Iraqi Kurdistan Passes Law Against FGM
by Irfan Al-Alawi
The parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan registered an important victory against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on Wednesday, June 22, when it passed, by a large majority, legislation banning the practice. The brutal and un-Islamic custom of FGM has now been criminalized in the Iraqi Kurdish region, even as Western European countries have vacillated on its prohibition.
The success of Iraqi Kurdistan's anti-FGM law has been partly credited to sustained investigative and lobbying work by a German/Iraqi non-governmental organization, WADI. The group has conducted surveys, beginning in 2007, revealing the wide incidence of infliction of FGM among Iraqi Kurds. WADI has disclosed that more than 60 percent of women and girls in Iraqi Kurdistan have been subjected to genital mutilation.
FGM has been criticised widely as a medically indefensible form of abuse producing serious physical and psychological trauma. Anxiety, permanent discomfort, and infertility are common in females who have suffered the operation, which is typically carried out by untrained "specialists," usually older women, without hygienic protection.
Unfortunately, the prominent NGO, Human Rights Watch, has described FGM as an expression of Kurdish identity and a religious requirement, although it is not universal among Kurds and is not supported by a consensus of Islamic legal thought.
FGM is commonest today in sub-Saharan Africa, among non-Muslims as well as Muslims, in Egypt, and in some other Arab countries. Immigrants from these areas have introduced it into Western Europe. Iraqi Kurdistan is an island of FGM in western and central Asia, but it is absent in neighbouring societies. It is limited to Sunni Kurds and is absent from the large Shia Kurdish community among the Alevi Muslims, who adhere to a heterodox form of Sufism, in Turkey.
Genital cutting of women has meagre precedent in Islamic jurisprudence; even the Qatar-based hate preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has given support to it, argues that approval of so-called female circumcision is "indicated in some of the Prophet's hadiths –even though such hadiths are not confirmed to be authentic." The 17th century Ottoman traveller and chronicler Evliya Celebi stated that at that time it was mainly known among Bedouins. FGM is intended to decrease sexual pleasure, in contrast with circumcision properly defined, which is mandatory for boys in Islam as well as Judaism, and has no such effect.
Kurdish media have cautioned that because FGM is inflicted without government or other medical controls, its suppression by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities will be difficult.
Notwithstanding its modern and prosperous reputation, as well as the prevalence of Sunni Sufis among its political leaders, women in Kurdistan suffer from social pathologies in addition to FGM. In Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the human-rights lawyer Falah Muradkan-Shaker, who coordinates WADI's Iraq project, women may at least discuss these problems, about which public debate is rare in central and southern Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Muradkan-Shaker points to such other abuses as infant betrothal, in which marriages are contracted, or girls sold between tribal groups, at birth.
Muradkan-Shaker has also reminded the local public that Iraqi Kurdish women, even of high educational attainments and social status, cannot be issued passports unless a request is submitted in the presence of an adult male family member, who often may be younger than the woman applicant. Since 2000, some 10,000 Iraqi Kurdish women have committed suicide in protest against their subordinate status, and late last year international media charged that 10,000 Iraqi Kurdish women had been killed in so-called "honour" murders between 1991 and 2010. One of the worst such cases, a stoning with concrete blocks and large rocks, occurred among non-Muslims: Do'a Khalil, a 17-year old member of the Yazidi religion, an obscure pre-Islamic sect found in Iraq, was slain in this terrible manner for the supposed immorality of falling in love with a Muslim boy. The crime, which occurred in the village of Ba'shiqa, near Mosul, was recorded on a cell phone video camera, and was then seen by a wide audience in Iraq. This Yazidi atrocity was met with retaliation by Islamists who killed 23 Yazidi workers travelling together in Mosul.
Kurdish media reported that the original draft of the successful legislation against FGM included penalties for forced marriage and physical abuse of children by parents. The health minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Taher Hawrami, has emphasized the Iraqi Kurdish government's awareness campaign, through distribution of posters opposing abuse of girls and women. But Hawrami has also laid the main blame for continued harmful practices on religious leaders, whom he accuses of failing to act against them. Hawrami commented, "Clerics should take on the main role. People need to have better understanding of religion for them to abandon these phenomena."
Notwithstanding the persistence of all these factors, the action of the Kurdistan Regional Government, with pressure from WADI, in passing a law against FGM, is a step forward for both the political authorities and the international movement demanding its abolition, which deserves the support of Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The Kurdish law contrasts with measures in Western Europe, where much public comment on FGM has been recorded, but where policies are inconsistent. The British government led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has done away with its anti-FGM coordinator's office, while Ireland, where the problem is numerically less common, has introduced a bill barring FGM within its borders and making it illegal for immigrant parents to take their daughters back to their countries of origin for the procedure.