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Female Genital Mutilation in Kurdistan: A Q&A with Dr. Nazar Shabila

Female Genital Mutilation: Understanding the Roots of a Hidden Problem

March 24, 2016 • By Nazar Shabila Female Genital Mutilation: Understanding the Roots of a Hidden Problem

“When the in-laws knew that I was not circumcised, they made my life a hell and forced my husband to either divorce me or subject me to circumcision,” Kajal uses an alias as she tells about her experience with female genital mutilation. 

Kajal was 27 years old, the mother of two girls, and living in a village in the suburbs of Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “They thought that being uncircumcised, I am not clean and eating food or drinking water from my hands is ill-gotten,” she said. “My husband could not resist the pressure from his family and told me that his family does not accept a woman who is not circumcised.”

Kajal had two choices: she could either leave her husband and return to live with her parents or undergo circumcision. She eventually agreed to go through this painful, stressful, and humiliating experience when she realized that she was pregnant. “I was forced to be circumcised while I was pregnant, mainly to save my marriage and for the sake and the future of my little daughters,” she said. 

Under similar social pressure and against her will, she was later compelled to subject her three young daughters to circumcision, too.

Kajal is one of the many girls and women in the Iraqi Kurdistan region who have experienced female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It’s associated with a series of health risks and consequences. It often causes pain, bleeding, and infection as immediate consequences of the procedure, while long term health risks include chronic pain, chronic infections, poor quality of sexual life, birth complications, and psychological consequences.

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly recognized female genital mutilation as a clear violation of the human rights of girls and women and adopted a resolution on the elimination of the practice. Legislation prohibiting and criminalizing female genital mutilation have been introduced in several countries where female genital mutilation is practiced and the Iraqi Parliament passed its legislation banning FGM in June 2011.

But the law is hard to enforce. Female genital mutilation is a deeply rooted tradition in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. An estimated 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced some form of the practice all over the world, according to a new UNICEF report. Where I live and work, the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, female genital mutilation is also widely practiced. Overall, an estimated 40 percent of women in the region are circumcised, but the prevalence varies by geographical area, ranging from 1.7 percent of women in one province to 70 percent in some rural areas.

Until recently, very few people in low-prevalence areas were aware of how common the practice of female circumcision is in Kurdistan. These regions share common cultural traditions, and most inhabitants practice the same religion—Islam—so why does such geographical variation exist? We could ask a similar question about why female genital mutilation is so common in Kurdistan, but not in other parts of Iraq.

There has been limited research on the impetus for female genital mutilation in the Kurdish community compared with the research done in the African communities. Through this unique and prestigious opportunity of The Enhancing Life Project, I am trying to uncover the roots of female genital mutilation practice in the Kurdish community and determine the actionable barriers that have allowed this harmful practice to survive in specific areas. My research will also explore the perspectives of different actors in Kurdish society who are trying to combat the practice, like the Stop FGM in Kurdistan campaign. What are their aspirations, and what impact do they hope preventing female genital mutilation will have on the broader culture?

In the early stages of my research, I have explored some of the reasons that are given for the continued practice of female circumcision. Some interviewees told me that female circumcision promotes cleanliness, and that uncircumcised women do not have clean hands. It is (falsely) believed in some regions that female genital mutilation reduces sexual desire in girls and women and thus preserves virginity and prevents promiscuity. The practice is also said to improve fertility.

Some justifications for female genital mutilation are unrelated to health. The practice is commonly linked to the dictates of religion, particularly Islam. The practice is not mentioned in the Quran, but it is praised in several hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) as noble but not required. However, many people—even religious leaders—mistakenly believe that the practice is religiously obligated.

In the first focus group, as a researcher from my team talked with a sample of women from different geographical areas and different tribes, the diversity of perspectives about this problem became apparent. While some focus group participants claimed that they do not practice it and didn’t even know that it was common in the region, others emphasized the importance of practicing it.

Like Kajal, women are often pressured into the procedure against their will. “I knew very well that circumcising a girl will result in many problems in the future. I was not circumcised and never had a problem with that, but I could not convince my in-laws of this fact,” Kajal told me. No one listened to Kajal’s voice, and she was forced to follow a tradition that she did not believe in.

Through my research, we are beginning to understand how cultural traditions, social norms, and perceived religious obligations have been linked to female genital mutilation. This should help in determining how we can engage with essential parts of the Kurdish community—including the religious leaders—to move toward ending the practice of female genital mutilation. As a result, we hope, women and girls like Kajal and her daughters will not experience the physical and social problems and psychological distress that result from such a harmful practice.

Read a Q&A with Nazar Shabila about his research here.

Photo courtesy of Petit1ze via Flickr.