6 January 2015

FGM in Kurdistan: An Ancient Ritual

Guest blog by 28 Too Many volunteer Nigeen Akram. 

In recent months Kurdish women, namely the women on the front line of the fight against ISIS (also known as Islamic State), have drawn great media attention and have made many headlines. The media frenzy which is engrossed with sensationalism of an all-female battalion who are defying the notion that women of the east are victims of oppression, pays little attention to the politics which these valiant and fearless women are involved in. It is also critical to acknowledge that Kurdish women have been involved in armed struggle side by side with men for decades; a key point which the media does not highlight.

Besides battling ISIS, Kurdish women are also daringly determined to raze oppressive regimes. Throughout Kurdish history there have been many female warriors, heroes. Leyla Qasim (1952-1974) who was a Kurdish activist is a figure of heroism and bravery amongst the Kurdish people. Qasim anticipated early on that Saddam Hussein was against the Kurdish people’s aspirations of an independent Kurdistan. She was concerned about the barbarous and savage nature of the Ba'ath regime which led to her involvement in politics in 1970, when she joined the Kurdistan Students Union and Kurdistan Democratic Party. Qasim, despite her young age was adamant and unwavering on fighting tyranny and oppression, and in the long term, working towards a liberated Kurdistan. The Ba'athists viewed Qasim’s determination and courage as a big threat to their regime, which led to Qasim and four of her comrades being imprisoned. In prison Leyla was viciously abused and threatened. After a high profile trail, at the tender age of 22, Qasim was executed for what the Ba'athists labeled as a "political crime". Leyla Qasim was the first woman to be executed in the history of Iraq. Hussein's regime believed that by killing Qasim there would be an end to the Kurdish liberation movement, what they did not anticipate was that this would plant fury in patriotic Kurds and in turn give rise to more Leylas.

Despite this tradition of female involvement in all respects of Kurdish society, they are still confronted with male-dominated rules and violence and one such peril that these women encounter is female genital mutilation (FGM). The accustomed sentiment is that FGM is an African practice. However, the revelation that FGM is widespread in Kurdistan suggests that this practice is not only an African phenomenon. Hosken's report on 'Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females (1979)' states that traditionally all women in the Persian Gulf region were mutilated.

In a survey carried out in Kurdistan by the United Nations and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), it was found that 68% of people (including religious leaders) condemned FGM and believed that necessary measures should be taken to eliminate the practice. This leaves a disappointingly dangerous 32% who do not denounce such a life threatening and sinister procedure. Furthermore, the survey illustrated that 36% of men did not know FGM harmed women and 57% did not know FGM could cause difficulties during childbirth. The findings from this survey suggests the serious and urgent need for education on FGM amongst the Kurdish population which reflects the opinions of the public as an astounding 90% were in favour of increased education on FGM. The majority of Kurdish women are illiterate, they have not enjoyed the privilege to an education. National figures array a correlation between the practice of FGM and level of education; the higher the educational level, the lower the FGM rate. In addition, due to the taboo essence of the subject in Kurdish society, the youth are not generally given sex education by their parents which means they enter into marriage with a lack of knowledge on sexuality.

In 2011 the KRG passed a bill against domestic violence, whereby banning the practice of FGM. Unfortunately, FGM is still practiced in many of the villages, displaying the law to be more theoretical than actual. This summer I saw first-hand the effects that this calamitous and detrimental practice can have on women. I met a brave lady named Avan from Saidsadiq (located in the Shahrazur region) who was willing to share her story and the effects FGM has had on her life. Avan's name has been changed to protect her and her family.

Here is Avan's story which I have left in her words.

"My name is Avan and I am 38 years of age. I am a victim of FGM and I would like to share my story with you so that people are aware of the damaging effects of cutting the healthy exterior of the female sex organ.

I can articulate fully the day I was cut. It's ingrained into my conscious mind and every time I talk about it, it is like I am reliving the pain. Like I am living a nightmare.

I was 7 years old when a midwife came to my house; she was going around the village and cutting all the girls who hadn't undergone FGM. Can you not mention her name please? She is well known here.

The old lady led my two sisters and I into the back room, which was quite dark, my mother usually kept unwanted items there. My aunties followed into the room along with my mother. They blind folded all three of us, so that we didn't see the procedure.

She cut my elder sisters first; the anguish and distress in their scream still echoes in my mind today. I couldn't see what was happening to them but I could feel they were struggling. I started to panic fearing the same destiny was awaiting me. I started to pull at the blind fold, but a hand grasped mine and pulled me down. I shrieked and cried out in terror. I called for my mother. I didn't know the procedure was being done at her request. How could she betray me like that?

