Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): The Hidden Shame of Kurdish Women

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Kurdistan remains a widely occupied and terrorized terrain. For decades various forms of colonial and imperial violence has been imposed on the Kurds, ranging from ethnic cleansing, genocides, chemical weapons, mass execution of fighting-aged males, bombardments, systemic environmental destruction including widespread destruction of thousands of villages, forced migration and violent assimilation policies and more. The issue of gender based violence remains prevalent and requires further research, especially those practiced externally and internally towards Kurdish women.

Kurdish women experience a range of gender based violence and abuses across the region as a result of prevalent patriarchal and socio-economic factors. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a form of gender based violence imposed on Kurdish women and remains a serious threat to their physical and psychological well-being. FGM is not a practice only endemic in Kurdish society but it is an ongoing and serious issue that requires extensive attention and exposure.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as any or “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The organization further identifies four distinct types of FGM practiced including the following the most severe form of mutilation which involves the removal of the clitoris, the total removal of the labia minora and the labia majora, as well as the narrowing of the vaginal orifice. WHO estimates that a total of 200 million women and girls have been subjected to FGM globally. It is estimated that annually over 3 million girls are subjected to FGM with the majority being below the age of 15.

It is important to note that FGM is not inherent to only Muslim societies, which is a typical misconception often perpetuated by ignorance around this issue. Some Christian communities in fact also practice the procedure. FGM is prevalent across many African countries, including 28 documented nations. It has also been documented across societies in Asia and the Middle East. The most widespread cases of FGM are in sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan and Egypt. According to WHO the practice is also reported in “certain ethnic groups in South America.” In some of these societies 80% prevalence rates of women mutilated were reported, while in others the rates were far lower. Finally, FGM is practiced across the wider Iraq and is not an issue isolated to only the Kurdish regions.

The reasons for FGM being practiced are complex and multifaceted. Perpetuators of FGM are most commonly the mothers, aunts and female relatives of the young girls subjected to this practice. Interviews with these women indicate that the mutilation is carried out to ensure the ‘marriageability’ of the girls are protected, to conform to presumed Islamic tenets, as well as to reduce the sexual desire of the girls and ensure the protection of the family honor and respectability of girls.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch on Bashur (South Kurdistan), the practice involves the cutting of the clitoris imposed on girls primarily between the ages of 3-12. The practice is at the ‘request’ of female relatives, usually mothers where a traditional ‘midwife’ uses an “unsterile razor blade” to cut the girls. No form of painkillers or post-mutilation care, including antibiotics, are provided to the injured children. The so called ‘midwives’ themselves are often illiterate or have little to no knowledge of the psycho-physical health implications of the practice.

Culturally, societies who practice FGM, including those across Kurdistan are defined by a deep lack of knowledge about the health implications of FGM. This lack of knowledge results in large sections of women within society supporting this practice. Additionally, traditional, conservative and religious values heavily influence the prevalence of the practice. The practice has higher rates of prevalence in rural regions.

The long term health consequences of FGM are horrendous. A range of long term and re-occurring issues including that of prolonged and episodic pain and bleeding are the most common. A range of other complications have been observed in scientific studies including pain and difficulty urinating, reoccurring infections, hemorrhage, scaring and labia fusion, chronic pain, keloid formation, higher rates of sexually transmitted infections, reproductive tract infections, low or non-existent sexual desire and sexual life and birth consequences. Furthermore, issues such as urinary and menstrual issues, painful sexual issues, fertility issues and the necessity of surgery are also widely reported. Of course, these symptoms are primarily physical. The psychological and emotional implications are just as serious if not more. Death as a result of physical complications, psychological issues as well as infections and so on is also relatively common. FGM is a serious health concern and a serious violation of the rights of girls and women globally, including that of bodily autonomy.

Worse still reports indicate that FGM victims “experience extensive discriminations in everyday life and frequently become victims of violence and oppression”, which indicate that the practice actually further decreases the quality of life for the already suffering women and girls.

Studies have demonstrated that FGM’s prevalence corelates with a number of social, economic and gender based issues including that rates of employment amongst women, the likelihood of mothers with FGM themselves and the educations rates of the fathers. Studies in the past decade across Bashur (South) of Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) indicate that higher rates of FGM was observed amongst housewives, women whose mothers themselves were mutilated, and illiterate fathers or fathers who had low rates of literacy. The organization Stop FGM in Kurdistan however notes that: “FGM rate amongst university graduates is around 30 percent. But it becomes clear that with an increasing social status, women are more likely to question harmful traditions and alleged religious obligations.”

