June 21, 2010
Delan, 11, describes how at the age of six her mother held her down while an "old woman" performed what human rights groups refer to as female genital mutilation. (Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost)
PASHQROTAL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Along with her pink pajamas and playful eyes, Delan has an 11-year-old’s endearing smile.
She leans against an old stone wall and chats with friends as chickens and geese cluck around her feet. Rocky mountains form a towering backdrop. This is Iraqi Kurdistan, where the people are as tough as their environment.
Sitting on the empty floor of her family’s mud brick home in this remote village, Delan’s smile quickly fades. She speaks of the day, when she was 6 years old, that an “old woman” came to visit.
“I was in the room playing with my cousin and they called us to come,” Delan said. “They cut my cousin. I was very afraid. I was crying and crying. My mother is very fat; I knew if I could run she could not catch me, but she held me too strong. I could not get away. There was a lot of blood from that place. I cried and cried. I hated my mother.”
The tradition of female genital mutilation, or FGM, has survived for centuries in this deeply traditional region of northern Iraq. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM is the “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.” Unspoken by society and unquestioned by victims, any mention of the subject is considered taboo.
The women from Delan’s village say the custom is carried out in village homes with the use of a razor blade. The ritual is performed by female relatives or “older women” of the village. Often there is more than one girl, as with Delan and her cousin, and the same blade is used. Delan said no medicine —antiseptic or anesthetic — was given to her. She was sick for two days, but eventually the bleeding stopped.
A report released June 16 by international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), has underscored Kurdistan’s legacy of FGM and how caught the region is between its rapid development and an ancient tradition with links to religion and a male-dominated culture.
The HRW report, “They took me and told me nothing,” documents the extent of FGM and calls for action from the Kurdish government. The report found that FGM rates were as high as 73 percent among Kurdish women aged 14 and over.
“The tragedy is that FGM is perpetuated by mothers, aunts and other women who love and want the best for their children,” the report said. The study added that such women see the practice as necessary for their daughters to grow up as “marriageable” and “respectable” members of society.
One mother quoted in the report said: “It is sunnah ... Everyone is doing this. Of course this is a good thing for my daughter. When someone does something, we all have to do it.”
HRW researcher Nadya Khalife said the 31 women interviewed for the report felt it was a religious obligation. Many had no idea of the physical or emotional risks.
The alleged religious aspects of FGM are a controversial issue within the Islamic community. Some religious leaders believe it is a cultural custom that predates Islam.
At the release of the HRW report in Erbil, Mullah Omar Chngiyani, a religious leader and host of a religious television program, said that within Islam, circumcision for boys is obligatory while for girls it is optional.
“There is no Koran verse that says, ‘circumcise your daughters,’” said Chngiyani, adding that six of his seven daughters and two of his wives had not undergone FGM.
Much of the HRW report was based on a two-year study carried out by the Association for Development Cooperation in Iraq (WADI), released in March.
According to WADI, 42 percent of the mothers interviewed said they had made the choice to perform FGM on their daughters themselves. A further 22 percent were advised by their mother-in-law and 12 percent by their own mothers. Only 2 percent said they were advised by their husbands.
Thomas Van der Osten-Sacken, WADI’s head of mission in Iraq since 1991, said victims suffered physical trauma, a range of medical complications. There can also be devastating effects on the relationship between a child and her mother, he said.
“FGM affects almost every aspect of their lives,” he said.
As security in Iraqi Kurdistan continues to stabilize, development has brought a new way of thinking.
For the younger generation, increased social freedoms constantly clash with restrictive cultural tradition. Views and expectations of love and sexuality are rapidly changing. This collision is perhaps felt most strongly by victims of FGM.
According to the WADI report, the rate among the younger generation is significantly lower overall, yet still relatively high. Among those below 20, 57 percent had undergone FGM, while for those in their 30s the figures climbed to 74 percent. Nearly 96 percent of women over 80 had undergone FGM.
For a woman, the sexual effects can be devastating and confusing. In medical terms, the report says the removal of the clitoris “impairs normal female sexual response.” The practice essentially removes the women’s "sexual organ" but leaves her "reproductive organs" intact.
“The result is generally sad and unsatisfactory sex for both marriage partners,” Osten-Sacken said. “When we enter a village we will often spend the first two hours bombarded by questions from husbands.”
As WADI project coordinator Falah Muradkhan pointed out: “The more you talk about the impact, the more people understand what has been taken from them.”
In collaboration with other non-government agencies, WADI prepared a petition to ban FGM that was presented to the government in March 2007. More than half of the 14,000 signatories were men.
Despite the reports and petitions, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has refused to officially acknowledge the prevalence of FGM.
“This report is false,” said Mariwan Naqshbandi, spokesman for Kurdistan's Ministry of Religious Affairs regarding the HRW report. “How can you make a report like this without contacting the Mullahs?”
Naqshbandi said since FGM did not occur in Kurdistan, there was no need for a law or public education on the subject.
“The Mullahs already advise against it,” he said. “This is enough.”
Former Kurdish parliamentarian Pakhshan Zangana introduced a draft law banning FGM in 2007. Parliament refused to discuss the law stating the issue was “not widespread enough” to be addressed. Zangana said she believed the issue was too sensitive to mention.
“Our community has a long way to go to discuss issues related to the sexualities of women,” she said. “People asked us on the streets: does Parliament not have a more serious issue than circumcision to discuss?”
The information provided to the KRG by its medical advisors seems to be equally disturbing. Dr. Atia al-Salihy, a prominent medical advisor to the government, told HRW she did not believe FGM had negative physical effects.
“Circumcision is nothing,” she said in the report, adding that it had no influence on a women’s life nor her relationship with her husband.
The HRW report said it would take a legal ban as well as the cooperation of religious leaders, educators and doctors if change is to occur any time soon.
Until that happens, the tradition of FGM seems certain to impact the lives of young girls like Delan.
“If I have daughters I will do the same for them because it is good,” Delan said. “It makes me a good girl, a good wife and good for society.”