Female Circumcision in Kurdistan
Erbil – Nazin was delighted when her mother bought her a doll on their way to a party at the neighbor’s house. Her short-lived joy ended when she walked into a dark room full of women. Within moments, an old lady, known as “Habiba” reached between Nazin’s legs and circumcised her with a sharp blade that had already been used.
This happened to Nazin in 1985, when the melting of snow on the slopes of Mount Keorush in the district of Rania, (131km north-east of Al Sulaymaniyah) marked not only the beginning of spring but also the start of the season of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision. The annual practice of FGM occurs around the same time in the villages and cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Nazin still suffers from the psychological effects of that day, and has recurring nightmares. Today, she is an activist protecting the rights of women and denouncing FGM.
“I got married five years ago, but I am in constant pain and I still feel that I am not fulfilling my husband’s desires in bed,” said Nazin, 30. “This is creating a rift in our relationship.
She continues with a sigh: “What I faced that day was a great crime against me as a human being… we must stop anyone who tries to do it again…If I am blessed with children in the future, I will not allow my daughters to undergo the horrific experience of circumcision like I did”.
Nazin’s story is similar to that of 16-year-old Suran. She was only 5 years when she experienced “collective” female circumcision. On that day, Suran accompanied her mother to their neighbor’s house. As they entered, she found herself in a courtyard where other young girls were waiting to enter a room. When Suran’s turn came, two women from the village “tied my hands and legs”, she recalled.
“Then I felt a great pain down there. When the lady who circumcised me washed the cut with salt and water and placed a cloth to stop the bleeding, my mother whispered in my ear: “Now you are a bride, and you are more beautiful than all the other girls”.
Despite feeling recurrent pain during each menstrual period, Mazkeen’s mother forces her not show any signs of discomfort especially when her father or brothers are around.
Although it is the men who encourage circumcision and know the extent of its wounds, they continue to support the ritual and want it to be conducted in secret. Unlike male circumcision, FGM is done without celebration. A cheap piece of candy is used to lure the young girls into the dark room…a small price to pay for such a hideous act.
What happened to Nazin, Suran and Mazkeen, also happened to 89 of 139 students at Kolstan’s Secondary School in the district of Rania. These findings are a result of a survey conducted by the German non-governmental organization, “WADI” between July/September 2007 and April/May 2008.
Lawyers and women rights’ activists are bringing forth these cases to the relevant authorities to try and prove that there is misinterpretation between religion and female circumcision. The activists face opposition from strict Muslim clerics and those who support the continuation of old traditions.
Researcher Abdul Karim Sheikh Bezini links circumcision to the “growing wave of religion that affected Kurdistan after the 1991 uprising. The religious movement was openly encouraging the practice of such activities without being held accountable by the former regime of Saddam Hussein”. The religious movement “grew stronger in remote villages and rural areas, and brought with it traditions such as FGM that was rarely practiced in the past” according to Sheikh Bezini.
The government is reluctant to deal with the growing phenomena of female circumcision because the two main parties within the government are made up of religious radicals and tribal members whose customs form the basis of the political structure of the country. “Without support from the religious and tribal parties, the government cannot eradicate any custom that has religious or tribal roots”, he adds.
He points out that the political system here “has a complex network between tribal and religious groups, and FGM is a custom that both systems adhere to”.
Although it is unlikely, “that the government is complacent with the customs of the conservative traditional classes” Sheikh Bezini confirms that “the government will not be able to directly confront these groups now”.
In order to justify FGM, the public is made to believe that it is a religious obligation to prove “purity”. However this investigation has found that female circumcision stems from a tribal practice that is used among Kurdish families to kill the sexual desire among young girls to discourage them from premarital sex, regardless of the fact that female circumcision can cause various health risks and lasting psychological effects.
The State has not defined its position on female circumcision, despite calls for change from parliamentarians and civil society organizations. Attempts to change this phenomenon have failed, so far. In 2007, the first draft law against family violence was due for discussion in parliament. The women’s rights group added four points relating to the prevention of FGM and asked parliament members to sign the bill. More than 60 of the 105 members of Parliament in Iraqi Kurdistan agreed to sign the bill. When the draft legislation came to Parliament, it was sent to the relevant committees to review.
Until now, former deputy Bakhshan Zankana does not know “the real reason why members of parliament betrayed the women’s rights group and withdrew their signatures from the bill”.
She continues that the law was not passed because of “circumstances within the parliament” but she refused to elaborate. After the law was redrafted, the government enacted a new bill and presented it to Parliament, coinciding with legislative elections. This meant parliament could not discuss the law.
Zankana does not know what happened to the bill since then. She remains pessimistic. “In the past, we had a ministry that focused on human rights and encouraged a number of specialized committees to be formed within the ministry to focus particularly on women’s rights. However, now we neither have a ministry that caters to women nor committees that protect women’s rights”.
