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The Deepest Cut

Y-Magazin, Oman, 5.2.2014. It’s a practice that is banned in Oman’s hospitals, yet female circumcision is being carried out on babies and young girls across the Sultanate. Y investigates. Report by Kate Ginn

The painful memories are buried deep but not forgotten. Muna remembers the voice of her mother calling her.

“She was saying ‘I’ll buy you an ice cream and a yoghurt-filled chocolate’. I joyfully ran behind her in my green trousers and dress,” she recalls. “We walked into dark roads further than the shop. God, I will never forget how sickening and awful that place was.”

Muna was not going to the store for sweets. Her mother was taking her to be circumcised, as she herself had been at the same age.

“I remember being in severe pain, crying my lungs out, and bleeding heavily on my trousers and dress,” says Muna, her eyes filling with long suppressed tears.

She was around five or six years old when the procedure was done at her village in Al Batinah, about 180km from Muscat. Certainly, much older than the baby girls in Salalah who are circumcised just a few days after birth, carried out by women often with no formal medical training or qualifications.

As the world today (Feb 6) marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a UN-sponsored awareness day, Y investigates whether the practice still happens on our doorstep.

We have spoken to Omani women, health officials and those who have been circumcised, to gather a full and balanced picture of the situation.

We have also spoken to a circumciser who carries out the procedure on girls in Salalah, the youngest two days old and the eldest 12 years old.

Not only is FGM still practiced in the Sultanate, it happens all over the country – not just in the south where previously thought – and is passed down through the generations, according to a new independent study.

“FGM constitutes a widespread phenomenon in Oman in all age groups,” says Habiba al Hinai, an Omani campaigner and statistician who carried out the study.

“The results (of the study) shocked me. Being an Omani, I didn’t realise how prevalent it is,” says al Hinai.

“We are not just talking about rural areas and uneducated women. It is happening everywhere, even in Muscat, and educated, cultured women support it.

“Yet no-one wants to talk about it. It’s still a taboo subject.”

Female Genital Mutilation in the Sultanate of Oman (Age of Circumcision)

Source: Habiba al Hinai, Female Genital Mutilation in the Sultanate of Oman (January 2014)

On December 20, 2012 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for an end to the practice of FGM, describing it as a ‘serious threat to the health of women and girls.’

The UN does not, however, have any legal power to enforce a ban. Some countries had already acted. FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2007 (although the UN claims that it is still widely practiced there).

In Oman, female circumcision is banned in hospitals and clinics but there is nothing stopping it being carried out in a private home.

Female circumcision or FGM is a procedure that involves the partial or total removal of intimate parts of a young girl or woman’s body. There are four types, with the most severe (Type 3) involving everything bar a small hole being sealed up. It is usually carried out between the ages of infancy to 15, according to United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The slightest can be a mere pinprick, which still is considered by UNICEF as a harmful procedure.

Long-term consequences of FGM can, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), be recurrent bladder infections, cysts, infertility, tetanus, open sores and an increased risk of childbirth complication. Some girls hemorrhage to death from botched operations, according to the WHO.

A UNICEF publication released in July last year (Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change) revealed that at least 125 million girls and women have experienced FGM in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Yemen, where the practice is concentrated.

Every year, the lives of three million girls are threatened by the practice, claims the WHO.

According to the groundbreaking UNICEF 2013 report, Egypt has the world’s highest total number of women who have undergone FGM (27.2 million), while Somalia has the highest rate of FGM at 98 per cent.

Anecdotal evidence reveals that FGM is practiced in Oman and nearby countries like the UAE.

The Ministry Of Health acknowledged as such in its Five-Year Health Plan: 2006-2010, stating a ‘regional study showed that the percentage of circumcised Omani female children (less than 3 years) was 100% in some wilayats, which is a matter of concern.’

Female circumcision is banned in state hospitals in the Sultanate.

