Tuesday, January 19, 2010

West African 'Fatwa' Bans Female Circumcision

In an important action, 34 Islamic scholars in Mauritania, West Africa, have signed a “fatwa,” or religious opinion, banning the practice of female genital mutilation.

Cheikh Ould Zein, head of the Forum of Islamic Thought, said the scholars believe the Qur'an does not endorse cutting young girls' genitals to limit their sexual activity as women. He said yesterday that the leaders also agreed to preach against the practice at their mosques.

The process, also called female circumcision, is common in parts of Africa and involves the surgical removal of the clitoris or other female genital parts. The procedure is often performed by women with little or no medical training. It can eliminate pleasure for women during sex and cause lasting pain and complications in childbirth.

The fatwa, signed in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, states that the procedure has been proven to be harmful either at the time or subsequently to those girls and young women who have undergone the practice.

Many Mauritanian women have welcomed the move, one in Nouakchott saying it has truly smashed an ancient taboo. However, it seems vital that a significant publicity campaign will now be needed if the fatwa's message is to be spread into outlying areas where genital mutilation is most common. It is very encouraging that religious leaders have promised to present the new fatwa in their mosques.

Female genital mutilation has been recognized globally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. But that message has been slow to filter down in parts of north, east and west Africa where the practice is still widespread.

Health campaigners estimate that more than 70 percent of Mauritanian girls undergo the partial or total removal of their external genitalia for non-medical reasons.

The World Health Organization says there are no health benefits and many potentially damaging consequences, from severe pain and blood loss to recurrent infections, infertility and an increased risk of complications in childbirth – not to mention the inability of many of these females to ever again feel any clitoral pleasure or to reach an orgasm as a result of the procedure.

Shockingly, I found only one news article reporting this new fatwa that mentioned, or even eluded to, the loss of a woman’s innate ability to experience sexual pleasure FOR LIFE as a result of undergoing genital mutilation.

Mutilations are carried out for a mix of cultural and social reasons, and many believe the practice has Islamic religious support, even if this isn't always the case.

A law professor at Nouakchott University said the collective fatwa would greatly reduce female genital mutilation in Mauritania because it would remove what he called “the religious mask” that the practice hides behind.

In November 2006, an Egyptian conference of Muslim scholars from around the world declared female circumcision to be contrary to Islam and an attack on women, and called for those who practice it to be punished.

That conference, organized by the German human rights group TARGET, recommended that governments pass laws to prohibit the tradition and that judicial bodies prosecute those who mutilate female genitals.

"The conference appeals to all Muslims to stop practicing this habit, according to Islam's teachings which prohibit inflicting harm on any human being," the participants said in their final statement.

Egypt's two top Islamic clerics, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar, the foremost theological institute in the Sunni Muslim world, and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, attended the conference, which drew scholars from as far afield as Russia.

Tantawi's and Gomaa's edicts are considered binding.

Nonetheless, female circumcision continues to be practiced in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa as well as Egypt, Yemen and Oman, despite numerous campaigns against it.

Frequently, those men who support the tradition believe it lowers a girl's sexual desire and therefore helps maintain her honor. They also believe it is required by Islam.

The scholars said circumcision inflicts physical and mental harm on women. Furthermore, they said, Islam considers it to be an aggression against women. Concluding that those who perform it should be punished.

"The conference reminds all teaching and media institutions of their role to explain to the people the harmful effects of this habit in order to eliminate it," the scholars said in their 2006 recommendations.

"The conference calls on judicial institutions to issue laws that prohibit and criminalize this habit...which appeared in several societies and was adopted by some Muslims although it is not sanctioned by the Quran or the Sunna," the scholars said, referring to Islam's holy book and the sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad.

Although many countries have outlawed female circumcision, the law is poorly enforced and prosecutions are rare.

As far back as the 1950s, the Egyptian government tried to stop midwives from performing the custom, while allowing doctors to do so – fearing that otherwise families who insisted on circumcising their daughters would have the operation carried out in unsafe conditions. But in 1996, the health minister imposed a total ban on the practice.

The Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project is a non-profit group organized to promote the dissemination of material related to female genital mutilation. The Project seeks to form an online clearinghouse and a community for researchers, activists, attorneys, and health care practitioners to obtain information and network with others involved in similar projects.

The following information comes from the FGCENP website:

“As you are reading this article, there are between eight and ten million women and girls in the Middle East and in Africa who are at risk of undergoing one form or another of genital cutting. In the United States it is estimated that about ten thousand girls are at risk of this practice. FGC in a variety of its forms is practiced in Middle Eastern countries (the two Yemens, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Southern Algeria). In Africa it is practiced in the majority of the continent including Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Mozambique, and Sudan.”

