Among social activists and feminists, combating female genital mutilation, or FGM, is an important policy goal. Sometimes called female circumcision or female genital cutting, FGM is the cutting of the clitoris of girls in order to curb their sexual desire and preserve their sexual "honor" before marriage. The practice, prevalent in some majority Muslim countries, has a tremendous cost: Many girls bleed to death or die of infection. Most are traumatized. Those who survive can suffer adverse health effects during marriage and pregnancy.
Academics widely regard FGM as an African disease. But information from Iraqi Kurdistan raises the possibility that the problem is more prevalent in the Middle East than previously believed, and that FGM is far more tied into religion than many Western academics and activists admit. In early 2003, WADI, a German nongovernmental organization (NGO) focusing on women's issues, found that close to 60 percent of Kurdish women questioned had undergone genital circumcision. Nearly every woman in the survey declared FGM to be a "normal" practice.
Most women referred to the practice as a traditional and a religious obligation. Because the clitoris is considered to be "dirty," women fear that they won't find husbands for their daughters if the girls have not been mutilated, and many believe men prefer sex with a mutilated wife. Others stress the religious necessity of FGM.
Islamic scholars disagree on FGM. But the conclusion that FGM is not a problem of Islamic practice is simply wrong as long as a large number of clerics accept or demand it. There is a certain tendency to confuse a liberal interpretation of Islam with the reality women face in many predominantly Islamic regions. To counter FGM as a practice, it is necessary to accept that Islam is more than just a written text. It is not the book that cuts the clitoris, but its interpretations aid and abet the mutilation.
Although firsthand medical records are not available for other countries in the region, this does not mean that these areas are free of FGM, only that the societies are not free enough to permit formal study of societal problems.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the reaction of locals to the findings has been instructive. When confronted with the study results, only a few women's activists in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya expressed surprise, although most said they did not realize just how high a proportion of women were affected. Although many Kurdish authorities were at first reluctant to address the issue for fear that the Kurdish region might appear backward, they have begun to acknowledge the problem and are working to confront it with an awareness campaign and legislation. Perhaps the most important factor enabling an NGO to uncover the problem of FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan was the existence of civil society structures and popular demand for individual rights.
Many academics and NGO workers in the region find it objectionable to criticize the predominant Muslim or Arab cultures. But there are indications that FGM might be widespread in the Arab Middle East; the rate is known to be 90 percent or more in Egypt.
Arab governments refuse to address the problem, preferring to believe that the lack of statistics will enable international organizations to conclude that the problem does not exist in their jurisdictions.
Western countries and human rights organizations need to break the silence. Female genital mutilation is not a cultural issue; it is a crime against the rights of women and girls. Campaigns against this humiliating practice can succeed only if they treat FGM in terms of individual rights and freedoms.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Thomas Uwer are, respectively, managing director and a board member of WADI. Their e-mails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. This commentary was based on an article in the winter edition of the Middle East Quarterly.