Campaign Against FGM in Iraq and Middle East
by Irfan Al-Alawi
A campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Iraq, focusing on Iraqi Kurdistan, has benefited from activism by human rights and women's groups, but the main responsibility for ending this atrocity belongs with religious leaders. FGM is not a general requirement in the faith of Islam, although some clerics have adopted the pre-Islamic local custom and approve of it. The well-known radical preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has stated that its infliction is grounded in unreliable reports of hadith, the oral commentaries delivered by Muhammad. Nevertheless, Al-Qaradawi has opined that it is acceptable if a girl's parents so desire.
By contrast, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) health minister, Taher Hawrami, in appealing for condemnation of FGM, emphasized last year that "Clerics should take on the main role. People need to have better understanding of religion for them to abandon these phenomena."
The cruel and un-Islamic practice of FGM, involving the cutting of women's sexual organs, has been recognized internationally as a violation of the rights of girls as well as grown women and an extreme form of discrimination against women. Carried out typically by "traditional" practitioners, FGM includes any procedures that remove partially or totally the external female genitalia, or inflict other injury to women's sexual organs for non-medical reasons. FGM may be effected by midwives or other supposed FGM "specialists" using broken glass or metal can lids, as well as razors, knives, and scissors, in unhygienic conditions.
FGM is not limited to Muslim countries; it is widespread in non-Muslim areas of Black Africa and has been introduced into Europe by immigrants. WADI, a German-Iraqi non-governmental organization, has identified Iraq as an FGM "hot spot." While previously believed to be found mainly among Iraqi Kurds, a study released in June by WADI and Pana, a local Iraqi women's rights organization, indicated that nearly 40% of the women living in the contested Iraqi city and surrounding district of Kirkuk had undergone FGM. Kirkuk, an oil-producing center south of the KRG, claimed both by Kurds and by Arabs, is home to Arabs settled there by the former dictator Saddam Hussein.
A sample of 1,212 women 14 years of age and above disclosed, according to WADI and Pana, that in Kirkuk, 65.4% of Kurdish women were victims of FGM; 25.7% of Arab women, and 12.3% of Turkmen women. The researchers emphasized that these are minimum numbers, given that they were based only on self-reported cases in which the identities of interviewees were kept anonymous.
The WADI survey also included statistics on the three kinds of FGM imposed on Iraqi women. Type I, amputation of the clitoris, is the most common in urban areas and among Kurds, but types II (elimination of the clitoris and inner labia) and III (excision of the clitoris and both inner and outer labia) rise in frequency in rural areas, where the incidence of FGM increases as well in the Arab and Turkmen communities.
The study concluded that FGM is mostly forced on girls at ages five to ten. In addition, it found that FGM occurs among Shia as well as Sunni women, with 21.4% of Arab Shia women in the Kirkuk sample saying they underwent genital cutting, compared with 26.6% of Arab Sunni women. More Kurds justified FGM as a "traditional" function, while Arabs and Turkmen (misguidedly) claimed it as a religious obligation.
Researchers found that the active agent in forcing FGM on girls was overwhelmingly the mother, followed by a grandmother, a male relative, or a cleric. In addition, among Arabs included in the sample, it is common for the fathers of prospective husbands to demand assurance that a bride had been genitally mutilated before approving of a marriage. Consequences of FGM may include pain during urination and during sexual relations.
WADI has treated its study of Kirkuk as evidence that FGM, often believed to be limited to Kurdish communities, may occur frequently throughout Iraq. Further, the group charges that FGM is "present everywhere in the Middle East," and is cooperating with a Dutch humanitarian group, HIVOS, to raise awareness of the problem across the region.
Gola Ahmed Hama, the female coordinator of WADI's project for the area of Pishder, in the KRG governorate of Suleymaniyah, noted that two local villages have declared themselves "FGM-free" after educational interventions by opponents of the practise. Pishder had been called "a hell for women," where some 95% of girls and women had been mutilated, compared to an average rate of 50-60% among Iraqi Kurdish women.
Pishder, where nearly all marriages are arranged by families without the right of free choice by couples, saw, in the first three months of 2012, five so-called "honor" murders and eight attempted suicides by girls. According to Hama, "The suicides, the cases of self-immolation, are a form of protest… That usually happens when girls are supposed to marry a man they do not want to marry or even, as in recent times, when they are in love with somebody and they want to marry him but their families forbid the marriage."
Last year, the KRG legally prohibited FGM. In May 2012, Kirkuk governor Najmiddin Karim expressed his support for effort to eradicate FGM. A press announcement by WADI of its Kirkuk study elicited support from Dr. Ashwaq Najemeldeen al-Jaff, the female head of the pharmacy department at the University of Suleymaniyah, and a member of the human rights committee of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, representing the Kurdish Alliance. The Alliance brings together representatives of both of Iraqi Kurdistan's main political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan under the leadership of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party headed by Massoud Barzani.
Women's rights groups have demanded that the KRG's legal ban on FGM be extended throughout Iraq. WADI states that the national Iraqi authorities may introduce a ban on FGM into the legal code, pending parliamentary approval.