Two new studies shed more light on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Middle East. For the first time, a study explores whether FGM is practiced in Syria – and comes to the conclusion that no evidence of its existence can be found.
Another study explores the history of FGM in the region of Ahwaz in the South-Western Iranian state of Khuzestan. Through talking to older women the PhD-student Susie Latham found that FGM was common in this region but has been abandoned completely without any official program in place. Furthermore, she found that it was first replaced by a milder form before the practice was stopped entirely.
“Collectively, the information suggests that before about 1945, all girls around Ahwaz were routinely subject to Type II FGC. The pattern of cutting across the generations strongly suggests a transition to less severe cutting before the practice finally stopped, although individual families did not necessarily need to pass through each stage.”
Latham found that women in the beginning of the 1950s only underwent Type I FGM, while the practice stopped entirely by the mid to late 1950s.
Instructions against FGM came from a higher religious authority
The reason for abandonment seems to have been interference by religious authorities according to her interview partner. “Every single woman who gave a reason for the abandonment of FGC said that it was the result of an Islamic ruling. Some just knew that it had become haram, but others said that a religious authority had said so in the mosque and that this had been communicated through the men to the women. In my husband’s town, the current imam confirmed reports by three old women that his father had decreed FGC should end, saying the instructions came from a higher religious authority.”
Latham also discusses in her paper how her findings contradict common strategies against FGM. Rightly, she notes that the importance of religious rulings is underestimated by UN and international NGOs. Religious rulings she assumes may not only be of great importance for the practice in Iran, but also in Africa from where she cites examples from Senegal and Somalia proving her point.
Her further thoughts lead her to the suggestion that moving to milder forms of FGM may be a better option than the current Zero-Tolerance approach by the UN and others and could more successfully lead to a total abandonment.
This is an interesting reasoning and quite different from the usual defenders of medicalization who see it as the lesser evil. Latham does not defend more Sunna types as the lesser evil and points out that it is unclear what exactly Sunna female genital cutting is. She sees the promotion of milder forms as a strategy to total abandonment and stresses the importance of agency by local communities.
However, her suggestion must still be rejected as being too general and not applicable in most places. She does not take a closer look on the consequences of medicalization as her example from Iran was not based on medicalization but apparently on the decisions of traditional cutter “to cut less”.
Moving to milder forms as it is promoted today by defenders of medicalization, however, has the opposite effect: FGM becomes more acceptable and can even spread. Thus abandonment becomes less likely.
Nevertheless, Latham’s study gives valuable new insights into the topic and her thoughts about current approaches being too standardized are worthwhile discussing.
No evidence of FGM in Syria
Researchers Diana Geraci and Jaqueline Muslders, on the other hand, looked into the existence of FGM in Syria. Rumors existed that FGM was indeed practiced in the region of Homs and maybe even other places. Even though no evidence existed and no Syrian woman had ever spoken out on it its existence seemed plausible because the Syrian Sunni population adheres to the Sha’afi law school which officially considers female genital cutting a duty.
The researcher team applied a number of methods to verify or falsify these rumors scanning grey literature, asking refugees, midwives, gynecologists and NGOs working in the field. They did not find any evidence that FGM is practiced in Syria today or was in the last 60 years. The value of this research lies also in its discussion of ethnic and relgious correlation: “The possible relation between ethnicity (Kurdish) and law school (Shafi’i) and FGM is too precarious to draw any conclusions for Syria. The Kurdish people in Syria speak a different language than the Kurdish people in Iran and Iraq where FGM is a known practice. And not all communities where Shafi’i law school is dominate practice FGM.”
Susie Latham: The campaign against Female Genital Cutting: empowering women or reinforcing global inequity? In: Ethics and Social Welfare, Volume 10, Issue 2, 2016
Diana Geraci, Jaqueline Muslders: Female Genital Mutilation in Syria? An Inquiry into the existence of FGM in Syria, Pharos, April 2016
A recent survey among Sunni religous scholars in the Iranian province of Kermansheh shows that a majority of them (67%) believe that “female circumcision” is religiously obligatory or at least recommended for girls and women. In this province in the West of Iran, female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced by Sunni Kurds who adhere to the Shafi’i law school. Many of them believe that Islam commands them to have their girls cut.
In recent years, the issue of FGM has been raised in Iran by a number of activists through media (radio and internet) and a conference in Teheran. In the province of Kermansheh regular lectures for parents and couples were held and information material warning of negative effacts was distributed. Furthermore, educational programs in Iraqi Kurdish media (TV and radio) about FGM also reach an audience in the Kurdish speaking communities in Iran.
There is good reason to believe that these campaigns have let to a change in attitudes among the population towards FGM. Rates have dropped from 31% in 2010 to 18% in 2014 in the province of Kermansheh, according to a comprehensive study on FGM by Kamel Ahmady.
