Female circumcision in Gambia: Activists, women’s groups oppose the proposed law to bring back the un-Islamic practice of female genital mutilation

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By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – The un-Islamic practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision may come back to The Gambia – the Muslim-majority country in west Africa – where a Bill has been tabled in the Parliament to repeal a ban imposed on the custom in 2015. Legislator Almameh Gibba, who introduced the Bill, has argued that the ban violates citizens’ right to practise their culture and religion.

Social activists and women’s rights groups have affirmed that the proposed legislation will reverse years of progress and damage The Gambia’s human rights record. The Gambia’s move to lift the ban will lead to a global outcry and ignite a debate on the morality of the practice, which is pre-Islamic in origin and has no sanction in Islam, as it amounts to violation of women’s rights based on unfounded traditions and beliefs.

The introduction of the ban on FGM in The Gambia in 2015 represented a significant milestone in the country’s efforts to safeguard the rights and well-being of its female population, and was seen as a model of progressive legislation worldwide. It sought to protect the girls, who faced the risk of undergoing this traumatic procedure, and signalled the government’s commitment to ending the harmful practice. The ban made FGM punishable by up to three years in prison.

According to Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan, a Islamic scholar and translator of the Holy Quran in English language, female circumcision is also practiced in India by Dawoodi Bohra community only. “It is an old African tradition. Practiced in some African countries including Egypt wherefrom it was picked up by the Fatimids. Dawoodi Bohras are remnants of the Fatimids,” Dr. Khan.

The United Nations has warned that repealing the 2015 law will set a dangerous precedent and make The Gambia the first country in the world to step back from its commitments. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that 23 crore women and girls around the world are survivors of this practice, which involves partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs.

Seventy-six percent of The Gambian females aged between 15 and 49 years have undergone FGM, according to a 2021 report by UNICEF. It can lead to serious health problems, including infections, bleeding, infertility and complications in childbirth, and impairs sexual pleasure.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Somali ethnic community, in Kenya as well as in Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia, has practised female genital cutting for centuries and the practice appears to have remained largely unchanged. The 2003 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) found a prevalence of 96.8% among Somali respondents and 98.9% for the north-eastern province where the majority of Somalis live.

The U.N.’s The Gambia office pointed out during a public debate on the new Bill, titled the Women’s (Amendment) Bill, 2024, that the FGM robs the girls of autonomy over their bodies and causes irreversible harm. It said the largest share of these women and girls were found in African countries, with more than 14.4 crore cases, followed by more than 8 crore in Asia and the number surpassing 60 lakh in the Middle East.

The debate over repealing the ban, imposed by former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the country for 22 years before being toppled in 2016, has divided the nation. The debate flared up in August 2023, when three women were fined for carrying out FGM on eight infant girls, becoming the first people convicted under the law.

In the latest development, the Bill has been sent to a Parliamentary committee for further scrutiny before a third reading, a process which is expected to take three months. The committee can make amendments to the proposed legislation, while the Members of Parliaments have called for more consultation.

Hundreds of people protested outside the Parliament earlier this week, most of them supporting a repeal of the ban. The activists opposing them pointed out that most of those applauding FGM in The Gambia were men, who did not have the same lived experiences which the women had. Women who have undergone female circumcision know about their pain and suffering.

The Bill’s referral to a Parliamentary committee means it will be examined for at least three months before returning to the Parliament for debate and a vote. While MP Almameh Gibba, who brought the document as a Private Member’s Bill, said overturning the ban would uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values, the anti-FGM campaigners pointed out that female circumcision does not have any basis in the Holy Quran.

Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie, the special rapporteur on the rights of women in Africa and a member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, said she was concerned that if the FGM law was scrapped, laws around early and forced marriage could follow. “We have to hope that civil society is fully galvanised and vigorously advocating,” said Sallah-Njie, who is from The Gambia.

Criminalisation of FGM was a crucial step in the fight against female circumcision, and more than half of the 92 countries where FGM is practised have laws banning it. The introduction of the Bill has potentially made The Gambia the first nation to backtrack on legal protections against the harmful practice.

Expressing serious concern over the new Bill’s introduction, the U.N. has stated that the repeal of the 2015 Act, a vital legal instrument, would reverse the gains made regarding the wholesome protection of the rights of women and girls, and would contravene The Gambia’s obligations under international human rights law and continental policy documents. The U.N. observes February 6 every year as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.

Activists have pointed out that the study of all fundamental sources of Islam makes it clear that there is no authentic basis for FGM in the religion. There is not a single verse in the Holy Quran which may be used as a basis for FGM. On the contrary, there are many verses which condemn the practice. There is no authentic tradition from the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in support of FGM, while Qiyas is not applicable since there is no common feature between male circumcision, which has a basis in Islam, and FGM.

The FGM can only be regarded as a cultural practice rather than a religious one. It has no religious basis and it is a purely cultural practice which conflicts with Islamic teachings. It is a fundamental teaching of Islam that where there is conflict between religion and a cultural practice, Islam takes precedence. FGM is in conflict with Islamic teachings and should therefore be stopped, according to the activists and religious scholars.

UNICEF Representative in The Gambia, Nafisa Binte Shafique, and UNFPA Representative in The Gambia, Ndeye Rose Sarr, have called upon the government to uphold its obligations under international human rights law and maintain the ban on FGM. “We also urge the government to strengthen its efforts to prevent and address the practice through robust enforcement mechanisms, and targeted interventions with communities, including men and boys, as well as strengthening health services, and expanding opportunities for women and girls, to address the root causes,” the two U.N. functionaries said in a joint statement.

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