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CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR | 10.08.2005

Female circumcision surfaces in Iraq

A German aid group finds the first solid proof of the practice, thought to be prevalent in the Middle East.

KIRKUK, IRAQ -- Set on an arid plain southeast of Kirkuk, Hasira looks like a place forsaken by time. Sheep amble past mud-brick houses and the odd sickly palm tree shades children's games. There is no electricity.

Yet along with 39 other villages in this region that Iraq's Kurds have named Germian (meaning hot place), Hasira and its people have become noted for presenting the first statistical evidence in Iraq of the existence of female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM), as critics call it.

"We knew Germian was one of the areas most affected by the practice," says Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, director of a German nongovernmental organization called WADI, which has been based in Iraq for more than a decade.

Of 1,554 women and girls over 10 years old interviewed by WADI's local medical team, 907, or more than 60 percent, said they had had the operation. The practice is known to exist throughout the Middle East, particularly in northern Saudi Arabia, southern Jordan, and Iraq. There is also circumstantial evidence to suggest it is present in Syria, western Iran, and southern Turkey.

But while this practice was suspected in the region, there was never solid proof that the procedure was so prevalent.

Controversial findings

When WADI presented the results of its survey in Vienna this spring, Mr. Osten-Sacken recalls, various Islamist and Baathist groups accused the group of being an agent of the Israelis. Even the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, who have backed efforts to combat FGM since the late 1990s, were rattled.

While urban Kurds are generally more lax in religious practice and more Western-looking than most Iraqis - they are the major opponents of sharia for Iraq's new constitution, for instance - many rural pockets cling to traditions.

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

Secrecy obstructs awareness

But it's not just obstructionism that has held up awareness of the phenomenon. Unlike in parts of Africa, where FGM is practiced relatively openly, 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 or not," says Germian social worker Hero Umar. "These people only talked because we've been bringing them medical help for over a year."

Women in Hasira and the surrounding villages are reluctant to talk. But after long negotiation, Trifa Rashid Abdulkerim agrees to answer questions.

A farmer's wife from the village of Milkhasim, she says she learned the techniques from her neighbor, and took over when she stopped performing the operation. "June is the best time of the year," she says, "and the best age for patients is between 3 and 8."

Anti-FGM campaigners point out that FGM crosses religious and ethnic boundaries.

But as a cleric in Sulaymaniyah puts it, "Islamic scholars have complex views on the phenomenon."

Sitting in his office in the Kurdish city, Mohammed Ahmed Gaznei explains.

"According to the Shafii school, which we Kurds belong to, circumcision is obligatory for both men and women. The Hanbali say it is obligatory only for men."

Personally opposed to female circumcision, Mr. Gaznei has helped in campaigns to stamp it out.

In 2002, he and other senior Kurdish clerics issued a religious edict, or fatwa, supporting the Hanbali practice. He has since appeared on TV several times to preach against FGM.

In Germian, however, information is slow to filter through the population. Women are still thought to be promiscuous if they are uncircumcised, some people here say.

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

WADI workers said that four months ago in a village just north of Hasira, a newly married - and uncircumcised - woman was so badly treated by her in-laws that she performed the operation on herself.

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

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