Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
Insights: Strategy and Politics
Women under Islam: Female genital mutilation
Globally, 130 million women and girls are said to have been 'circumcised'. As a cultural practice, FGM has probably been in existence for thousands of years.
Monday, July 09, 2007
By Adrian Morgan
Much has been written on the so-called "circumcising" of women, more appropriately called female genital mutilation or FGM. Globally, 130 million women and girls are said to have been "circumcised". As a cultural practice, FGM has probably been in existence for thousands of years. It has traditionally happened across Equatorial Africa, yet in the East and Horn of Africa it appears more widespread, probably as a result of Islamic influence.
In Yemen and Saudi Arabia the custom takes place, but in the Saudi kingdom it is only common in the south of the kingdom. In the United Arab Emirates FGM is not illegal, though public hospitals are forbidden from carrying out the procedure. It was primarily a custom of Somali, Omani, and Sudanese expatriates. However, there have been stories of European Muslims been sent to private clinics in UAE to have the operation. A study from the mid-1990s found that 30.8 percent of girls between the ages of 1 and 5 had undergone FGM.
In Egypt, at least 90% of women are believed to have undergone FGM. In 2005, a report by UNICEF had claimed that 97% of Egyptian women aged 15-49 had undergone the operation. Here, the issue has been a source of controversy. A CNN broadcast from 1994, in which a 10-year old girl in Egypt was shown being "operated upon" by an unskilled practitioner, caused hostile reaction. Egypt sued CNN for $500 million for damaging its reputation, but the case was thrown out by courts.
In 1995, after President Hosni Mubarak announced his intention to ban the practice, he was persuaded to drop prohibitive legislation. The move to ban FGM had been supported by the Dr Mohammed Syed Tantawi, the Mufti of Egypt, but had been fiercely opposed by the Sheikh of Al Azhar University, the largest Sunni theological college. Even a gynecologist from Cairo University, Dr Munir Fawzi, stated: "Female circumcision is entrenched in Islamic life and teaching." However, FGM was banned in general in Egypt in 1996, but was allowed in some circumstances if carried out by a doctor.
In November 2006 an international conference of scholars took place at Al Azhar in Cairo, and the general consensus was that the practice was "un-Islamic". In a final statement, the scholars announced: "The conference appeals to all Muslims to stop practicing this habit, according to Islam's teachings which prohibit inflicting harm on any human being." Finally, on June 28 2007, it was announced that the Egyptian health ministry had banned the medical profession from carrying out FGM, effectively outlawing it universally. On Sunday June 24 the Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa had said that there was no Islamic justification for FGM.
The edict by the Mufti and health ministry had come after an 11-year old girl, Budour Ahmed Shaker, had died after such an operation on June 21. Budour's mother had paid a doctor in Mina, just south of Cairo, $9 to perform the operation. The procedure had gone wrong and the girl died from an overdose of anesthetic.
There is one Hadith in the collection of Sunan Abu Dawud which claims that Mohammed approved of the practice for girls. Book 41 (Kitab Al-Adab or "General Behavior"), Hadith 5251 states:
Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:
A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.
Though Sunan Abu Dawud is not regarded as "sahih" or "authentic" in the manner of the Hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim, the above Hadith is often quoted by Islamic scholars as a justification for FGM. The "spiritual leader" of the Muslim Brotherhood is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He has stated: "It is reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to a midwife: 'Reduce the size of the clitoris but do not exceed the limit, for that is better for her health and is preferred by husbands'. The hadith indicates that circumcision is better for a woman's health and it enhances her conjugal relation with her husband. It's noteworthy that the Prophet's saying 'do not exceed the limit' means do not totally remove the clitoris... Anyhow, it is not obligatory, whoever finds it serving the interest of his daughters should do it, and I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world."
The World Health Organization has long campaigned for FGM to be abolished. Three "types" of FGM are described. The method approved of by Qaradawi is Type 1: "Excision (removal) of the clitoral hood with or without removal of all or part of the clitoris." Type 2 is "Excision of the clitoris, together with part or all of the labia minora (the inner vaginal lips). This is the most widely practised form." Type 3 (sometimes called infibulation) is extreme: "Excision of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora), and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. Also known as pharaonic circumcision." There is a Type 4, which refers to pricking, stretching or cauterizing. Type 4 rarely happens in Muslim communities.
In Somalia, the types of FGM most commonly employed are Type 1 and Type 3. The latter method is extremely dangerous. The woman is bound for a period of up to 40 days for scar tissue to form, increasing the risk of infection. It also increases the risks when a woman becomes pregnant. The US State Department quotes a 1999 study which found that in Somaliland (north west Somalia), 91% of women had undergone Type 3, and 9% had undergone Type 1 FGM. In many parts of the nation, people believed the custom to be a religious obligation.
