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COLOMBO, Aug 19 1996 (IPS) - Few people outside Sri Lanka know that infant girls in the small Muslim community undergo what is known as female circumcision or, more truthfully, female genital mutilation (FGM).
Forty days after birth, tiny thighs are firmly held apart by mothers and grandmothers as the traditional ‘osthi mami’ removes the clitoris.
The child shrieks in agony, while the ‘osthi mami’ sprinkles ash on the wound to stop the bleeding. The baby is then bathed and rocked to sleep.
FGM culture is widespread in this tiny Indian Ocean island. But the practice is kept a jealously guarded secret by women, who think an infant who does not undergo the surgical operation will be considered unfit for any respectable man to marry.
At least two million girls around the world have their visible genitals removed annually, the United Nations estimated in 1994. It is practised chiefly in African countries with large Muslim populations; some African Christians also do it.
But there is no Koranic or Biblical backing for the practice which predates Islam and Christianity. And it is not practiced in the rest of the Middle East, nor in such Islamic countries as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Yet for Sithy Umma, a teacher with five daughters in the Sri Lankan capital, female circumcision is part of traditional culture. She acknowledges that it is not her religion, Islam, that demands it, but believes that it “promotes cleanliness”.
Dr Marina Riffai points out that orthodox women believe they will be wracked by sexual desire if the clitoris is not scraped off. They are not willing to admit that the crude operation leads to infection, abscesses, infertility and painful sex.
According to the doctor, the practice is widely prevalent in Sri Lanka, though the rise of Islamic fundamentalism on the island and the fact that female circumcision does not have religious sanction, has forced it to go underground.
A study by a non-governmental organisation, however, reveals that nearly 90 percent of Sri Lankan Muslims and Borahs, a sect of Muslims, support FGM. The study attributes low awareness of the practice among males, who are not present at the ritual.
It claims women who have been circumcised are treated with more respect within the community. Also it is a livelihood for the ‘osthi mamis’, which is a traditional occupation.
They are found in the suburbs of the capital city in Maskade, Dematagoda, Maradana and Hultsdorf. And are given a gift of 500 rupees (roughly 12 dollars) and a metre of white cloth in which the bloodied ash is collected.
Apart from female circumcision, the ‘osthi mami’ also shaves the head of the infant on the fortieth day and performs the ritual bathing of dead bodies before the burial.
FGM is not publicised, and both the ‘osthi mami’ in Maskade and Dematagoda refused to talk about their profession, except to say that the ritual was on the decline because there was a loss of respect for traditions among the younger generation.
Take Farhana, a 28-year-old student at Colombo University. She said she had been circumcised as a baby, “but I will not circumcise a daughter of mine.”
Zameena, a young mother of a five-year-old girl did not want her daughter circumcised either. She refused outright when her mother-in-law said she must continue with a practice that is part of traditional culture.
But the older woman went ahead anyway. “I was furious when I returned home to find my daughter, then 3 months old, howling in pain,” she recalls. “I am helpless when members of my family still believe that it is part of our religion.”
Sociologists trace the grisly practice to the arrival of Arab traders on the island some 200 years ago. The traders brought as their wives women from Malaysia, who practiced FGM in their country.
Sri Lanka has ratified the U.N. convention for the abolition of all forms of violence against women, but the curbing of FGM is not a high priority.
Jezima Ismail, a member of the women’s charter vested with powers to tackle all types of discrimination, when asked why, said there was a lack of research to back a campaign for the outlawing of the brutal practice.
The issue has been raised at various fora, but anti-FGM propaganda has not been sustained. There are also different kinds of female circumcision; for some it is just a symbolic act with a knife touching the clitoris, while for others it means the skin should be scraped off or the visible genitals removed.
The Muslim community is itself divided between those who think it is an essential part of their culture and others who say it has no religious sanction.
With little domestic pressure against the practice, FGM culture in Sri Lanka is individualistic. Says Rehana who rejects outside criticism of FGM, “it is a part of our faith”. Her 20- year-old sister-in-law, who was born a Christian, was circumcised when she married.
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