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THE IRISH TIMES | 25.10.2005

Study provides proof of female genital mutilation in Middle East

by Nicholas Birch

IRAQ: In a Kurdish area of Iraq, 60 per cent of women had been circumcised, writes Nicholas Birch in Germian.

Set on a pebble-strewn plain southeast of Kirkuk, Hasira looks like a place forsaken by time.

Fat-tailed sheep amble past mudbrick houses and brushwood pens. The odd sickly palm tree provides shade for children's games. There is no electricity.

Yet, along with 39 other villages in this area Iraq's Kurds call Germian - hot place - Hasira and its people have carved out their small place in history.

Surveyed by WADI, a German NGO based in Iraq for more than a decade, it has provided the first statistical proof of the existence of female genital mutilation in the Middle East.

"The results were shocking," says WADI director Thomas von der Osten-Sacken. Of 1,554 women interviewed by his local medical team, more than 60 per cent said they had undergone the operation. WADI is currently raising funds for a survey of the entire Iraqi Kurdish region.

Look up the operation on the web and you'll almost certainly find yourself reading about northeast Africa, where the majority of women are circumcised.

However, female genital mutilation is also known to exist throughout the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq. If it is less well-known here, one United Nations official in Egypt says it's largely due to "the attitude of the region's governments".

Osten-Sacken couldn't agree more. When WADI presented its results in Vienna this spring, he recalls, Austrian Arab groups accused the NGO of being an agent of the Israelis.

Even the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, which have backed efforts to stop female genital mutilation since the 1990s, were rattled.

"The [ Kurdish] Ministry of Human Rights hauled us in for questioning," says Assi Frooz Aziz, of WADI's medical team. "They accused us of publicising the country's secrets."

It is not just officialdom that has held up awareness of the phenomenon. If it is practised relatively openly in parts of Africa, in the Middle East it is veiled in secrecy.

"You can't just walk into a village and ask people if they circumcise their daughters," says Germian social worker Hero Umar. "These people only talked because we've been bringing them medical help for over a year."

A farmer's wife, Trifa Rashid Abdulkerim, says she learned circumcision techniques from her neighbour and took over when she stopped. "June is the best time of year," she says, "and the best age for patients is anywhere between three and eight."

The operation she describes is identical to descriptions heard throughout the Iraqi Kurdish area. Charcoal is applied before as a painkiller. After, the child is sat in a bowl of water and antiseptic solution. Asked about the specifics of the procedure, she falters. "I just cut off the top," she says, embarrassed.

It's a reference to what is sometimes termed the "Sunna" circumcision, the partial removal of prepuce and sometimes clitoris that some Muslims attribute to a tradition taught by the prophet Mohammed.

Campaigners opposed to female genital mutilation point out that it crosses religious and ethnic boundaries, but Iraqi Kurdistan's chief cleric acknowledges that Islam holds contradictory views on the practice.

"According to the Shafi'i school, which we Kurds belong to, circumcision is obligatory for men and women," Mohamed Ahmed Gaznei explains. "The Hanbali [ law] say it is obligatory only for men."

Personally opposed to the practice, Gaznei in 2002 issued a religious edict, or fatwa, calling for imitation of Hanbali practice. He regularly appears on television to preach against female genital mutilation.

In Germian, where electricity, let alone access to TV, is in short supply, the message is taking time to get through. "They say the food an uncircumcised woman cooks is unclean," says Hasira villager Shirin Ali, "and that a circumcised girl has more affection for her family."

This summer in a village an hour north of Hasira, WADI workers say, a newly married woman was so victimised by her in-laws for not being circumcised that she did the operation herself. They had to take her to hospital.

Hero Umar, the social worker, nonetheless thinks attitudes are beginning to change.

"Most imams are co-operative," she notes. "The biggest obstacle remaining is the older generation of women." Since early October, she and her colleagues travel armed with a new tool -- a 20-minute documentary on male genital mutilation. They say reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.

Judging by remarks made by this reporter's translator on the dirt track leading out of Hasira, though, there is still plenty of work to be done.

"I see nothing wrong with the operation, as long as it is done under anaesthetic," says this educated urbanite. "Because they are unable to control their sexual urges, uncircumcised women are more likely to be deflowered before marriage. That, in our society, is a shameful thing."