In Yemen, a 1999 study found that in the coastal region, 69% of women had undergone some form of FGM. Overall, the figure for FGM was around 23% of women aged 15-49. In outlying areas, the prevalence of FGM rises to 40%. Surprisingly, FGM was more common amongst educated women than the illiterate, though most girls were subjected to FGM during infancy. Only 9% of those who had been operated upon had the procedure performed by a doctor. The US State Department maintains that in Yemen most FGM is of the Type 2 variety, with Type 3 happening mainly amongst East African immigrant communities. The State Department quotes studies which claim that the Shafi'i sect demands FGM, and the Sunnis regard it as optional. One third of respondents to a 1997 survey claimed the custom was compulsory on cultural or religious grounds.
FGM occurs in south Jordan and Iraq. In the rural area of Germian, in Kurdish Iraq, a study found that more than 60% of women had undergone FGM. There is circumstantial evidence that FGM occurs in Syria, and suspicions that it also happens in Iran. It does not occur in Afghanistan, nor is it a practice in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Libya). The Bohra Muslims who live in Pakistan and parts of Gujarat in India do practice FGM. The Bohra are mostly Hindu in origin, who became converts to an Islamaili subsect of Shia Islam. A Bohra woman wrote: "I was circumcised when very young. I do not remember at what age. But I do recall the incident. My mother took me to the house of a woman in our Bohra mohalla. Except for the lady, no one was at home. I was told to lie down on my back on the floor and spread my legs. It hurt me bad and brought tears to my eyes. The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes."
There have been moves by many countries to outlaw FGM and to educate people of its dangers. However, in the West, where immigrants and refugees have settled, some have imported with them the problem of FGM. Many Western countries have introduced legislation to combat the practice. In France, where most victims of FGm come from Africa, a fine of 150,000 Euros ($203,911) and a 10 year jail term can be imposed for FGM against an adult, with a 20 year jail term for FGM against a minor under 15.
In Australia, six out of eight states have outlawed FGM. In the United States, FGM was banned under Federal Law in 1996 and between 1994 and 2006 it was also outlawed under State Law in 17 states. Britain outlawed FGM in 1985. Sweden outlawed FGM in 1982, but it soon became obvious that some migrants were taking their girl children abroad to have the procedure. As a result, a new law was imposed in 1998 to ban trafficking of girls outside of Sweden to undergo FGM.
In June 2006, 41-year old Ali Elmi Hayow became the first person to be convicted under Sweden's FGM laws. Hayow had arrived in Sweden in the 1980s and had gained citizenship. In 2002, when his daughter was 12 years old, he took two of his children to Somalia, where the daughter underwent the surgery. He claimed that "other people" had done the operation and denied the charges against him. He had taken the two children to Somalia with, he claimed, their mother's permission. The court was told that he had held his daughter down while she was mutilated.
The District Court at Gothenburg found him guilty of illegally taking the two children abroad, and guilty of arranging for his daughter to be mutilated. Both judgements were passed unanimously. Hayow was further told to pay his daughter 300,000 kronor ($41,000) in compensation, though she had demanded 650,000 kronor ($88,818). The judge said that the daughter had been a "credible" witness.
The issue of FGM has become political in Sweden and Norway. Nyamko Sabuni became Sweden's first black minister in October 2006. She was the country's integration minister. Ms Sabuni had previously argued against girls under 15 wearing the Muslim headscarf, she opposed honor killings, and suggested that all girls should undergo compulsory checks to ensure they had not been subjected to FGM. Muslim commentator Kurdo Baksi said: "I am very disappointed that a person whom I consider to be an Islamophobe has been appointed integration minister. It is a very poor start to a centre-right government's integration policy."
Norway outlawed FGM in 1995. In 2000, Kadra, a brave woman of Somali origins used a hidden camera to expose the way in which imams in Norway were encouraging FGM. This action caused her to be resented by the some members of the Somali community. In April she was beaten senseless by seven or eight Somali men. She said: "I was terrified. While I lay on the pavement they kicked me and screamed that I had trampled on the Koran. Several shouted Allahu akbar (God is great) and also recited from the Koran." Kadra received broken ribs in the attack.
Last week Oslo's largest hospital announced that over the past three years they had assisted 260 women who had suffered physical after-effects of FGM. Sarah Kahsay, a midwife said that young women had been suffering from urinary dysfunction and infections after their vaginal openings were sewn shut in "infibulation" (Type 3 FGM). Mostly the victims came from several Muslim African countries and Northern Iraq, where Kurdish girls as young as 11 or 12 had undergone FGM. Kahsay noted that 90% of referrals were of Somali origin, but her clients had also included young women from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Gambia and Senegal.
