Judy Mandelbaum

Judy Mandelbaum
Brooklyn, New York, United States
June 01
Freelance writer, editor, and first citizen of Judy's World.

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FEBRUARY 17, 2010 8:06AM

On our watch: Female circumcision in Iraq

Rate: 24 Flag

  FGM in Kurdistan
A seven year-old girl is circumcised in Iraqi Kurdistan
(Source: WP)

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"?

  Iraqi Kurdistan
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.

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You've said it all -- all I can do is rate Your extraordinary post.
The campaign in India to vaccinate against smallpox, they say, ran up against the goddess Kali. The pox was thought to be Kali's disease. Imaginative aid workers presented the vaccine and the scar it produced as a gift from the goddess and a mark of her favor. I'm not as sold on the idea of waiting for education, information and enlightenment to transform the world as you are.
I am nauseous with grief and horror. That girl's screaming face.

You do a service with this careful report.
I’m glad to hear the percentage of women undergoing FGM continues to decline. Hopefully, we will live to see the day when the practice has been completely eliminated.

The International community needs to come together as one and speak against this and other human rights abuses.
The entire idea is cruel, sadistic and inhumane. It's beyond me how women can do this to their own kind. Thank you for bringing this appalling practice to readers' attention. That picture tears at my heart. Rated
Keep shouting. Rated for speaking for those who can't speak for themselves.
This is indeed horrific. In the U.S. 91% of males were circumcised in 1970, 84% of males were circumcised in the 80's and today, the rate is at about 60% of\that all males born here are circumcised. Female circumcision is pretty much unheard of in the U.S., and yet the violation of males by the removing of a functioning part of the genitalia is routinely permitted. We have a little work to do in the world on this. Here and abroad. xox
If you look at the face of the older woman holding her down, it says it all. Horror perpetrated through the generations under the guise of something necessary. The under age 20 stats do show promise though -a 20% decline is significant.
Yeah, there is no excuse under the heaven for it. No religion could justify it. It is once again something done to cause pain, humiliate and make women somehow culturally less than a man. Any customs, religions and otherwise established practices and institutions which cause women to be in any way less than a man are suspect by their vary nature. Many organized western religions are guilty of the same kind of thing, it is how you are socialized into believing what is appropriate. We cry out in pain for our sisters there, but we also cry for our sister here who suffer similar humiliations in the name of religion and customs.
I like what The Good Daughter said.
Excellent post! The biggest hope to end this barbaric custom is with education of the younger generations. I have cared for victims of this mutilation, the scarring and deformity caused by this butchery makes me ill. In some tribal areas, the cutting goes beyond the removal of the clitoris and includes the inner and outer labia. Some girls are so mutilated they become incontinent and are shunned by their families, many die of urinary infection or toxic shock from the inability to menstruate through a scarred over vagina. Those lucky enough to have reconstructive surgery undergo a long, slow recouperative process.
Rated ~
This is the first of your posts that I stumbled, upon. . . I will be reading you more. Thank you for this, looking forward to more of your wonderful words.
Good god. Thank you so much for tracking these atrocities. xx a
Thank you for this article about this devastating practice that 00 by removing the clitoris (and more in some cases)--eradicates the ability for women to have healthy sexual function and often leaves to severe medical issues for the rest of their lives.

The severing of the clitoris is meant to oppress women's sexuality and it destroys their capacity to reach orgasm.
apologies for the typos--eating chocolate in bed with laptop and writing at the same time--wrong time to multi-task.
I am a mother and I have a daughter and I can't find other words...Thank you for keeping this issue in the forefront of the news, Ms. Mandelbaum. Powerful posting.
Just another example of how some cultures continue to enslave women . It is also about time that Christianity and Judaism give women equal opportunity and a few more leaders of the western world are called Ms or Mrs.

A kid from Brooklyn

Dr. Evan Levine
Thanks everyone for your kind comments about a difficult topic.

New Buddha,
You certainly have a point, although FGM takes mutilation to an entirely different level. Check out the link in my first paragraph to see what I mean. Regarding MGM, of course nearly all males in Iraq and any Muslim country are cut, an issue which is also rarely discussed.
You wrote, ".... 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.’ "

Is it an established fact that Muhammad did not advocate and carry out violent acts? A cursory web search relating to the subject suggests many would disagree with this assertion.
This is such an important issue and you've handled it very well here. Highly rated.