This report won Seymour Hersh Prize as the best investigative report in the Arab World for the year 2010. It also won the First Prize of universal Lorenzo Natali journalism competition. The report is written by Dlovan Berwari, member of NIRIJ net and supervised by Muhamad Al- Rubaiee general supervisor of NIRIJ net, in cooperation with Mr. Zuhair Al-Jazairy and Mr. Saad Hattar with leading Arab investigative journalism net “broadcasters for an investigative Arabic journalism (ARIJ)”.
A report by: Dlovan Berwari
supervision of: Mohammed al-Rubaie
Nazeen was happy with the doll her mother bought her on the way to a party at the neighbor’s house. But she felt terrified when she found herself in a dark room full of women. Within minutes, an old woman spread her little legs and removed part of her clitoris, which is the main female sexual organ, with an old razor blade.
This story happened in 1985, when snow melted on Kiwa Rash Mountain slopes in Rania district 131 kilometers northeast of al-Sulaymaniyah. This is the season when female genital mutilation starts in the villages and cities of Kurdistan. It is the spring of each season.
The memories of this dark night continue to haunt Nazeen. She wakes up every day with a nightmare as she remembers the blood and fear. Today, she is one of the women fighting to end this practice.
“Five years ago, I got married but I feel that I am not fulfilling my duties as a wife. I feel that there is something wrong in our relationship and I am in constant pain; I am living with a broken heart,” said 30-year-old Nazeen. “What they did to me as a human being is a grave crime, and we should all work together to stop these crimes,” she added. I will never allow this practice if god gives me children in the future.”
Nazeen’s tragedy is similar to that suffered by 16-year-old Soran. She, too, underwent a similar operation with a razor blade, together with a number of girls on the same day. She was 5 years old. Her mother took her to visit the neighbors, and there were other young girls waiting to go into the circumcision room. Two women held her legs and a third one operated. She also remembers the huge pain she felt in that room.
When the woman washed the wound with water and salt and put some ashes on it to end the bleeding, her mother whispered in her ear: “Now you have become a bride and you are now the prettiest girl ever.”
Mazkeen’s mother always urges her daughter not to show that she is in pain during her period, especially when her father and brothers are in the house.
While it is men who order the circumcision, they insist that rituals should be made in complete secrecy.
Unlike with males, female circumcision rituals are always done in a dark room and without any noise. Young girls are given cheap dolls or candies to encourage them to enter the room where a razor blade is waiting for them.
Nazeen, Soran and Mazkeen’s stories were similar to those told about 89 out of 139 female students who study in the Kolstan secondary school in Rania district, according to surveys conducted by the German “Valley” Organization in September 2007 and May 2008.
Law experts and women’s rights activists attribute the continuation of this phenomenon to authorities’ fear to confront religious extremists and those who support such practices because they have misconceptions about religion and they mix between traditions and Islam.
Abdul-Karim Sheikh Bizini, a researcher, attributes “this phenomenon to the wide spread of religiosity in Kurdistan after the 1991uprising.” Religious movements after this date have been able to openly practice their activities without any fear from the former regime. “Religious movements have significantly spread in villages and remote areas away from the centers of cities and they have introduced rituals, which these villages and cities have abandoned decades ago such as female genital mutilation.”
According to Bizini, the government and the two major parties in Kurdistan are reluctant to react because the religious institution and tribal rules have become deep rooted in the political structures.
“The government alone, without the help of religious and tribal institutions, is unable to put an end to any negative phenomenon with religious or tribal roots,” he said adding that “the political system has a network of complex relations with religious and tribal institutions and that the FGM phenomenon is associated with these two together.”
While he excludes the possibility of government complicity with the conservative class, Bizini stresses that “the government is unable to enter into direct confrontation with this class at this particular stage.”
State and religion
The FGM phenomenon is considered a religious ritual associated with “purity.” But this investigative report has been able to prove that it is based on tribal rules and the keenness of Kurdish families to end sexual desires among girls from an early age to prevent them from having sex outside of marriage, regardless of the immediate health, emotional and psychological risks as well as subsequent damage which girls may suffer.
The government hasn’t taken any clear position with regard to this phenomenon despite the many demands made by MPs and civil society organizations. And thus, all attempts to touch on this issue have not been successful.
In 2007, the first discussion of the draft law on domestic violence was supposed to be completed. At that time, the women’s rights defense committee has added four points to the draft law related to female genital mutilation. More than 10 deputies out of a total of 105 members forming the Kurdistan parliament signed the draft law. However, when the law was to be voted in the parliament, MPs decided to pass the law to specialized committees!
