by Raoul Heinrichs
When ISIS overran large swathes of north- and central-Iraq earlier this year, it unleashed an unfathomable catalogue of horrors. Beheadings, crucifixions, large-scale executions, and ethnic cleansing all became routine features of life in the Islamic State. At the same time, ISIS launched a war against women, with a systematic campaign of rape, enslavement, and forced marriage.
It was against this backdrop that reports emerged in July of a decree ordering families of Mosul to circumcise their daughters. Claims about enforced female genital mutilation (FGM) began with a senior UN official, who suggested that as many as four million women and girls could be at risk. According to Kurdish news sources, the decree, which took the form of a fatwa, was issued by Islamic State’s self-appointed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and was offered as a “gift to the people of Mosul.”
As it happens, these reports turned out to be false. As claims of enforced circumcision went viral, suspicions quickly emerged about their veracity, based partly on the fact that female circumcision is not a religious prescription in Islam, but rather a localized custom in the places where it occurs. Nor is the practice common in the Sunni heartlands of Iraq, except in the Kurdish territories. A document widely disseminated on social media purporting to be a copy of Baghdadi’s fatwa, apparently the sole basis for the claims, was revealed as a counterfeit. The story quickly petered out in the face of other, more certifiable ISIS atrocities.
While this case does reinforce the old maxim about truth being the first casualty of war, it has nevertheless served to refocus a degree of attention on the issue of FGM, and on continuing efforts to eradicate the brutal practice.
According to a 2013 UNICEF report, as many as 150 million girls and women are affected by FGM worldwide. The practice, in which genitals are either partly or fully removed with the goal of destroying female sexuality, occurs primarily in Africa, especially Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, and virtually all other countries in a territorially contiguous belt between the continent’s east and west coasts, and from north to south between Tanzania and Sudan. The practice is also prevalent in parts of the Middle East, especially in Egypt, Yemen, and the Kurdish territories in Iraq. It is practiced widely in Southeast Asia, in particular in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in immigrant communities throughout the Western world.
Unsurprisingly, FGM practices vary widely across such an expansive geographic area. This makes an exact typology hard to pin down. In general, there are three broad categories. Type 1 is often referred to as the “Sunna circumcision,” and is further divided into types 1A and 1B. The former involves either an incision in, or the removal of, the clitoral hood; the latter, the excision of the clitoris itself. Type 2, probably the most common form of FGM, involves the partial or full removal of the clitoris, clitoral hood, and the inner labia. Type 3 FGM is also known as infibulation. This too has variants, but usually involves the complete removal of all external genitals, including the clitoris, and the subsequent fusion of either the inner or outer labia. A small hole, usually no more than 5mm, is left open for urination and menstruation and is painfully reopened either during or before sexual intercourse and/or childbirth.
Despite prevailing views in many of the communities in which it is practiced, FGM has no health benefits. To the contrary, it results in a wide range of immediate, medium-, and long-term complications, including infections and disease, which often lead to permanent disfigurement and death. Needless to say, the practice also causes extraordinary pain, trauma, and suffering in victims. In many cases, the procedure is carried out by untrained practitioners—village elders, nurses, midwives, healers, and barbers—often without anaesthetic, and in appallingly unhygienic settings. According to the Desert Flower Foundation, a grassroots anti-FGM activist group, the instruments used can include knives, scissors, razor blades, broken shards of glass, sharpened rocks, and even fingernails.
The reasons behind FGM also vary, though most essentially boil down to the need for women to gain social acceptance in communities, in which patriarchal values are deeply embedded and ruthlessly enforced. The principal motivation is of course to preserve chastity, and hence the opportunity for marriage in later life. In this context, FGM is intended to preclude sexual urges and impulses. In the case of infibulations, it acts as a physical barrier to sexual intercourse, as well as a tangible guarantee to prospective husbands of pre-marital virginity.
There are other reasons for FGM, too. The ritualization of FGM is often seen as an important female rite of passage, intended to sanctify the genitals of female children and confer a traditional sense of feminine identity. This is a bit like the circumcision of boys in the Jewish tradition. Taking place much later in life, however, FGM entails far greater health risks and an increased likelihood of traumatic experience. There is also an aesthetic dimension. In many parts of Africa, a flat, enclosed vagina is a feminine ideal, preferred for the supposed enhancement of male sexual stimulation during penetration.
Given how deeply entrenched FGM is in the traditional cultures in which it’s undertaken, efforts to combat the practice have been fitful at best. While awareness of the issue has increased enormously—in large part because of sustained, high-profile lobbying efforts by a number of well-funded NGOs—opponents of FGM are also divided. Some advocate wholesale abolition; others a more realistic agenda aimed at mitigating the worst aspects of the practice. Some advocate the overriding need for strong legislative frameworks; others the importance of grassroots-level activism. In this view, the only mechanism for change is to work alongside local leaders, to incrementally reshape the discourse of female circumcision in ways that highlight not what the practice is believed to bestow on girls, but what it takes away. A resolution in these sometimes biter debates between in top-down and bottom-up approaches would be a crucial step forward.
This is not to suggest that no progress has been made. In 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on states to take “all necessary measures, including enacting and enforcing legislation to prohibit female genital mutilations and to protect women and girls from this form of violence, and to end impunity.” The resolution, which would have been largely unthinkable just a decade ago, was adopted by consensus, reflecting the emergence of an increasingly peremptory norm on the need to deal with the scourge of FGM.
This was an enormously promising step forward. But of course a non-binding UN resolution is easy for states to adopt. It is not, however, an end in itself. A number of countries, including Egypt, have adopted laws aimed at outlawing FGM since, though many lack the political will to follow though, reluctant to disrupt traditional social structures or jeopardize relations with important tribal constituents. Some governments, particularly in Africa, simply lack the judicial reach to prosecute. In Southeast Asia and the Middle East, meanwhile, the increasing medicalization of FGM risks legitimizing the practice, even as it threatens to stem the most egregious bodily violations.
So what is the way forward? While realistic expectations need to be kept in mind, activists “must maintain the rage.” In the words of Emma Bonino, founder of the anti-FGM NGO No Peace Without Justice: “We must all continue to challenge parliaments, governments and international bodies, and hold them accountable. We must strive to ensure that our needs top their list of priorities. It would no doubt be more comfortable for them if we simply left them in peace, but we cannot afford to do so. Rather, we must never stop pressing them to honor their commitments, never letting them off the hook until female genital mutilation has been once and for all eliminated the world over.”
Title image source: www.quranicpath.com