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Monday, January 18, 2010

Mauritanian Islamic leaders ban genital mutilation

January 15, 2010

By Mohamed Yahya Ould Abdel Wedoud - Magharebia

Thirty-four renowned Mauritanian religious and national figures this week signed a fatwa banning female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that remains widespread in some parts of the country.

The fatwa, whose authors convened in Nouakchott on Monday and Tuesday (January 11th-12th), states that FGM "has been proven by experts to be detrimental, immediately or subsequently. Hence, such a practice, as is performed domestically, is hereby prohibited, on account of the harm it gives rise to".

The authors cited the work of Islamic legal expert Ibn al-Hajj as support for their assertion that "[s]uch practices were not present in the Maghreb countries over the past centuries".

FGM is "not an instinctive habit, according to the Malkis; therefore, it was abandoned in northern and western regions of the country," added the authors, who were meeting in a seminar organised by the Forum of Islamic Thought. Mauritanian Islamic leaders, the association of ulema and government officials all took part in the event.

"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."

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."

In his opening address at the seminar on Monday, the secretary general of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Mohamed Ould Ely Telmoudy, said it was necessary to arrive at a commonly-agreed on medical opinion that highlights the hazards of FGM, in collaboration with international organizations such as UNICEF.

"FGM is one of the harmful customs that victimise Mauritanian women, especially in Brakna, Gorgol, Assaba, and Hodh Ech Chargui, where FGM is practiced against 72% of the local women," he added.

"We used to hear – from time to time – about some individual fatwas prohibiting circumcision," sociologist Mukhtar Ould Waled told Magharebia. "This time, however, we have a collective fatwa presented by 34 eminent religious scholars."

"[FGM] is a social phenomenon whose religious cloak we need to unravel," added Waled. "Only then can it become penetrable and destructible. The present event is a clear signal that circumcision can be totally eradicated in the future."