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Uncut Voices: FGM where you wouldn’t expect to find it – in IRAN

6.2.2016. by Uncut Voices. When Kameel Ahmady, an aid worker in Africa, encountered FGM, he was at first unsuspecting of the discovery that awaited him on return to his native Iran. Yes, he knew ‘circumcision’ of girls took place in his country, but the secret had been so well-kept that he “was shocked to discover [it among] the closest members of [his] own family.”1

“My grandmothers, mother and sister had all undergone FGM,” Ahmady notes in the Prologue to his book In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (forthcoming from UnCUT/VOICES Press in spring 2016). “Remembering vaguely from my childhood that FGM … existed in parts of Iranian Kurdistan, I decided to conduct preliminary research.” His inquisitiveness, he recalls, “created resistance and bewilderment.” That a person of the other gender should be inquiring about the fate of female genitalia seemed to some relations “dishonourable … for an educated man.” He persisted, however, for more than a decade, and, with a team in place, he has gathered enough witnesses “to show that FGM is indeed present in his homeland, a suggestion that many, for lack of evidence, deny.” (All quotes are from the manuscript.)

Thus, with a significant survey, Ahmady has laid to rest that misconception. “… 4000 interviews were carried out within the provinces of Hormozgan, West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah and Kurdistan … involving 750 women and 250 men [in each area]. For the first time in Iran, the male perspective was explored as well, to examine the role of fathers, husbands, and brothers” in perpetuating khatne, sonat or sunnet depending on locality. The custom consists mainly of Type 1 and some Type 2 on the WHO classification scale. Type 2, found in affected venues but with considerably less frequency, consists of clitoridectomy often accompanied by excision of the labia. Type 1, in contrast, entails either slicing  the tip of the clitoris, ‘merely’ pricking it, or circumcising the prepuce without ablation of the organ. (Yes, the clitoris, like the penis, possesses a richly innervated foreskin.) [2] In theory, Iranians understand the seemingly less severe procedure, in Kameel Ahmady’s terms, “as simply following tradition” by removing, i.e. cutting off the clitoral hood or a part thereof, “nicking” or “scratching” it, mainly without anesthesia by local midwives known as bibis. “Nevertheless,” Ahmady writes, “how this practice is executed depends on the circumciser. Her hand may tremble, for instance, and can produce a deeper cut. The child’s struggle can have the same effect.” In any case, “it is important to highlight that the practice of FGM in Iranian Kurdistan is patchy and demonstrates sharp variations from one region to another, even from one village to another.” Where is it practiced? Not only in villages. “It can be found in the Greater Mukriyan region which encompasses several cities such as Bukan, Piranshahr, Nagadeh, Mahabad, Sardasht and Osnaviyah in Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province.” Further, the southern province of Hormozgan and its islands with a significant Sunni Shaf’i presence also report the ‘rite’.

Why are Iranian girls’ genitalia wounded? An answer emerges indirectly from the fact that these “four provinces where FGM is known to exist also have a history of other types of violence against women such as child marriage, forced marriage, polygamy and ‘honour’ killings. Cultural and traditional influences sometimes also lead to the self-immolation of women.” [2]

Now, if a large percentage of respondents “continue to consider FGM a ritual maintained for the sake of religious and cultural beliefs,” then these attitudes imply an underlying motivation in misogyny. Still, of the entire Iranian population, those that cut, — Shafi’i Kurds who speak the Sorani dialect rather than Kurmanji –, represent only 4% to 8% where 90% – 95% belong to the Twelver Shia branch of Islam who do not.

Hence, if the number of children affected in Iran is modest, what justifies our concern (beyond the desire to see all children free from the threat of the blade)? Two specific debates are invoked by Ahmady’s data. First, whether or not Islam requires ‘female circumcision’, large swathes of the population believe it does and act accordingly; this in turn suggests a role for activist imams. Second, in another nation which has just enlarged the epidemiological map, Indonesia, raising the UN’s global estimate of victims by about 70 million, you’ll hear it claimed that FGM “doesn’t happen there” but rather “circumcision” which ISN’T “mutilation.”

Really? Janell L. Carroll  implies that even the mildest forms, including ‘circumcision’, effect damage. “Most women do not enjoy direct stimulation of the glans,” she notes, with its 8000 sensitive nerve endings. Instead, protection afforded by the prepuce increases the pleasure of touch. [3] In any event, a foremother of the German women’s movement, Verena Stefan in my book on Alice Walker and FGM, adds a note of common sense: “No little girl in the world would, by herself, think up such a thing as placing clitoris and vagina in competition with one another, de- and revaluing them, creating an arbitrary conflict between two parts of her own body or, out of the blue, resolving to amputate [the editor adds ‘nick’ or ‘scratch’] a healthy organ.” [4]

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, (2015) watercolor for the cover of  FGM in Iran.

Not to deny that self-abuse exists, but as Areefa Johari remarked on 7 January 2016 at a pioneering conference in Singapore on FGM in Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Thailand, “It is like a sexual assault.” [5] A Bohra Muslim, she is also referring to Type 1.

Sharp tools and girls genitalia are never an innocent pair. Yet, far too often in these past months, FGM in places you’d never expect it turns up. In China, for instance. Nigerian women cloth merchants of Yoruba origin are trading in Guangzhou, and 90% of that ethnic group, at least in the 90s, had been excised. It’s not unlikely that Chinese physicians will see patients with sequelae.

Still, despite the spread of FGM, Kameel Ahmady documents good news. Although Hormozgan province, “where the prevalence of FGM is the highest [in Iran], still showed a rate of more than 60% at the end of 2014,” for the same period “we measured 21% in West Azerbaijan, 18% in Kermanshah, and 16% in Kurdistan.” What do these data mean? That transformation, even if too modest, has begun.


1 Saeed Kamali Dehghan. “Iran – Female Genital Mutilation Occurs in Iran, study reveals.” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/04/female-genital-mutilation-iran-fgm Retrieved 17 December 2015.

2 “Self-immolation, affected by various factors, is the most common way of committing suicide among Iranian women especially in the western areas of Iran.” Sociology and Anthropology 3(6): 301-306, 2015 http://www.hrpub.org DOI: 10.13189/sa.2015.030603.  Tragedy of Self-immolation: An Iranian Case Study in the Towns of Salas Babajani and Sarpol Zahab Hossein Mirzaee1 , Atiyeh Kamyabi Gol2* , Javad Yousofi Labani3 1 Department of Sociology, Faculty of Letters and Humanities, Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran 2 Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Letters and Humanities, Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran 3 Department of Sociology, Tabriz University, Iran Copyright © 2015 by authors, all rights reserved. Authors agree that this article remains permanently open access under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 International License. Retrieved 6 February 2016.

3 Carroll, Janell L. “The Glans Clitoris” (2009). Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity. Cengage Learning. pp. 118 and 252. ISBN 978-0-495-60274-3. WIKIPEDIA. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoral_hood Retrieved 6 February 2016.

4 Verena Stefan, “Mutilation of the Vulva and Circumcision of Other Female Freedoms – or, the Perfect Vulva’s Aura and Revolt.” Trans. Tobe Levin. In Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the Global Movement to Ban FGM. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2014. P. 69.

5 Hannah Wettig. “Wadi and Aware organize first ever conference on Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting in Singapore.” STOP FGM Middle East. February 2016.  http://www.stopfgmmideast.org/wadi-and-aware-organize-first-ever-conference-on-female-genital-mutilation-cutting-in-singapore/ Retrieved 6 February 2016.