What is the reason for female genital mutilation/cutting (‘FGM’ or ‘FGM/C’)? This question arises for many people.
Parveen Mohammadi writes for Insaf News,
Bibi was there with a razor in his hand. A bloody blade. Rojan was screaming. The aunts tied [her] hands and feet and Rojan struggled with moans. I hung in the barn. To the blood on the ground, to Bibi, to the pleading cries of Rojan! I was staring with fear. I begged the nanny. I wanted to run away.
The other women of the village took me by the feet and dragged me on the straw of the barn. I dragged my nails on the straws. My nails were full of bloody straws. Bibi rose from Rojan’s feet. From the blade, Rojan’s blood dripped on the ground. The nanny put her hand over my mouth so that I wouldn’t raise my voice.
When Bibi took off my pants and sat on my legs, I remembered the pain; an endless pain. The sound of crying of the other girls of the village that they brought came from outside the barn.
These are the memories of a woman who underwent FGM/C as a child.
Another 33-year-old woman from Hajij village, Kermanshah province, who participated in Kameel Ahmady and his team’s research project In the Name of Tradition, says,
My neighbour is a girl whose mother cut her genitals three times [because it was not properly circumcised]. This girl says she has no feelings of love or sexual desire; I asked her if she had a problem. She replied, ‘Even if I am touched until morning, I will never feel anything.’
FGM/C is performed in four provinces of Iran: West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Hormozgan. Globally, FGM/C is recognised as a violation of women’s rights, and performing it shows the depth of inequality between men and women in a society.
Kameel Ahmady, the coordinator of the book In the Name of Tradition, talked about the mutilation of women in an interview with Insaf News:
What is the philosophy of mutilation and the reason for FGM? When did it enter Iran?
FGM has a religious justification. In most areas of the world (among Muslims), this is practised to make [a meal cooked by a woman] halal, and, if it is not done, it makes women’s cooking haram.
Purity is another reason they refer to. In some regions, the reason given is that they believe that there is dirty blood in a woman’s body, which is removed from the body by cutting. In general, it can be said that there are various issues for FGM among the general public.
One of the main reasons for that is cleanliness – a religious and Islamic tradition that must be performed on girls. There is no exact date when this tradition entered Iran.
FGM/C in Iran can be attributed to religion, and some claim it is justified by Islam. In Islam, there is a sect called the Shafi’i, and all those who perform FGM/C in Iran are Shafi’i.
The only support that can be cited for this is the travelogues of Christian merchants and sailors, who learned of certain local customs in southern Iran. These travelogues date back to the 18th and early 19th centuries. In these travelogues, it is mentioned that women in those areas underwent cutting and danced around a fire.
Southern Iran has always been a crossroads and a place of passage for various countries, which is why there is not one single culture in southern Iran.
Statistics show that the rate of FGM/C is higher in Hormozgan and some densely populated areas of Kurdistan than in other Iranian provinces. Hormozgan, specifically the island of Qeshm, has the highest rate of FGM/C even in the Middle East, but it is decreasing.
The majority of women who have undergone FGM/C describe it as a traumatic, painful experience. In general, they recall being told they were being treated to sweets, while being held down by older women. The cutters, often postmenopausal women, would visit homes and sometimes stay for days, taking all the young girls in the village, holding their hands and legs, and using sharp razors to cut them. Many of these girls and women now experience problems with their reproductive and urinary systems, such as recurrent infections. Despite this, some still believe that the procedure should be performed.
Others, however, are receptive to education about the dangers of FGM/C and, when educated, choose not to subject their daughters to it. Many simply have never been educated about the harms this traditional practice can do.
Scholars of women’s issues point to underlying toxic masculinity and the belief that FGM/C will control women’s sexuality as root causes of the practice. However, there is also usually a belief that it is a cultural tradition that must be preserved. There are cultural and mental pressures on women, meaning that this injurious cycle of cutting continues, often driven by mothers and grandmothers.
Many times, women’s sexual pleasure is reduced by FGM/C because the clitoris and other sensitive areas of the genitalia are damaged or removed. However, it depends on the type of cutting and the depth of the cut. The worse the cut, the more a woman’s ability to be aroused or experience sexual pleasure are negatively affected. This lack of sexual and psychological stimulation denies her the ability to enter into a healthy sexual relationship, leading to unfulfilling, distressing and potentially painful sex.
