On January 19, the first conference on female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Middle East opened in Beirut, Lebanon. The event was called by two non-governmental organizations, the Dutch-based Humanist Institute for Cooperation (HIVOS) and WADI, the Association for Crisis Assistance and Solidarity Development Cooperation. Founded by Germans, WADI has worked extensively in Iraqi Kurdistan, where it is in the forefront of opposition to FGM.

FGM is most commonly found in African countries, where it may be inflicted on women by Christians and animists as well as by Muslims. For example, Egyptian Copts and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians subject their daughters to this cruel and inhumane degradation. FGM is not a religious-based practice, although it has been legitimised by certain Islamic clerics, including the Egyptian radical preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Even Al-Qaradawi, nevertheless, states that the alleged justification for FGM among Muslims is based on weak hadiths (oral commentaries) of Muhammad, and that it therefore cannot be considered obligatory. It has no basis in Qur'an and, fortunately, is absent from much of the Muslim world.

With the political ascendancy in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Al-Qaradawi has been associated, there is a real danger that FGM will increase as a feature of the ostensible "re-Islamisation" of Egypt. Such an outcome would be paradoxical, in that FGM is considered by many a pre-Islamic custom prevalent in Pharaonic Egypt, and its encouragement, rather than supporting Islam, would represent a return to a cultural pattern to which Islam was historically, and definitively, opposed. But the perverse notion that FGM, which predates Islam, reinforces Islamic society, has led to its increase in Indonesia, where FGM was undertaken typically by local shamans or folk healers.

The Beirut conference on FGM brought together activists and experts from Iraqi Kurdistan, central Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, and Indonesia. Their primary goal is to establish an anti-FGM network with a permanent structure and an effective strategy to eliminate FGM.

Among Arab countries, FGM is also known to exist in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Oman. It has been reported in Iran, although Shia Muslims have no tradition of FGM. Iraqi officials deny its existence in the Arab part of their republic, and open discussion of it is almost nonexistent. But it is especially well-known in Iraqi Kurdistan, where religious scholars have engaged in extended debate over whether it is permissible, with some claiming it is required. Last year, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan prohibited FGM in a general law against domestic violence.

A 2005 article in the Arab News, published in Saudi Arabia, admitted that FGM was common in the southern region of the kingdom, even being performed in medical clinics and hospitals. In countries where it is prohibited, it continues to be carried out in private by midwives.

The Arab News noted "The instruments used by the midwife will vary and could include broken glass, a tin lid, razor blades, knives, scissors or any other sharp object. These items usually are not sterilized before or after usage and often the same instrument is used on several girls at the same time. Once the genital area for removal is gone, the child is stitched up and her legs are bound for up to 40 days.

"This procedure can cause various side-effects and, in extreme cases, death. Some of the results of this procedure are serious infections, abscesses and small benign tumors, hemorrhages, shock and clitoral cysts.

"A family physician at a public hospital told Arab News that a Saudi mother presented her six-year-old daughter because she was in pain; on examination, doctors found a benign tumor due to recent cutting. When she asked the mother where she had this done to her daughter, the mother said at a small clinic in their village.

"The long-term effects of these procedures may also include kidney stones, sterility, sexual dysfunction, depression, various urinary tract infections, and gynecological and obstetric problems."

Dr. Nasr Khabbaz, pediatric surgeon at the Children and Maternity Hospital in Jeddah, told the Arab News then that he had interviewed mothers who had been victims of FGM, and that "Many of them refuse to perform it on their daughters and curse their fathers for doing it to them. But it is not easy for them to convince the fathers not to do it."

Victims of extreme FGM, in which the sexual organ is closed almost completely, may have to undergo second and third vaginal cutting procedures after marriage, to allow sexual relations with their husbands, and when giving birth. In all cases, the risk of serious damage to health from such atrocities is undeniable.

The Beirut conference attendees proposed that citizens and government authorities in the Middle East, as well as international organisations, to implement six policies:

1. Calling on Middle Eastern governments to recognize that FGM is a gross offence against human rights.

2. Demanding that regional governments take responsibility for recording empirical and statistical information about FGM.

3. Encouraging local civil society groups to collect data on FGM in each country.

4. Maintaining a regional anti-FGM network.

5. Pressing the United Nations to address FGM in the Middle East.

6. Appealing to the UN, the European Union, and the US government to include abolition of FGM as a basic principle in their diplomatic relations with Middle East governments.

As described by the World Health Organization, FGM violates the rights of female minors as well as adult women. It reinforces existing gender inequality, as a violent expression of discrimination against women.

Moderate and traditional Muslim clerics, scholars, and leaders should join the campaign to rid the world of this nefarious practise. They should endorse and extend the findings and principles articulated at the Beirut conference.

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