IRAQ: Human Rights Watch slams high rates of female genital excision in Iraqi Kurdistan


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“I still feel the fear,” Runak recalled as she told her story of undergoing genital excision at age 7.

The 26-year-old recounted her experience to Gola Ahmad Mohammad, an activist for the Assn. for Crisis Assistance and Development Cooperation (WADI). “When they tried to circumcise me, I ran away from one village to another to avoid the process. But they found me and brought me back home. I heard my mom when they were cutting a piece of my genitals say to me, ‘This will make you pure and the water of your hands become halal [permissible],” indicating she would otherwise consider her impure.


In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mohammad shared that many girls and women who spoke to WADI stressed the deception and secrecy of the process as particularly painful. The excision also reverberates with immediate and permanent physical damage.

It most commonly involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce, also known as a clitoridectomy. Some adult women undergo the procedure in a more invasive manner though it serves no medical purpose.

While the procedure is practiced in various parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it has begun to receive greater global awareness. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch held a news conference in Irbil, Iraq, to rally international outcry against the practice.

The organization presented its report on the practice in Iraqi Kurdistan, detailing the tragedy of mothers taking their young daughters to midwives, usually nonlicensed practitioners, never informing the young girls of their fate. According to the report, the midwife, often assisted by the mother, pins the girl down and slices off her clitoris with a dirty razor blade, moving on to one young child after another, some of them as young as 3. Midwives have been said to throw ash on the open wound to stop the bleeding.

In 2010, WADI published its 2007-2008 findings for Irbil and Sulaymaniya provinces and the Kirkuk region. The organization interviewed more than 1,400 girls and women and found that about 72.7% of them had survived the procedure.

Most of the women interviewed by WADI referred to the cutting as an act that had been carried out in accordance with their religious convictions.


Mohammad explained that the stance of religious leaders enables the practice to persist. “The clerics have a big influence on society, especially in rural areas. Many clerics are not united in their decisions; for example, they don’t say that a girl’s circumcision is not a religious issue and they keep themselves away of such issues. In fact, many clerics encourage the circumcision in one way or another.”

Human Rights Watch contends that many scholars reject the necessity of the process as it never appears in the Koran and effectively opposes Islamic values.

Yet the procedure still haunts generations of women. “Socially the process has a big influence on the relationship between the man and woman during intercourse. Circumcised women don’t feel pleasure; they don’t have the desire to lay down with their husbands. Many of them have promised themselves not to circumcise their girls and repeat the mistake of the past. Always, there is hidden hatred between mothers and their daughters for the mistake the mother did to the daughter,” Mohammad reflected.

So while little girls are told by their mothers that the process will ensure that the food they prepare is halal, Mohammad insists that “the real motivation is to curb sexual desire. This is unhealthy, and the people are told that they should circumcise the girls by the old clerics who encourage the process.”

Yet, a change might be coming to the Kurdish region, as Mohammad reported that the number of genital excisions appears to have decreased over the last three years.

Human Rights Watch slammed the government as being “unwilling to prohibit FGM [female genital mutilation], despite its readiness to address other forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence and so-called honor killings.”

The rights watchdog charted the Kurdish region’s measures regarding female genital excision. In 2007, Iraqi Kurdistan’s judiciary issued a decree that all practitioners of the excisions be arrested and punished. However, the decree was not publicized and appears to have never been enforced. In 2008, most of the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament favored a law prohibiting the procedure, yet it was never passed. Its health offices in 2009 even designed a strategy to combat the practice but later backed down.

Its current government, in office since the summer of 2009, has not weighed in publicly on the matter.

Nadya Khalife, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, called for action from the Kurdish authorities. “FGM violates women’s and children’s rights, including their rights to life, health, and bodily integrity. It’s time for the regional government to step up to the plate and take concrete actions to eliminate this harmful practice because it simply won’t go away on its own,’ Khalife said.

‘Eradicating it in Iraqi Kurdistan will require strong and dedicated leadership on the part of the regional government, including a clear message that FGM will no longer be tolerated.”

-- Becky Lee Katz in Beirut and Asso Ahmed in Irbil