As a result, most ‘operations’ take place in homes, according to al Hinai’s research paper, Female Genital Mutilation in the Sultanate of Oman, which was published last month in co-operation with Stop FGM Middle East, a women’s rights group campaigning on the issue.

More often than not, the circumciser is a local woman who has taken on the role, plying her trade in villages and wilayats

We know that it is happening because we have spoken to women in Oman who have undergone circumcision. Women like Aaliya, who comes from Saham. She told Y that an old woman came to her home when she was about six or seven years old.

“All the female neighbours had come to sit in the room,” she recalls. “I was called into the room by my mother. I just remember pain and the feel of blood.”

She had no understanding of what was happening to her body or why. Nobody explained anything to her.

She’s 29 years old now but has never married or had children. Her brother’s young daughter, aged one, was circumcised last year against the father’s wishes.

“His wife and mother over-ruled him,” says Aaliya.

“I asked them not to do it but they didn’t listen.

“Am I angry about what happened to me? Yes, but it’s happened, it’s already done. I am too embarrassed to speak to my mother about it.

“I want it to stop. It has to stop happening. We need to start talking about it openly.”

Habiba al Hinai interviewed women from regions across the Sultanate, many of which were reluctant at first to speak out, even anonymously, about whether they had undergone ‘khatana al banat’.

Of the 100 women al Hinai questioned independently, 80 per cent had been circumcised and another 10 said they didn’t know if they were circumcised or not. More than half of the women supported FGM, citing religious, culture or medical reasons.

Most had the procedure done at home. But not all. Some told al Hinai that they went to a private clinic or state hospital, where the procedure is banned.

This week, Y spoke to one of the circumcisers working in Salalah. The woman, who Y is not naming, told us that she used to work at the Sultan Qaboos Hospital, employed as an assistant in the operating theatre. She left 15 years ago.

Now she carries out circumcisions on girls, often just a few days old. The cost is around RO15.

“Most are only two days old but the eldest I have done is 12 years old,” the woman told us.

“This is our culture and our tradition. This is normal for us.”

The women said she had even circumcised her own daughters.

She works from her own home, where the children are taken to her. “It is like a secret. The mothers do not tell anyone about it.

“I do not need to advertise my services. It is by word of mouth.”

In an interview two months ago with Stop FGM Middle East, the woman openly described how she does it. “I use a clamp and a knife,” she said.

She carries rubber gloves and two sprays, one a disinfectant. Business is brisk. She cuts two to seven girls a day, according to the interview with Stop FGM Middle East.

Three or four other circumcisers work in Oman’s old capital, she said.

The woman insists that, unlike other circumcisers, she does not cut ‘the old way’ but only a small amount, 2mm at most. “This is too much,” she says, moving her finger about 4mm. A centimetre cut and the woman ‘will never feel a thing’, she says.

Where the family insists, however, she will cut more.

Which is why she carries needles and thread, to sew up the resulting wound. Remember, all this is happening to a two-day old baby in some cases.

According to al Hinai’s study, family members, such as the fathers, are often against it but are helpless to stop it. “My wife arranged the circumcision of our daughters behind my back and under the pressure of my elder sisters,” says one Omani man, who responded to al Hinai’s independent review.

Y spoke to Noora, 30, who lives in Salalah, with her eight brothers and sisters. She recounts how her sister’s newborn girl, born in 2010, was cut under pressure from family members.

“I saw blood on the baby’s diaper and I asked my sister what it was. “She said that they did this cutting in the morning.

“It’s very hard to make a strong decision about this when there is not a lot of information and the hospital is not telling people about the dangers of doing this. My mother and aunt do not want to talk about it.”

Another woman called Mimi writing in her now defunct blog, Shy Rebellious Arab Girl, described how she found out that her eight-day-old baby niece was cut after her other niece, aged 10, came to her room and said ‘Auntie, I saw mum tie the baby’s legs’.

