Iraqi women are subject to a strict moral code that dominates their patriarchal society. Most of these rules of social control are an unspoken and deeply-rooted code of rules of behavior. Domestic violence, forced marriages and “honor killings” are the common reality of women in Northern Iraq. They are dependent on their male relatives and subjected to their will. This reality hasn’t been publicly discussed and thousands of women suffer in silence. The rate of suicides committed by women in Northern Iraq is very high.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one important mechanism, among others, of tight social control over women. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), like sexuality in general was considered an absolute taboo. In 2004, WADI Garmyan mobile teams succeeded to break the silence and discovered that female genital mutilation is widespread in northern Iraq. A pilot study gave evidence that 907 out of 1544 questioned women were victims of FGM. Up till then FGM was considered an “African practice”.
The staff of WADI Garmyan team were indeed shocked by their discovery. Following the evidence that FGM is widespread in northern Iraq, WADI’s staff initiated the first campaign against FGM in the country. Local mobile teams found out that FGM in northern Iraq is usually practiced by female family members or traditional midwives on girls aged between 4 to 12 years. Instruments like razors and knives are used to cut girls’ clitoris according to the “sunnat excision”, i.e. the excision according to the tradition of the prophet. The wound is usually covered with ash to stop the bleeding, but no drugs are given. Sometimes girls have to sit in a bowl of icy water.
Women justify this practice either by religion, tradition or medical reasons. Uncircumcised girls are not allowed to serve water or meals. Many women said that their daughter would not be able to get married uncircumcised. Most of the women are not aware of the long-term medical and psychological consequences of FGM. FGM can cause infertility, incontinence, complications in labor and even death.
In 2010, WADI published a study on FGM in the Kurdish region of Iraq, which found that 72% of women and girls were circumcised. Two years later, a similar study was conducted in the province of Kirkuk with findings of 38% FGM prevalence giving evidence to the assumption that FGM was not only practiced by the Kurdish population but also existed in central Iraq. According to the research, FGM is most common among Sunni Muslims, but is also practiced by Schi’ites and Kakeys, while Christians and Yezidi don’t seem to practice it in northern Iraq.
In February 2006, WADI organized the first Iraqi conference against FGM in Arbil, which was successful in attracting the interest of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). WADI’s campaign „STOP FGM in Kurdistan“ obtained more than 14,000 signatures for a petition to ban FGM. It was presented to the Kurdish Regional Government. Recommendations for a law to ban FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan were prepared by local lawyers and members of WADI´s mobile teams. They were presented to the KRG and the Kurdish women´s parliament in spring 2007. At first parliamentarians were hesitant to discuss the topic. Finally, in 2010 the Health Ministry of the KRG published its own study according to which 41 percent of women were mutilated. In June 2011, the bill against domestic violence banning FGM was passed by the parliament of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.
While FGM is now outlawed in the Kurdish Autonomous Region it is still legal in central Iraq. Together with the Iraqi Women’s organization Pana, WADI is now lobbying for a law banning FGM in central Iraq. On Feburary 6th 2013, the International Day of Zero Tolerance against FGM, Pana activists handed a draft law to parliamentarians in Bagdad.
Educating villagers and midwifes
The major reason for the persistence of this practice is the lack of education and information among the women population. A majority of Kurdish women is illiterate. Findings show: The higher the educational level, the lower the FGM rate. In addition, sexual education is generally not provided to girls and boys by their parents. Youngsters generally marry without any idea about sexuality. Therefore, education is a key in combatting FGM.
In cooperation with the local filmmaker Nabaz Ahmed WADI produced the awareness film “A handful of ash” and several TV-spots about FGM. The film is shown daily by WADIs mobile teams across northern Iraq, giving information and an opportunity to discuss the problem. In the discussions, participants are encouraged to join the FGM-Free Community Programm. The governement fascilitated the regular screening of the TV-spots on various Kurdish channels. This gives extra credibility to WADI’s campaign.
“If the Iraqi Kurds are leading the way (against FGM) today, it is partially thanks to a handful of local women‘s organizations that have struggled for greater awareness of the issue since the early 1990s. But the real breakthrough came in 2005 when WADI, a German non-governmental organization, published the results of its survey of 39 villages in the Germian region, east of Kirkuk.” (Time Magazine, 2008)
Lobbying beyond Iraq
Not only in Iraq WADI is pushing for a ban of FGM. In February 2008, “A Handful of Ash”, WADI´s documentary about FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan, produced by the local director Nabaz Ahmed, was presented in Germany for the first time. Additional screenings took place in Switzerland. In January 2012, WADI and Hivos organized a conference on FGM in the Middle East in the Lebanese capital Beirut. It was the first of its kind. Experts and activists from Iraq, Yemen, Indonesia and Egypt took part setting the foundation of a region-wide network to fight FGM in the Middle East. In 2013, WADI launched the campaign “Stop FGM in the Middle East” modeled after the successful “STOP FGM in Kurdistan” campaign.