According to UNICEF, South Kurdistan and Eastern Kurdistan have the highest rates of prevalence of FGM across greater Kurdistan. In south Kurdistan cities such as Erbil (Hawler), Kirkuk, Chemchamal as well as rural regions have the highest rates of FGM. FGM is also present in the relatively more liberal society of Silêmanî (Suleymaniya). Nevertheless, there is a serious issue of under-reporting of the rates of FGM. Cultural and social taboos causes high rates of silence amongst Kurdish societies in discussing or reporting of this issue.

Across Rojhilat of Kurdistan the areas of Urmia, Hawraman region, Bokan, Bana, Pawa, Nosud, and Piranshar have the highest rates of FGM. Reports across Rojhilat and wider Iran indicate that FGM is only prevalent across Sunni societies with zero rates of prevalence across Shi’ite communities. Women’s organizations are active at raising awareness and attempting to eradicate the practice across society. However, social taboos continue to limit the capacity of activists to gain accurate data. Activists in the region have noted that the age of girls subjected to the practice at the age range of 4-6. According to the activist Parwin Zubaihi, often the mothers subject the daughters to the practice with some cases of protest from the fathers whose daughters were mutilated without their knowledge. However, she also reports a reduction of the rates of FGM across families with higher rates of literacy. She also details cases of girls requesting the procedure themselves, citing social and cultural pressures. In some cases no form of FGM were practiced but rather symbolic practices of scraping a sharp knife forty times across the stomach and lower half of the abdomen of the young girls were observed, or a sharp knife being dropped down the front collar of the young girl to her lap were seen as symbolic implications of the completion of the FGM. While these ‘symbolic’ practices are less physically harmful for the girls, the emotional and psychological implications of terrifying the young girls and negatively impacting her views of her body, sexual organs and sex can only be deemed as horrific.

Back in Bashur, the 2009 Human Rights Watch reported noted above indicated that in one district a 40% rate of FGM was observed amongst women and girls aged between 11-24. The rates of older women subjected to FGM were not studied in the report. This suggest a worryingly high rates of FGM across Kurdish society, whose scope and breadth remains unstudied or undocumented. The long term health, psychological, economic and social implications of such high rates of FGM could only be serious and prolonged.

The eradication and reduction of FGM possess a number of challenges, least of all because of the ongoing silence and taboo nature of the topic across Kurdistan. Strong government intervention, laws and punishment of perpetuators as well as widespread social education programs are essential. Partnership with organizations with experience in addressing FGM is also integral. Collection of data, school and media campaigns, community programs as well as relevant legal and security institutions to apprehend and punish repeat perpetrators are essential. Researchers found the government of Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has had limited effect in addressing FGM.

The government Ministries continue to argue that FGM remains as an isolated issue that is not widespread. Nevertheless, efforts by local women’s organizations, health and human rights organization in collaboration with international NGOs have indicated a prevalence rate of 57% rates of FGM on women between the ages of 14-19 across the KRI. In 2011 an official ban of the practice was implemented across the KRI. Implementation of the law remains another issue entirely. However, by all accounts the government has allowed the associated organizations and institutions to work unhindered in addressing the issue which has had the most significant and positive long term impacts on the eradication of the problem.

Thus, collaboration between local and international NGOs has been crucial in addressing FGM across Bashur of Kurdistan. In recent years organizations have commenced observing International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation across the region. As a result of the work of these NGOs significant positive changes have occurred including the reports by the organization WADI noting that FGM is no longer practiced in the region of Halabja. The region of Halabja is one of the most religiously conservative of Bashur, and if this trend of total eradication of FGM is true, then the long term possibility of the eradication of this horrendous practice across wider Kurdistan is extremally positive. This indicates that with greater levels of social and community dialogue, support, education and awareness campaigns that FGM can be eradicated. However, social taboos that prevent or stop victims or perpetrators from coming forward must also be taken into consideration.

The organization of WADI and that of stopfgmkurdistan.org have produced extensive and long term positive changes in relation to FGM and continue to work tirelessly in this regard. Their websites contain important data and reports that could be of immense interest and use for researchers and institutions interested in addressing FGM. Both organizations indicate that the involvement of men in the eradication of FGM is integral, including their explicit participation in long term, ongoing community awareness and education programs. Needless to say cultural awareness and sensitivity are also important factor that could aid in the eradication of this practice. More recent reports a positive trend of a steep decline in the rates of FGM across the KRI, with a 2017 report highlighting that “Among mothers surveyed 44.8% reported to be cut compared to 10.7% of their daughters. Results also show a direct link between campaigning and decline of rates.” Religion however remains the core barrier in the struggle to completely eradicate the practice.

Author

  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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