Female Circumcision: Elegy for a Dream
According to the latest statistics released by the World Health Organization (WHO), 160 million women have been circumcised in Africa and Asia and upwards of 30 million girls were circumcised in 30 African and Asian countries. This means that on any given day, over 6,000 girls are victims of this crime; seventy-nine percent of these girls are in Africa and 12 percent are in Asia. Furthermore, according to these statistics, 91 percent of the victims are girls between the ages of four and ten in Somalia and Sudan, and five percent of these girls are never able to have sexual intercourse in the course of their lives. In these countries, female circumcision—also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) mainly among those against it--is carried out in accordance to specific rituals that date back 4,000 years. Maria Gabriella De Vita, an activist in UNICEF’s international campaign against FGM believes this procedure—or mutilation--takes place in patriarchal societies in which women are discriminated against and have a lower status than men. In such societies a woman’s genitals are considered unclean and ugly and are supposed to be cut.
Based on the reports in Iran, it seems that female circumcision is prevalent mostly in the provinces of Khuzestan, Lorestan, and Kurdistan. The city of Hormozgan and the ports of Bandar Kang and Jask are among southern cities where female circumcision is customary.
In southern Iran, it is commonly believed that this custom was brought into the country through maritime exchange with India and Somalia. Female circumcision is practiced in western Iran as well: in Uramanat (in Kurdistan), Baneh, Nosud, Paveh, Piranshahr and even in the vicinity of Orumiyeh. In fact, it is considered an Islamic tradition among certain Sunni and Shafi’i Muslims. In these parts, girls are usually circumcised between the ages of four and six with a knife or sharp razor and, afterwards, some ash is applied to their circumcised genitals. The locals believe that circumcision helps keep girls chaste and that circumcised girls preserve their virginity before marriage and make faithful wives. Another local custom is chehel tigh (forty razors), which is believed to take away girls’ sexual urges and make them smell more pleasant to men and render them more sexually pleasing to men.
But in reality female circumcision has very dangerous and serious side effects. This is particularly true in the case of a type of circumcision in which--in an attempt to alter the positioning and thus appearance of a woman’s genitalia--a woman’s labia are sewn together, such that only a small orifice is left to allow for urination and for the passing of menstrual blood.
Circumcising girls inflicts serious damage to the urinary tract and often leads to conditions such as urinary tract infection bleeding, AIDS, jaundice, and the formation of a variety of cysts and abscesses in the urinary tracts or at the entrance of sexual organs. In addition, female circumcision can cause severe hemorrhage, shock, and a host of mental illnesses, and even death.
Also, due to the lack of the use of sterile instruments and appropriate medications, many cases of severe and chronic infection in the pelvic area, the cessation of menstruation, sard-e madjaazi, reduced sexual appetite, and the accumulation of menstrual blood in the area of the abdomen are further side effects.
As mentioned above, in Iranian Kurdistan, girls are usually circumcised either with a sharp razor or knife and, afterwards, ash is poured on their circumcised genitals.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, female circumcision is extremely prevalent, to the extent that Human Rights Watch has asked the leaders of that autonomous country to ban it in northern Iraq. From May to June 2006, a Human Rights Watch observer interviewed 30 young girls in four villages in this area. In these parts, a girl must be circumcised in order to be married and residents will not accept food from the hand of an uncircumcised girl.
Azarmehr Association of the Women of Kurdistan in Iran is an association active in voicing the general demands of women and in changing laws that discriminate against women, and they are also against female circumcision. In one of its statements, this association said that female circumcision is an act of violence, a crime, and a tradition handed down from barbarism and called for fighting against it. In an interview with Radio Farda, Parvin Zabihi, who has written a book on this subject, said, “Today many young Kurdish women who receive a university education write their thesis on female circumcision. A number of them have started an association, whose mission is to fight against female circumcision. However, no permit has yet been issued for this association.” The very fact that Kurdish women take it up as their cause upon entering institutions of higher education proves just how prevalent this practice is in Kurdistan.
In a communication with the author of this article, M.A., a civil society activist in Kurdistan said “Officials in the Intelligence Ministry in Kurdistan have summoned us repeatedly and told us bluntly that we do not have the right to be active in this matter and that they have pronounced the establishment of our association to be an act against national security. We asked them how our activities could be against national security when there is no mention of them in the law or in the Qur’an. But these people still will not allow us to establish an association to fight female circumcision.” This activist has spoken with dozens of mothers and daughters who have been circumcised in Iran and is hopeful that United Nations agencies still present in Iran will actively conduct research on this subject.
But female circumcision takes place in other parts of Iran as well. Citizens of Bandar Kang believe that women are evil creatures who can be saved from the reach of the devil only by being circumcised. Bandar Kang is located five kilometers from Bandar Lengeh in the south of Iran. In Bandar Kang girls are circumcised with a shaving razor when they are 40 days old. Seventy percent of the girls in this port city have been circumcised.
What is certain is that there is no mention of female circumcision in the Qur’an. Only some unreliable accounts attributed to the Prophet Mohammad exist on this subject. That is why female circumcision is generally not practiced in Saudi Arabia. Basically, the roots of female circumcision date back to the pre-Islamic era. According to some sources these roots go back even all the way to the time of Herodotus.
In response to various queries about the stance of Islam in regard to female circumcision, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Fazlollah answered, “Our studies of the existing texts on this subject show that female circumcision is not of Islam’s doing and that it does not have an Islamic origin. Female circumcision was a ritual from the era of ignorance (the pre-Islamic era), when it was considered a way for a woman to make herself more attractive to her husband. What has been handed down to us by the Imams proves that the tradition of female circumcision was negated. In these texts, female circumcision is interpreted or regarded as “khafz al-djavaari.” Abu Bassir Moradi relates the following account about Imam Mohammad Bagher (PBUH): ‘I asked the Imam about a slave who had been taken from the land of the infidels and had converted to Islam. When she was about to be circumcised, the Imam did not allow anyone to perform the circumcision arguing that the tradition of circumcision was for men and not women.’ ”
Generally, female circumcision is related directly to the level of literacy and participation of women in society. Wherever women are actively present and participate in society, issues relating to women can be discussed more freely. However, in some villages and small towns where women have a less active presence in society and are not very educated, speaking of issues such as female circumcision is a taboo, which can be broached only with courage and audacity.
Zinat Daryayi is a women’s rights activist in the province of Khuzestan who has published books about female circumcision. In her book Gorg-o-Mish she mentions the problems encountered by women in connection with circumcision and the extent to which ancient beliefs, traditions, and rituals have played a role in its prevalence.
Unfortunately, local radio and television stations and the mass media have not taken any steps towards raising awareness of this issue among women in towns or small cities. In such locales, there is no sign of an organized and active independent women’s movement either. So far, the limited efforts of activists in the women’s movement have failed to have a positive impact on the process of controlling this inhumane phenomenon. Addressing this issue properly calls for immediate and serious attention, guidance, and assistance from international organizations.