According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 150 million women live with the consequences of genital mutilation. And every day, at least 8,000 more girls are mutilated. Now, a new book is being distributed declaring genital mutilation a crime.
In Aisha's household there are no razor blades. The 43-year-old could not bear it. So instead, her husband uses an electric razor. These days, Aisha (whose real name has been changed to protect her identity) lives in Europe. But she is still haunted by the memory of what was done to her when she was a 5-year-old living in Djibouti, a small desert state in north eastern Africa.
"I was told at the time that it was going to be a marvellous day," she says.
Instead, she was mutilated, her entire external genitalia were cut off, and her vagina was sewn up. As a result, Aisha has had many medical complications, and will never be able to experience a normal sex life. She says that she will never forgive her relatives, the people she trusted most, for lying to her.
The custom of female genital mutilation (FGM) is predominant among Muslims, but is also sometimes practiced by Coptic Christians, Jews and followers of natural religions. It is most widely practiced in Africa, in some 28 countries. The tradition has been in existence for thousands of years – the most brutal form, which Aisha experienced, is referred to as "pharaonic". These days, many advocates of FGM invoke Islam.
Male proponents of female genital mutilation often refer to the practice as female circumcision, and like to point out that many men are circumcised, too. But from a medical point of view, this comparison is invalid. While it is true that some women only have the clitoral hood removed, in the majority of cases FGM – which is carried out using anything from razor blades to glass shards and even the lids of tin cans – goes much further, depending on regional tradition. In most cases the entire outer and/or inner labia are cut away along with the clitoris. The women who carry out the mutilations are held in high regard and earn good money.
The pharaonic variant of FGM involves yet another aspect: closing the vagina completely – total control of female sexuality. Aisha remembers the most horrific day of her life as if it was yesterday. Her aunts came to help her mother, as she recalls.
"They sat on my arms and legs, while the old woman cut everything away," says Aisha. There was no anaesthetic. "Then they tied my legs together and I had to lie like that for four or six weeks." During this period, the wound, which is stitched up or closed with the aid of acacia thorns, is meant to heal. An inserted twig or straw ensures that a tiny opening remains.
The list of the consequences, which usually remain for life, is long: peeing can take half an hour, a period can last two weeks, and women are often prone to chronic infections of the bladder or fallopian tubes. This, in turn, frequently causes infertility. In the case of pregnancy, a normal birth is often not possible, but there is rarely a doctor around who could perform a caesarean. In all cases, infant mortality is clearly elevated, by around 55 percent.
With the pharaonic mutilation, there is yet another cruel aspect: on a woman’s wedding night, she is often cut open if the opening is too small for intercourse. This is sometimes done by the mutilation practitioners, but more frequently by the husbands, who use knives and scissors, often damaging the bowel or bladder in the process.
Aisha will only say that her wedding night was terrible, without going into details. She has since had a son and a daughter, both of whom were born in Germany by caesarean. She says that she is lucky that her husband is considerate. "But I only know that being with a man is supposed to be beautiful for a woman from books and from talking to my German girlfriends. For me, it has remained torturous."
It is fates like Aisha’s that the German human rights activist Rüdiger Nehberg cites in his fight against female genital mutilation. He is keen to illustrate that such a practice cannot be justified by Islam, even if there is a persistent belief that corresponding instructions can be found in the Koran. The origin for this is probably to be found in the Hadiths, pronouncements and traditional sayings ascribed to the prophet Mohammed.
Nehberg and other opponents of FGM, on the other hand, point out that the respective Hadiths are weak and unreliable, and that Mohammed's daughters were not circumcised or mutilated. Nehberg argues that the Koran praises the creation of both man and woman by Allah: "Sura 95, Verse 4 states, 'We have created man in the most perfect image' – and man must not presume to destroy this creation."
"I wanted to call together leading Islamic clerics for them to condemn female genital mutilation," Nehberg says. His idea became reality in November 2006. At the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the most respected educational institutions in the Islamic world, the most eminent Islamic scholars from around the world came together for a two-day conference. At the end of the conference, after occasionally heated discussions, female genital mutilation was condemned as irreconcilable with Islam by a ruling issued by the Islamic scholars, a fatwa.
But how to convey this to the many millions of people in some three dozen countries, who often live in the remotest areas? Nehberg developed the idea of the "Golden Book," a small, elaborately designed book with a firm fold-over cover, a magnetic clasp in green (the colour of Islam), with gold embossing and pages edged in gold. It contains the fatwa, speeches by the scholars, as well as the most common prejudices on the topic and their refutation – in Arabic, English, French and German. The core messages are also illustrated in pictures.
At the follow-up conference in Addis Ababa, 120 imams ordered 100,000 copies in the first half hour alone. In Mauritania, where some three million people live in an area three times the size of Germany, 1,200 books have been distributed already, to imams, Islamic schools and scholars.
Three thousand copies are currently being brought into circulation in Djibouti; 50,000 in Ethiopia. Distribution will soon follow in Mali, Sudan, Somaliland and Chad; getting the book out in some countries, like Etrirea and Somalia, will be difficult from a security point of view.
Some positive effects have already been reported. In a town at the edge of the Danakil desert, practitioners of female genital mutilation have up their work and instead undergone training to become midwives. In the town of Barahle, 60 mothers swore by Allah not to have their daughter mutilated.
To achieve sustained abolition of the practice it is also important to bring the imams, heads of clans and mayors on board, too. Because in the societies where the practice in widespread, uncut women are generally considered unclean and not fit to be married – which then makes them unable to support their parents in old age. This will only change when those in power really start laying down the law.