Stop FGM in Kurdistan: An Interview with the Activists

By Heidi Basch-Harod

Communicating from Suleymaniah in Iraqi Kurdistan, STOP FGM Kurdistan Co-founders Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Falah Murad Khan unpack the multi-layered efforts contributing to the ongoing campaign to win political, social, and civil rights for women.
Efforts to stop FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan began in 2003 when a group of Kurdish women approached foreign medical workers attending to emergency needs following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. As the aid workers gained trust of the people to whom they attended, the women started to share their stories and complications stemming from their circumcisions. Responding to the women’s requests, and enjoining local Kurdish social workers and activists, since 2004, khatana (circumcision in Sorani Kurdish) of women in Iraqi Kurdistan has significantly decreased, from 90 percent to zero percent in some areas. Nevertheless, the practice has not disappeared.
Communicating from Suleymaniah in Iraqi Kurdistan, STOP FGM Kurdistan Co-founders Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Falah Murad Khan, who also work with WADI, an Iraqi-German organization promoting human rights and supporting the development of a democratic civil society in the Middle East through programs and projects that focus on empowering women and advancing their political and social equality, unpack the multi-layered efforts contributing to this ongoing campaign.

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken

Thomas: Following the toppling of Iraqi-dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, mobile medical teams that we organized and participated in starting assisting various Kurdish villages and towns to offer medical services. One year later, women started approaching the team members about having been cut because they had a problem with it. It was a taboo to discuss but they came to us asking for help so we started helping women in 35 villages and started a campaign to get this into public discourse and the media.
Heidi: Is it common knowledge that Kurdish women in Iraqi Kurdistan undergo khatana? And how is this phrase, or event referred to by the women themselves?
Falah Murad Khan
Falah Murad Khan
Falah: Although large numbers of women in Iraqi Kurdistan have been cut, no one used to speak about it out of shame because it’s related to sexuality and women’s sexuality in particular. Furthermore, the sanction for FGM comes from Islam itself, it is present in all four Sunni law schools, but the Shafi‘i school states circumcision is obligatory for males and females. The other schools are less strict about it.
Thomas: Among women who speak about FGM it is called khatana, but in reports written by men and women in Kurdistan it is called female genital mutilation.
Heidi: Many claim that there is no sanction within the Islamic tradition, specifically the Qur‘an, for female circumcision, so where does this come from?
Falah: It absolutely comes from within the tradition, from the Prophet Himself, in fact. There are fatwas about it, but the original permission for female circumcision came from a hadith resulting from a conversation between the Prophet Muhammad and a woman by the name of Umm Atiyya, who asked if she should cut a girl or not. The Prophet sanctioned a little bit of cutting known as “Sunnat circumcision” and not full mutilation – this particular method or approach is practiced throughout Muslim communities in West Asia and Southeast Asia.
Heidi: The women who approached your team members come from communities where a woman’s movement, behavior, and physical being must uphold an honour code that demands severe repercussions in the case of its breach. How did these women and your workers manage to address FGM without causing more harm to the women?
Thomas: In order to effectively help these women we knew we had to take a holistic approach to the issue. Within Kurdish society we had to start from the bottom up and the top down, but we also had to involve the international community too.
A dedicated team of Kurdish young people came together and started going village to village, challenging the practice. Clerics in the villages are particularly supportive of FGM taking place so the struggle against it had to begin with the clerics.
Realizing that this method would take too long though, in 2005, a film, “Handful of Ash,” went into production. On a $5,000 budget, a 30-minute documentary that shows the process of khatana, and that interviews clerics, important leaders, parliamentarians, and doctors in favor of banning the process and decrying it as harmful and unnecessary, was taken village to village, town to town, and screened in homes and schools, with a generator and a projector, on a wall.

from "A Handful of Ash"

This film opened up the debate among illiterate women who would never have heard about the efforts anyhow. For these women printed materials would have been and are of no use, as they couldn’t and can’t read.
Once popular support for banning the practice became clear, the first petition campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan took place in 2007 and we collected 13,000 signatures, which we delivered to the Parliament of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) asking for its support in ending FGM.
Legislation was introduced in 2007, but because men were embarrassed to discuss the issues with the female members of parliament, it took until 2011 for the bill to come to a vote; since 2011 FGM is banned by law.
Falah: To make sure the law and the movement didn’t fall by the wayside, though, from 2006-2010 we collected data and organized the information into the first scientific report of the numbers of cut women in Iraqi Kurdistan. We knew that to ensure the parliament didn’t sweep this issue under the rug, we had to monopolize on Iraqi Kurdistan’s need for international support. We needed international organizations like the United Nations, Amnesty International, and so on, to support our claims and back our efforts. But when the campaign began, representatives of UNICEF and Amnesty International said there was no FGM in the Middle East, that, with the exception of Yemen, it was something exclusively belonging to Africa. So we found ourselves in a double-fronted war to make this both a local and international concern.
Thomas: More recently, UNICEF made Iraq its core country to deal with FGM but a glaring mistake in the 2013 report is the claim that it is exclusively a Kurdish issue, which is not the case. The numbers are higher in Kurdish communities but FGM is practiced throughout Muslim communities in Iraq.
Nevertheless, we know now that the reason the FGM law went into effect, and that it became a national and international concern has to do with the journalists who started reporting on our efforts – especially those who wrote for IRIN, the UN news agency; this forced the local government to start paying attention. It also has to do with the widespread screening of “Handful of Ash,” and the fact that there are Kurdish women, embedded in the region, who are working to spread awareness about the law and against FGM, as well as still offering medical assistance to communities in need.
Falah: We scored another victory in 2010 when Human Rights Watch published a report on FGM in Kurdistan. In response, local media aired talk shows, news reports, and commercials. Then the UN became active. With the involvement of the UN, the local government had to say something and on November 25, 2010, the government publicly announced its awareness of an issue with FGM and endorsed the Stop FGM in Kurdistan campaign, which was launched in 2007.
As we mentioned before, in 2011 the law passed. We wanted it to have some teeth in it, and to provide a more comprehensive approach to the issue of violence against women. The bill includes language on domestic violence. In the formulation of the bill, WADI advised and worked with the Women’s Rights Committee of the Parliament to craft a comprehensive piece of legislation. Now FGM is banned in Kurdistan. But unfortunately, the ban does not extend to Kirkuk, for example, which is out of juridical reach of the KRG.
Today, in some areas FGM is 100% disappeared although there is still resistance from clerics and their wives. These are places where 90% of women had been cut. Seven villages declared themselves FGM free; to reward this adherence to the law, they receive assistance from us for infrastructure – for running water, electricity, and better education.