One of the women vigorously held my hands down with so much pressure I thought my bones would break; another forced my trousers off. I tried to kick them away, but I was too weak and they overpowered me.

Then the cut happened.

I screamed out in agony.

I cannot find a word to describe the pain, it was as if daggers were being pierced through my skin, all over my body. I was groaning in anguish. I writhed under their clutches, feeling blood leak down my legs, my eyes watering with the sheer pain and my breathing was coming out in sharp, shallow rasps.

"M-mum." I kept croaking repeatedly with trembling lips in my almost inaudible voice. 

But all mum said was; "You will forget about this pain when you are older".

But I never did. I don't think I ever will.

They didn't care that we were in pain or about the long term consequences. They did not consider that it would later make my life miserable.

I fell unconscious.

I can't remember what happened in between but I must have been out for a day. When I regained consciousness I was enclosed by the smell of crushed leaves which they used on the wounds to make us 'heal quicker'. They also applied ash from burnt coal to the wound in an attempt to numb the pain, but this did not help.

I was sore for a very long time. I was too scared to move, to urinate, to wash and afraid of all natural human activity.

After a very long time the tissue started to heal. But I was still traumatised by the experience. My parents who are illiterate did not understand this. I did not receive any medical help as a result. They accused me of seeking attention. They said I could never talk about what had happened and that I should forget it. But I couldn't, I never forgot.

The villagers believed if a girl was uncircumcised no man would want to marry her. A girl who hadn't under gone FGM could not serve food. She was deemed unclean, impure. She was seen as dirt.

I have given birth to four children and all of them with great difficulty. Each time I was in labor, I didn't expect to make it out alive. I thought I would die. After all my elder sister passed away through complications during childbirth. The doctor told us it was due to the reduced elasticity of the vagina caused by scar tissues.

Not only did FGM affect my health, it also affected my martial relationship. My husband always used to accuse me of not loving him because I lacked the desire for sexual activity. He used to tell me I was a person with no feelings; a shell. He was very unhappy in our marriage and so he got married to one of his cousins. I am still by law his wife, but I never see him. However, he still sends money for his children’s livelihood.

I have 3 daughters and I pledge to never allow such pain to be inflicted on them. I want a happy future for them. I don't want them to have the same destiny as their mother. It is a mother’s duty to protect her daughters and ensure their safety.

I think we can put an end to FGM collectively because our voice is only strong together. I hope men, women, influential religious leaders and anyone in a position of power speak out against this barbarous practice so that other girls don't go through the same pain. It destroys a woman's life. It is a breach of their rights."

Like Avan, there are many other women who have suffered the same troubled fate as a result of FGM. It has led them to unhappy lives, deterioration of their marriages and endless health issues. Because of the lack of education, various myths around a woman's purity have been allowed to perpetuate. FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty. Those who practice FGM believe that if a woman is not circumcised she is not complete; her body will not fill out and she will not develop a womanly figure. As an ex-midwife said "If a girl is left uncircumcised her breasts will not grow, she will not transform into a woman".

Many of those who practice FGM in Kurdistan believe that it is a religious obligation. This deep rooted belief that it is a religious necessity makes it difficult to end the practice even with a law being passed against it. So in the process of eliminating FGM the support of religious institutes is necessary as it has a strong influence in Kurdistan.

There is no Quranic verse which makes reference to FGM. Which leaves it open for different interpretations as to whether its permissible or forbidden. Religious leaders take varying stances with regard to FGM. Some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion while others work towards eliminating the practice. In the upcoming blogs I will analyse and discuss the religious stance on Female genital mutilation.

From meeting many victims of FGM, I can conclude that the parents who allow the cutting of their daughters do not do so out of maliciousness or cold nature, but as a gesture of protection and to allow their daughters to fit in to society. They see it as doing their daughters a favour. Furthermore because many of them have not had the benefits of education, they are unaware of the consequences. They see it as abiding by the traditions passed on by their ancestors. The underlying reason behind FGM is to control female sexuality which is a taboo in Kurdish culture. They believe that a woman who is not circumcised has no control over her sexuality.

Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing for centuries is a strong encouragement to carry out the practice but it can be overcome. I want to tell mothers in Kurdistan and across the globe where FGM Is practiced; if you truly care about your daughters and have their interests at heart, do not put them through a life threatening practice. Avoid these perilous and fatal norms.


You can learn more about 28 Too Many’s work to end FGM and how you can help at www.28toomany.org. You can donate to support our research and campaigns and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates on the global movement to end FGM.