Until now, Bakhshan Zankana, a former MP, does not know the “real reason that made MPs betray the women’s rights defense committee and why they withdrew their signatures from the bill.” She said that “the law was not passed because of special circumstances within the parliament,” without specifying these circumstances. When the law was resubmitted, the government drafted a new one and submitted it to the parliament. It was submitted when the legislative elections were about to take place. At that time, the parliament eligibility to pass laws was raised.
Ever since then, Zankana does not know what has happened to the draft law. But she is not optimistic. “Before, there was a human rights ministry and a number of specialized committees to defend women’s rights. Now, there is no women’s ministry and the women’s rights defense committee is ineffective. Until now, it hasn’t finished any draft law,” said Zankana.
Kasha Dar Haffeed, the head of the women’s rights committee in the current parliament, does not see that things will be different in the new parliament. “MPS still refuse to discuss the domestic violence law which includes articles related to FGM because they consider that FGM is not phenomenon in Kurdistan,” she said.
Women are the worst enemies of women ..
There are others who even feel shy to talk about FGM, said Dara. One of the female MPs refuses to pass a law that bans FGM because she believes that this practice prevents vice in the society. Dara, a former MP, hopes that the current parliament discusses the draft domestic violence law among the other 51 laws to be discussed during the current session. According to Dara, the law in itself will not be enough to address the FGM problem if there is no government support to it and if there are no real intentions to enforce the law.
Amira Hassan, a judge and al-Sulaymaniyah court deputy prosecutor general, called upon the authorities to pass an integrated law which contains clear provision that criminalize FGM to deter midwives and doctors from practicing FGM and to even deter girls’ families from subjecting their daughters to such operations. She also said that there should be guarantees for the enforcement of the law.
Is FGM a phenomenon or is it mere isolated cases?
Surveys of the German “Valley” organization revealed that 61 percent of the girls studying at the Kolistan secondary school (the land of roses) have undergone this operation. However, this percentage is very low compared to the percentages in other schools in the Rania district.
The percentage of FGM among students in the Kiwa Rash School has reached 88, in the Darwazi, 92 and in the Kaznak, Hareem, Kassen, Rashu Shambiri and Haywa high schools this percentage has reached 100.
The surveys which were conducted in 700 villages and districts in Iraq’s Kurdistan, with a population of 6 million, revealed that 72 percent of the selected samples have undergone FGM with a percentage reachin to 77.9 percent in al-Sulaymaniyah province and up to 81.2% in Karmayan district. However, this percent has dropped to 63 percent in the villages of Erbil, the biggest city in the Kurdistan region.
But, government institutions and religious bodies say that these ratios are exaggerated to a great extent, because they were conducted in specific areas where there is a spread of this phenomenon, and there was a generalization of results back to the population.
Therefore, these institutions and bodies refuse to deal with FGM as a “phenomenon” and they consider that there are only some isolated cases of FGM.
The percentage of FGM is highest in the Rania and Karmayan district because tribal traditions are deeply rooted in these areas specialy among the Bashdar, Bardashami, Mir Odaly and Mankur tribes.
FGM prevalence areas
FGM is mostly practiced in the Karmayan district and along a horizontal line extending towards Iran’s borders passing through al-Sulaimaniyah and reaching Rania district and Soran in the Erbil province. Historically, FGM has been practiced in the different areas of al-Sulaymaniyah province and in its center.
In Soran, FGM spreads over a vertical line from Rania to Erbil to reach its outskirts near Mosul. However, this habit has started to disappear in some of Erbil’s areas and other popular areas.
In general, genital mutilation is not widely practiced in cities but is still common in rural areas. Ronak Faraj, a researcher, said that “there is a misconception among people in the villages which we have visited. People consider FGM as part of Islam’s teachings.” She added that one of the men told her that he will keep on encouraging FGM in his village until he hears from a cleric that there should be an end to such a practice.
Despite the ethnic and religious factors in common, there are still geographic and social dissimilarities with regard to the practice of FGM. In the Bahdinan district, which includes parts of Dahuk and Erbil, FGM is not commonly practiced.
Ronak Faraj, said that “FGM is a phenomenon which is widely practiced in areas of Soran reaching to Qandeel near Aqra and it ends at the borders of the river which separates Soran district from Bahdinan, the line which separates families who practice FGM as a religious obligation and those who know nothing about this ritual.”
Even in the same tribe, there are those who practice FGM and those who don’t. For example, the Sorj tribe which lives on the two banks of the river is divided between those who practice FGM and those who don’t.
Sexual dysfunction or a small wound
Mazkeen is one of the Kolstan secondary school students in the Rania district. She is one of the girls who have undergone FGM together with many other female students. Until today, she still suffers acute pain every month when she gets her period and she also suffers a chronic pain in the pelvic area due to the damage done during the operation.
In interviews with circumcisers, girls who underwent the operation, clergy and doctors, the author of this investigative report noticed that there are differences in the perception of FGM. While some consider it a mere small wound, others are aware of its long-term impact.
