives you a starting point to expand your own knowledge. Here are some suggestions:
1. The book titled “Islamic Guide to Sexual Relations” by Adam Ibn Al-Kawthari is an excellent, easy-to-read and well compiled resource on the religious scriptures related to intimacy and pleasure. I recommend everyone read this book. The book title links to a PDF version.
2. Enhance your knowledge about both how male and female sexuality works. I strongly recommend reading “Come As You Are” by Emily Nagoski – her book is a user-friendly guide to the most current research in female sexuality and compares it to male sexuality.
3. Look into valid and credible sources of religious interpretations of sexuality, written by both male and female experts in the field. The book suggested in point 1 is a good start. I also recommend “Sexual Ethics and Islam” by Kecia Ali. Another important book is “Living West, Facing East” by Dr. FIda Sanjakdar – she is unique in that she has her PhD in both Islamic studies and sexual health.
I hope that this information is useful to critically think and analyze not only FGM/C, but also the topic of sexual health overall. I would like to acknowledge the religious resources provided by Alyas Karmani, a sex therapist and Imam from Bradford, UK who has spent over twenty-five years in the field of counseling Muslims and Islamic sexual health education. We are hoping to compile a comprehensive list of resources in the near future relating Islam to sexual health.
For more information about sexual health for Muslims, please visit: HEART Women and Girls.
Sameera Qureshi is Director of Sexuality Education and Training at HEART Women & Girls.