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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mauritania: Islamic Leaders Speak Against Female Genital Cutting

January 19, 2010

By Alex Thurston - Sahel blog

Thirty-four Mauritanian ulama have come together to ban female genital cutting:

The fatwa, signed in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, states that the procedure has been proven to be harmful either at the time or subsequently.

[...]Health campaigners estimate that more than 70 percent of Mauritanian girls undergo the partial or total removal of their external genitalia for non-medical reasons.

Magharebia adds some context. The fatwa was signed early last week, at a seminar organized by the Forum of Islamic Thought. Given the unprecedented level of participation (individual fatwas against circumcision have come out before, one source said, but never a fatwa with so much backing), and government support, the event’s organizers are expressing satisfaction and optimism:

“The meeting was important. Lots of arrangements had to be made, since the topic is sensitive and vital,” Dr. Sheikh Ould Zein Ould Imam, the forum’s secretary general and professor of jurisprudence at the University of Nouakchott, told Magharebia in the capital on Thursday.

“There’s no doubt that the fatwa will substantially curb [FGM], since it removes the religious mask such practices were hiding behind,” the professor said. “We do need, however, a media campaign to highlight the fatwa, explain it and expound upon its religious and social significance.”

Though popular reaction is hard for me to gauge, some women were happy to go on record in support of the fatwa.

Many of the women that Magharebia met in the capital on Thursday applauded the seminar’s outcome.

“I believe that convening an Islamic seminar in Nouakchott these days to discuss [FGM] is a gigantic step, because it has smashed the religious taboo shrouding that phenomenon,” said Alia, 24, a student. “Using religion to justify harm is nothing but systematic ideological terrorism.”

“That workshop, which we all followed, has substantially contributed to containing a danger that threatens women in a socially conservative country like this one,” she added.

Some women told Magharebia that the recent change was actually long overdue.

“Where were those imams for the past decades, when [FGM] killed dozens of girls each year?” asked Alia’s friend Miriam, a 30-year-old housewife who was circumcised at an early age. “Were the imams and circumcision victims on two different planets? Personally speaking, I find no answer to those questions.”

“All I am trying to say is that we needed that circumcision-prohibiting fatwa a long time ago,” she added. “I was victimised by that brutal custom when I was seven, and it left an indelible psychological scar.”

Searching around for information on the Forum of Islamic Thought, I found relatively little. However, this essay by Dr. Cheikh Ould Zein Ould Liman on “The Role of Ulama in Development in Mauritania” (French) from a May 2008 conference makes it clear that the anti-circumcision fatwa did not come out of nowhere. In the essay Liman argues that Islam has been and should be a positive force in development, and outlines proposals for how Islamic scholars can contribute to development in Mauritania. It appears this fatwa forms one part of that strategy.

Last summer, we saw one type of Islamic political engagement in democracy in thedebate over the Malian family code. This fatwa represents a very different type of engagement by Islamic actors in civil society, and I don’t want to draw a direct comparison, but at the broadest level we can say that Islamic thinkers throughout the Sahel are experimenting with new techniques for making their voices heard in society and politics.