Guest post: The relationship between Islam and female genital mutilation

October 18, 2014 • 10:23 am

Dr. Oliver Scott Curry works on the evolution of morality at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. Just to check out Reza Aslan’s claim that female genital mutilation (FGM) was an African rather than an Islamic problem, Curry did a preliminary statistical analysis. As you’ll see below, his results (and he emphasizes again that they’re tentative and need deeper analysis) don’t support the “African Hypothesis”. Note that “rs” is the nonparametric Spearman rank correlation coefficient between two variables, a measure of their association. It ranges from -1 (perfect negative correlation) through 0 (no correlation) to 1 (perfect positive correlation). The statistically significant positive relationship between Islam and FGM is given in his title.


Question: What’s the relationship between Islam and Female Genital Mutilation? Answer: rs=.54

by Oliver Scott Curry

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the debate between Bill Maher and Reza Aslan about Islam and female genital mutilation (FGM). Maher has argued that FGM is an Islamic problem, pointing out that: “91 percent of Egyptian women have had their clitorises forcibly removed. 98 percent of Somalian women have.” Aslan countered that it is “empirically, factually, incorrect” to say that FGM is an Islamic problem, rather it is an African problem: “Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”

Who’s right? You can’t tell on the basis of these cherry-picked examples, as you have to look at all of the data. This is not my area… but the data is not difficult to find. We have WHO data on FGM, and Pew data on the prevalence of Islam (and from Wikipedia, Christianity), in 28 African countries (and Yemen as well).

These data [JAC: presented as a plot below] clearly show that there is a large significant positive correlation between the percentage of women subject to FGM, and the prevalence of Islam. Both variables are non-normal, so technically we should report a Spearman’s correlation: rs=0.54, p=.003. The correlation between FGM and Christianity is negative (rs=-0.48, p=.01).

So Aslan is wrong. There is a “factual, empirical” relationship between Islam and FGM. Maher’s examples illustrate this relationship, whereas Aslan’s examples are conspicuous outliers.

Aslan is also wrong to say that “Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue”. It would be more accurate to say that we just don’t know whether the relationship between Islam and FGM holds elsewhere because (as far as I can tell) there is no reliable data on FGM outside of Africa. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Of course, correlation does not prove causation. Why there is this relationship between Islam and FGM is a separate question. And certainly the outliers—Senegal, Yemen and especially Niger—suggest that there is no necessary connection between Islam and FGM. So what other factors may be at work? Poverty? Healthcare? Education? Here are some UN development data for the same 28 countries: Gross National Income / capita, life expectancy, years of schooling, and a composite Human Development Index (HDI). Of these, Islam remains the single best predictor. And surprisingly, there is no relationship between FGM and income, life expectancy or development. But there is a negative relationship between education and FGM (-.44) (And schooling is strongly negatively correlated with Islam [-.55]). So who knows, perhaps education is key.

Like I said, this is not my area. I don’t know how this problem might be solved. (Perhaps a reader of this blog with expert knowledge of FGM can help illuminate the issue, or point to additional data.) But I do know that it won’t be solved by misrepresenting the evidence. As Aslan himself says in the CNN interview: “You know, this is the problem, is that these kinds of conversations we’re having aren’t really being had in a legitimate way. We’re not talking about women in the Muslim world. We’re using two or three examples to justify a generalization. That’s actually the definition of bigotry.”



70 thoughts on “Guest post: The relationship between Islam and female genital mutilation

  1. It would be interesting to see where FGM is practised outside these predominately Muslim countries. However, I suspect that FGM outside these areas are carried on as part of their culture/religion and in secret since FGM is a criminal offence in many Western nations.

        1. Ah I misunderstood. Thought you wanted examples outside of the African continent.

          If you check (and refs), it still occurs in Singapore and southern Thailand where Muslims are in the minority. Based on the summary of ‘Religious opinions’ from that article and refs, if the population subscribes to those schools of law and cultural traditions, there will probably be a tendency for FGM in its various forms to occur, regardless of whether they are minority or not.

          1. Muslims are a minority in Thailand but the vast majority of Muslims in Thailand are in the southernmost provinces bordering majority Muslim Malasia. In order to accurately attribute FGM in Thailand, with a non-random and non-uniform distribution of Muslims, you would have to stratify cases of FGM by religious affiliation, not simply by the overall dominant religion of the country.

