The repellent and, in too few countries, prohibited, practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is believed by some Muslims and many non-Muslims to be an Islamic procedure. As the Centre for Islamic Pluralism has shown in our study, “A Guide to Shariah Law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe, 2007-09,” FGM has been assimilated into Muslim societies and has been legitimized by Islamic jurists.
FGM is a pre-Islamic practice. Abuse of women and children under the color of religious law cannot be ascribed to Islamic religious inspiration per se. But the example of Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the leader of the Muslim world and where so-called “honor” crimes, FGM, forced marriage, forced divorce, and related customs are institutionalised, shows that their adoption in Islamic cultures, and the complicity of Muslim religious leaders in enabling them by failing to oppose them or assist victims, must be recognized.
Examining the four recognized Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, we find that FGM is now considered obligatory by adherents of the Shafi’i school of Islamic law, including many Arabs as well as Sunni Kurds, but is absent from the Shafi’i areas of the Indian Ocean and is rare or banned in Southeast Asia (for example, it is illegal in Indonesia). FGM is seen as virtuous but not required by the fundamentalist Hanbali school, which was influential historically in the Arabian peninsula, and as a custom acceptable according to the desire of the husband by the Hanafi school, in the former territories of the Ottoman and Mughal empires. It is an implied but not a specified practice in Maliki religious law, which obtains in the Maghrib (Morocco and Algeria) and the nearby Islamized regions of black Africa.
FGM is generally banned in Shia Islam. Surgeons conducting FGM reversal are now active in some countries. Yet the radical and reactionary cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi has argued in its favor, writing: “Actually, this is a controversial issue among jurists and even among doctors. It has sparked off fierce debate in Egypt whereby scholars and doctors are split into proponents and opponents.
“However, the most moderate opinion and the most likely one to be correct is in favor of practising circumcision in the moderate Islamic way indicated in some of the Prophet’s hadiths - even though such hadiths are not confirmed to be authentic. It is reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to a midwife: ‘Reduce the size of the clitoris but do not exceed the limit, for that is better for her health and is preferred by husbands.’
“The hadith indicates that circumcision is better for a woman’s health and it enhances her conjugal relation with her husband. It’s noteworthy that the Prophet’s saying ‘do not exceed the limit’ means ‘do not totally remove the clitoris’
“Actually, Muslim countries differ over the issue of female circumcision; some countries sanction it whereas others do not. Anyhow, it is not obligatory, whoever finds it serving the interest of his daughters should do it, and I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world.”
This idiom epitomises the slippery habits of Al-Qaradawi, who admits in one paragraph that the hadiths he cites are not demonstrably authoritative, then proceeds to deliver himself of opinions presuming that the Prophet Muhammad’s views on this matter are fully authenticated.
A German-based Non-Governmental Organization, WADI - The Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation, at http://www.wadinet.de/index.php, -- has dedicated considerable and worthy efforts to investigating FGM in Kurdistan. According to a new WADI report, “Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi-Kurdistan: An Empirical Study,” Kurdish society is known for its high incidence of FGM. It is undeniably tragic that while Kurdistan has notable Sufi spiritual traditions and a significant history of struggle against the Saddam dictatorship, it is also a center of FGM.
According to the WADI report, the rate of FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan is alarmingly steep in the districts of Garmyan/New Kirkuk, at 81.2 percent of the female population over 14 years old, in Suleymaniyah (77.9) percent, and in Arbil (63 percent). In representatives of earlier generations, comprising women now 80 or older, the occurrence of FGM is 100 percent.
The report suggests a decline of FGM, as it is becoming less common among women, and “only 46.2 percent of the interviewees said that FGM is still common in their community. On an optimistic assessment, the current FGM rate could be already below 50 percent.” The WADI study points out only one bright spot in the Kurdish panorama: In the far-northern district of Dohuk, which borders on Turkey, FGM has a rate 10 times below that in the rest of Kurdistan, with only seven percent of women recorded as having undergone mutilation. WADI states that it cannot account for this important difference, which merits further study.
But a situation in which half of Kurdish women are still subjected to this atrocity remains disgraceful for all Muslims. Islam today faces many challenges as believers seek to reinforce universal values of civility between faiths, accountability, and popular sovereignty within the global Islamic community. But these necessary efforts cannot be fulfilled without renewed guarantees for the equality of women and protection of their rights. For moderate Muslims, a major goal must be the abolition of FGM, with the naming and shaming of clerics and other authorities who justify it.