One famous Somali-born woman is Ayaan Hirsi Ali who fled to Europe where she became an MP in the Dutch parliament. She had been held down by her legs to undergo Type 2 FGM when she was aged five. She wrote: "I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat." Though Hirsi Ali acknowledges that FGM is not exclusively Muslim, does not happen in all Muslim countries and pre-dates Islam, she writes in her book Infidel that FGM is often "justified in the name of Islam".
Indonesia does not have a culture of FGM, but many of its Islamist leaders have Yemeni and Middle Eastern origins, such as the leading figures in the Front Pembela Islam and the officially disbanded group Lashkar Jihad. This group was founded by Umar Jafar Thalib in 1999. Thalib, who fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan, led this group to commit some of the worst atrocities in the religious sectarian conflict known as the Moluccan War. Between 1998 and 2003 this conflict claimed the lives of 9,000 people in the Indonesian islands, most of the victims being Christian.
In 2001, Lashkar Jihad used FGM as a tool in its forced conversion of 3,928 Christians living on six islands in the Moluccas (the Spice Islands). The converts, male and female, were forcibly circumcised without anesthetic. Researchers from Ambon island stated that those who carried out the circumcisions were Muslim clerics. Young girls, pregnant women, and even elderly women up to the age of 70 were forced to endure the procedure. A Christian priest said: "But we have never before seen anything like forced circumcisions in these islands. This is especially terrible for the women. How can they do that? Even Muslim women are not circumcised like this... it is forbidden in Islam."
Violence In The Name Of Allah
Afghanistan may not be one of the countries where FGM is "justified in the name of Islam" but the treatment of young girls is harsh. I have discussed forced marriage and child marriage, as well as honor killings in Afghanistan. One aspect of Islamist ideology in the country is the opposition to the education of young girls. The Taliban, friends of Al Qaeda and supposedly the "fundamental" proponents of Islam have consistently tried to prevent women from being educated.
The word "Taliban" meant "students". They tried to revive the form of Islam practiced in the 7th century. Most Taliban leaders had been educated at Deobandi madrassas, such as the Haqqania seminary in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Deobandi teachings accord women second-class status. Deobandis believe that "Women must not mix with men in public.Â Deoband tradition teaches that men are more intelligent than women and that there is no point in educating girls beyond the age of eight."
The Taliban came to power on September 27, 1996, when they castrated and tortured President Mohammed Najibullah, and hung him from a lamp-post alongside his brother. During their rule, the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice enforced the Taliban decree that women should stay at home and not be in employment. They beat women with sticks, wire cables and hose pipes. Women were forced to wear the burka, which even covers the eyes with a grille of crochet work.
A US State Department report claimed: "In 1977, women comprised over 15% of Afghanistan's highest legislative body. It is estimated that by the early 1990s, 70% of schoolteachers, 50% of government workers and university students, and 40% of doctors in Kabul were women. Afghan women had been active in humanitarian relief organizations until the Taliban imposed severe restrictions on their ability to work."
Forced to live indoors, unable to make an income, with many widowed, the regime of poverty and privation led to women becoming malnourished. As one 35-year old widow said in the State Department report: "The life of Afghan women is so bad.Â We are locked at home and cannot see the sun."
Confined indoors away from sunlight and starved, many developed osteomalacia, a symptom of rickets, caused by a lack of sunlight and Vitamin D. The condition involves softening of the bone, making it liable to green-stick fractures. Dr Sima Samar was given the John Humphrey Freedom Award for her work for the human rights of women in Afghanistan. She ran schools and health clinics, and was subjected to death threats from the Taliban. She said at her medical clinic in Kabul in 2001: "Almost every woman I see has osteomalacia. Their bones are softening due to a lack of Vitamin D. They survive on a diet of tea and naan (bread) because they can't afford eggs and milk and, to complicate matters, their burqas and veils deprive them of sunshine. On top of that, depression is endemic here because the future is so dark."
When the US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 the cruel regime of the Islamofascists in the Taliban came to an end, but their influence has not gone away. They continue to fight coalition forces and the Afghan government, but they also continue to deprive women of education. Those who defy their edicts against educating girls are despatched in revolting fashion.
In November last year, 46-year old Mohammed Halim from Ghazni paid the price for educating girls. He was snatched at night by Taliban members. He was partially disembowelled and then his limbs were tied to motorbikes. As the bikes sped apart, his body was ripped. The remains were publicly displayed as a warning to any who dared to teach girls. Halim was the fourth teacher in succession to be killed in the region. Fatima Mustaq is a woman director of education in Ghazni, and she and her family of eight children were subjected to death threats for educating girls.
On July 23, 2006, Michael Frastacky, a Canadian carpenter from Vancouver, was shot dead in Afghanistan. His crime had been to help build a school in the Nahrin Valley, a remote part of the Hindu Kush, where half the students were girls.
On March 8 2006, on International Women's Day, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said: "From fear of terrorism, from threats of the enemies of Afghanistan, today as we speak, some 100,000 Afghan children who went to school last year, and the year before last, do not go to school."