“Even though FGC is practiced in mostly Islamic countries, it is not an Islamic practice. FGC is a cross-cultural and cross-religious ritual. In Africa and the Middle East it is performed by Muslims, Coptic Christians, members of various indigenous groups, Protestants, and Catholics, to name a few.”

The FGCENP states there primarily three methods of female genital mutilation/circumcision that has been reported in the U.S., and around the world.

“The first and mildest type of FGC is called 'sunna circumcision' or Type I. The term 'Sunna' refers to tradition as taught by the prophet Muhammad. This involves the 'removal of the prepuce with or without the excision of part or all of the clitoris.' Type I is practiced in a broad area all across Africa parallel to the equator. Fran Hosken enumerates the following countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania in East Africa to the West African coast, from Sierra Leone to Mauritania, and in all countries in-between including Nigeria, the most populous one. There are also reports of Type I taking place in areas of the Middle East such as in Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.”

“The second type of FGC, Type II, involves the partial or entire removal of the clitoris, as well as the scraping off of the labia majora and labia minora . This takes place in countries where infibulation has been outlawed such as Sudan. Clitoridectomy was invented by Sudanese midwives as a compromise when British legislation forbade the most extreme operations in 1946.”

“The third and most drastic type of FGC is Type III. This most extreme form, consists of the removal of the clitoris, the adjacent labia (majora and minora), and the joining of the scraped sides of the vulva across the vagina, where they are secured with thorns or sewn with catgut or thread. A small opening is kept to allow passage of urine and menstrual blood. An infibulated woman must be cut open to allow intercourse on the wedding night and is closed again afterwards to secure fidelity to the husband. Hosken also reports that infibulation is 'practiced on all females, almost without exception, in all of Somalia and wherever ethnic Somalis live (Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti).' It is also performed throughout the Nile Valley, including Southern Egypt, and all along the Red Seas Coast.”

“FGC is mostly done in unsanitary conditions in which a midwife uses unclean sharp instruments such as razor blades, scissors, kitchen knives, and pieces of glass. These instruments are frequently used on several girls in succession and are rarely cleaned, causing the transmission of a variety of viruses such as the HIV virus, and other infections. Antiseptic techniques and anesthesia are generally not used, or for that matter, heard of. This is akin to a doctor who uses the same surgical instrument on a number of women at the same time without cleaning any of them.”

“In many cultures, FGC serves as an initiation rite, and any efforts to eradicate it must take this into consideration. Some of the most successful eradication efforts have taken place in areas where FGC was replaced with 'initiation without cutting' programs whereas a girl still goes through some initiation rites but this time, without any blood.”

“Alternative rituals are currently being implemented in countries like Ghana and Kenya, that do not include any bloodletting. A girl will still undergoes the celebrations and the rituals that usually accompany the circumcision ritual , however, the procedure itself is either replaced with a small pricking elsewhere on the body to let out a small drop of water, or bloodletting is completely done away with.”

“Other successful programs have also experimented with giving midwives monthly salaries for putting down their knives and becoming health care workers. They are now trained in various aspects of female health, and go from village to village educating women about the harmful effects of female circumcision, and the importance of proper nutrition during pregnancy, how to protect from sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, and proper usages of condoms, among other health topics.”

“It is also important to note that even though FGC is currently illegal in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, this has not reduced the number of the girls that are mutilated every year. The governments of these countries have no way of monitoring the spread and practice of FGC. The United Nations, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization has considered FGC to be a violation of Human Rights and have made recommendations to eradicate this practice. However, trying to fight FGC on legal terms is ineffective since those who practice it oftentimes do not report it. FGC is also widely practiced in villages and remote places where the government does not have an easy access.”

“In the United States level, there are many efforts that are being made in order to abolish the practice locally and internationally. The National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), a networking organization have brought together social scientists and medical practitioners from all over the world who are fighting FGC as well as male circumcision. NOCIRC has also founded the FGC Awareness and Education Project in August 1996. One of the goals of the project is to create an FGC Module which will provide information and training material to health care professionals.”

To provide a further global perspective, the practice has been studied and addressed by the United Nations since 1958! The U.N. has supported the right of member states to grant refugee status to women who fear being mutilated if they are returned to their country of origin. Canada has granted such status to women in this situation. A judge of a Canadian Federal Court declared it a "cruel and barbaric practice."

In the West, the procedure is outlawed in the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. A U.S. federal bill, "Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation of 1995" was passed in  September 1996. Section 273.3 of the Canadian Criminal Code protects children who are ordinarily resident in Canada, (as citizens or landed migrants) from being removed from the country and subjected to FGM. In the U.S. and Canada, the very small percentage of immigrants who wish to continue the practice often find it impossible to find a doctor who will cooperate. The operation is often done in the home by the family.

However, the sad truth is that legislation against FGM may be counter-productive in some cases. It might force the practice deeply underground. As a result, girls/young women may not seek needed medical care because their parents could potentially be charged for performing the practice.

— The Curator

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