    1. In the US, many devout Muslim parents have been taking daughters to countries where FGM is common and legal. Under some pressure a few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a ruling that allowed pediatricians to use ‘clitoral nicking’, wherein the clitoris was barely nicked using a scalpel blade, thereby avoiding blood loss and infection. This apparently satisfied many Moslem parents, but not all. The uproar that ensued quickly amongst pediatricians resulted in the withdrawal of this ‘accommodationist’ nonsense. Aslan probably knows of this – all of these parents were Moslem, all lived permantly in the US. So FGM is not a Moslem issue? I know of which I speak: at the time I sat on the Board of Trustees of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, and we discussed this issue at length. Aslan is a pragmatic liar.

        1. There is a federal law that opposes it – it’s fairly recent (within last 10 years if memory serves). It was quickly introduced because of a woman seeking asylum to escape forced FGM as part of an arranged marriage. Again if memory serves, 17 states have specific anti-FGM laws. In other states prosecutions have been carried out under child abuse and battery laws. My info on this was mostly from Wikipedia.

      1. New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK (sorry, Diana, don’t know either way for Canada) have laws that make it illegal to take a child out of the country for FGM, even if it’s legal in that country. I assume the laws wouldn’t have been introduced if it wasn’t happening. I know there’s a specific law in Italy too where a doctor loses his licence and faces gaol (jail for American spellers) time for performing any type of FGM.

          1. Well done Sweden. The world needs to forbid FGM. I hope the UN will rule that FGM is harmful to quality of life and is a barbaric practice that should be eradicated.

            I think people should take the attitude, ” I don’t care what the old scriptures say. We can make rulings from first principles based on the desire to maximize well being and minimize suffering, like Sam Harris talks about”

            The great thing about English common law is that it is based on precedent and can evolve. People need to focus on what current laws like English common law say, and play according to them. The scripture laws are out of date and irrelevant.

            If Islam had any worth is would have ruled against FGM but it is stuck with an idea that the text is unchangeable.
            Even the Bible has verses against circumcision. Galations chpt 5 is vaguely against circumcision, Gal 5v6, “For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love”
            Ephesians 5v28, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. After all no one ever hated his body, but he feeds and cares for it”
            Galations 5v13-24 is a get out clause from O.T. laws & regulations because it introduces ambiguity about whether the christian is free from O.T. laws or not. It sort of says to be guided by the consideration of whether the action is helpful to others or whether it is harmful, whether it is loving your neighbour as yourself or not.

    2. i can’t believe that in the 21st century that this barbarism is even a subject of debate anywhere in the world. only people who believe in sky fairies and floating spirits could be motivated to cause this barbaric level or real suffering here on earth. the german court had it right two years ago with male circumcision and then the jews went nuts and the government caved in. i hate religon

      1. I can see oppression and all around bad behaviour going on without religion but religion really has a sticking power other beliefs do not.

  2. I don’t like correlation arguments when there could be unknown factors (and the correlation is significantly less than 1); experience has shown they are often wrong, especially when one starts with a bias and looks for a way to confirm it. I think a historical argument would be better, e.g., did the Koran and/or Mohammed recommend FGM, and did the practice precede or coincide with the rise of Islam? (Assuming there is historical information on this.)

    1. It is a complex issue, but from what I have understood it is a practice that predates Islam, but it has been incorporated into it and exported around the world as an Islamic practice. Sort of like the incorporation of the old pagan Yuletide celebration into Christianity. Only this one involves FGM.
      That said, although it appears that most FGM is an Islamic thing, Muslims are not the only people that practice it.

      1. Christians aren’t the only people who celebrate Xmas either, it’s still considered a Christian celebration.

    2. Unfortunately, religions sometimes embrace things as dogma even if they have only very tentative ties to their canon literature. Whether or not the Koran specifically recommends FGM is not relevant. However, the problem you bring up is important and if you want a more reliable measure of the correlation coefficient between FGM and religion, the majority religion of a country may be too coarse a measure. It would require a finer level of detail, such as attributing individual cases of FGM to religious affiliation of the perpetrators, and then running the correlation analysis.

