Confronting FGM in Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan
by Irfan Al-Alawi and Stephen Schwartz
Female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) exists in the Islamic Republic of Iran even while the redoubt of clerical dictatorship is absent from a recent survey of FGM in 29 countries, published by UNICEF. The UN agency examined states in Africa and the Middle East. The UNICEF document did not specify them in full, but named eleven. Four – Djibouti, Egypt. Guinea, and Somalia – are Muslim, and feature "universal" incidence of FGM, or a rate above 90 percent of all women.
In Muslim lands outside Africa, FGM is considered a recent phenomenon. An émigré Iranian cleric, Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, has condemned the practice, arguing that it is unsupported by the Koran or any other Islamic sacred texts. He has declared, "For the past 1,400 years there was no reflection of this topic in books by Islamic scholars or clerics."
Kameel Ahmady, an Iranian social anthropologist, has shone a bright light on FGM in Iran, with a new, self-published study. Ahmady returned to Iran after he "worked in Africa for a number of humanitarian relief NGOs and was given the opportunity to observe UN projects to combat FGM in countries like Egypt, Somalia, Kenya and Sudan."
In the northwestern and southern provinces of Iran, Ahmady, as noted by the advocacy group Stop FGM Middle East, interviewed 3,000 women and 1,000 men over ten years. The research disclosed widespread incidence of FGM in West Azerbaijan on the Iranian border with Turkey and Iraq, and in Hormozgan on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Repeated inquiries revealed that while FGM is declining, it is still common in some areas. In western Azerbaijan, FGM dropped from 39 percent to a current level of 21 percent. FGM fell less steeply in Hormozgan, where 68 percent said in 2011 that they had undergone genital cutting, but the figure decreased to 60 percent in 2014.
The substantive nature of Ahmady's work has led Stop FGM Middle East to call for a new international focus on the problem in Iran. The same organization has supported the Iranian investigator Rayeyeh Mozafarian, author of an academic thesis on the social and cultural background of FGM in the Hormozgan community of Qeshm Island.
For that effort, Rayeyeh Mozafarian interviewed 400 victims of FGM. She published an important book on the atrocious custom, The Razor and Tradition (Tigh O Sonnat) in 2013 – FGM is, in Iran, frequently carried out using razor blades. She has lobbied the UN for action on Iran, but the international body has failed to take notice of the situation in the Islamic Republic.
Stop FGM Middle East reports further that local anti-FGM campaigns have emerged in Iran. In the western Iranian province of Kermanshah, which is a center of FGM, two activists, Elham Hosseini and Osman Mahmoudi, have introduced classes on FGM for women and parents. They are training 50 psychology students to educate women against accepting imposition of FGM, and offer psychotherapy to those who have suffered it. Therapy for FGM is provided for married couples as well as women. Husbands often demand acceptance of FGM from their wives and daughters.
In his work on FGM, Kameel Ahmady learned, "Being male and having a 'non-traditional' background in the sense that I lived abroad... my detailed questions about this extremely sensitive topic – the cutting of the most private part of a woman's body – created resistance and bewilderment. I found that my research was not taken that seriously by some locals, especially the men. Some people, including some of my own relatives, were of the opinion that this subject is not an honorable one for an educated man . . .and the project was deemed not a 'manly' job."
Meanwhile, according to Stop FGM Middle East, some Iranian authorities have denounced FGM but the clerical regime has failed to act against it. Finally, the campaigners against cruelty insist, the world must "put Iran on the map of FGM-affected countries."
For Iraqi Kurdistan, the situation has improved markedly since the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) prohibited FGM in 2011. The KRG conducts educational activities including certification of midwives, who are often asked to perform FGM, police training, village presentations, school programs, and television films.
In a remarkable example of persuasive power, anti-FGM activism produced a dramatic result in the KRG early last month. The Iraqi Kurdish Xelk Media Network disclosed that Mullah Ali Kalak, a Sunni preacher and "healer," had called on Kurdish Muslims to repudiate the anti-FGM regulation. Kalak directs a "Prophetic Medicine Clinic" near the KRG capital, Erbil, and posts popular YouTube sermons.
Kalak told Xelk Media that lack of FGM caused 95 percent of problems among young women who had sexual relations outside marriage. This is a common assertion in countries where FGM is found, to justify the crime: that it safeguards, allegedly, female chastity. Kalak said, "Most of the girls who visit us and face sexual problems had not been circumcised. They have decided to commit suicide." He added, "All the problems that our nation faces result from illegal emotional relations between girls and boys." Finally, he characterized the international anti-FGM movement as seeking to discredit Islam.
A young woman with the expressive name of Kurdistan Rasul, who is a member of Gender, an internationally supported NGO in Erbil, visited Mullah Kalak and challenged him. He repeated his claim that, "many problems are brought to me by women because of their sexual desires." Rasul replied that the psychological damage caused by FGM was worse, as was any disrepute to Islam. Finally, she said she would be obligated to use the KRG law against him. The cleric decided he would not continue to violate the law. He agreed to cease calling on people to defy the KRG by having their daughters cut, and to refrain from publishing a book defending the practice.
Iraqi Kurdistan is making headway against FGM for the same reason it has developed economically and politically – because of U.S. support for Kurdish autonomy, beginning with the protective no-fly zone extended over the territory by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, with the support of America's allies. Iran cannot be expected to act soon against FGM – especially as its rulers hew to the devious and obstinate course visible in its shadow-play "negotiations" over its nuclear ambitions, and the repressive habits it applies against internal dissent. The KRG is a state of law; Iran is an outlaw state.