“I didn’t know that my sister was planning to do that to her in the morning. If I knew that, I wouldn’t have let the baby out of the room,” says Mimi.

“The one who did FGM on my little niece was an old Dhofari woman, as usual. It wasn’t even done in a clinic.”

Hannah Wettig, of the Stop FGM Middle East group, told Y: “The practice should be banned, full stop. In our view, it is child abuse.

“It was a shocking revelation for us to find out that baby girls were being cut. We have not heard of any other place where newborns are mutilated.”

From al Hinai’s research, FGM does seem to be tacitly accepted by some women in Oman.

They admit to following a custom, which has been passed down through generations of women.

“I am circumcised as every Muslim should be,” says one woman interviewed by al Hinai.

Another agreed: “I support the practice that is still applied in our family. We consider this practice as an old tradition and I support it for its scientifically-proven benefits.”

Origin of circumcised female participants

Source: Habiba al Hinai, Female Genital Mutilation in the Sultanate of Oman (January 2014)
The highest prevalence of FGM seems to exist in the Sharqiyah North and South (18 out of 19), the Dakhiliya (11 out of 13) and the Batinah (33 out of 38 questioned). Women who originate from Muscat are less likely to be circumcised with 14 out of 22 questioned saying they underwent the procedure. Yet, still more than half of the participants from Muscat were affected.

There are no official statistics on the prevalence of FGM in the Sultanate.

In its Five-Year Health Plan, the Ministry of Health revealed that it had carried out a study on knowledge, attitudes and practices of adolescents on reproductive health issues, which showed that 80 per cent of females supported female circumcision. No further information was given.

In the Plan, the Ministry stated an intention to study the prevalence of FGM in Oman and design awareness campaigns and programmes. To our knowledge, nothing to date has happened.

Y tried to contact the Ministry of Health doctor in charge of awareness programmes. She referred us to the media office, which requested an official letter in Arabic. In another phone call, we were asked to send questions in English. No response had been received at the time of going to press.

There are not official records of hospital admissions in relation to complications from FGM. However, we spoke to an official from Badr Al Samaa Polyclinic in Al Khoud, who said that, occasionally, they do see a child who is suffering from problems due to circumcision, such as severe bleeding.

“We tell the parents that we cannot treat the child and we send them to a government hospital. The hospital will then call the police to check on where it was carried out.”

Habiba al Hinai, who has been verbally abused and threatened on social media for writing and talking about the issue, recommends a nationwide research study of FGM and support programs for women who have been circumcised.

No one in Oman is suggesting a blanket ban on the practice at the moment. What the country needs, it seems, is a clear policy of educational and awareness campaigns in schools, hospitals and universities, so that women can make an informed choice.

* What do you think about FGM in Oman? Tweet, email or Facebook us your views.

Source: Habiba al Hinai, Female Genital Mutilation in the Sultanate of Oman (January 2014)

Mufti’s View

In a response to a question about female circumcision, the Grand Mufti of Oman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamad al Khalili, replied:

“Circumcision is allowed in Sunnah, and none of the old Ulama (religious legal scholars) have said it was ‘hated’, but they have disagreed if it’s a ‘must’ or a preferable Sunnah to do, or allowed to do. “They (the hadith) never mount up that it is a must, and it was always mentioned in relation to male circumcision.”

He said it could not be described as ‘crime against women or as a violation of women’s rights’, but it was clear that the operation must not cause any damage.

“What is referred to as FGM is not the practice that the Sunnah talked about. Circumcision is simple and clear to cut a piece of the clitoris without causing any damage, everything that is not this, shouldn’t be called circumcision.

“Therefore whatever the WHO (World Health Organisation) described as circumcision is not accurate as these are bad practices of those unable to perform proper circumcision.

“Therefore, circumcision is not allowed by sharia if it causes damage, this is a rule, and if it was medically proven by well trusted doctors that circumcising women will cause damage, it should be banned based on the no harm rule of the sharia.”