Home » News » FGM in Iran: Blade of Islam or patriarchal custom – an interview with scholars, activists and survivors

FGM in Iran: Blade of Islam or patriarchal custom – an interview with scholars, activists and survivors

4.12.2014. by Stop FGM Middle East. The Iranian “Radio Farda” aired a 30-minutes special on female genital mutilation (FGM) happening in Iran on November 25th. It is the first time, that a radio in Iran tackles this topic and the journalist Roja Karimi Majd does so with great insight and her interviewees answer in remarkable openness. A mother who feels incredibly sad she had let this happen to her daughter says: “It ruins the life of people. Most divorces are because if this. Couples hate each other.” Her daughter talks about the effect it had on her last relationship: “When intercourse happened I could not show any reaction, I was cold. In the end my partner thought that he was the problem and this is how our relationship broke up.” The sociologist Rayehe Mozafarian explains why she calls it the blade of Islam while the activist Parvin Zabihi sees patriarchal society at the root.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-12-04 um 18.13.40Stop FGM Middle East has translated the interview from Farsi:

Interviewer: 25th of November is the international day against violence against women. Violence against women can also be female circumcision* or mutilation of sexual organs. According to the UN there is a risk of being mutilated for 30 million girls under age 15. 140 million women worldwide are already cut. In 2014, for the first time Iran was added to the list of countries where the sexual organs of women are mutilated. Before we wouldn’t have believed that FGM also exists in Iran.

Roja (Survivor of FGM): I was 3 or 4 years old and playing in the courtyard. I was called and asked to come in. An old woman came to our house. I was led to a room and there it happened. No one had told me anything, so I was very shocked. I was undressed and set on a stool. When she opened my legs, I screamed because I was frightened, also because I saw that she was holding a blade. I was very young but I will never forget the scene how she took out the blade and opened my legs and did quickly what she wanted. For a few minutes it burned and then I was so stressed I wanted to go to the toilet. I asked my mother if I was allowed to and she told me to wait a bit. In this moment my mother was more stressed than me – that was clearly visible.

Interviewer: When the women did this to you where was your mother?

Roja: I don’t know. I was so frightened and stressed. That’s why I don’t know where my mother was. It was like a butchery and the old woman was the butcher. She held me so I couldn’t move. She did her work very quickly and to perfection.

Interviewer: When did you first realize the difference between you and other girls?

Roja: I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was in the shower with another girl 5 years my senior and when I watched her I asked: Why are you closed? She asked: what? I told her to look at me and she told me what had happened to me and what the difference is.

 It happens in six provinces

Rayeheh Mozafarian

Rayeheh Mozafarian

Interviewer: We heard the voice of Roja who was born and raised in Kurdistan (province of Iran) and currently goes to University in Teheran. The mutilation of sexual organs of women has a long tradition in the world. Thereby the whole or parts of the sexual organs are cut of. According to sociologists this practice is an instrument to control women’s sexuality. Rayehe Mozafarian, a sociologist who lives in Iran and has done extensive research on female circumcision in Iran says about the prevalence:

Mozafarian: According to our study, women undergo FGM in six provinces of Iran, but in some of these provinces the practice is more common and in others less. And there are provinces where older women have been cut but their daughters and granddaughters are not. These six provinces are the Southern part of Adscherbaidschan where Kurds live, Kurdistan, Kermansheh, Ilam, Lorestan and Hormozgan.

                                                              The cutting line

Interviewer: These provinces are located in border regions. The lawyer and activist for women’s rights Bayan Azizi is calling this the “cutting line”.

Bayan Azizi: This line is in Kurdish regions which geographically or culturally belong to Iraq. But this cutting line is sometimes interrupted in some cities or even villages. In Oramanat the phenomenon is widespread, but in Sanandaj it only happens rarely. In Sanandaj you can almost say that it doesn’t exist anymore. In Saghez the phenomenon exists, but numbers are not high. Yet, in Baneh and everywhere near the Iraqi border numbers are very high – just as in Iraqi Kurdistan.

 “Most divorces are because if this”

Interviewer: When I asked Roja if she is the first to be cut in her family, she answered that also her mother was. Roja’s mother was willing to talk about her memories in the hope that no girls will be mutilated in Iran anymore.

Roja’s Mother: We were five sisters and didn’t know anything. My mother told us that someone would come, so we sat around waiting, 2, 3, 4 years old. And then it happened.

Interviewer: Do you remember what the instrument was? A knife or a razor?

Mother: A razor.

Interviewer: Then you got a bandage?

Mother: No, nothing. It was left like that.

Interviewer: Was it painful?

Mother: Yes, very. It’s not possible without pain, but they said after a couple hours it will be o.k.