The Cutting of Older Women
FGM/C is usually performed on girls at very young ages, particularly in western regions of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, many children have vivid memories of being forcibly cut, without any pain management, using men’s razor blades.
In some cases, girls who are not cut are stigmatised and considered impure. One woman from the village of Uraman Takhte in Kurdistan province shared the story of a woman who was forcibly cut at the age of 20 because she had not undergone the procedure earlier in life. This traumatic experience resulted in her being bedridden for a long time.
Today, there is an annual decline in FGM/C in some regions, due to changes in the attitudes of those in the younger generation when it comes to traditions.
The Old Bibies who performed the surgeries die and no one is replaced, plus enlightenment activities are ongoing. At the time of the initial study in Qeshm, the percentage of FGM among the groups I researched was 62%. After six years, new surveys in the area showed that the percentage of FGM has reached 39%.
Why is there silence in the face of such a harmful practice?
‘So far, no extensive activities or research have been conducted by governmental and non-governmental entities in Iran to discover, educate and study the phenomenon of female sexual mutilation,’ said Kameel Ahmady, head of the study.
Ahmady believes that the ignorance of FGM/C is primarily due to the mystery surrounding the phenomenon and the lower prevalence of the practice in large sections of the Iranian population. Another reason the issue remains largely unaddressed, from a research point of view, is the fact that issues related to women’s sexuality are taboo. He says,
Since this phenomenon is seen sporadically among Sunni Muslims of the Shafei sect in four provinces, it can be speculated that the Government is reluctant to interfere with traditions of religious origin among minorities. On the other hand, it can be said that the Government fears that any Government interference in these traditions will provoke the people of the border regions.
The important question is whether or not to disregard the possibility of education and abandon the areas where harmful traditional practices like FGM/C continue.
The psychological consequences of FGM/C persist throughout the lives of affected women and contribute to the high rates of divorce in communities where the practice is prevalent.
As a result of the loss of sexual sensitivity and pleasure, relationships may become strained and ultimately break down. It may also lead to polygamy, as men seek sexual fulfilment elsewhere. The emotional toll of FGM/C on women, including feelings of coldness and frustration, can create a cycle of distress, depression and, ultimately, the inability to maintain a healthy and fulfilling relationship.
Local religious leaders and older women often believe that FGM/C reins in the desires of teenage girls – in other words, they believe that, when girls reach the age of sexual rebellion, cutting them will curb their transgressive impulses.
FGM/C, a practice often justified as a way to safeguard family honour and prevent promiscuity, has been shown to significantly decrease women’s sexual pleasure, if not their desires. This can lead to the breakdown of marriages, as women may lose interest in sexual intimacy and men may seek satisfaction elsewhere.
It is recognised by many people in FGM/C-affected communities that cutting can have negative effects on women’s sex lives. Some argue that the practice is necessary for maintaining societal peace and modesty.
The Global Battle
It was in the early 19th century that religious missionaries and tourists who lived in Africa first became aware of the widespread practice of FGM/C. As the severity and prevalence of this practice were much greater in African tribes than they are in Iran, international organisations began to take notice and address the issue. Even today, however, FGM/C is still defended and practised in many regions of Africa.
While FGM/C is not as prevalent in Iran, it still occurs, usually in the form of Type 1 (according to the World Health Organization’s definitions). This type is less severe than what is often seen in Africa, where women’s vaginas may be sewn shut. Despite efforts by international organisations to combat FGM/C, it remains a deeply ingrained tradition in many regions.
Kameel Ahmady witnessed the importance of education and training while working on this issue in Africa. Ahmady, who hails from a region in Kurdistan where FGM/C is practised, utilised the knowledge he gained in Africa to research the prevalence of FGM/C in four provinces of Iran, with the assistance of a team made up of female students and local residents.
After returning to these areas to assess the impact of the training and gather updated statistics, the team discovered that the overall incidence of FGM/C had decreased, particularly in the villages that received the training. This suggests that the people in these areas were previously unaware of the harm that this practice can cause to their children, and that they are receptive to education on the subject. The decrease in the incidence of FGM/C in the trained villages also highlights the effectiveness of training in raising awareness and promoting change.
We hope that responsible parties will take action by starting public and scientific education in Iran, training children, preventing the activity of quacks, obtaining the support of religious and local leaders and considering this practice a criminal act.