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Islam and female genital mutilation

Posted by Richard on February 6, 2007

In early November, I posted quite a rant regarding a news story about an Ethiopian immigrant convicted of female genital mutilation. A regular reader gently informed me offline that it’s an African thing, not Islamic. It’s a valid point — the custom is practiced by non-Islamic Africans and probably predates Islam.

But I wasn’t ready to believe that the practice had nothing to do with Islam. I vaguely remembered some evidence to the contrary (including references in hadith). And then there’s the distinctive attitude toward women that’s a hallmark of Muslim culture, which suggests that this barbaric practice would be readily embraced in Islamic societies. Back in November, I sarcastically put it this way:

Khalid Adem could be a Southern Baptist, a Unitarian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, or maybe a Wiccan… After all, it’s not as if there’s some particular faith or culture in which men are taught that women are inherently dirty and inferior, that they must be completely subjugated and treated like farm animals, and that they offend God if they express themselves, exercise free will, or experience pleasure.

It seems my suspicions were justified. A heavily-footnoted article in The Middle East Quarterly entitled "Is Female Genital Mutilation an Islamic Problem?" persuasively argued that FGM is quite widespread in Middle Eastern societies and is believed by many — including many Muslim clerics and scholars — to be either required by the Qur’an, or at least condoned or approved:

Religion is not only theology but also practice. And the practice is widespread throughout the Middle East. Many diplomats, international organization workers, and Arabists argue that the problem is localized to North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa,[4] but they are wrong. The problem is pervasive throughout the Levant, the Fertile Crescent, and the Arabian Peninsula, and among many immigrants to the West from these countries. Silence on the issue is less reflective of the absence of the problem than insufficient freedom for feminists and independent civil society to raise the issue.

The authors present evidence from a study in the Garmian region of Iraqi Kurdistan that found a mutilation rate of nearly 60%. They argue that rates in other countries of the region are likely as high or higher, but the societies are too closed and repressive for the evidence to come to light (emphasis added):

…  That diplomats and international aid workers do not detect FGM in other societies also should not suggest that the problem does not exist. After all, FGM was prevalent in Iraqi Kurdistan for years but went undetected by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and many other international NGOs in the region. Perhaps the most important factor enabling an NGO to uncover FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan was the existence of civil society structures and popular demand for individual rights. Such conditions simply do not exist in Syria, Saudi Arabia, or even the West Bank and Gaza where local authorities fight to constrain individual freedoms rather than promote them.

But the problem is not only that autocratic regimes tend to suppress the truth. There also must be someone in place to conduct surveys. Prior to Iraq’s liberation, it was impossible to undertake independent surveys on issues such as malnutrition and infant mortality. Saddam Hussein’s regime preferred to supply data to the U.N. rather than to enable others to collect their own data which might not support the conclusions the Baathist regime desired to show. The oft-cited 1999 UNICEF study claiming that U.N. sanctions had led to the deaths of 500,000 children was based on figures supplied by Saddam’s regime, not an independent survey.[31] The U.N. undertook its first reliable statistical research on the living conditions in Iraq only after liberation.[32] Syrian, Saudi, and Iranian authorities simply do not let NGOs operate without restriction, especially when they deal with sensitive social issues.

As if our own selfish interest in weakening the enemies of Western Civilization weren’t enough, here is yet another good reason for us to promote freedom, human rights, and open societies in the Middle East.

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One Response to “Islam and female genital mutilation”

  1. Jan said

    Well done!

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