Civil society orgnizations say that it causes sexual dysfunction while article 412 of the Iraqi Penal Code, penalizes any person who “mutilate human organs for the purpose of inducing damage and distortion.”
FGM past and present methods
Mahrous has practiced FGM for more than 60 years. She gave a comparison between how FGM has been practiced in the past and how it is being practiced nowadays. In the past, a razor blade with a handle was used in the operation and then the wound area was cleaned with water, salt and ashes to stop the bleeding. Now, the wound area is cleaned with microchrome and medical dressing.
Mahrous does not like to use local anesthesia drugs like other midwives. She believes that the use of anesthesia may cause problems for girls. According to Mahrous, the ideal age for performing FGM is 5-10. However, she said that some older women in their fifties come to her before the Hajj and ask her to perform the operation.
Religion, traditions and medicine
Clerics, such as the spokesman for the federation of clerics in Kurdistan, Sheikh Jaafar Kuan, stresses that “FGM is an operation which removes a small and secondary part from a woman’s gentile.” They say that health risks occur because of mistakes in performing the FGM operations. In the Hadeeth there is a mention of FGM when Prophet Mohammad instructed Umm Atiyat to (induce a wound but without inducing a damage).
Spokesman for the federation of clerics, the umbrella organization of the jurisprudence commission, spoke about medical reports which have proved that FGM is useful and carries no risks. However, he added that, “I am personally against it. The jurisprudence commission wants to see an end to all kinds of FGM and it has issued a fatwa considering FGM against the values of Islam.”
Women organizations’ activists believe that this fatwa is incomplete and they want clerics to completely ban FGM instead of giving families the right to decide whether they want their daughters to undergo such operations or not.
Ronak Faraj, who is specialized in the field of female genital mutilation, for example, stressed the role of religion in curbing the phenomenon. She said that the Tarakhan tribe which lives in the Karmayan area, where the FGM is commonly practiced, has not witnessed any FGM since a decade because of a fatwa issued by Sheikh Muhammad banning FGM. In other areas, the practice of FGM has become symbolic. Girls let a knife fall from the top of their dresses and ask God to keep them pure. This also was a result of a fatwa issued by a cleric who said that FGM is not a religious obligation.
Faraj has noted that the rate of FGM has doubled in 2005 in some villages but started to decrease afterwards. Out of 53 surveyed villages by the researcher in 2005, only 13 new girls were subjected to FGM operations. According to Faraj, the decrease is a result of the wide awareness campaigns conducted by civil society organizations.
Other clerics assert that FGM “is a religious duty without which women cannot become pure.” The also say that “all rituals practiced by women who havn’t had the FGM operation are not accepted by God.”
This belief has its echoes in a conservative society. Sixty-one-year-old Umm Daleer, prides herself saying that her 4 daughters have undergone FGM operations. She added that she was keen to make her sons marry women who have undergone similar operations. “FGM is part of our Islam. We should obey the Islam teachings by performing FGM.”
Umm Nazeen, the young girl whose story was told at the beginning of this report, shares with Umm Daleer the same perception. For her, FGM is a religious obligation. According to Umm Nazeen, “it is forbidden to eat food cooked by a girl who has not undergove the FGM operation.”
FGM and traditions
Stressing that it is a religious obligation, Barikhan, a grandmother, said that “last year all her granddaughters have undergone the FGM operation.” She added that “we have inherited this tradition from our fathers and grandfathers. We have lived our lives without problems. Girls used to grow up and marry without any problems. Nothing has changed since then.”
Dr. Shlair Faeq Ghareeb, the head of the maternity hospital, is against FGM because it has health as well as psychological impact on women.
“The operation involves cutting a very sensitive part of the gentile. It is not a secondary part as is the case in males’ circumcision operations.”
She said that she has treated a number of girls who were subjected to FGM operations by midwives who are not specialized in this filed.
“Bleeding in most cases becomes chronic inflammation because a big part of the gentile is cut off and sometimes more parts are removed because those who practice these operations are not specialists in this field.”
Hypoactive sexual desire disorder
In addition to the physical damage, the cutting of the clitoris leads to imbalance in the reproductive system functions because this part is the most sensitive one and it is the part responsible for sexual desire in women.
Kilas Abdallah, a professor of psychology at the University of Sulaymaniyah, said mutilated females feel “distorted” and try to hide the pain when they practice sex, give birth or when they have their monthly menstrual cycle.
From the cases in which Kilas has studied at the psychiatric care center, she concluded that girls who have undergone FGM have deep concerns that their husbands may abandon them. They also fear that they will not have a successful marriage because of their sexual disorders.