      1. Religious societies that want to suppress sexuality will fall back on antiquated practices even if the dogma is completely outmoded, as is the case with male circumcision in the US and Australia.

        (Please note: I’m not one of those weiner-whiners who always turn up on FGM threads. I hate that.)

    1. I wonder how a man would find out before marriage in a conservative culture. Is there some sort of religious inspection and reporting process before marriage? Certification?

      1. Her relatives would just have to promise that it had been done, and if he found it hadn’t he could divorce her.

  3. Here’s the thing – the bottom line is we need to stop this barbarism and misogny. That is liberalism and human rights (and common sense).

    FGM is both culture AND religion (which is part of culture). Where religion is strong it cannot happily evade responsibility from morality it sanctions (even if the practise comes from local culture pre-dating the religion). Both religion and culture need strong, harsh, clear criticism.

    Aslan’s work directly tries to get Islam off the hook and blames other factors. So this is not liberal. It is anti-human rights.

    1. I agree. I will never understand why so many so-called liberals have such a hard time criticising the barbaric practices of other cultures and/or religious groups. I would’ve thought it would be a cut and dry case for anyone with a conscience.

      When it comes to religion, you aren’t even criticising immutable characteristics; just the dodgy decisions of the irrational, which can be reversed at any time. In my book, it’s always open season on religion — any religion.

      I’m happy to be called intolerant. I *am* intolerant — of FGM and other acts of barbarianism.

  4. Why do they cut off the clitoris? It is to lessen or even remove the female sex drive. It reduces women’s autonomy and helps them fit better into cultures which both view them as chattel … and regard sex as filthy or evil (particularly when women enjoy it.)It reduces the woman’s incentive to ‘cheat’ and indicates a culture where her virtue (sexual modesty) is highly valued.

    If the religion of Islam correlates with the reasons for FGM then why wouldn’t it make sense to follow the logical entailment?

    1. Sastra, thank you for reminding us of the real human impact of this sickening practice. The conflation of all this with racism, “Islamaphobia”, and proper use of statistics can distrsct us from the real reason this is an important issue.

    2. FGM is apparently often enforced by women, sometimes even by force. I suppose they want to ensure that the younger women will conform to what is expected of a potential bride according to social or religious values (the two are impossible to distinguish, I would say).
      One other misconception is that the sex drive comes from the clitoris, when it actually comes from the brain (with some regulation by the ovaries etc). The clitoris is more involved in the satisfaction of the sex drive. If its excision removes the desire to cheat, it also removes the desire for sex with the ‘legitmate’ husband (maybe owner is the better word). I wouldn’t want a wife who didn’t want to have sex with me.
      If I were a woman who had had her clitoris removed in order to have a husband, I wouldn’t feel any great obligation to be faithful to the bigotted controlling b***ard, except that the first form of physical violence as deterrent might be seen as threat of a second one as revenge.

      1. Women are often the biggest enforcers of rules that are against their own self interest. Like everyone else in society, they internalize those rules. Those women feel that a girl that has not undergone FGM is dirty. These women have no idea that FGM is not practiced in most places in the world.

        An example of women enforcing ideas that against their own interests can be seen every day in our own society – for example, we had a discussion on this site earlier about experiences women have with women shaming other women for not having children. I’ve personally witnessed women shaming women for not taking their husband’s name. Women are the best enforcers of these “rules” as I’ve rarely witnessed men expressing similar opinions.

        1. There’s probably another motivational factor here as well: people who have already been hazed themselves are damned if they’ll let the next generation off the hook.

            1. I wasn’t thinking specifically of mothers and daughters, about which you may well be right. (If I recall Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story correctly there was greater pressure from other female relatives than from her own mother.)

              And maybe there’s a kind of related motivation that is not exactly a form of cruelty. It may be the same kind of “sunk costs” reasoning that makes people continue to pay for something simply because they’ve already paid a high price for it – with the difference that future costs are bourne by the next generation rather than by later time stages of the same individual. (With fathers and sons, for instance, it doesn’t sound odd to me that the father forces his son to undergo the painful initiation not exactly because he wants his son to suffer as much as he did, but because he doesn’t want to think about his own suffering as having been pointless.)

