In many parts of the world, social progress is measured by the millimeter. Sometimes, though, you don’t know whether to cheer or cry your eyes out. Take Yemen, which recently became a new front in the “Global War on Terror” when a hapless Nigerian underwear-bomber shoe-horned that penniless country into the headlines. I’ll let others decide whether or not Yemen is a “terrorist state” and what effect sending in American drones to fire missiles on civilian targets might have on altering that lamentable status. Yet there is no doubt whatsoever that Yemeni society has been terrorizing its women for millennia – and that it is Yemeni women themselves who are doing the worst of the terrorizing.
Like many Muslim societies, Yemen practices female genital mutilation (FGM), which is also known around the world as “female circumcision.” (I have already written extensively about this practice elsewhere in this blog. For detailed medical information from the WHO, click here.) FGM involves the surgical removal – usually without anesthetics or even the most basic hygiene – of the labia and clitoris for non-medical reasons. According to UN agencies, between 120 and 140 million women and girls worldwide have been subjected to FGM and another three million will go under the knife by the end of 2010.
FGM rates in Yemen vary by region. Yemen’s Women’s National Committee recently surveyed 2,163 women and discovered that khitan, as it is called in Arabic, was particularly common in five coastal regions: over 96 percent of women in the provinces of Hodeidah, Hadhramaut, and al-Maharah had undergone FGM, whereas in Aden the figure was 82 percent. In al-Amanah “only” 46 percent of women had been circumcised. The national average is 24 percent. According to the study, “immediate complications include severe pain, shock, hemorrhaging, urine retention, ulcerating the genital region and injuring adjacent tissue. Bleeding and infection can cause death.” Khitan has no medical benefits whatsoever and in Yemen it is regarded primarily as a means of deadening a woman’s sexual desire. While men apparently prefer circumcised wives, the decision to cut is almost exclusively made by women.
The Yemeni capital, Sana'a
The Yemeni government banned health professionals from practicing FGM in 2001. Instead of halting the procedure, however, the prohibition has merely driven it underground. Today, vitually all girls are cut by midwives, barbers, or - most commonly - by self-trained female relatives at home within the first four weeks of life. Razor blades and scissors are the implements of choice.
According to the Yemen Times, Yemenis in coastal areas also practice a milder procedure called al-takmeed.
On the fourth day after a baby girl’s birth, her mother or an older female household member prepares a compress to use on the genitalia. The compress is a soft cotton material inside of which heated salt and/or sand is placed, along with oil and herbs. A mother heats the compress and places it on the infant’s genitalia, pressing repeatedly for about an hour. This continues for a period varying between 40 days and four months. The procedure’s physical effect may affect nerve endings and decrease the sexual excitement of the girl or woman on whom it’s performed.
Historical evidence shows that khitan was a widespread tribal practice on the Arabian Peninsula long before the birth of Mohammed and has no anchoring in Islam. In 2006 the respected Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, issued a fatwa against khitan, stating that “the traditional form of excision is a practice totally banned by Islam because of the compelling evidence of the extensive damage it causes to women’s bodies and minds.”
Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa
has issued a fatwa against FGM
But since khitan is performed by women in the home and not under a cleric's supervision in mosques, such fatwas have been largely worthless so far. Culture trumps religion and FGM continues. According to the Yemen Times, “the importance given to virginity and an intact hymen coupled with the fact that in some countries it is used as a form of resistance against the colonial will is the reason why FGM still remains a very widespread practice despite a growing tendency to do away with it as something outdated and harmful.”
Yemen’s minister of human rights, Dr. Huda Abdullatef Alban, has asked her government to prepare a new report on FGM as part of a National Action Plan. “If the study proves that the practice is still being carried out, we will push for a new law,” she told IRIN News. “We hope this new law can be in place within the next four years.” (Emphasis added.) So far nothing is known about the wording of this law and the prospects for enforcement.
Yemeni women typically wear burkas in public
But perhaps we should celebrate this incremental improvement all the same. After all, things change slowly in Yemen. It came in third-to-last in the most recent World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index (the USA came in at thirty-first place, between Lithuania and Namibia). Up to seventy percent of Yemeni women are illiterate (compared to around thirty percent of men). They have few citizenship rights and are typically not allowed on the street without permission from male relatives. They can be arrested by the police or by just about anyone in uniform for smoking or for being seen in public with a man other than their husband. Fifty-two percent marry under the age of eighteen, many as young as twelve. Only one in five women has a midwife in attendance when she gives birth.
Like the "war on terror," the struggle against khitan is deeply frustrating and extremely difficult to influence from the outside. As in most countries where it is practiced, Yemenis prefer not to talk about FGM, and frequently deny its very existence. Remarkably, the Women's National Committee report cited above showed that 71.4 percent of Yemeni women claimed to be in favor of FGM compared to just 48 percent of men, although the more education women and men had, the less likely they were to support the procedure. Direct intervention on the part of Americans and Europeans is likely to backfire since local populations regard it as meddling. According to Dr. Soheir Stolba, an Egyptian-born medical anthropologist who has studied khitan in Yemen, “It’s crucial for local groups where FGM is practiced to be involved and advocate its elimination. Outsiders’ interference can only make matters worse if they’re not working closely with local groups. However, outsiders may work collaboratively with local women’s organizations to facilitate access to funding or provide technical assistance, if needed."
She didn't have anything to say about drones.