Iraq: Female Circumcision Ban Urged
New survey reveals that majority of women in Kurdistan have undergone genital mutilation. Mariam Nadr, 77, has a fine home in an upscale neighbourhood of Erbil and is a prominent member of the community. She has a bright smile, a calm demeanour and wears the white shawl of a respected Kurdish matron. Part of Nadr’s social standing stems from her past: for many years mothers came to her to perform genital mutilations on their daughters. For these women, the act was a cultural and religious rite.
The custom of female genital mutilation, FGM, upheld by Nadr and other women of her generation, has been condemned in recent years by activists, medical groups and religious leaders who consider the practice barbaric. They argue that FGM is physically and psychologically damaging to girls and women.
Change has come slowly, and Iraqi Kurdistan remains a battleground where education and awareness campaigns must overturn centuries of ingrained tradition.
"No one told me mutilation is bad; I did it for the sake of religion," Nadr told IWPR.
Results of an 18-month study released this week in Erbil give a stark picture of the prevalence of FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan. The German relief organisation Wadi, which organises campaigns to stop the practice in northern Iraq, found that a large majority of Kurdish women have undergone the procedure.
In Iraq, the practice mainly occurs in Kurdish areas. According to interviews with 1,690 women and girls over the age of 14, the average rate of FGM across Kurdistan is 74 per cent.
In Erbil province, the FGM rate is 63 per cent, while in Sulaimaniyah it is 78 per cent. The highest reported incidence is in the largely rural area of Garmyan, where 81 per cent of women and girls surveyed had undergone FGM.
Even so, the NGO points to age discrepancies that suggest the practice is falling out of favour with younger parents. Among women under the age of 20, the mutilation rate is 57 per cent, while in the 30 to 39 age group it is 74 per cent. For women in Nadr's age bracket, the rate rises to nearly 96 per cent.
"The study shows a clear correlation between the level of education and the attitudes towards FGM. Still, the FGM rate amongst university graduates is 30 per cent. But it becomes clear that with an increasing social status, women are more likely to question harmful traditions and alleged religious obligations," read a Wadi press statement on the report.
FGM is an ancient procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. It is commonly performed in family homes under unsanitary conditions by women with no formal medical training. By some accounts, the clitoris of a girl is sliced off and ash is applied to the incision to ease the pain.
Practitioners say FGM is a religious tradition, although research shows the custom preceded Kurdistan's conversion to Islam and Islamic leaders have disavowed any connection. Rural folklore holds that food prepared by women who have not had the procedure is not halal.
As recently as the 1970s, local mosques used loudspeakers during the months of March and April to urge parents to conduct the procedure on their daughters. Because 84 per cent of those surveyed recently said they practiced FGM because of religion, Wadi believes mullahs can help bring its cause to the public.
"The Holy Koran has not ordered females to be circumcised and there is no strong hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that says females should be mutilated in this way," said Dr Basher Khalil al-Hadad, head of the Kurdistan parliament’s religious affairs committee and the mullah at Jalil Khayat Mosque, the biggest mosque in Kurdistan.
Hadad added that the top Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo had outlawed FGM and issued a decree stating the practice has nothing to do with Islam.
"You must understand, Kurdistan has a conservative society. It is difficult for many mullahs to talk about FGM openly," Hadad said. "But since most of the people who practice FGM say it is because of religion, I think it is our duty to talk to people about it."
While local media, NGOs and women's groups have raised public awareness about FGM, the subject is still considered taboo. A bill introduced to the Kurdish parliament making FGM a crime has been postponed indefinitely and many politicians are reluctant to address it.
"I went to parliament with a group of women. First, they said they had more important issues to deal with, and then they said they didn't want to talk about it with us. We brought a film for them to watch and they were too shy to watch it," said Tara Alif, 27, a lawyer and women's rights activist who has pushed the proposed legislation.
"I can't call Kurdish society modern because we still have problems like FGM. This is a big obstacle to improving society," she added.
Thomas Von Der Osten-Sacken, managing director of Wadi, believes it will take a multilateral campaign by the government, NGOs, the United Nations and the religious establishment to combat the practice.
"If we all together start an organised campaign, in five or six years, we will end FGM in Kurdistan," Von Der Osten-Sacken said.
Wadi’s ambitious goal may not be that far out of sight. Nadr said it has been quite some time since one of her neighbours in Erbil came to her to request the procedure.
"People do not ask me now, because they have stopped performing the ritual on their daughters," she said.
Qassim Khidhir is an IWPR-trained journalist in Erbil. IWPR local editor Hemin H Lihony contributed to this story from Sulaimaniyah.
By Qassim Khidhir in Erbil (ICR No. 323, 11-Feb-10)