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 Erbil, which succeeded in attracting the interest of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Later, WADI’s campaign „STOP FGM in Kurdistan“ garnered more than 14,000 signatures for a legal ban of FGM. The petition was presented to the Kurdish Regional Government. At first parliamentarians were hesitant to discuss the topic. Finally, in 2010 the KRG Health Ministry published its own study according to which 41 percent of women were affected by FGM. Finally in June 2011, the bill against domestic violence which included a legal ban of FGM, was passed by the parliament of the Kurdish Autonomous Region.
While FGM is now outlawed in the Kurdish Region, it is still legal in central Iraq. Together with the Iraqi women’s organization Pana and other organizations, WADI lobbied for a legal ban of FGM in central Iraq as well. 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 a documentary film “Handful of Ash”. WADI also produced several awareness clips and TV spots. In one of them a prominent cleric is speaking out against the practice. WADIs mobile awareness teams are making extensive use of the video material because it is a convenient way to provide information and a good start for an open discussion. Participants are encouraged to join the FGM-free community programme.
“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
WADI and Hivos organized two conferences on FGM in the Middle East – the first in Beirut, the second in Istanbul. They were the first of their kind. Experts and activists from Iraq, Yemen, Indonesia, Oman 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.