The Telegraph, Mar. 4, 2015
Available on the Telegraph website
Amirah vividly recalls the day she was taken into a bathroom by the village midwife and forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).
“I was in my house with three other friends and we were all cut together. They took one in, cut her and brought the next one in,” she tells me.
The 37-year-old mother-of-nine is part of the 8 per cent of Iraq’s women, aged between 15 and 49 who have been subjected to this dangerous procedure, which involves the partial or total removal of a female’s external genitalia.
According to the World Health Organisation over 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in Africa and the Middle East.
Amirah kneels on a mattress in a vast, carpeted living room with a glass of steaming tea beside her: “They forced me, it was so painful,” she explains.
The young mother lives in Tutakal, a remote village approximately three hours south of the Kurdish capital of Erbil and home to some 15 families. The cluster of houses can only be reached by snaking through green fields on a muddy track.
Despite Kurdistan making recent headlines for the active role its women play in society – and the nation’s parliament passing a law in 2011 banning the practice of FGM – it’s not uncommon in some rural areas, with 70 per cent of women having been subjected to it.
In Tutakal, however, the tide seems to be changing.
In 2010, non-governmental organisation WADI approached the minute village with a life-changing proposition: residents would be provided with basic school services if they agreed to eradicate FGM.
Since then the village has seen the birth of two girls and neither of them has been cut. WADI has helped end FGM in seven villages in all and aims to eradicate the practice from five more this year, in cooperation with UNICEF.
“There are no medical examinations, we trust the villagers and the midwives,” explained Falah Muradkhan, project coordinator for WADI in Iraq.
Amirah. Photo: Sofia Barbarani
Amirah has chosen to not have her youngest daughter operated on, believing that this way she will have a better future and a happier marriage.
“If it’s wrong, why should we do it?” she asks.
The village elder, Sarhad Ageb admits that it took him two years to convince his fellow residents to quit the harmful practice.
“WADI gave us leaflets explaining how to combat FGM.
“I put them up outside my house and people the next day would rip them off,” he explains.
Mr Ageb is an elderly man with piercing blue eyes. He settles down on a mattress to explain the difficulties of ending a centuries-old practice.
“Parliament members and the government are ashamed to talk about this problem publicly. So they will never help us with such a thing until they understand it is not shameful to talk about it,” he says.
“[Some say] it was written in Islam. But when you search the Prophet’s speeches none of them support FGM in any way,” he adds.
NGOs and charities are working to help stop FGM. Photo: AFP
Much of the opposition to ending FGM came from women themselves.
While some quoted religious reasons to justify FGM, others simply saw it as the passing down of a social tradition.
According to WADI’s Women’s project coordinator Suaad Abdulrahman FGM: “Boils down to sex and controlling women’s sexuality”.
“It’s haram to not be mutilated,” explains 52-year-old Gurchell, using the Arabic word for ‘not permissible’ in Islam.
“The food we prepare is haram if we are not cut. It is tradition, and that’s why we kept mutilating our daughters,” the petite woman tells me.
“I kept crying and screaming when they held me to cut me. I asked them not to but they forced me,” recalls Gurchell, whose son is one of the first parents in the village who has chosen not to subject his daughter to FGM.
“If someone tries to mutilate my granddaughter I will kill that person,” she adds.
Midwife Amina is less sympathetic.
“When a mother brings her [daughter] to me why should I feel sorry for her?” she wonders, her red locks poking out from under a black scarf and the blue outline of a faded tattoo on her chin.
Midwife Amina. Photo: Sofia Barbarani
The 62-year-old has performed FGM on more than 1,000 girls and claims that none of them have suffered complications.
According to the World Health Organisation, FGM can cause severe bleeding, infertility and an increased risk of newborn deaths among other problems.
“Some say they won’t have [sexual] desire with their husbands, but they don’t have any problems with that,” she adds.
When asked about the procedure Amina appears nonchalant: “I cut them either with a knife or a razor, I put oil on it and send them home,” she says.
But the midwife admits that she has had to stop operating on girls because mothers are no longer bringing their daughters to her.
“But who says I won’t do it again?”
“They will humor us and say they will stop, but end up practicing FGM in secrecy,” admits WADI’s project coordinator Suaad Abdulrahman.
“The practice is intertwined with Kurdish society. So it will take time to make people understand that by cutting off a piece of their daughter they will not be any closer to adding value to their lives”.