Twenty four-year-old Fayan lived her teenaging years thinking that she is more of a man than of a woman. “I spent the whole university years avoiding talking about any subject which relates to women’s feelings towards men,” she said. During the graduation year, she fell in love with a colleague two years older than she. But, she quickly escaped and abandoned the relation because “I felt like I am more of a man than of a woman and because I suffer from sexual disorders.” Now, she spends most of her time in teaching. “I don’t think of marriage any more because I am sure that my marriage will not be a successful one. I feel that I suffer from sexual fridgidity.”
Forty two-year-old Banar has been visiting a psychological rehabilitation center for two years because of the tensed marriage life that she is living.
Her husband always accuses her that she lacks the desire for sexual activity. And she has suffered a lot because her husband always tells her that she is a woman with no feelings. Eventually, Banar’s husband got married again to one of his relatives. After that he rarely tried to see her. Now he does not see her at all. He only sends her some money to cover her expenses and those of her two children. The records of the center are full of such similar stories.
Divorce records in three personal status courts in al-Sulaymaniyah indicate that there is some 1,000 divorce cases every year. A big number of these divorce cases is a result of lack of harmony in bed. However, records do not mention the reason for this lack of harmony and whether men or women are responsible for it.
Judge Amira Hassan, deputy prosecutor of al-Sulaymaniyah Court, confirms that there is an illogical increase in the number of such cases. “Unfortunately, there are no accurate statistics,” she said.
Upon checking available records, the judge did not find any FGM complaints because there is no law which crimilizes those who perform FGM.
Article 412 of the Iraqi Penal Code criminalizes “human mutilation for the purpose of abuse and distortion.” This article hasn’t been applied so far against any person who has practiced FGM.
The reason for this, according to Judge Hassan, is that the complaint affects the family of the victim, and of course “there is no one who is ready to file a complaint against his own family.”
Among men, there is confusion between customs and religion. According to 16-year-old Suleiman Muhsen, a Kurdish worker, FGM “purifies women and prevent them from evil deeds that have become widely spread these days.”
This deep-rooted belief that FGM is a religious obligation makes it difficult to end the practice, even if a law is passed, without the support of the religious institution which has strong influence on people in Kurdistan.
The religious establishment, which has lots of authority, is reluctant to issue a fatwa against FGM despite the fact that it is well aware that what is going on is against Islam’s teachings. Those who are against FGM usually resort to the fatwa issued by al-Azhar, which has banned FGM and demand the issuance of laws which criminalize such practices.
The official spokesman for the Ministry of Endowments in Kurdistan, Rowan Naqshbandi, believes that “FGM is against the teaching of Islam and that it is violence committed against a big part of the society, the women.” He said that “there is no mention of FGM in the Quran.”
Falah Murad Khan, the head of the “Valley” Organization in Iraq, criticized the position of the clergy who only issued a light fatwa banning FGM. He said that “it would have been better to refer to the Azhar fatwa instead of issuing a new one.”
Clerics in Kurdistan have avoided the prohibition of FGM because they don’t want to confront the prevailing traditions.
Kawan, the spokesman of the federation of scholars, said, “religious institutions cannot hold any person who violates the religious fatwa responsible for such violation. This is why they gave the government the authority to ban FGM.” Kawan called upon the health ministry to issue a report that highlights the negative effects of FGM. “If such a report is issued together with the fatwa, there will be an end to this phenomenon,” he said.
Health and religion
However, the Ministry of Health does not see that there is a need to issue such a report, according to the official ministry’s spokesman, Dr. Ahmed Khales Qader Ahmed. He stressed that the ministry has been spreading awareness among people on the health risks of FGM through joint campaigns and media programmes. “It is enough to explain to people the dangers of FGM,” he said.
The joint campaign implemented by the health ministry and the religious institution stress that FGM is not a religious obligation. The representative of the ministry of awqaf explains this to people and the health ministry explains the health repercussions of this ritual. Civil society organizations, for their part, spread awareness among people on the importance of abandoning such rituals.
This joint campaign has started to have its impact on people and was able to reduce the number those who practice FGM regardless whether it is a phenomenon or only isolated cases according to official and religious institutions.
The government’s reluctance to enter into confrontation with those who practice FGM is the reason behind the inability to end this phenomenon despite the fact that there are many prominent personalities, close to high-ranking officials, who advocate the end of family violence, including FGM.
Sheikh Bizini said that Ronak Raouf, the mother of Barham Saleh, the prime minister, is among the most prominent activists against FGM. So is the wife of the former prime minister, Najirvan Barazani, and the daughter of Masoud Barazani, the president of Kurdistan Region.
This investigation was completed under the supervision of the editor-in-chief of the “Voices of Iraq” Agency, Mr. Zuhair Algazai’ri, and head of the Arab Department at “Voices of Iraq” Mr. Mohammed al-Rubaie, in cooperation with the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).