23 July 2015

FGM in the Middle East

Guest blog by Nigeen Dara. 

In spite of its harmful and sometimes fatal consequences, Female Genital Mutilation, commonly known as FGM, has been carried out for centuries. The world Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.

Procedures are mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15, and occasionally on adult women. In Africa, more than three million girls have been estimated to be at risk for FGM annually.

Many people believe the misconception that Female Genital Mutilation is an African practice. However, FGM is also practiced in the West, Southeast Asia and Middle East. In the Middle East the rates of FGM are highest in Northern Saudi Arabia, Southern Jordan and Iraq, including the Kurdish region. However, cases of FGM have also been discovered in Syria, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

A survey carried out in Kurdistan by the Ministry of Human Rights in 2009 suggests that in one district over 40 percent of women and girls aged 11-24 years had been subjected to female genital mutilation. An NGO survey covering a wider geographical area gives even higher figures. In Kurdistan, the practice usually involves the removal of the clitoris, and is carried out on young girls between the age of four and 12. Typically, the child is taken to the midwife's house and, while several women hold the girl down, the midwife cuts her clitoris with a sharp razor that is sometimes unclean or used to cut several girls in succession. Girls who hear the screams and try to run away are dragged back for their turn. Most women recall the intense pain for many years.

The Kurdish authorities have taken important steps on several aspects of women’s rights and are regarded as regionally forward-looking on issues concerning women. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has set up institutions to investigate and combat domestic violence, and is one of the few governments in the region to pass laws prohibiting reduced sentences for so-called honor killings. In February 2009 amendments to the election law in Kurdistan increased the legal quota for women in the legislature from 25 percent to 30 percent.

The first authoritative study into female genital mutilation in Iran has found the practice is being carried out in at least four major provinces while officials are silent on the matter. It is reported that FGM is most prevalent in the southern province of Hormozgan and its nearby islands (Qeshm and Hormuz) than in any other parts of the country. It is also being practiced to a lesser degree in Kurdistan, Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan provinces, which are situated in western Iran close to the Iraq border.

The study carried out in Iran arrays FGM to be mainly an issue concerning the Shafi'i?I sect of Sunni Muslim Iranians, a minority in the Shia-dominated country. Only a small fraction of the Shia population living in proximity of Sunni communities practice FGM. Not all Sunni Iranians practice FGM, such as those belonging to the Hanafi sect or those living in other provinces. In West Azerbaijan, FGM exists among Sunni Shafi'i Kurds of Sorani dialect but not among Sunni Shafi'i Kurds of Kurmanji dialect, the report shows. In Iran’s Kurdistan, where prevalence of FGM is patchy, it is mainly seen in rural areas, some villages and communities but not usually in urban areas. Even in provinces where FGM exists, many communities do not practice it.

Although there have not been substantial research into FGM in Syria, Turkey, Jordan or Kuwait there is some evidence to suggest that FGM exists in these countries. In Turkey and Syria it is reported that FGM is practiced by regions inhabited by Kurdish minorities, Shafi'i and minority Muslim groups. In Jordan and Kuwait the practice is found in Muslim communities who follow the Shafi'i and Maliki school of Islamic Jurisprudence.

Research by the WHO provides evidence for the prevalence of FGM in the United Arab Emirates. The practice is reportedly prevalent in rural and urban UAE. In a 2011 survey, 34% of Emirati female respondents stated that they were circumcised, and related that the practice is carried out due to customs and tradition. FGM is a controversial topic in UAE, and there is ongoing debate as to whether it is a practice prescribed by Islam or a tradition used to oppress women. A significant number of UAE nationals follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents without questioning the immorality of the practice (a similar situation in Kurdistan).

In a discussion, Ann-Marie Wilson, the founder of 28 Too Many, stated that a significant number of UAE nationals follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents without questioning the immorality of the practice. She went on to further explain that although FGM is not illegal in the UAE, it is prohibited in state hospitals and clinics. In addition, she explained in order to combat FGM in the UAE, the intervention of the Royal family is necessary as they are extremely influential, and that those who she had met in Dubai were eager to abide by the rulings issued by the Royal family.

In the Middle East a sense of social obligation, fuels the continuation of the FGM. Often those who practice it point out that it is rooted in local culture and has been passed from one generation to another. Indeed, research suggests that ethnicity and the practice of FGM are closely linked. It can serve as a marker of cultural identity which has the effect of creating a powerful impetus to continue the practice, especially if a society feels under pressure or threat. Other cultural factors stem from gender inequality within societies which view women as the gatekeepers of family honor. In these situations it may be believed that girls’ sexual desires must be controlled early on to preserve their virginity and prevent immorality. In other communities, the practice is seen as necessary to ensure marital fidelity and to prevent "deviant" sexual behavior.

In some places FGM is also performed for hygienic and aesthetic reasons. People may believe that female genitalia are dirty and an uncircumcised girl is considered unclean. This belief may reduce a girl’s chances of getting married if she is not circumcised. FGM is also considered to make girls attractive. In northern Sudan, for example, infibulation is thought to achieve smoothness which is considered beautiful.

In many societies a link is thought to exist between FGM and religious faith. The practice of FGM is not particular to any religious tradition it occurs in communities that are Muslim, Christian and Jewish, as well as among believers of traditional religions. Perhaps more importantly, however, the majority of Muslims, Christians and Jews do not practice FGM.

Instead of quietly tolerating this practice that blights the lives of so many girls and women, authorities across the Middle East needs to move swiftly not only to adopt a law to ban FGM, but to make sure that these laws are implemented and to begin an awareness campaign that targets men, women and families, clerics, health-care providers, and traditional midwives. The government should also ensure that health-care services, including mental-health services, are available for women who suffer pain and emotional distress as a result of FGM. It is a long and difficult journey, but those working to end FGM are heading in the right direction.


In Kurdistan through speaking to women about the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, they assured me that they would not cut their daughters. But now that I have left, I wonder whether they will one day bow to community pressure; when a cultural practice conflicts with the law, will the law win?

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.