Female genital mutilation affects hundreds of millions of girls and women across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Even in places where it is banned, it has proved difficult for advocates and politicians to effectively end the practice. In his research for The Enhancing Life Project, Nazar Shabila, a lecturer and public health researcher at Hawler Medical University in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, is working to figure out why female genital mutilation is so culturally important in places like Kurdistan. From there, he plans to identify the beliefs that allow the practice to survive, and also explore the ways that community actors and organizations are challenging these beliefs and combating the practice.
Read a blog post by Nazar Shabila about understanding the hidden roots of female genital mutilation here.
What was the seed or the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?
My research focus is mainly related to women’s health and violence against women. Very recently I have started to work on female genital mutilation. This was something new for me because until recently I did not realize that it was so prevalent in Iraq. We had a student who worked on determining the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Erbil, the city where I live, and she discovered that it was actually very common. It turns out that it's very widely practiced in Kurdistan but not in other parts of Iraq, and even within Kurdistan it's unevenly practiced: it's very prevalent in some areas and almost zero in others.
I want to try to understand why people consider female genital mutilation an important tradition and culture that they have to follow, and why people don’t understand its harmfulness. I am interested in how it varies geographically and by tribe, why it's so common in some areas and tribes but not in others. I'm also talking with groups and individuals who are working to prevent female genital mutilation, to understand how they see their work and how they're conveying their message.
How do the people you've spoken with justify the continued practice of female genital mutilation?
In some districts, they say it's a religious obligation. Others say it’s a matter of cleanliness or maturity for the woman. There's a belief, for example, that a woman can’t get married if she’s not circumcised. But this varies a lot.
One thing that I'm doing that is important and new is that I'm asking local religious leaders directly if they support female circumcision. If they say yes, I ask how their religion supports it; if not, I ask if they're talking to the people about it. So far I've been quite successful, getting leaders to talk on condition of anonymity. In general, they will say that they don’t support the practice, but also that they won’t tell people not to do it.
How are advocates against female genital mutilation working to end the practice?
Some civil society and human rights organizations and even a few parliamentary members have been very active on this issue for the past four or five years, since it was found how widespread the practice is. The good thing is that we already have a piece of legislation preventing domestic violence, and female genital mutilation is included under that law. So technically it's already illegal, but the law has not been enforced so far. And when we talk to people, especially women, most don't know that the law exists. These groups are approaching it by trying to raise awareness more generally among women about their rights and their role in society. Traditionally we've had a very male-dominated society and many advocates will say that the way to end these traditional harmful practices is to give more power and education to the women.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
For me, it’s about improving the lives of the people by improving health and well-being in general. Within this specific project, it's about preventing a harmful practice. Female circumcision is harmful in terms of physical health, but there are also social and psychological effects. It can cause many complications: pain, bleeding, infection, future problems with fertility, complications in labor. It also has psychological complications: there’s post-traumatic stress, and it will affect women's sexual life. And there are social factors because really, it's a humiliating practice, and it's tied to a social system in which women are unequal.
What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?
The main challenge is that I am a man and I’m working on sensitive issues related to women. So unfortunately I can't attend many focus groups with women. Luckily I have very good female researchers working with me and also, in some interviews with midwives and female doctors, they are more comfortable talking to me. But it's definitely something most women in the community won't speak to a male researcher about. In some ways it's easier to talk to the religious leaders than to talk to the women directly!
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I like the mountainous area in Kurdistan. I go with my family to spend time there. But the next big trip will hopefully be Paris. I've never been there, and I'd like to go in the near future.