(Beirut) - A religious edict by the Kurdistan Islamic Scholars Union on female genital mutilation (FGM) sends a clear signal that the practice is not prescribed by Islam, Human Rights Watch said today. The edict, however, does not call for an outright ban on this harmful traditional practice.
The High Committee for Issuing Fatwas at the Kurdistan Islamic Scholars Union, the highest Muslim religious authority in Iraqi Kurdistan for religious pronouncements and rulings, issued its fatwa on July 6, 2010, on the continuing prevalence of the practice of FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan. The fatwa notes that the practice is not prescribed in Islam, but predates it. The fatwa does not absolutely prohibit "female circumcision." It says parents may choose to "circumcise" their daughters but that it is better to avoid the practice because of the negative health consequences. FGM has been internationally recognized as a violation of children's and women's rights, including their rights to life, health, and bodily integrity.
"This fatwa on female genital mutilation is an important effort by the Kurdish religious community to dissociate this practice from Islam, but it is not enough," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "FGM is a degrading and damaging practice, and letting parents choose this procedure for their daughters is simply unacceptable."
On June 16, Human Rights Watch issued its report, "They Took Me and Told Me Nothing: Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan," which describes the experiences of young girls and women who have undergone genital cutting and the terrible toll it has had on their physical and mental health. Human Rights Watch noted that the practice is widespread based on statistical studies from a government study conducted by the former Human Rights Ministry and another study conducted by a local nongovernmental organization. Both studies showed that more than 50 percent of girls and women between the ages of 14 and 19 were mutilated.
The report includes interviews with girls and women who referred to the practice as "sunnah," a non-obligatory act to strengthen one's religion. Human Rights Watch's findings revealed that women are confused about whether the practice is a religious necessity. Some said that their religious leaders encourage the practice, while others said that they discourage it.
In press reports on July 12, the spokesperson for the Ministry for Endowments and Religious Affairs, Mariwan Naqshabandy, called on clerics to clarify during sermons and Friday prayers that FGM is not an Islamic practice.
Human Rights Watch called on the Kurdistan Regional Government to support Kurdish clerics in their rejection of female genital mutilation and to develop a long-term plan to eradicate the practice. The plan should include a law to ban the practice, accompanied with an awareness-raising campaign geared toward families, religious leaders, midwives, and health professionals.
"We are pleased that the ministry made this call because their support is critical to ending this practice," Khalife said. "Now it should make sure that the word gets out to every family in the region that FGM is not prescribed by religion."