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Female Genital Mutilation Hijacks Religion to Subjugate Girls

The fight against female genital mutilation continues. The harmful practice, which has no roots in religion, affects girls from rural Muslim Somalia to America’s Christian heartland.

Rabat – Some of the strongest critics of female genital mutilation (FGM) are those who have experienced it.

Consider the following story: A teenager fled threats in Somalia and pursued a new life in the UK. Applying resourcefulness and determination, she paved a new future for herself. A medical examination revealed her as a survivor of female genital mutilation, an experience which ignited a personal drive to campaign against the practice. 

She began her own foundation and received a title from a major governing authority. She later visited her family in Somalia to address her mutilation. A world-renowned activist, her inspirational story is now portrayed in film.

Who is she? She is Waris Dirie. And she is Ifrah Ahmed. Two decades apart, two Somali-born women walked similar paths to the same destiny: A life’s commitment to end FGM. The two leaders, who support each other’s work, are now at major moments in their movement.

Dirie quite literally returned to the international spotlight on March 7. The former supermodel collaborated with luxury lingerie and erotica brand Coco de Mer to raise awareness. The video campaign is Dirie’s first modeling project in two decades and benefits her charity, the Desert Flower Foundation. Coco de Mer’s industry concerns female pleasure, a theme inextricable from mutilation.

Ifrah Ahmed’s biographical movie, “A Girl From Mogadishu,” finished its film festival circuit at New York’s 51Fest on July 21. “I want this movie to travel the world,” the activist said. “I want to reach the decision-makers, the leaders and the young people, who are the future…. Girls are being traumatised by FGM. Children are dying. I hope people will watch this movie and understand that this has to end.” 

Female genital mutilation dates back over 2,000 years to the pharaonic era. People still practice it worldwide, especially in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Muslims, Christians, and other believers continue a tradition that has historically geographic and social, not religious, roots. People commonly perform FGM to guarantee purity, decrease female libido, and maintain honor.

FGM in Somalia

Dirie and Ahmed are among an estimated 200 million women and girls worldwide today to have experienced the practice. Their native Somalia has the highest FGM prevalence rate worldwide at 98%, according to a 2013 UNICEF report.

The mutilation indicates a girl’s marriageability, significant in a culture where bride prices factor into family livelihoods. The majority of girls in Somalia face this rite of passage between ages 5 to 9. Usually women who have not been professionally trained perform the procedure using knives, broken glass, or razor blades.

Most Somali girls undergo a severe version of FGM called infibulation. This involves removing or reshaping all external genitalia and sewing the vaginal opening nearly shut. A small hole remains for urine and menstrual blood to drain, which then occurs very slowly and can cause severe pain and infection.

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FGM also poses maternal danger during childbirth. Breaking the vaginal seal can lead to fatal hemorrhaging. Tearing can result in fistula and urinary incontinence. The sewn barrier may also delay the baby’s exit from the birth canal, sometimes resulting in stillbirths and infant mortality. Often, the wound is re-stitched shut after delivery.

The practice is medically unnecessary, and the rights community widely condemns it. 

Practitioners employ pseudo-religious justifications to continue the harmful practice. Critics say it subjugates women. It is “deeply entrenched in the patriarchal need to control women’s bodies and sexualities,” according to Zainah Anwar, executive director of Muslim women’s rights NGO Musawah. 

Somali Islamic law and FGM

Somalia’s Constitution prohibits, but does not explicitly criminalize, the practice: “Circumcision of girls is a cruel and degrading customary practice, and is tantamount to torture. The circumcision of girls is prohibited,” Article 15(4) reads.

Somalia’s Constitution, by its own declaration, is the “supreme law of the country,” after Islamic Sharia law. As it turns out, Islamic legal scholarship often condemns the practice.

The prophet Muhammad did not have his daughters cut and said humans should “not harm ourselves or others.” 

The Qur’an does not reference FGM but explicitly describes the devil leading people to mutilation: “I will create in them false desires … to deface the fair nature created by Allah.” (Qur’an 4:119-120). 

Muslim proponents of FGM may cite the singular hadith (a story from the prophet’s life) that refers to the practice, in which the prophet told a woman to cut less severely. This hadith, written roughly 250 years after Muhammad’s death, was later declared unreliable by its own author.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, representing 53 Muslim-majority member countries, denounces FGM. 

And in Somalia, one senior cleric joins Ahmed and Dirie with his campaign against FGM. “I was shocked to learn that Islam does not support female genital mutilation,” said Sheikh Ibrahim Hassan. “The majority of Muslims have lived in darkness for centuries.”  

“It’s very hard to convince people to abandon the practice but when you search the Quran and the Sunnah there is no reference to FGM,” Hassan said in a radio broadcast sermon. “We are killing the dreams of our girls by subjecting them to this brutal act. Those carrying the practice have inherited it from their ancestors and not teachings from the Quran,” he continued. 

A 2018 UN report argued that religious leaders “have a unique role in mobilizing communities towards changing attitudes and norms that perpetuate female genital mutilation.” Leaders like Hassan assume a weighty role in the anti-FGM movement.

Official legislation in Somalia also plays a role. The country witnessed a landmark prosecution in July 2018, after a 10-year-old girl died from mutilation. The girl’s parents hampered the investigation, reportedly hiding the perpetrator from police. Many rights advocates still saw the case as progress.

“It is not acceptable that in the 21st century FGM is continuing in Somalia. It should not be part of our culture. It is definitely not part of the Islamic religion,” Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Gulaid commented on the prosecution.

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FGM in America

Activists call for legislative focus to fight the practice on American soil, where approximately 513,000 girls are affected, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Today, FGM is still legal in 16 US states. 

An evangelical Christian minister’s daughter from Kentucky came forward in April to report that she and her sister were subjected to the practice as children. Dr. Renee Bergstrom revealed in 2016 that a Christian doctor performed the operation on her as a 3-year-old. 

She indicated the story was not limited to her: “I witnessed Christian religions declaring masturbation a sin, some Christian leaders and doctors recommending circumcision to prevent it, physicians carrying out the practice, and our American culture first accepting this form of sexual abuse and then denying it ever occurred.”

Most FGM in the US occurs in immigrant diaspora communities, but some “heartland” Americans exploit Christianity to justify the practice.

A federal judge from Michigan declared the US’s national ban on FGM unconstitutional in a controversial ruling last November. The case against medical practitioners and parents involved families from a small Muslim sect originating in West India. 

American leaders introduced the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2019 to the Senate in June to remove the technicality cited in the Michigan ruling. 

Fighting the practice, from doctors to dogma

Most countries worldwide legally prohibit FGM. Many anti-FGM activists call for stronger legal action, along with educational interventions and a push against medicalizing the practice. 

Some also call on believers and religious leaders to reverse the practice’s misaligned ties to faith. 

Dirie’s 1998 autobiography, “Desert Flower,” explored underlying ties between FGM and her personal faith. “I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple. My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them?”