Interviewer: As you told me, all women in the village were already cut. Therefore, everybody believed that circumcision of women is a tradition which must be done.

Mother: Everybody believed that it was something natural and normal and not unnatural. But we actually didn’t know what had happened to us.

Interviewer: What had happened to you looking back?

Mother: It ruined the life of people. Most divorces are because if this. It has repercussions: couples will hate each other. Children loose their fathers or mothers because of this. It has an effect on life. I would say it effects 80% of life.

 “I call it blade of Islam”

Interviewer: Rayehe Mozafarian says that FGM in Iran is not a cultural tradition but the blade of Islam.

Mozafarian: The people say that women who do not let themselves be cut are not Muslims. Therefore, I call it the blade of Islam or the blade of Muslims. But there are differences in opinion in Islam about female circumcision and how important it is, e.g. the Salafis and very religious Muslims say that it is recommended in Islam.

 “It is certain, there is nothing in the Quran”

Hassan Yussefi Eshkevari

Hassan Yussefi Eshkevari

Interviewer: The search for the word circumcision on the website of (the Supreme leader of the I.R. Iran) Khamenei did not yield any results. But other Ayatollahs have an opinion, e.g. Ayatollah Nuri Hamedi says about female circumcision that it is a very good deed. Ayatollah Javadi Amoli responds to someone seeking a fatwa: Women can be circumcised just as men, which is not prohibited in Islam and is often done by the Sunnis. He says that the circumcision leads to the woman being more favorable for her husband. In a saying the prophet Mohammed confirmed the circumcision of women.

However, Hassan Yussefi Eshkevari, Islamic scholar living in Germany, has a different opinion.

Eshkevari: In Islam, female circumcision is not mentioned, neither in the Quran nor in the Sunna or in Hadiths or Hadiths of Shia Imams. At least for the past 1400 years there is no reflection on this topic in books of Islamic scholars or clerics. It is certain, there is nothing in the Quran. Maybe, there is something in a Hadith book or another written record about Mohammed but that needs to be analysed seperately.

“Until you live through it, you don’t understand how hard it is”

Interviewer: Besides the disability caused by the mutilation there can be infections and other diseases. It is important to note that mutilations are often done by old traditional midwifes in the villages with no care for hygiene. The mother of Roja says the most severe effect of her mutilation was the loss of her sexual drive.

Mother: I was tyrannized because of this. When I was young I did not know anything about marital life.

Interviewer: How old were you when you married?

Mother: 15. Maybe after one year I was able to feel some pleasure.

Interviewer: Do you believe your circumcision has an effect on the private relationship with your husband?

Mother: Yes. I can say that women who have lived through circumcision do not want it more than one or two times per month. And if it is more often it is forced or they do it because they believe they need to satisfy their husband or to keep their life together by sex. It is really hard. Until you live through it, you don’t understand how hard it is. But the destiny of my daughter is even more harsh on me.

 “This coldness I felt was beyond my power”

Interviewer: Societies in which FGM happens do not only hand down a tradition but they also hand down the side effects to the next generation. Roja talks about the time when she realized which effects the circumcision has on her sexual drive and relationships.

Roja: Actually, I did not know what effects it woul have on my emotions and my future and it wasn’t important to me. But now I know that I will get problems in a relationship with a man because I have experienced it. I was in a relationship and got both sexual and psychological problems.

Interviewer: Why did this happen?

Roja: Because I loved my partner very much, but when intercourse happened I could not show any reaction, I was cold. In the end my partner thought that he was the problem and this is how our relationship broke up. It wasn’t my intention but I couldn’t do anything. This coldness I felt was beyond my power. I couldn’t control it. I was in love with this person, but during sex I could not imitate having fun.

Interviewer: When he saw your body did he notice the difference?

Roja: I don’t know, maybe not, or he didn’t say anything.

Interviewer: Have you been to a psychotherapist now?

Roja: I don’t know if they could help me. It is a physical and a psychological problem. It’s a disability. A part of my body is missing and I don’t know if someone can help me with that or give me advice.

Interviewer: What happened with your relationship? Do you think you will tell a new partner about your problem?

Roja: The relationship broke up. I am very frightened. In this society we never talk about sex and there is even repression. I have made a decision to do it differently. I will talk about it and tell him the truth. In my opinion the biggest problem in Iran is sexuality. Many marriages break up because of it, because they don’t speak openly about it. Because the partners often have sexual problems.