Kasha Dara, the head of the Women’s Rights Committee in parliament, does not see a slight difference in the way things were done during the previous parliament. She says that members of parliament “avoid discussing the bill on family violence which has articles relating to female circumcision, because their argument is, that female circumcision does not happen in Kurdistan”.
A female member of parliament refuses to denounce female circumcision which would fall under the law condemning family violence. Former Deputy, Zankana is hopeful that the council will discuss the draft law, one of 15 other family laws to be debated during the upcoming session.
To implement the law without government support will not be sufficient enough to address the issue of FGM. Judge Amira Hassan, deputy prosecutor of the General Court of Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate, urges authorities to adopt an integrated law that contains clauses “explicitly criminalizing the practice of female circumcision, which will prevent midwives and doctors, and even the families of the victims, from practicing this custom”.
Research conducted by the German organization “WADI” found that 64% of girls attending the Kulstan Middle School “Ard al Wurood” were circumcised. However this figure is no comparison to the rates of female circumcision in schools inside the district of Rania. In Montenegro Middle School “Jabal al Aswad” 88% of the female students were circumcised and 92% in Droizi. In schools in Kiznik, Hareem, Kseen, Reshwushenbiri, and Hiwa the rates were almost 100%. Surveys were conducted in 700 villages in Iraqi Kurdistan, with an estimated total population of six million people. The survey showed that 72.7% of the selected females had been circumcised. The rate of female circumcision went down to 63% in the area of Irbil, the largest city in Kurdistan.
Government institutions and religious bodies believe these percentages are exaggerated to a large extent, on grounds the survey was conducted in areas where this phenomenon is common and were later used to generalize the situation in all of Kurdistan. Therefore these entities refuse to even call it a “phenomenon”. Rather, they prefer to describe it as “isolated cases”.
However, according to the studies, the highest rates of circumcision cases were found in the regions of Rania and Krimian, where tribal traditions remain strong.
Female circumcision is concentrated in the area of Kirmian and the trend extends in a straight line to Suran in Iran and reaches the province of Sulaymaniyah which passes through Rania. The trend increased in popularity and spread to Erbil. This historical line shows that the trend of circumcision was widespread in various regions of the province of Sulaymaniah, the focal point.
From Soran, the trend descends vertically to the city of Rania, reaches Erbil and even touches on the outskirts of Mousil. Furthermore, female circumcision became more popular in the rural areas of Erbil.
Overall, this phenomenon spread from cities to rural areas.
Researcher, Ronak Faraj, says the prevailing idea in villages they visited is that female circumcision is based on teachings of Islam. Even a man from the village told her that he would continue to “encourage circumcision in his village until he hears the Imam tell him explicitly that they have to refrain from it”.
Despite commonalities in nationalism and religion, there is an evident geographical and social divide in the practice of circumcision. In areas of the Bahdinan region that include the province of Dohuk and parts of the province of Erbil, female circumcision is almost entirely eradicated. Ronak Faraj, a female activist says “the phenomenon of FGM has spread from the areas of Soran to Kandeel near Akrah and ends at the border of the river that divides Soran from Bahdinan. The river acts as a natural partition between the families who believe the female circumcision is a religious duty and the others who know nothing about it”.
The divide is even more evident in the Surji tribe where several families from the same clan live on both sides of the river bank. Families on one side of the river encourage circumcision and those on the other side denounce it.
Mazkeen, a student at Kulstan’s Middle School in Rania, says she suffers pain during each menstrual cycle due t a mistake at the hands of the lady who cut through her genitals. She was forced to undergo FGM along with a group of 10 girls, all of similar age. It only took a couple of hours to circumcise the young females that day.
The author of this report interviewed various parties involved in the FGM process: from women who perform the act and women who were circumcised to clergymen and doctors. While the religious perception is that FGM is “just a small wound”, the “small wound” is seen by human rights organizations as a “sexual disability”.
Article 412 of the Iraqi penal code, calls for the punishment of anyone who executes “mutilation of human genital organs for the purpose of abuse and distortion”.
Mahrous has performed circumcisions for the past 40 years. She explains the difference between how it was performed in the past, and now. In the past, “the girl’s genitals were cut using a razor blade with a handle. Then the wound was cleaned with salt and water. A cloth with antiseptic was placed over the cut to stop the bleeding. Today, the area receives anesthesia using medical procedures. Mahrous, however, does not like to use this method, because she believes it can cause psychological problems for young girls.
Mahrous believes that the ideal age for circumcision is between five and ten years. However, she has performed circumcision on women who are over 50 and were getting ready to perform the Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj).
Meanwhile the debate continues between clergymen and doctors.
Muslim clerics say circumcision should “focuses on a small and secondary part of a women’s female genitals” says Sheikh Jaafar Koani, the spokesman for the Federation of Religious Scholars in Kurdistan. He says subsequent health complications occur because of wrong procedures. The discussion goes around the idea that the “small cut” is based on the Hadeeth of the Prophet as a gift of purity.
