Women in Kurdistan - Female Circumcision
By Qassim Khidhir in Erbil, Kurdistan region of Iraq
survey reveals that majority of women in Kurdistan
have undergone genital mutilation.
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Mariam Nadr, 77, has a
fine home in an upscale neighbourhood of Erbil and
is a prominent member of the community. She has a
bright smile, a calm demeanour and wears the white
shawl of a respected Kurdish matron.
Part of Nadr’s social standing stems from her past:
for many years mothers came to her to perform
genital mutilations on their daughters. For these
women, the act was a cultural and religious rite.
The custom of female
genital mutilation, FGM, upheld by Nadr and other
women of her generation, has been condemned in
recent years by activists, medical groups and
religious leaders who consider the practice
barbaric. They argue that FGM is physically and
psychologically damaging to girls and women.
Change has come slowly, and Iraqi Kurdistan remains
a battleground where education and awareness
campaigns must overturn centuries of ingrained
"No one told me mutilation is bad; I did it for the
sake of religion," Nadr told IWPR.
Results of an 18-month study released this week in
Erbil give a stark picture of the prevalence of FGM
in Iraqi Kurdistan. The German relief organisation
Wadi, which organises campaigns to stop the practice
in northern Iraq, found that a large majority of
Kurdish women have undergone the procedure.
In Iraq, the practice mainly occurs in Kurdish
areas. According to interviews with 1,690 women and
girls over the age of 14, the average rate of FGM
across Kurdistan is 74 per cent.
In Erbil province, the FGM rate is 63 per cent,
while in Sulaimaniyah it is 78 per cent. The highest
reported incidence is in the largely rural area of
Garmyan, where 81 per cent of women and girls
surveyed had undergone FGM.
Even so, the NGO points to age discrepancies that
suggest the practice is falling out of favour with
younger parents. Among women under the age of 20,
the mutilation rate is 57 per cent, while in the 30
to 39 age group it is 74 per cent. For women in
Nadr's age bracket, the rate rises to nearly 96 per
"The study shows a clear correlation between the
level of education and the attitudes towards FGM.
Still, the FGM rate amongst university graduates is
30 per cent. But it becomes clear that with an
increasing social status,www.ekurd.netwomen
are more likely to question harmful traditions and
alleged religious obligations," read a Wadi press
statement on the report.
FGM is an ancient procedure involving the partial or
total removal of the external female genitalia. It
is commonly performed in family homes under
unsanitary conditions by women with no formal
medical training. By some accounts, the clitoris of
a girl is sliced off and ash is applied to the
incision to ease the pain.
Practitioners say FGM is a religious tradition,
although research shows the custom preceded
Kurdistan's conversion to Islam and Islamic leaders
have disavowed any connection. Rural folklore holds
that food prepared by women who have not had the
procedure is not halal.
As recently as the 1970s, local mosques used
loudspeakers during the months of March and April to
urge parents to conduct the procedure on their
daughters. Because 84 per cent of those surveyed
recently said they practiced FGM because of
religion, Wadi believes mullahs can help bring its
cause to the public.
"The Holy Koran has not ordered females to be
circumcised and there is no strong hadith (saying of
the Prophet Muhammad) that says females should be
mutilated in this way," said Dr Basher Khalil al-Hadad,
head of the Kurdistan parliament’s religious affairs
committee and the mullah at Jalil Khayat Mosque, the
biggest mosque in Kurdistan.
Hadad added that the top Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar
University in Cairo had outlawed FGM and issued a
decree stating the practice has nothing to do with
"You must understand, Kurdistan has a conservative
society. It is difficult for many mullahs to talk
about FGM openly," Hadad said. "But since most of
the people who practice FGM say it is because of
religion, I think it is our duty to talk to people
While local media, NGOs and women's groups have
raised public awareness about FGM, the subject is
still considered taboo. A bill introduced to the
Kurdish parliament making FGM a crime has been
postponed indefinitely and many politicians are
reluctant to address it.
"I went to parliament with a group of women. First,
they said they had more important issues to deal
with, and then they said they didn't want to talk
about it with us. We brought a film for them to
watch and they were too shy to watch it," said Tara
Alif, 27, a lawyer and women's rights activist who
has pushed the proposed legislation.
"I can't call Kurdish society modern because we
still have problems like FGM. This is a big obstacle
to improving society," she added.
Thomas Von Der Osten-Sacken, managing director of
Wadi, believes it will take a multilateral campaign
by the government, NGOs, the United Nations and the
religious establishment to combat the practice.
"If we all together start an organised campaign, in
five or six years, we will end FGM in Kurdistan,"
Von Der Osten-Sacken said.
Wadi’s ambitious goal may not be that far out of
sight. Nadr said it has been quite some time since
one of her neighbours in Erbil came to her to
request the procedure.
"People do not ask me now, because they have stopped
performing the ritual on their daughters," she said.
Qassim Khidhir is an IWPR-trained journalist in
Erbil. IWPR local editor Hemin H Lihony contributed
to this story from Sulaimaniyah.
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