Despite growing international condemnation of female genital mutilation, the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) is urging the government to resist any international or domestic pressure to ban the practice it calls female circumcision.
"On the issue of female circumcision, we do not consider it compulsory, but we forbid any action to ban it," MUI Chairman Ma'ruf Amin told a January 21st press conference on the subject at MUI's Central Jakarta office, according to multiple media reports.
He said that in recent times more medical practitioners have refused to perform female circumcisions, and he urged the government to act decisively against such individuals, based on its 2010 Health Ministry regulation on the practice, which effectively legitimises female circumcision and authorise medical professionals to perform it, the Jawa Pos National Network reported.
"Because we support that regulation, we ask the government not to heed any effort by any party that wants circumcision banned in Indonesia," he said, according to Detik News.
"Circumcision is a part of Islamic teaching that is highly recommended for Muslims, whether male or female," he said, adding that the law on the matter calls for specific procedures which, he claimed, do not damage the clitoris.
"The procedure for female circumcision according to Islamic teaching is removal of only the membrane, or in medical terms preputium [the clitoral hood] that covers the clitoris," he said.
"It needs to be understood that Islamic teaching prohibits the female circumcision practice which is done by cutting or injuring the clitoris, as it is dangerous."
The government has issued mixed messages on female circumcision. In 2006, the Ministry of Health banned it as potentially harmful. But in 2010, it issued guidelines on how the procedure should be done, raising the ire of some women's rights activists.
Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hemas, the queen of Yogyakarta, believes the government must revoke the 2010 regulation effectively legitimising female circumcision and authorizing medical professionals to perform it.
"I am very certain that the 2010 regulation on female circumcision was issued because there was a big pressure from religious organisations to the Ministry of Health. Even recently, the MUI has demanded the government lift the ban on female circumcision," she told Khabar Southeast Asia.
"I think that all the parties, which are involved, should have a wider point of view on female circumcision, particularly from the health point of view," she said.
It is not known how many Indonesian girls undergo female circumcision, which is believed to reduce sexual desire and prevent promiscuity, and encompasses a wide range of practices in Indonesia, from cutting a small part of the clitoris to scratching it to pressing spices on the genitals.
Suratningtyas, a 46-year-old midwife at a private hospital in Depok, West Java, told Khabar that some parents do ask the hospital for female circumcision.
"I cannot reject their request because we are allowed to do it. But we make sure to do it properly so it will not harm the baby girl," she said.
Condemned by the OIC
At odds with developments in Indonesia, there is growing international consensus against the practice of female genital mutilation.
On December 20th, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its first-ever resolution on the female genital mutilation, urging states to "take all measures — including legislation — to protect women and girls from this form of violence".
Earlier the same month, speaking in Jakarta at the opening of a conference on women in development, Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu called on OIC member states to prohibit the practice.
"This practice is a ritual that has survived over centuries and must be stopped, as Islam does not support it," he said, according to reports in OnIslam.net and Tempo. "Female genital mutilation is a violation of human rights of girls and women."
A weak theological basis
The theological basis for female circumcision is a weak hadith, according to Maria Ulfah Anshor, secretary general of Alimat (the Movement for Indonesia Family Justice) and former chairwoman of the woman's wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's biggest Muslim organisation.
"The hadith said that circumcision is sunnah for men [highly recommended] and makrumah for women [voluntary but meritorious]. Hence it cannot be used as a theological basis to conduct female circumcision, because it is optional," she told Khabar.
The government does not need to regulate it, nor should it ban medical professionals from giving the service to a Muslim family that requests it, she said. But she said it is unfortunate that female circumcision is often conducted on infants, meaning that girls have no say in whether they want to undergo an optional practice.
"It is against human rights," she said.
A Javanese tradition
Javanese tradition includes a ceremonial form of circumcision conducted without removing or harming the female body in any way, G.K.R Hemas told Khabar in an exclusive interview.
"Female circumcision in Javanese tradition is very different with what happened in other places. It is done by holding on to a piece of fresh turmeric on female genitals," she said. Later the turmeric and other offerings are thrown to the rivers, she added.
The ceremony is conducted twice, at the age of five and when a girl begins to menstruate. These days, such ceremonies are rarely carried out in Javanese society, except for royal family members at the Yogyakarta sultanate.
"Once again, there is no woman's body part which is being removed or harmed from those two traditions," she added.