Report: Female Circumcision in Iraqi Kurdistan Still High

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Safin Hamed / AFP / Getty Images

Iraqi women attend a three-day conference on violence toward women in the northern Kurdish city of Arbil on Nov. 19, 2008

For many young girls in the world, a life-changing experience might be reaching puberty or discovering a first crush. For Gola, a 17-year-old student from Iraqi Kurdistan, it was the moment her mother and sister-in-law took her to get circumcised. "They put us in the bathroom, held our legs open and cut something," Gola, whose real name has been withheld for privacy reasons, recalls in the new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, "'They Took Me and Told Me Nothing': Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan."

In mid-June, the New York City–based NGO released a study about female genital cutting or mutilation, commonly referred to as FGC or FGM, in Iraqi Kurdistan that stresses the prevalence of the practice and its lasting effects on women in the region. Most importantly, the study found that Kurdish women and girls are receiving mixed messages and inaccurate facts about the reasons for female genital mutilation, as well as wrong information about its health consequences. "People know that it happens in Egypt and perhaps Yemen, but not too many people are aware that it also happens in various other communities in the Middle East," says Nadya Khalife, Middle East women's rights researcher at HRW. "We wanted to shed light on this practice because it is a health issue ... and because it is a form of violence against children and women."

The study drew statistics from two recent reports, one conducted by Kurdistan's former Human Rights Ministry — which was disbanded after the July 2009 elections — and another NGO's recent survey. In January 2009, the Ministry found that more than 40% of girls ages 14 and older had been circumcised in one district in Kurdistan. The Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Cooperation (WADI) published an even higher incidence rate in February 2010: 72.7% of the 1,408 women interviewed across the region reported they had been subjected to genital cutting. In some districts, the average was more than 80%. These numbers are significantly higher than the 60% average published by WADI in 2005.

HRW also interviewed 31 women and girls who had been cut; the numbers provided in the study are supplemented with their chilling firsthand accounts of the traumatic event, during which the instruments used for surgery were another woman's hands and a dirty razor blade. Oftentimes, the girls interviewed said there was no anesthesia and no antiseptic. Sometimes the same razor blade was used on several girls in succession.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, female genital mutilation isn't anything new. The World Health Organization (WHO) differentiates between the four varying degrees of female genital cutting; the most common practice in Iraqi Kurdistan is the partial or complete removal of the clitoris and/or prepuce, usually conducted on girls between the ages of 3 and 12. According to some Kurds who defend the procedure, it is an ancient tradition that has been passed along from one generation to the next. Religious proponents proclaim the circumcision as sunna, the Muslim customs and practices based on the deeds and words of the Prophet Muhammad. Others believe it controls sexual appetite induced by the hot climate in Iraq, while others defend it as a societal custom, with men preferring to marry circumcised girls because they are seen as pure and respectable.

The practice's critics, however, argue that female circumcision is a violation of human rights that contributes to sexual inequality in a heavily male-dominated society. "Despite several cultural reasons given to justify it, FGM is done primarily to suppress the sexuality of girls and women," says Efua Dorkenoo, the FGM program advocacy director at Equality Now, an NGO that advocates women's rights. "[It] has been normalized by communities."

Some women are fighting that norm. The study conducted by HRW includes testimonies from young women who refuse to put their own daughters through the pain of a practice that has been linked to hemorrhaging, infections and complications during childbirth. According to a 2006 WHO report, women who have undergone female genital mutilation have a 55% higher chance of having an infant who died before or soon after birth.

There is some disagreement within the Kurdistan regional government, the official ruling body of the autonomous region, on female genital mutilation — a reflection, some say, of how the region is torn between tradition and modernity. Some members of the Kurdistan government have not taken kindly to studies that show female genital mutilation's prevalence there. In an interview with HRW, Mariwan Naqshbandi, a spokesman for Kurdistan's Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, calls the reports of female genital mutilation "extremely exaggerated" and says that his government has "issues far more important" to address. Naqshbandi also disclaims the frequency of female circumcision's occurrence in Iraqi Kurdistan, saying the practice is not "a phenomenon in Kurdistan. It only exists in certain places."

But in many ways Kurdistan has been a progressive force in supporting women's rights. Kurdistan's parliament in 2002 revoked Iraqi laws that allowed leniency for those convicted of honor killings. The government has established a directorate to combat domestic abuse in the autonomous region, and it also runs three shelters for abused women. Zarian Abdel Rahman, then Minister for Health, even publicly admitted in October 2008 that 60% of girls in the region, aged 4 to 14, undergo circumcision despite warnings by ministers. He called female genital mutilation a "grievous practice committed in the name of religion and hygiene."

Attempts to ban female genital cutting have made gains in Kurdistan, but its efforts to outlaw the practice lag behind those of other nations with high rates of female genital mutilation. In the past 15 years, 17 African countries have outlawed the cutting despite opposition from some clerics and traditionalists. In 2007, Kurdistan's Ministry of Justice announced that perpetrators of female circumcision were to be arrested and penalized, but no evidence of its enforcement was found in the HRW report. A Kurdistan draft law criminalizing female genital mutilation made significant headway — 68 out of 111 parliamentarians signed the bill. Its supporters hoped it would be passed in February 2008; however, it did not garner enough support to be introduced in the Kurdistan National Assembly.