“FGM is not the only Reason for Polygamy ….”

Activists from the field speak about their work tackling Female Genital Mutilation and other forms of violence  in Iraqi-Kurdistan

(Picture: Awareness Seminar about FGM near Ranya)

Pishder area in Iraqi-Kurdistan is known for its high rates of domestic violence and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). When Wadi conducted a first research in this area in 2009, the rate of mutilated girls and women was the highest in all Iraqi-Kurdistan and reached 100% in some villages.

 Wadi is working here since 2003 and trying to empower women and children. Some success was made, the rate of FGM for example dropped as in all parts on Kurdistan, but problems still remain. 

 We interviewed the two members of Wadi’s team, Parwen Abdullah Khidr and Nwa Khidr Haji, who are working for Wadi in Pishder to provide a better understanding of their work.

As female humanitarian activists how it is like for you to deal with a topic like FGM?

Parwen:  Although we get mixed reactions, I think it is a very important topic to discuss. I feel very relieved to talk about FGM, to raise the awareness on combating FGM and help women to combat violence. My conscience is relieved.

The women never forget the day they were mutilated

Nwa: It is an important topic for sure.  Although FGM has decreased, it has not yet completely vanished. It is still done secretly, because there are still people who believe in doing it.

Since you work with many women who are already mutilated, how do they cope with it? How has it affected their lives?

 Parwen: The biggest effect we have heard from the women is related to their sexuality. Along with the psychological trauma, sometimes after we explain the physical harms of FGM, women say “Oh, that is why my body suffers from this and that”

Nwa: It is a huge trauma, and you sense what they are dealing with. The women never forget the day they were mutilated, “When I think about it, I still get goosebumps” or one woman said “Even the pain of giving birth five times was not comparable to my mutilation”

Have you ever seen a mutilated woman who, despite the mutilation was able to have a satisfactory sexual life and the husband has been helpful?

Parwen: Sometimes we do hear from the women that at times their husband is helpful and understanding when it comes to their mutilation. But the majority of women have issues with their husbands when it comes to sex.

Nwa: We have heard of individuals who said despite FGM they have no issues. But in my opinion, this is related to shame, because in the seminars, there might be a relative attending. Sharing your sex issues and talking openly about them is still very difficult for them.

The type of mutilation also makes difference in the effect; those whose flesh are more or less scratched instead of totally cut off suffer from less damage, there are worse cases in which the mutilation even happened two or three times.

(Picture: Seminar about FGM for Men)

In your personal opinion considering your experience, do you think women who are subjected to FGM might be more prone and tolerate domestic violence in comparison to a woman who had not been mutilated?

Parwen: Yes, I think so. Because the woman feels insecure inside, knowing she cannot satisfy her husband. Therefore she tolerates many things.

Nwa: We can say that; even in the process of intercourse a lot of women are humiliated, because the man vocally complains of her lack of response, instead of understanding and caring. So the women just accept anything, because of these insecurities.

What can be done to prevent new cases form happening?

Parwen: Through awareness, I think, we have saved many. A woman recently told me “I can’t find someone to do it, otherwise, I would.” After the seminar she was convinced to not do it to her daughter. To me it seems intensifying awareness is the best solution.

Men mostly associate the doers of FGM with women like mothers and aunts, as they usually claim they are not aware of this practice.

Nwa: Awareness raising for sure. But not only like our visits to homes; we must take advantage of media, through short clips about the sufferings of women, adress the issues of sex that is related to the consequences of FGM. Also leaders and officials must be more involved in the process as well as clerics. They have a big role to play; a lot of people would listen to them in our community. Especially men.

How do men get interested and involved in topics of FGM and domestic violence?

Parwen: Men mostly associate the doers of FGM with women like mothers and aunts, as they usually claim they are not aware of this practice.

Nwa: There a lot of men who are against the Law No.8 of 2011 on combating domestic violence. This law was issued by the Kurdish parliament to criminalize all forms of violence against women and children. But still many people believe this law causes issues among families. They often tell us “There is shouting and cursing in every household, but this law encourages our wifes not to accept anything from us”. In case a woman registers a case against a violent husband, he may decide to divorce her, because to him, she has dishonored him in the society.  We have so many cases like this at court.

What is the response for polygamy from men and women in general?

Parwen: In one sentence: many men support it and women do not. In almost every seminar with men, they ask us to change the law, so they can get other wifes.

Most men go for polygamy, for a better sex life.