Thomas: It is important to note that FGM is not present among all Kurdish communities. It seems to be concentrated in the Sorani-speaking communities in Iran and Iraq – in Erbil, Suleymaniyah, Kirkuk – and Dohuk, where the Badinani Kurdish dialect is spoken. North of Iraqi Kurdistan it is not a very large problem. In the Kurmanji speaking communities, FGM is not a big issue – the rate is around five to eight percent – and seems, for some unknown reason, to have basically come to a stop about 80 years ago.

Heidi: For long-lasting change in the status of women, there’s no doubt that men need to support these measures and activities. Were men, or are men, aside from you two, supportive of the Stop FGM Campaign?
Thomas: Men are incredibly supportive of these initiatives and developments. In meetings, filming, interactions, men have shared how their sex lives are a disaster and, in fact, many didn’t know that their wives were cut when they married them. Boys’ circumcisions are celebrated while girls’ are conducted in secret. These same men claim that they wouldn’t have married their wives had they known. Men support this campaign because it absolutely affects them, too, in terms of partnership and sexuality.
Falah: I found out that my mother and sisters had been cut only after I began this work. I never knew! And once I did, this work became very personal.
Thomas: The fact that FGM is talked about and that this discussion of sex and sexuality has become public discourse indicates something of a sexual revolution in Iraqi Kurdistan. This is so important because twisted views toward sexuality can destroy a society.
Heidi: But what about the women who depended on this practice for their livelihood? Has this campaign left them and their families without means?
Falah: As for the midwives, whose role is or was to do the cutting, many have stopped and shared that they’ve done so with other midwives. They have been convinced to stop by the local Kurdish workers, the women who are social workers and college graduates who visit villages and educate about the ban on FGM.
Under the new law, the midwives can be sued for carrying out cuttings. However, many of these women are illiterate and you cannot sue an illiterate woman for not being aware of the law. The answer to this has been a WADI initiative, in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, to offer a course that midwives go through. At the end they receive a certificate and they sign an agreement that they will no longer undertake FGM. Once they’ve signed they are accountable to the law and can be sued by the people or the government.
Women who take the course also receive a certificate, training in First Aid, and become integrated as a health worker with the Ministry of Health; they also receive access to health services and facilities.
Now, they are rewarded and given opportunities by the state to bring babies into the world instead of performing khatana. So their livelihoods are not endangered and they have not become impoverished for stopping FGM. But this is just the beginning. The practice continues still and a lot more must be done, especially on the part of the KRG.
Heidi: Are there any ongoing challenges that hinder the progress of this campaign?
Thomas: The challenge with the law of course is that it contradicts Shari‘a. The common understanding in Muslim societies is that people carry out the law of God. At the same time, however, these societies are pursuing democracy and the implementation of laws that enshrine democratic values into their legal systems. A law that bans FGM and gives penalty for domestic violence directly contradicts, in this case, the Shafi’i reading of Shari‘a, which condones beating one’s wife and the cutting of women. So the issue of FGM and domestic violence touches upon a core issue of the region – the tension and struggle between secularism and religiosity, and which ideology will prevail.
Taking a step back, this entire battle is being carried out on the bodies of women.
Heidi: It appears that women’s bodies remain one of the political battlefields in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thomas: Yes, and this reality extends across the Middle East.
Falah: The other challenge to the law is implementation. The Campaign continues to print out the text of the law and to distribute it widely. We also conduct police awareness seminars, and focus on teachers and encourage them to bring up the issue with children in schools. Through a dedicated network of independent NGOs, the government continues to be held accountable to the law as well.
Thomas: In Kurdistan there is still a challenge to reach all communities, however. In the Clinton State Department, there was a lot of hope because Secretary Clinton devoted resources and attention to the issue, since Kerry’s appointment, this issue doesn’t seem to be top priority any more. But I measure the success of the campaign in its ongoing efforts and the fact that we have been asked by local advocacy groups in Yemen, Oman, and Egypt to bring the Stop FGM campaign to them. In recognition of, and to support the positive, Middle East-wide response to the campaign, we have now launched Stop FGM Middle East.