“Studies have proved that circumcision is useful and has no adverse health effects” said the spokesman for the Federation of Religious Scholars, the umbrella organization for the Religious Advisory Committee.
However, he added, “I do not support female circumcision”. The religious advisors want to stop all types of circumcision”, referring to the “fatwa” that says “circumcision is not a value of Islam”.
Female activists argue that such a “fatwa” is incomplete and needs to be clarified to develop a complete ban on the practice, instead of leaving the decision to families.
Ronak Faraj, who has specialized in FGM, gives an example on the role of religion in curbing the phenomenon. She says, the Tarkhan tribes, who live in the region of Kirmian, were known for practicing FGM. But for the past century, not one FGM was performed because of a “fatwa” released by Sheikh Mohammad, a Muslim cleric.
In other areas, the practice of FGM remains symbolic. A knife is passed from the top of the girl’s dress to the bottom with a request to be purified”, but the instrument does not touch the woman’s private parts. This became the popular act after Muslim clerics issued a fatwa that “circumcision is not a religious duty.”
Mrs. Faraj noted that until end 2005, the rate of circumcision in some villages doubled before it began to decline. Out of the 54 villages that she researched between end of 2005 and 2007, she found only 13 girls who underwent FGM. Faraj explains that this drop in number is due to a mass awareness campaign organized by civil society organizations around the country. However, many Muslim clerics still assert that circumcision “is a religious duty and an obligation… a women’s purity is not complete without it”.
Um Dalair, 54, speaks proudly about her four daughters who are circumcised and has told her sons not to get married to any woman who is not circumcised. Um Dalair insists that “circumcision is part of Islam, and we as Muslims should not ignore circumcision”.
Um Nazin, whose story was told at the beginning of this investigation, shares the same view. She believes that circumcision is “a religious obligation, a girl will not be pure otherwise, and God will not accept her prayer or fasting if she is not circumcised”.
She says that even the food that is prepared by an uncircumcised woman is “muharam” (not allowed).
Brekhan, a grandmother, stresses the religious obligation of circumcision. All her grand daughters were circumcised last spring. “We inherited the practice of circumcision from our parents and grandparents, and lived an ordinary life without any complications,” she recalls.
“The girls would grow up and marry… this was the normal custom in our day, so what has changed now?” she asks.
Dr. Schiller Faiq Ghareeb, director at the maternity hospital in Al-Sulaymaniyah, opposes FGM on medical grounds and warns of negative repercussions on the health and the psychological well being of women who undergo the procedure.
He explained that he had to deal with cases of excessive bleeding of young girls because they were exposed to genital mutilation at the “hands of unskilled women”.
In addition to physical injury, the cutting of the clitoris, as has happened many times, creates an imbalance in the functions of the reproductive system, since it is the most sensitive part and is responsible for arousing sexual desire in women.
Kilas Abdullah, a psychologist at the University of Al-Sulaymaniyah says that women who have been circumcised suffer from a continuous feeling of physical disability which forces them to hide the pain that experience during intercourse, while giving birth and during their menstrual cycle.
Fian, 24, has lived her teenage years feeling that she is more a man than a woman. She went through university feeling the same way and avoided discussions about male-female relationship. After graduation, she fell in love with a colleague, but was quick to end the relationship because she continues to suffer from severe sexual frigidity. Now, Fian focuses on her profession as teacher. “I no longer think about getting married because I believe I will fail as a wife as I suffer from sexual frigidity.”
Banar (not her real name) has been seeking psychological help at a rehabilitation center for the past two years after she endured a strained marriage. Her husband’s words still echo in her head as he accused the 45-year-old wife of sexual coldness and of being a woman without feelings. In the end, Banar’s husband started a relationship with one of her cousins and then stopped seeing her. He only sends her money to secure her expenses and those of her two children.
Medical records from several rehabilitation centers tell of experiences similar to those of Vian and Banar. Three different courts in Sulaymaniyah show 6,000 divorces a year. A large number of divorces are blamed on “lack of harmony in the marital bed”. But records do not specify FGM as the main reason because of fears they would be punished by the penal code.
Unfortunately the Ministry of Health (MoH) does not see the need to issue a report denouncing FGM. In an interview with Dr. Khalis Kadir Ahmad, said the ministry launched public awareness campaigns in cooperation with the ministry of Religious Affairs, to denounce FGM.
The campaign stresses that FGM is not a religious duty and has health risks. This cooperation has helped reduce the numbers of FGM cases.
However, without clear intervention from the state, the practice will never be eradicated, even though several prominent politicians and their wives, including the daughter of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, are on public record opposing FGM.
This investigation was completed under the supervision of the editor-in-chief of the “Voices of Iraq” Agency, Mr. Zuhair Algazai’ri, and head of the Arab Department at “Voices of Iraq” Mr. Mohammed al-Rubaie, in cooperation with the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).