Nwa: Yes, it is a big issue for them. In every meeting with religious leaders, mayors and men, I [as a lawyer] am asked to help change this law and fix it, because polygamy is approved on by religion. “Women outnumber men, what these women will do if we don’t have men to marry them?” they ask us.

Women also are against it, but some say they are forced to sign approval documents, or to protect their families, they have to agree.

Have you ever heard from men, the cause for polygamy might be more or less related to FGM?

Parwen: Just form speaking to women; you understand why men get other wifes. They often tell us, that their husbands are very dissatisfied with their sex life “like a piece of wood or cold” as they describe it. That is why most men go for polygamy, for a better sex life.

Nwa: I would not say, FGM is the only cause of polygamy. However, it does have a big effect and contributes a lot to the situation. Most men do not understand that if their wives are “cold” it is not, because they dislike them but a result of FGM.

(Picture: Talking with Clerics)

You also do seminars for religious leaders (Mullah). Please tell us about their position on domestic violence and FGM?

 Parwen: The majority we have met, were against it. But there are still those who support  it and encourage people to do it. We recently did a seminar with a number of religious leaders in Chwarqurna Sub-District; one Mullah was supporting FGM and kept saying there are proofs in Islam legitimizing it. However, the other Mullahs reproached him and told him that’s not true at all.

Nwa: There are some mullahs who go against us, and tell us: “You spread non-religious beliefs”. But generally, men say: “We don’t know when FGM is done to our daughters, their mothers do it.”. Yet we also came across situations where the woman told us her husband insisted on doing FGM. “She will be disgrace in the future [if she is not mutilated]” he said.

As a lawyer, does the Law No. 8 of combating domestic violence plays an effective role? If not, how can it improve?

Nwa: Law No. 8 is a crucial law when it is explained to people as it really is. It is very useful, but unfortunately, men have the assumption that this law is bad for their families, causing their wives to misbehave and they believe this law is more about women rights than the ones of men.

What are your suggestions towars the Directorate of Combating Domestic Violence and other Governmental agencies how to improve the situation of women in the region?

Parwen:  I think awareness is vital, and the Directorate and other organizations should focus on that. The role of courts is also essential, because a lot of times, justice is not served.

Nwa: I think, theater and short TV spots and films would be good to provide more awareness on FGM, what happens because of it, the sufferings of women and the families. Additionally, the role of the religious leaders is very big, so through their preaching they should support combating FGM and encourage people not to do it.

What were the positive and surprising things about this field of work?

Nwa: Saving children from FGM is the best thing for us, because we know they have avoided a big issue in their lives. For our Play Bus Project we really love spending time with the children, we feel their happiness, it is great, we also get to meet different people from different areas and traditions every day, which is really great.

In the meeting with the religious leaders, the head of Fatwa council praised us for our courage to directly addressing twenty-two mullahs on domestic violence and FGM. He even expressed his readiness to help us do conduct more seminars for other religious leaders. This was really a success for us.

Parwen: In recent seminar with religious leaders in Chwarqurna, I was pleasantly surprised of the positive reaction to our topics. One of the mullahs even said: “We are proud of you, for working in this direction, we consider you as the lead.” I will never forget this comment, because it is so important for a mullah to view our work in this way. Since many of them have a negative view on organizations.

(Picture: Activities for Children through the Play Bus project)

How about the challenges?

Parwen: One time we had a seminar and were unaware that the owner of that house had a nap in the other room. Suddenly he came out shouting at us: “Why you are here?!” even hitting our flex. We were really shocked and shaken by that.

Nwa: It is hard in some places, when you try to collect the women, they don’t open doors or would not answer our calls, or when they tell us “You can’t do your seminar in our house”. Sometimes they don’t even greet us.

Also at the situation Parwen mentioned, I was trying to take photos, I was completely frozen, I really thought he will hit us. But we explained the situation quickly to calm him down. We did not even take good photos. Because many times the men do not approve on taking photos of the women in the seminars.

You also work on the Play Bus Project for children in your area, how are children viewed? Do you feel like they are valued?

 Parwen: No, children are not valued here. Even with the negligence they suffer from they are also subjected to a lot of violence. I don’t think, I have met anyone who did not beat their children. One time in a school, in front of us, a teacher slapped a student. We receive a lot of complains from the students. Then we try to speak to the teachers and the school administration.

Nwa: Violence is very present in schools and at home. Often students hide this violence they suffer from, because they are scared of the teachers. We need a proper education and we urgently need child-upbringing awareness for the parents.


The interview was conducted by Skokh Mohammad