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THE WASHINGTON TIMES | 22.08.2005

Ancient practices still a threat to Iraqi women

by Nicholas Birch

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

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

Germian and 39 other villages in this region of Iraqi Kurds have made their small place in history.

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

"We knew Germian was one of the areas most affected by the practice," said WADI director Thomas von der Osten-Sacken. "But the results were a shock."

Of 1,554 women and girls aged 10 or older interviewed by WADI's local medical team, 907 -- more than 60 percent -- said they had undergone the operation.

WADI is raising funds for a survey of the entire Iraqi Kurdish region.

Look up female genital mutilation on the Web, and you'll almost certainly find yourself reading about Africa. In countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Somalia, almost all women have undergone the procedure.

Less well-known is that the practice exists throughout the Middle East, particularly in northern Saudi Arabia, southern Jordan and Iraq. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest it is present in Syria, western Iran and southern Turkey.

The problem, as one United Nations official in Egypt puts it, "is the attitude of the region's governments."

Mr. Osten-Sacken agreed. When WADI presented the results of its survey in Vienna, Austria, this spring, he said various Islamist groups accused the NGO of being an agent of the Israelis.

Even the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, who have backed efforts to combat the practice since the late 1990s, were rattled.

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

But it's not just official obstructionism that has held up awareness of the phenomenon. Unlike parts of Africa, where mutilation is practiced openly, in the Middle East, it is hidden.

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

Persuading women in Hasira and the surrounding villages to talk to a foreign reporter was no easy task. After long negotiation, Trifa Rashid Abdulkerim, 24, agreed to answer questions.

A farmer's wife from the village of Milkhasim, she said she learned circumcision techniques from her neighbor and took over when the neighbor stopped.

"June is the best time of the year, and the best age for patients is anywhere between 3 and 8," she said. The way she talked about the operation is identical to descriptions heard throughout the Iraqi Kurdish area. Charcoal is applied to reduce pain in the wound. After the cut, the child is sat in a bowl of water and antiseptic solution.

Asked about the specifics of the procedure, however, she faltered. "I just cut off the top," she said, obviously embarrassed.

It's a reference, local anti-mutilation campaigners say, to what is sometimes termed the "Sunna" circumcision, the removal of foreskin and sometimes clitoris that some Muslims attribute to a tradition taught by the Prophet Muhammad.

Anti-mutilation campaigners point out that the practice crosses religious and ethnic boundaries. But as southern Iraqi Kurdistan's chief cleric puts it, "Islamic scholars have complex views on the phenomenon."

"According to the Shafi'i school, which we Kurds belong to, circumcision is obligatory for both men and women," said Mohammed Ahmed Gaznei in his office in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. "The Hanbali say it is obligatory only for men." Personally opposed to female circumcision, Mr. Gaznei said he has done his best to collaborate in campaigns to stamp it out. In 2002, he and other senior Kurdish clerics issued a religious edict, or fatwa, calling for imitation of Hanbali practice.

He has since appeared several times on television to preach against the mutilation.

In Germian, though, where electricity and televisions are in short supply, the information is taking time to filter through.

"They say the food an uncircumcised woman cooks is unclean and that a circumcised girl has more affection for her family," said Shirin Ali in Hasira.

Three months ago in a village an hour north of Hasira, WADI mobile-team workers said a newly married woman was so badly treated by her in-laws for not being circumcised that she did the operation herself. They had to take her to the hospital.

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

"Most imams are cooperative," she said. "The biggest obstacle remaining is the older generation of women."

But, judging by the remarks made by a translator on the dirt track leading out of Hasira, there is still plenty of work to be done.

"I see nothing wrong with the operation, as long as it is done under anaesthetic," said the translator, an 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."