Nearly a decade ago, the NGO I work with began to document Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Iraqi Kurdistan. At first people there wouldn’t talk about the issue and some denied its existence. Kurdish grandmothers even told us their own sons would beat or kill them if people found out they spoke about this taboo subject.
When we published the result of our surveys that showed the overall mutilation rate across most of Kurdistan was 72 per cent of women. Experts in the West were shocked. Few had realised the problem even existed in this region before, let alone the extent we had been able to expose.
Most people know that FGM exists in many African countries. Indeed, as recently as 2008, The United Kingdom Border Agency’s report on FGM listed only countries in Africa. In a more recent report, UNICEF still had a mostly African focus in their list of FGM-affected areas. In actuality, as the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan shows, FGM is a global human rights problem.
In squeaky-clean Singapore, for example, FGM can be performed in a clinic for £17. Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country with 206 million people, may have the most FGM victims on earth, although such cutting is actually outlawed there.
In southern Oman, one of our activists spoke to several hundred women and found all of them have had their clitoris completely removed. In northern Oman, our activist found somewhat less severe statistics but FGM still affected the majority.
Our team members at Wadi, the German-Iraqi humanitarian NGO I work with, face tremendous obstacles documenting and surveying FGM in many territories because either the law forbids independent surveys and filming or the communities refuse to talk about it.
In Iran, we could not film easily because independent documentary journalism just isn’t allowed. Our Omani team member has been detained for her political work. Still our work shows FGM is present in both these countries.
Concrete data is not yet available for the number of FGM cases in many countries outside Africa. But the total figure may possibly dwarf the number found on that continent. The reason is the practice’s link to Islam. In Africa, FGM is not exclusively a Muslim practice. Outside Africa, however, those who practice it are invariably Muslims, although not all Islamic sects condone the cutting.
FGM predates Islam and is not mentioned in the Quran but practitioners cite a hadith or purported saying of the Prophet Mohammed to justify this tradition. In country after country, interviewees also mentioned a requirement to contain the sexual urges of women to rationalise the need for them to be cut.
This particularly matters now as it has been reported that Islamic State issued a fatwa mandating FGM in their conquered city of Mosul. Some have claimed the ruling issued last year is a hoax but, whether fake or not, those of us working in this field have to take such threats seriously, not least because anecdotal evidence indicates that many in Mosul believe the fatwa to be real.
It is therefore important that the issue of FGM in the Middle East and Asia is talked about. We saw in Kurdistan how exposing it could help end the practice. Our films and media campaigns helped change attitudes and even influenced the Kurdish Parliament to introduce a 2011 law banning FGM. Now we are seeking to replicate this success elsewhere in the Middle-East and across Southern Asia.
We have already achieved some success. We have now shown FGM exists among a quarter of Arab women in central and southern Iraq. In Iran, our team members managed to influence the highest levels of the government to consider outlawing FGM. We are also documenting FGM within some communities in the Gulf States.
Despite such evidence, in the Western public’s imagination, FGM is still more often associated with Africa. In July 2014, I was invited to speak about our work and research in Iraq at the Girl Summit, the UNICEF conference co-hosted by David Cameron to end FGM and child marriages. At the conference, I found that I was in the tiny minority of people working on ending FGM in the Middle-East and Asia.
One explanation might be that Type III FGM, the most horrific and prominent form of mutilation where the vagina is sealed allowing only a small opening for fluid, is done in Africa but rarely in Asia and the Middle-East. Some therefore ignore Type I FGM, which involves cutting only a small part of the clitoris or just the clitoral hood, as less serious or even harmless.
However, a Saudi gynecologist who has treated hundreds of cases of FGM-related medical complication warned me that Type I cutting, as practiced in the Mideast, Asia and elsewhere, is actually not minimally invasive surgery. For a young girl, far more is removed in this primitive operation than what those implementing the practice might claim.
We must all work to expose and stop the silence that in too many parts of the world surrounds this subject before more young females find themselves becoming its victim in countries that, to now, few have automatically associated with the practice.
Dr John Chua has worked since 2010 with the NGO Wadi, which in addition to their campaign to end FGM also helps Yazidi sex slaves who escaped from captivity by Isis.