Yet, even tough educational programs have an effect on people’s attitutes, religious opinions (fatwas) play an important role as well. In reaction to the campaigns against FGM, a number of mullahs have voiced their opinion against FGM while others defended the practice. However, it was not at all clear which opinion the majority of mullahs tends to.
Now, the Hamraz counseling center of Javanrood (Kermansheh, Iran) has conducted a survey among 81 religious leaders and asked them about their opinion on FGM.
The results show that FGM is still justified by a majority of mullahs as a religious deed. Only a small minority of 4% believed that it is not an Islamic practice (not Sunna). The vast majority stated that it is Islamic. More than a third (35%) sees it as recommended or Sunna (the right path), but do not call it an obligation. Yet, almost as many (32%) say it must be done. To substantiate this view, a number of Hadiths (accounts of the prophet’s life and sayings) are referred to and a small number of mullahs even falsely believes that the Holy Quran itself calls for female genital cutting.
However, there is also a highly ambiguous group of 23% who take the seemingly contradicting position of calling it obligatory and Sunna, but say it is not necessary in their opinion. The author of the study, Osman Mahmoudi, interprets this “as a sign of change within the religious establishment or a reaction towards changing opinions in society.”
Mahmoudi points out, that “on the other hand, knowledge of negative consequences exists.” A majority (54%) have heard of different negative effects like psychological problems, infections and marital problems. He concludes that “awareness campaigns have at least partly reached their audience. This is also shown by the answers to question 7 where 34% answered that the decrease of FGM is due to awareness raising through media and research.”
He finds this contradiction highly alerting: “The results imply, that one and the same mullah may know about negative health effects and still defend the practice as a religiously good deed.”
Yet, the mullahs distance themselves from modern science as is shown by the results of question 6 where 46% chose one of the answers which prioritize religion over scientific research and medical studies. “Only 19% take the position that FGM should not be done if doctors and psychologists show that it leads to complications.”
The study concludes “that education about negative health effects of FGM does not lead to a rejection of the practice if strong religious beliefs stand in the way. Medical studies seem to be rejected by a vast majority of mullahs if they contradict their religious believes, thus scientific results are simply not believed.”
Osman Mahmoudi: Survey on religious views on female genital mutilation: Religious justification and awareness raising in Kermansheh province, Iran, August, 2016
A new study about psychological and psycho-physical consequences of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Iran found that FGM has negative effects for both wife and husband. The study “Couples Victim of FGM” brings a new aspect into the discussion about consequences of FGM because men have so far not been an object of empirical research in connection with FGM. As concluded by the psychologist and researcher Osman Mahmoudi, husbands married to women who have undergone FGM suffer from sexual dysfunction, marital dissatisfaction and have a lower level of mental health.
Mahmoudi, who is running a family counseling center in Javanrod, a city in the Iranian province of Kermansheh, has interviewed 414 couples in this region with his team. The wives in 206 couples had undergone FGM, while in the comparison group of 208 couples, wives had not undergone FGM.
In line with other studies, Mahmoudi found that sexual function and mental health of women who had undergone FGM was lower than in the comparison group.
At the same time, he found that husbands of women who have undergone FGM have also lower sexual function, lower mental health and lower marital satisfaction than husbands of women who have not undergone FGM.
Both husband and wife were suffering more often from fear, paranoid thoughts, psychotic thoughts, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and feelings of inferiority than the men and women in the non-FGM comparison group.
This was the same in regards to sexual function. Men and women in the group with FGM had significantly lower scores on the items psychological arousal, physiologic arousal, ease of orgasm and orgasm satisfaction. The comparison of average scores indicated that couples with FGM scored worse in all sub-scales, except sex drive than the Non- FGM group.
Also the standardized test for marital satisfaction showed a significant difference concerning personal issues, marital relationship, problem solving, financial management, leisure, sexual relationship. FGM couples were less satisfied than the Non-FGM group in all sub-scales, except marriage of children, relatives and children.
Men are unhappy with their sexual performance
One explanation for the negative effects of FGM on men, according of Mahmoudi can be the general importance of a fulfilled sex life for marriage but also feelings of inferioty on the side of the husband: „When husbands see their wives’ sexual dissatisfaction, they may believe that they are the cause and become depressed and disappointed and their confidence comes down.”
“Even if husbands of circumcised women reach an orgasm, they may be psychologically disturbed if they see that their wife does not reach an orgasm and they will be unhappy with their sexual performance.“
Osman also stresses: „One reason for FGM in patriarchal societies is to control women’s sexual desire, but FGM has no impact on sexual desire, conversely, it has a significant impact on achieving sexual pleasure.“
The results of the study could have a significant impact in Islamic societies where the right to sexual pleasure for both men and women is acknowledged, but all too often only understood as a men’s right. If it is recognized that sexual pleasure of men is negatively affected and in fact, apart from FGM, sexual pleasure is always a mutual experience this could change the perception and religious doctrine in many places where FGM is still defended.
The study was supported by the Stop FGM Middle East campaign and can be purchased at morebooks.com