“In Islam you should enjoy this world”

Eshkevari: Islam does not have an ascetic view of sexuality like Christianity or particularly Catholicism or Judaism or other religious cultures which believe sex is bad. But unfortunately, there are also such views in our religious culture. Therefore, control of the female body is important and sex and sexual drive is seen as bad. But as far as I know Islam, the Quran and the Hadith, such opinions are very unislamic. In Islam you should enjoy this world. Sex is accepted in the frame of laws, meaning family. And if this is the case, how can people think that Islam accepts female circumcision which mutilates and disables women and therefore they can’t enjoy halal (allowed by religion) sex.

 “I had to fight against my mother in law”

Interviewer: Even though Roja’s mother experienced her mutilation and the after effects she allowed that her daughter was cut. Why did you allow it?

Roja’s Mother: I screamed too much to stop it which made me look like I was dramatizing.

Interviewer: How old was she?

Mother: 2 and a half or 3. I will be sad for life. I was 17, when it happened (to Roja).

Interviewer: Did she never ask why you let this happen?

Mother: Yes, she always complains. But I saved the other two, her younger sisters.

Interviewer: How were you able to stop it?

Mother: Before, I didn’t know what the effects were. But when I realized I didn’t let it happen anymore.

Interviewer: Who did you have to fight against?

Mother: My mother in law who lived at our place. They think it is a tradition. They say a girl must be like this. But they don’t know the destiny. Maybe they don’t know what happens with the girls.

Interviewer: Was your mother in law circumcised? Was she happy in her marriage?

Mother: Yes, all of them are. As far as she told me she was not at all happy.

Interviewer: But nevertheless she insisted that this should happen to her grandchildren.

Mother: She didn’t know that her problems came from that.

“Men have no idea what is going on”

Interviewer: Even though this mutilation is a kind of violence against women it is interestingly not performed by men but by women against their own gender. Bayan Azizi is talking about support in society for FGM.

Azizi: The circumcision happens on average at the age between 4 and 7, usually before the girls enter school. The women gather all girls from a family in one house and often the men have no idea what is going on. Then the girls are cut. Often the men are not at home and sometimes an aunt takes the girl or even a neighbor. There was a case when the midwife came to a village and all women brought their daughters except one who was out of the house. So, the neighbors got her daughter. When the mother came back she thanked the neighbors, because they made her work easier.

 “Truth is, the men want it”

Parvin Zabihi

Parvin Zabihi

Interviewer: But why are the women willing to exert such violence on their daughters? Parvin Zabihi, the activist for women’s rights living in Kurdistan, believes that patriarchal society lays at the root.

Parvin Zabihi: I don’t see this tradition as female, it’s only that women are executing it. But truth is, the men want it. We must talk first about acceptance in society. Society believes that circumcised girls are more innocent and such girls get more proposals of marriage and are more favored. This means that it is actually something the men want. When you look at it closely you see everywhere the traces of men in this thing. It is true that the men don’t know when and where their daughters are cut, but it must be. So this means it is a male will.

Interviewer: According to researchers the reason for FGM is often to preserve a girls innocence.

Zabihi: In countries where women are often cut like in Iraq or Egypt, marrying a woman is depended on whether she is cut or not, because men think an uncut woman will sleep with all men. But if she is cut she can’t have feelings for another man and she can find a better husband earlier.

 “I did so with many girls, so that they are married now”

Interviewer: Often mutilations are performed by old and illiterate midwifes or grandmothers. Two such midwifes from an island in South Iran spoke to Ms Mozafarian about the methods they are using.

Mozafarian: How old are the girls on average?

Midwife: about 7.

Mozafarian: How do you cut them?

Midwife: With cotton and disinfectant. I take the razor in one hand and hold the thing with cotton and then I cut it off. I know exactly what I have to cut. I have learned it. I did so with many girls, so that they are married now.

“There is hope that the government will do something”

Interviewer: Is there the possibility that the girls when they attain full age report the mother or grandmother for the mutilation?

Mozafarian: Until now there is no law for that. The mutilation is not officially prohibited. How can you report your mother after 12 or 13 years? Also there is no information.

Interviewer: But there is the possibility for the women to get compensation for immaterial damage, according to the new law No. 663. Cutting off women’s sexual organs must be compensated with half the payment suitable for the woman. In this law it doesn’t matter whether she is a virgin or not, small or grown, healthy or disabled. All women are treated equally. With this law and the promises by (president) Rohani can we hope that one day mutilations of women will stop in Iran?

Mozafarian: It is often talked about, but not implemented. But also talking about it means they want clarity. There is hope that the government will do something.



* Translators note: Generally, when translating documents from other languages the term for female circumcision is translated into “FGM” in English. However, during this interview it is notable that the persons speaking did not always use the Farsi term for “circumcision” but sometimes used the term for “mutilation”. To keep this notion, we decided to translate exactly the term they used. The change in terms and what terms are used by whom and when reflects a debate in society and this debate should not get lost in translation.