Rahmah Ali Kudar is facing one of the most important decisions of her life. Her daughter, Huda, is 4 years old, and Kudar must decide whether to submit her to so-called female circumcision, an appalling practice to Westerners surgical removal of the clitoris and labia that remains a rite of passage for girls throughout much of Africa. Yet Rahmah doesn't live in Africa; she lives in Copenhagen, where the custom is widespread enough to have stirred vocal opposition. Female genital mutilation is specifically against the law in Denmark, Britain, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland and is outlawed in other European countries, such as France, by laws on violence against children; but in March the Danish government introduced legislation making it a crime to take girls or young women to another country to be circumcised. Kudar, who is now 32, underwent the procedure in Somalia when she was 9, and will probably spare Huda the operation. "I face so many medical problems myself that I don't want to give the same problems to my daughter," she says.
A growing number of the estimated 17,300 Somalis in Denmark disapprove of female circumcision, but many others still feel the tug of this tradition; some Somali parents skirted the law by taking their daughters to Somalia or an Arab state for the operation. "In Africa it's a very common practice deeply rooted in tradition," says Amel Fahmy, an expert on female circumcision at the World Health Organization. "In some societies it's a rite of passage from childhood. In others it ensures chastity, while in some societies it's a sign of cleanliness." The new Danish law provides for six to 10 years in jail for a parent who takes his or her child abroad for the operation, regardless of whether the procedure is legal in the third country or not. "It's such a disgusting assault against girls," says Eva Kjer Hansen, the social-policy spokeswoman for Denmark's ruling Liberal Party. "It's simply unacceptable behavior."
A bill introducing a similar law is wending its way through the British Parliament, where it had a second reading two months ago. "This is a human-rights issue, it's a woman's issue and one that very much needs to be addressed," says Ann Clwyd, the M.P. for Cynon Valley, Wales, who sponsored the measure. In France, while statistics are scarce, very rough estimates have determined that 30,000 women and girls may have suffered the procedure. A woman of Mauritanian origin received a three-year suspended sentence in Paris in March for having her French daughter circumcised in Africa.
The practice is common in 28 African countries, where an estimated 100 million women are circumcised. The origins of the tradition are murky; some imbue the ritual with Muslim religious significance, but Muslim scholars say there is no religious basis for it. The type of mutilation practiced in Africa has three levels of severity. The first level involves removing part of the clitoris. The next level, excision, involves removal of part or all of the labia minora. The most severe form, called infibulation, is the removal of the clitoris, labia minora and part of the labia majora, which are then sewn shut. Because medical personnel often refuse to perform the operation, says Amina Kamil Jibrel, a Somali woman who offers counseling to other Somalis at a municipal office in Copenhagen, it is usually carried out by a woman lacking medical training and knowledge of infection. When she was circumcised at 6, Jibrel says she couldn't move for a week: "You sit on the floor for seven days and your legs are tied together with a piece of cloth so you can't move and the wound will heal."
Next One Faith Divided