Lecture about FGM/C in Iraqi Kurdistan in The Hague

March 1, 2019

On the 27th of Februari 2019, I gave a lecture during the event “From Ashes to Phoenix: Female Genital Mutilation in Kurdistan” that took place in the Leiden University College in The Hague, organized by Montium. The event focused on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in Iraqi Kurdistan. I received additional input for my lecture from Thomas v der Osten-Sacken of WADI. This Iraqi-German NGO is operating in the Middle East, mainly in Kurdish Northern Iraq, since 1993. Among others, WADI operates and coordinates women’s centers, female mobile health teams, FGM-free villages, a FGM hotline, and a community radio. WADI’s mission is to support democracy development, individual freedom based on human rights, gender equality, and non-violent conflict resolution in a society where these values are not deeply rooted or present yet. This NGO played a very important role in relation to the elimination of FGM/C in this region, as they initiated the first large programme against the practice in Iraq.

Montium

I was invited to speak at this event by Montium, which is an association created in 2015 by students and young professionals. Their aim is to create a neutral and scientific platform to unite students and young professionals with an interest in the Middle East and the Kurdish region in particular. Montium’s approach is to unite people regardless of origin and to embrace diversity. They offer young people the opportunity to gain more knowledge about the Middle East and the Kurdish region.

Lecture of Dr. Karim

Dr. Karim was the first speaker. He is a plastic surgeon who performs clitoral reconstructive surgery on women who have undergone FGM/C. He noted that the demand for reconstruction of external genitalia after FGM/C is increasing in Europe as a result of the empowerment of migrated women. He explained that at this moment the health insurance system in the Netherlands does not cover this surgery, although it is widely recognized that FGM/C is a violation of the fundamental human rights of girls and women. During his presentation, he also showed the students a video where several women who have undergone FGM/C shared their experiences and their wish for a reconstructive surgery. Dr. Karim explained how reconstructive surgery after FGM/C leads to improved quality of life and body image for women.

My lecture

My presentation focused more specifically on the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan in relation to FGM/C. I explained that – at the international level – the existence of FGM/C in Iraq has been ignored for many years, although it has been practiced in this country for decades. For some reason FGM/C has been commonly described as an ‘African problem’, but we all know now that this is not the case as the practice is prevalent in countries in the Middle East and Asia as well. As is the case in many countries, FGM/C had been a taboo subject in Iraq. Women suffer silently and men are barely involved. Girls in Iraqi Kurdistan are usually cut at age 4-12. It is mostly done by a traditional cutter with a razor blade. As it is often a collective (but not public) event, there is a risk to infection of HIV. FGM/C is mostly done in Iraqi Kurdistan because people believe it is an obligatory Islamic tradition (although we know that the practice is not a religious obligation). Other reasons put forward include that it would prevent women form being sexually abusive, there are cultural reasons, people perform FGM/C because others do it and it is believed that FGM/C make the girls “clean”. Also, there is a strong correlation between a lack of education and the prevalence of FGM/C: the higher the educational level, the lower the risk of FGM/C. I also showed a short documentary, entitled “FGM: The film that changed the law in Kurdistan” from 2011, in which women told their stories about their experiences in relation to FGM/C and what the consequences of the practice are in relation to the lives of married couples. One woman says for example in the documentary that she has no sexual desire.  Her husband says that there is nothing left of her: “it’s like lying next to a dead fish.” This documentary was also shown in the Parliament of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, which was a breakthrough. After years of campaigning, a ground-breaking law (Domestic Violence Law) was passed by the Parliament, which banned many forms of violence, including FGM/C (although FGM/C is still legal in central Iraq). However, the law is unfortunately not well implemented: there are no prosecutions as girls won’t file a complaint against their family members. A 2014 survey tells us that 75% of women saw their own mothers in favor of FGM/C.

During my lecture, I also spoke about the efforts of WADI, who published an important and comprehensive study on FGM/C in 2010 (analyzing the rates and indicators). Since 2011, WADI is informing the public about the existence of the law, is raising awareness about its implications, is training police officers and conducting midwife trainings. WADI also established an FGM/C hotline for victims of FGM/C, they established the first FGM/C-free villages, they consulted for the government on implementation of the law, organized public events that drew the attention of the media and spread the word about the law. The combination of individual and public action has proved to be effective in bringing substantial change in people’s behavior. The Campaign Stop FGM in Kurdistan is a network of local and international organizations, human rights activists, artists and journalists. They are all committed to making FGM/C in the region history.

The next part of my presentation focused on the decline in prevalence in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is absolutely amazing (especially when you compare it to the prevalence rates in African countries). In 2010, the FGM/C prevalence rate was 72%, meaning that 72% of adult women in the Kurdish region had undergone FGM/C. In 2014 this was 58.5% and in 2019 only 37.5%. This is very good news!

I concluded my lecture by stating that FGM/C used to be a taboo subject in Iraqi-Kurdistan, but that now people talk about it openly in the media and on the street. It is good that FGM/C is now recognized as a problem among Kurdish public and local authorities. We also see that social change is happening, thanks to the combination of the legal ban and education/awareness-raising activities.

Story of a Kurdish survivor of FGM/C

After my lecture, Fatima shared with us her personal experiences. She is a Kurdish survivor of FGM/C and she bravely shared her story with the students. She told us that she was 14 days old when she underwent FGM/C in Iraqi Kurdistan. In her community, the main reason for being cut are religion, to make sure that the food will be halal and ‘eatable’, and to avoid pre-marital sex. According to Fatima, FGM/C happens mostly in rural areas, which she explains by the lack of education and awareness about the harmful effects of FGM/C in those areas. In relation to her personal problems or consequences of FGM/C, she said that her husband sometimes complains that she has no sexual desire. Luckily, she didn’t experience any other problems (for example problems urinating), probably because she underwent a less severe form of FGM/C, or because she has not experienced it differently as she was only 14 days old when she was cut. She also spoke about one of her encounters with different opinions about FGM/C, for example when she gave birth to her daughter. Her neighbor, who was the daughter of the Imam, came to her house and asked her if she would cut her daughter. The daughter of the Imam advised her not do it, because her father the Imam said it is not a religious practice, even though some Imams say that is. Fatima said that she – of course – didn’t plan on cutting her daughter, but it was nice to experience other people voicing their different opinions as well.

After the interview with Fatima, there was time for a short Q&A session and we closed the event with drinks in MingleMush next door. I would like to thank the organizers of the event for a truly inspirational evening.