by: Abigail R. Esman
Last fall, Mohamed Kandeel, a physician and member of the Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research – a partner of the World Health Organization (WHO) – published an article in which he argued for the legalization of the procedure widely called “female genital mutilation” (FGM).
His reasoning? Because it is practiced by Muslim cultures throughout Africa and much of the Middle East, and the Muslim community, he noted, “is the second largest in the world.”
Kandeel’s ideas may be all wrong, but his facts are shockingly correct: The WHO estimates that between 100-140 million women and girls have undergone FGM, with millions more likely to be victimized, and the overwhelming majority of these women and girls are Muslim. (FGM does take place in non-Muslim cultures in Africa and among Coptic Christians in Egypt, but it is by no measure as widespread.)
And it isn’t just in Africa and the Middle East, but in our own neighborhoods as well: According to Emine Bozkurt, a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, “Approximately 180,000 women in Europe undergo or are in danger of undergoing FGM every year.”
In the Netherlands alone, according to a recent Dutch report, about 30,000 women have been circumcised, and another 40-50 girls are expected to undergo genital cutting each year – one a week – despite stringent laws against it.
And all of these women are Muslim, coming largely from Egypt, Somalia and Iraqi Kurdistan – a fact that even Amnesty International prefers to sweep under the rug. A spokeswoman for the organization’s “Stop FGM” project was quick to advise that “FGM is a tribal practice that pre-dates Islam. It isn’t part of Islam and it isn’t in the Koran.”
True or not (the Koran doesn’t call for women to wear hijabs or burqas, either), the Muslim community remains criminally silent about the mutilation and violation of its women and – as with Dr. Kandeel – even goes so far as to endorse it.
Moreover, notes Dr. Phyllis Chesler, a scholar on honor-related violence and the author of Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, “What began and has remained as an African and tribal practice has been heartily adopted by Muslims and that in the world today, it is practiced by many Muslims either in or from Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Muslim Nigeria, Sierra Leone and other African non-Muslim countries. It is also practiced in non-Arab Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population.”
Others agree. Thomas von der Osten-Sacken and Thomas Uwer, for instance, writing together in the Middle East Quarterly, have further pointed out that “at the village level, those who commit the practice believe it to be religiously mandated.”
That fact may well explain why immigrants and refugees to Europe from Africa and the Arab region – the bulk of whom come from rural areas – insist on continuing this barbarism even in the face of potential criminal charges, and why some physicians even agree to perform the surgery. (Though some mothers – and it is traditionally mothers and grandmothers who do the cutting – perform the ritual on their kitchen tables, using knives, scissors, or even glass.)
Forms of FGM vary, depending on local culture and traditions, and, in some cases, religious ideology (arguments to the contrary notwithstanding). But in all cases, the practice is not only barbaric; it is devastating to the women. “The pain and trauma of the actual genital mutilation, usually carried out by women, traumatizes a girl forever,” explains Chesler. “But it may also make urination, deflowering, childbirth painful in a torturous way. Hundreds of thousands of women develop fistulas after childbirth and are rejected by their own people because feces and urine just seep out of them. They become pariahs.”
Yet shockingly, as loudly as the West continues to condemn FGM, the Muslim communities even of Western countries remain, for the most part, silent. They do not march in defense of their own women against this practice. Female community leaders do not reach out to educate the families of girls at risk. Imams do not attempt to edify their flocks. This community, which regularly makes death threats against cartoonists for their drawings, has not a word at all to say about the unspeakably inhuman abuses against their own women.
But what these new reports also make clear is that the problem of FGM in the West is larger than most of us realized. And if the Muslim communities won’t step in to stop it, then we must; because what matters isn’t whether it is tradition or religion that began it. What matters is that it end.