              1. Interesting ideas.

                I think it may also have to do with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome feeling; where you learn to embrace what your captors value. One thing I also got from Hirsi Ali’s book was that the women were quite concerned to meet all their husband’s/father’s–even sometimes brother’s–demands, and they learned to compete with each other to see who could keep the best house, serve the best food, best toe the religious line, best keep their daughters marriageable, etc.

                Also, as in cases we keep reading about nowadays, violating any of the prescribed cultural/religious expectations can mean a death sentence!

              2. All of what you said about women competing to please men is true in our culture as well and I wonder if it is why there are fewer female atheists. Sometimes I even catch myself wanting to go along with what people want just to please them (but I always snap out of it before I go down that road).

    3. This is one of the best points I’ve ever seen made on the issue.

      Correlation coefficients and the like are ultimately unimportant. If there exists a set of beliefs that can justify and accommodate FGM then perhaps there are inherent problems with those beliefs that need to be addressed, regardless of causality.

    1. I kinda think it’s like saying that gulags were nothing to do with communism, they were down to Russian culture.

      That might be true but isn’t the latter explanation based on ‘race’ rather than ideology?

      1. I’m a little vague on my economic theory, but I don’t recall gulags being any more inherent in the institution of communism, than were the Japanese relocation camps to American free enterprise.

        But maybe my Marx and Engels was redacted, and the chapter about political repression, paranoid totalitarianism, and their influence on distribution of income was deleted?

    2. That is an excellent question, and a perfect illustration of the double-standard Harris was complaining about. Attributing FGM to African culture is not at all racist, but it could easily be cast as such by the same sloppy thinking employed by Harris’s critics. Aslan doesn’t mean that FGM is somehow inherent in African culture, no one takes him to be referring to all African people, and no one thinks he’s calling for a US invasion of Africa.

  5. I think some sociobiological thinking is called for here. A viable, and probably correct, hypothesis is that FGM is a paternity-assurance tactic on the part of human males. It will prevail in societies that allow such barbaric behaviour, regardless of region, religion etc.

  6. @ //Jerry Coyne: “Aslan is also wrong to say that “Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue”.//

    Yet, this seems to be the conclusion among several different reports, that the problem is one concentrated primarily in central Africa.

    As per the wikipedia article on FGM:

    “FGM is mostly found in what political scientist Gerry Mackie describes as an “intriguingly contiguous” zone in Africa – east to west from Somalia to Senegal, and north to south from Egypt to Tanzania.[72] Information about its prevalence has been collected since 1989 in a series of Demographic and Health Surveys and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).[73]

    A 2013 UNICEF report based on 70 of these surveys indicated that FGM is concentrated in 27 African countries, as well as in Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan.[73]”

    1. It is a problem of poor reporting. It is wide spread, but the statistics are poor:

      “Outside those areas, FGM has also been documented in India, the United Arab Emirates, among the Bedouin in Israel, and reported by anecdote in Colombia, Congo, Oman, Peru and Sri Lanka.[93] It appears to be practised in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia, although UNICEF reports that there are no nationally representative figures for those countries.[94] It is also practised by immigrant communities in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Scandinavia, the United States and Canada.[10]”

      [From the same source. It is also in the latest UNICEF report from 2013, IIRC.]

      At a guess, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Indonesia and Malaysia could have huge incidences of FGM – we simply don’t know.

  7. Reza Aslan has no integrity. FGM is a common practice in Indonesia because of Islamic religion & culture. It’s a shame that his book once was on the top seller list.

  8. I have just finished to read the last Sam Harris blog post “On the Mechanics of Defamation” [1]. Is there ANY reason to fight these savages? They can accuse anybody of things they do a few times per article. And they are not going to admit they are wrong because they have to thank this bull for giving them the current comfort in life.

    Shouldn’t the reason people concentrate on education instead of debating people paid well to be the village idiot?

    “An idiot drops a stone into a well. Ten wise men have trouble to take it out.”


  9. I note that many countries show percentages FGM > percentages Muslim. Yet even among these, we can see the same trend. So the relationship is more complicated than direct causation.

  10. And note also that major Muslim countries outside Africa, including such population giants as Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, are not shown. Unless these trends extend to them (and if they did, we would surely have heard about it), we are looking at an effect of history and geography, rather than religion.

