A seven year-old girl is circumcised in Iraqi Kurdistan
No sane person has ever suggested that the project of fostering basic human rights in American-occupied Iraq would be easy. But who would have thought that female genital mutilation (FGM) would still be the order of the day in that country’s autonomous Kurdish region seven years after the "regime change"?
Map showing Iraq's Kurdish provinces
Human Rights Watch mentions female circumcision in Iraqi Kurdistan twice in its 2009 World Report:
Female genital mutilation is practiced mainly in Kurdish areas of Iraq; reportedly 60 percent of Kurdish women have undergone this procedure... Girls and women receive conflicting and inaccurate messages from public officials on its consequences. The Kurdistan parliament in 2008 passed a draft law outlawing FGM, but the ministerial decree necessary to implement it, expected in February 2009, was inexplicably cancelled.
In 2009 Human Rights Watch found that health providers in Iraqi Kurdistan were involved in both performing and promoting misinformation about the practice of female genital mutilation. The investigation found that FGM was practiced by midwives, but that its prevalence and harm were routinely minimized by physicians and government medical officials. For example, one physician explained to Human Rights Watch that she counselled patients that “circumcision is nothing; it does not influence life because a woman is sensitive in all her parts.” Government medical providers routinely told Human Rights Watch that FGM was uncommon - despite surveys finding nearly half of all girls to be circumcised - and promoted false information in media campaigns. One woman told Human Rights Watch that on television “a [government] doctor explained that FGM is normal… The doctor said, ‘If you do it or not it’s still the same.’”
A survey of 1,690 women and girls over age fourteen conducted by the German NGO Wadi and published on February 11 revealed an average FGM rate throughout Iraqi Kurdistan of seventy-four percent. It registered the highest incidence in the province of Garmyan at eighty-one percent of the female population. In Kurdistan, as in other areas, women perform FGM on their female offspring to ensure their “purity.” One folk tradition has it that food prepared by uncircumcised women is not halal (i.e., not permissible for consumption by Muslims). According to Wadi,
FGM in Northern Iraq is usually practiced by female family members or traditional midwives on girls aged between 4 to 12 years. Instruments like razors and knives are used to cut girls' clitorises according to the “sunnat- excision”. The wound is usually covered by ashes, but no drugs are given. Sometimes girls have to sit in a bowl of icy water.
While FGM is widespread in northern Iraq, it appears to be less common in Iranian Kurdistan and virtually non-existent (or just poorly researched?) in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Syria. Other surveys have shown that the practice is also common among the Arab and Turkmen tribes of northern Iraq.
Female circumcision predates Islam and it is completely unknown in many Muslim societies. It has no established roots in the Muslim religion. African Animists, Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians, and even some Yemeni Jewish tribes have also practiced it for millennia. The influential Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, issued a fatwa against it in 2006, calling FGM “a deplorable, inherited custom. […] The practice must be stopped in support of one of the highest values of Islam, namely to do no harm to another – in accordance with the commandment of the Prophet Mohammed ‘Accept no harm and do no harm to another.’ Moreover, this is seen as punishable aggression against humankind.”
And yet some Muslim clerics continue to promote genital cutting in order to prevent women and girls from engaging in “depraved acts.” An Iraqi clergyman interviewed on Al-Baghdadiya TV on March 26, 2009 justified the practice as follows:
The Prophet Muhammad said to a woman who performed female circumcision in Al-Madina: “Don’t cut it off.” In other words, when circumcising a woman, take off only part of her clitoris. […] It is well known that in warm countries, the woman’s physiology differs from that of women in cold and temperate climates. In warm regions, the clitoris is larger than in cold or temperate regions. Therefore, a woman is liable to be stimulated by any movement, or by any random contact, resulting from riding animals, or by performing hard work. So they cut off a little piece. But this should be performed by a doctor or by a woman experienced in this.
But whether or not the Kurdish parliament ever does institute an enforceable ban, the outlook is nevertheless hopeful. A full ninety-six percent of Kurdish women over seventy years of age have been mutilated. But the farther down the age ladder you look, the more the FGM rate declines. The rate among women aged thirty to thirty-nine (i.e. those who came of age in the era of Saddam Hussein) is seventy-four percent. In the under-twenty group, the rate is “only” fifty-seven percent. This is still an appalling figure, but it shows a definite trend away from cutting and towards basic common sense. Rates of rejection rise with a family’s education level – although university-trained Kurdish women still show an FGM rate of thirty percent.
As is so often the case in issues like this, knowledge and empowerment – not clumsy outside force – are the key. In a recent interview with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Wadi’s managing director, Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, called for a coordinated effort on the part of the Kurdish government, NGOs, the United Nations, and the local Muslim clergy to combat this cruel tradition. ”If we all start an organised campaign together, in five or six years we will end FGM in Kurdistan,” he said.
I have written about the issue of Kurdish "honor killings" here.