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FGM in the Middle East & Asia

by Zuhair Ahmed

by Zuhair Ahmed

A Start

Less than ten years ago, there was only anecdotal evidence of the existence of female genital mutilation in countries of the Middle East, in central and South East Asia. Officially, it was considered an “African problem” with both governments and the United Nations denying its existence in Asia.

One exception was Yemen: Because of its proximity to Africa and historically strong links to the African continent it was concluded that the “tradition” had swept over. Studies about FGM in Yemen have been undertaken since more than ten years and the Yemeni government pled to combat it with an action plan. Yet, women’s activists and experts criticize that few actions were taken and not much has changed.

For the rest of Asian countries, scientific evidence slowly surfaced that could not be rejected. In Iraq, WADI was able to conduct two studies about the prevalence in Northern Iraq and initiated a campaign against the practice. After the Ministry of Health of the Kurdish Autonomous Region published its own study with similar findings, parliament passed a law prohibiting FGM. Since then the Kurdish region of Iraq has taken the lead in the struggle against FGM in Asia. In 2014, WADI was able to launch a comprehensive campaign in cooperation with Unicef and the Kurdish Regional Government.

In the Gulf region, so far only individuals have come forward with addressing the issue. In Oman, a lively debate among bloggers unfolded demanding the government to take action, in 2013 the known acitvist Habiba Al Hinai conducted a survey which found 78% prevalence in the Northern part of Oman – a shockingly high number as anecdotal evidence had previously only pointed to a high prevalnce in the South. In the United Arab Emirates, a student conducted a survey for her graduation project and found 34 percent of the questioned women to be circumcised. A study in Kuwait found 38% FGM-cases among 4800 pregnant women.

An informational article about health consequences in a Jordanian newspaper hints that some people believe awareness to be useful. In Israel the practice was found among Bedouins in the 1980s but seems to have disappeared.

Evidence for FGM in Iran has become more substantiated in the last couple years. Many small scale studies have been conducted and one comprehensive study discussing the different results now show clearly where FGM is common in Iran. In one small study in Iran, a high prevalence of FGM showed among refugee women from Afghanistan – this hint to FGM being practiced in Afghanistan could not be substantiated until now, though.

For Southeast Asia many studies, some of them quite large, show that FGM is practiced by more than 90% of the Muslim population in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is also certain that the practice exists in South Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and in Sri Lanka among the Malay community.

Several activists from the Dawoodi Bohra community in India have spoken up against FGM and one filmmaker has made FGM in India a topic of the documentary “A pinch of skin“. Since 2015, an effective campaign against FGM/C among the Dawoodi Bohra community is in place with outlets like Sahiyo documenting its struggles and successes.

Even though reliable figures are still lacking for some countries, it can be said with certainty that FGM is a widespread phenomenom in Asia and is threatening the lives of millions of girls as much as it causes medical, psychological and sexual problems for adult women.

Since the launch of the Stop FGM Middle East campaign in 2013, we were able to collect dozens of studies, encourage and aid activists to conduct their own studies and to continously inform the interested public about new evidence. Today, FGM in Asia is a topic which is rarely missing on conferences and panel discussions about FGM. This is one important step to eradicating this human rights violation.

(last updated 2018)

Further Reading:

Oliver M. Piecha: Stop FGM – also in the Middle East, 5.2.2013

R. Belmaker: Female Genital Mutilation: Successful Social Change Exemplified by Israeli Bedouin and Ethiopian Jews, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheva, Israel, Asian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 4, pp. S1-S2, 2011

Chibber R, El-Saleh E, El Harmi J. (Kuwait University/ King Faisal University, Dammam, Kuwait): Female circumcision: obstetrical and psychological sequelae continues unabated in the 21st century (2011)

Wafa Marzouqi: Fatal Tradition: Female Circumcision in the U.A.E. (2011)

Susan Al Shahri: Female Genital Mutilation in Dhofar: The woman with the frankincense burner, June 7, 2011

Middle East Conference against Female Genital Mutilation by Irfan Al-Alawi, Stonegate Institute, February 2, 2012