Iraqi Kurdistan Confronts FGM
by Irfan Al-Alawi
As reported to the Centre for Islamic Pluralism by the non-governmental organization Stop FGM in Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, on 25 November, officially admitted the wide prevalence in the territory of female genital mutilation (FGM). Recognition by the KRG of the frequency of this repellent custom among Kurds came during a conference program commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Kurdish infliction of FGM distinguishes the local culture from most Muslim societies. FGM is most common in Black Africa, Egypt, southern Saudi Arabia, and among African, Arab, and Kurdish immigrants in Europe. It is also known in such pre-modern, isolated societies as that of the Embera, an indigenous community in Colombia, according to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics.
FGM has no basis in the foundational texts of Islam but has been legitimised by clerics such as the notoriously retrograde Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Egyptian-born and based in Qatar. Al-Qaradawi has admitted that the supposed justification for FGM is based on unreliable reports of hadith, the oral commentaries of Muhammad. While Al-Qaradawi declared that FGM is not required in Islam, he supported it if a girl's parents wished it be done. FGM is typically carried out by midwives using unsterilized razors, and also may involve knives, scissors, broken glass, or pieces of tin. Girls who have suffered FGM may then have their vaginal openings sewn shut. Among Africans living in the Saudi kingdom, it is reported that genital "reopening" is necessary at childbirth and that further genital mutilations may be repeated.
In documenting the procedure and effects of FGM, Stop FGM, a program in Kurdistan, points out that girls are seldom aware what will happen to them when they are taken by their mothers to be cut . FGM is inflicted on Kurdish girls, aged from 4 to 12. After they are cut, ashes may be applied to the injury to prevent bleeding, or the girls may be forced to sit in cold water; girls may die as a consequence of the "operation." FGM may produce genital cysts, tumours, urinary tract infections, kidney stones, and other medical and psychological problems . Like so-called "honor" murders, FGM is allegedly intended to suppress sexual desire in women. In the words of Stop FGM, "It is a crime, not a culture." We would add, neither is it an action based in religion: FGM is not found among Kurdish adherents of Shia Islam.
On November 25, Kurdish regional officials, in the presence of foreign diplomats, acknowledged the challenges of FGM and so-called "honor" murders among Kurds, and announced a 16-day campaign to promote consciousness of women's rights. The Kurdish authorities have also commissioned studies by two British universities of so-called "honor" murders.
Stop FGM has praised the Kurdish government for assuming a public stance against these appalling examples of violence against women. On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women last year, WADI (the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation), a German NGO, published an alarming survey showing that among elderly Kurdish women, the rate of FGM stood at 100%, demonstrating that in the past the procedure was universal. The same document disclosed that in three governing districts of the KRG, women in Erbil had suffered FGM at an average rate of 63%, those in Suleimaniyah 78%, and female residents of Garmyan/New Kirkuk 81.2%.
Earlier this year, the Kurdistan High Religious Commission (KHRC) issued a fatwa, after the argument of Al-Qaradawi which stated that FGM is not obligatory in Islam, but may be performed on girls according to their parents' wishes. WADI strongly criticised the fatwa, predicting that it would encourage an increase in the abusive practice. WADI further noted that other human rights monitors praised the fatwa as "positive, but not definitive" because it denied the Islamic basis of FGM but did not prohibit it.
At the end of October 2010, the Kurdish Health Ministry announced a plan to outlaw FGM and to call on the KHRC Fatwa Committee to unequivocally forbid the practice.
Nevertheless, repudiation of FGM as an Islamic procedure means little without consequential measures to prevent its continued outrage against girls. In 2007, the Kurdistan Justice Ministry decreed that women performing FGM should be arrested, tried, and punished by local police, but the regulation has not been noticeably enforced. Again in 2008 and 2009, Kurdistan authorities introduced anti-FGM legislation and promised public education to abate the practice, but nothing visible has yet been done to end it.
FGM is banned in many countries, including in Africa, where local authorities fail to enforce the law. FGM and so-called "honour" murders are a significant blot on the reputation of Iraqi Kurds and on the Kurdish people in general. Action by the Kurdish Regional Government to do away with these atrocities is long overdue and must follow promises made to foreign representatives and activists for women's rights. In addition, Kurdish and other Muslim religious officials must condemn FGM -- not only as a custom without basis in Islam, but as a violation of Islamic principles and general human rights.