  11. In countries with non-muslim majorities, what percentage of fgm is carried out by muslim minorities in those countries, and what percentage by the non-muslim majority?

  12. Reza Aslan and Chris Stedman have an (frankly ludicrous, but never mind) article up on Comment is Free at The Guardian entitled –
    ”Violent’ Muslims? ‘Amoral’ atheists? It’s time to stop shouting and start talking to each other’

    I made an innocuous comment about how talking has the limitation that you hear only what the speakers want to say, and suggested that (while talking is a good thing) assessment of available data and information is also a very good, maybe better, idea. Put a link to this article as an example. Got deleted pretty swiftly. Still, I guess no one fell off their chair in surprise at that?

    1. If you don’t speak, people don’t hear. —- that is why sometimes debate is necessary. For you, Reza might be a person you don’t even bother to spend one minute on him. But , ther are plenty other people who give him stage to play, and when audience can only hear his voices, what will happen next?

      Religion will be out, atheism will be the future. The ending is written, questions are “when” & “how”.

  13. So Reza Aslan’s claim is that FGM is not an Islamic problem and Dr Curry is claiming that this is proved wrong by a 0.53 correlation between Islam and FGM in African states.

    That is going well beyond the evidence.

    Saying “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” does not allow anyone to assume that the unavailable data will bear out the trend.

    Absence of evidence just means we don’t know yet.

    Also, given the methodology of this calculation you can hardly say that the difference between 0.44 and 0.53 is significant.

    So the data equally might bear out that this is a traditional custom in Africa and is correlated to education and that the practice of Islam is also correlated to education.

    So the data does not even prove that Maher is correct with respect to Africa.

    You could only tell this if there could be another study that could correct for education.

    Nothing is solved by the misrepresentation of statistics.

    1. There was no misrepresentation of statistics in the article. The article clearly explains what the statistics are and the limitations.


      “(and he emphasizes again that they’re tentative and need deeper analysis)”

      I think maybe you read through it too fast. Or perhaps there is a bias at play.

  14. Isn’t it more scientific to try and look at how long FGM has been around and the reasons why it persists and then try to determine whether it’s a cultural practice drafted on to Islam or something that sprang from Islam. It might also be useful to try and determine why it is carried out and by whom.

    It definitely pre dates Islam. Has been recorded in ancient Egypt. It is also not confined to Islam nor is it something done to all Muslim girls. In Nigeria I think 50% of Christian girls have been mutilated compared with 2% of Muslim girls. In other countries the numbers of girls mutilated is greater than the number of Muslims.

    It is largely carried out by women and reasons given have more to do with being attractive to husbands for various reasons. Ranging from more pure, less likely to stray thru to myths that the clitoris will continue to grow if not removed. In that respect it is more similar to foot binding in China rather than religious observance. Something that will get you a husband, the unmutilated being less attractive. It is not a specific requirement of Islam unlike say, male circumcision.

    If attractiveness to males is the primary reason, and so far it does seem to be, than before getting too smug it might be worth remembering that the West also has problems with women seeking out designer vaginas or breast implants that carry risks. Understanding that process might help throw some light on the actual origins of FGM.

    In short it is something that requires a lot more data to understand what it’s purpose actually is. Something neither of the commentators involved seem to have bothered with. It is wrong to just fall into the Islam cause mindset lest you miss girls at risk.

    It also needs people from all communities to condemn it as an act of barbarity that has no place in modern society. And education and raising the roles and rights of women across the board is probably better than anything else.

    1. Women going for designer vaginas do it of their own accord. FGM is usually carried out on young girls who have no say in the matter.

    2. Whether or not FGM originated with Islam may certainly be an interesting thing to know (though it is already known that it didn’t), but that question just doesn’t have a single damn thing to do with this issue. It is an irrelevant diversion.

      The whole “too smug” argument is beyond cliche, is irrational where it isn’t merely wrong, and is also 100% irrelevant to this issue.

  15. So the issue according to Aslan is that not all FGM occurs in Muslim countries. What other kinds of countries does it occur in? Christian countries. Between the two, just not a gold statuette situation for religion, is it?

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