Malaysia Still on the Wrong Path on Women’s Rights

A recent UN conference scrutinized the country’s record with respect to female genital mutilation.

Originally published by The Diplomat (February 26, 2018)

Malaysia’s record on preserving women’s rights has long been under scrutiny. And so it was once again last week at the 69th session of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) held in Geneva, Switzerland.

At the conference, there was no shortage of those who registered their opposition to the Malaysia’s continued practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). The issue has since subsequently been widely covered in some local media outlets as well, and with good reason.

That there was scrutiny on the issue is no surprise. FGM is far from a fringe issue in Malaysia. Though exact numbers are hard to come by in an overall sense, to use just one example, a 2012 survey in Malaysia found that more than 93 percent of Muslim women surveyed had had the procedure done to them.

There are indications that this is now becoming more acceptable and expected. Partly, this is a consequence of Malaysia’s National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs issuing a fatwa in 2009 that ruled FGM obligatory for Muslims. Though there was an exception included in terms of physical harm, it left out the psychological harm caused by having one’s clitoris cut off at its tip, between the ages of one and nine, as is the typical practice in Malaysia.

The UN considers it a human rights violation, which is putting it mildly. Any medical professional who is to be trusted says it has absolutely no health benefit. What is concerning, moreover, is that in 2012, Malaysia’s Ministry of Health, began drawing up guidelines that reclassified FGM as a medical procedure. Azrul Mohamad Khalib, a human rights activist who has campaigned for years against FGM, saidin 2012:

One of the things I find quite alarming with regards to this development is that the Ministry of Health is actually depending on a fatwa, a religious opinion… So, in contrary to quite a number of best practices as well as a WHO (World Health Organisation) advisory, the Ministry of Health is taking steps now to sort of make it standardised, or medicalised, in such a way that it might be applied to all public health-care facilities

But the abuse of hundreds of thousands of young girls in Malaysia is a “non-issue,” thinks the Malaysian Alliance of Civil Society Organizations in the Universal Periodic Review Process, or MACSA.

MACSA claims that debates on FGM are marginalizing more serious issues. So what issues might they be? “The increasing prevalence of homosexuality and bisexuality in our country, which has contributed significantly to the spread of HIV infections,” its statement says. Enough said.

But, being deadly serious, it is encouraging that the opprobrium towards Malaysia’s stance on FGM, as expressed at the recent UN-hosted meeting, has been covered by Malaysian media outlets. Opponents to FGM deserve to have their opinions heard and, perhaps, to reignite the debate that has petered out in recent years.

Furthermore, this is an election year and no political party or politician is going to touch the issue. This makes it all the more important that activists, NGOs and, perhaps, some daring politicians, raise their voices even louder.

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