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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.

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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 Iraqi 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.

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