A 2006 report by Human Rights Watch stated that last year, attacks upon teachers, students and schools increased dramatically, particularly in the southern regions. In January, there were 24 such attacks, in February there were 14, 8 attacks in March, 28 in April, 22 in May and 12 in June. From January to June 2006, the highest number of such attacks took place in Kandahar (36 incidents), followed by Helmand (27), and then Ghazni and Khost with 16 cases each.
A report from Oxfam from November last year paints a gloomy picture for the future of education, particularly for girls, in Afghanistan. More than half of Afghan children of school age - 7 million - do not attend schools. This is in denial of Article 43 (1) of the national Constitution, adopted on July 11, 2006, which states: "Education is the right of all citizens of Afghanistan, which shall be provided up to secondary level, free of charge by the state."
Only one in five girls are able to make their way to primary schools, but only one in 20 girls receive a secondary education. Human Rights Watch and Oxfam agree that the presence of accessible schools is a problem, and where there is access to education, it is often provided by poorly trained teachers working in run-down buildings, often with only one or two rooms. These schools can be in need of repair, and most have no clean drinking water or toilet facilities. Textbooks are few and far between.
Oxfam claimed that 53,000 trained primary school teachers are needed immediately, with a further 64,000 in the next five years. There is a need for more women teachers, as only one in three are female. eachers in Daikundi province in central Afghanistan only receive $38 per month. Sometimes these teachers have to offer bribes, just to receive their wages.
There are 20,000 "ghost" teachers who are paid salaries but do not attend schools. The international community, states Oxfam, must donate $563 million to rebuild 7,800 schools across the country. An additional $210 million is needed to print and distribute textbooks over the next five years. Currently, $125.6 million has been given to Afghan's education sector. The largest donors of these funds are USAID and the World Bank. Coalition military forces in Afghanistan also contribute towards education.
When the Taliban were in power, their behavior towards women was contemptuous. A woman doctor was stopped while traveling without a male escort (mahram) in a taxi. She said: "The Religious Police chased my taxi, and when I got out in front of the hospital, they stopped me and asked why I was traveling alone. I said I was a doctor and had to go to work, but they said women of Kabul are just prostitutes and addicted to traveling in cars alone. I had to call my boss to identify me as an employee of the hospital, but my boss said he could not confirm who it was because I was wearing a chadari. The Taliban asked me to put up my veil, and once my boss identified me, they hit me with their wire on my head and injured my eye. It took fifteen to twenty days to heal."
The Taliban may be seen as extremists, but there are plenty of "devout" Muslims who are still funding their activities. The Taliban experiment, which allowed Osama bin Laden a refuge where his cronies could plot atrocities such as 9/11 and work on chemical weapons and bombs in the Derunta training camp, was designed to be a return to original "Islamic values". Islamists and "devout" Muslims criticize the decadence of the West, but rarely if ever do these same people consider the social abomination that made up the Taliban regime.
All of the worst, most primitive aspects of Islam were exemplified by the Taliban - who were true "fundamentalists". They took to heart the notion that a woman's testimony was worth only half that of a man, and with their Deobandi ideology they even believed women were half as intelligent. They denied women education, health and human rights, and did nothing to prevent the Afghan culture of honor killings and violence against women. They believed in Sura 4:34 which gives a man the right to beat his wife to keep her under control.
Currently we have politicians in both the United States and Britain who are trying to "negotiate" with the Muslim Brotherhood. The true face of the Brotherhood can be found in the Gaza Strip, in the violence of Hamas against their opponents. Although the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood may dress in suits and ties, they are still ideologically primitive and rooted in the sexist tyranny of the 7th century. Their spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi supports Type 1 female genital mutilation, and preaches that it is acceptable to kill Israeli civilians. For Hamas, women are expected to go around veiled, and like women under the Taliban they are denied sunlight. Not surprisingly, cases of rickets amongst Palestinian children have increased with the rise of Hamas' Islamist factions. The WHO reported last year that more than 4% of all children on the Gaza Strip aged between 6 and 36 months were suffering from clinical rickets.
There are no women with positions of authority either in Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. Until there are, there is no point in discussing issues with these groups. Women in the West have equal rights to men, and that means having access to power. Islamists would deny women that power, and until they can acknowledge women as equals, they live in another ideological universe to our own.
Muslim women are probably more oppressed today by Islamist conventions than they were 20 years ago. Two decades ago women did not have to wear veils to prove their religiosity. Now, women who do not cover their hair, or even their faces, are bullied by their peers into compliance. For women to have genuine equal rights under Islam, the tenets and texts of that faith would have to be interpreted allegorically and not literally. Islamists do not understand allegory. They are slaves to dogma and expect everyone else, their womenfolk included, to eventually become their slaves.
This article was also published at FamilySecurityMatters.org