FGM Must Be Termed Female Genital MUTILATION In Formal Contexts

Hilary couldn’t be more right. Yes, courtesy will govern private conversation, and good writing, to avoid repetition, will also deploy a variety of terms, but public speech and policy deliberations should avoid language that trivializes and understates the reality best described as mutilation and, often, torture. See Kiminta, for instance … Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. _Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation_. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015. Including Tobe Levin. “Critique of anthr/apologists observing a Maasai rite.” 116-126.

Hilary Burrage

16-10-15-end-fgm-walk-dc-img_2419-9The Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Walk-A-Thon to End FGM, in Washington DC on 15 October 2016, brought together many activists from around the world – an exciting and truly inspiring experience, which I describe in more detail here.
I was privileged to attend the event as an Awardee (for my books) and I took the opportunity to deliver a very simple message: If we are serious about eradicating FGM we will call is as it is, Female Genital Mutilation. Here is the text of my brief address:

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The End FGM Walk-A-Thon, 15 October 2016, Washington DC

So proud of Hilary and all good friends who made this such a successful event. UnCUT/VOICES Press supported TEAM EFUA and will continue walking, speaking, painting, and raising awareness with images and words, digital and paper, until FGM globally has gone the way of the 19th century medical scoundrels in Europe and America whose practice of clitoridectomy lost them their licenses and their reputations. If FGM can be stopped anywhere, it can end everywhere.

Hilary Burrage

16-10-15-end-fgm-walk-dc-img_2419-75The third Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation Walk to End FGM, in Washington DC on 15 October 2016 – a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon – brought together people from around the world, some of us already friends, others long-time connections meeting face-to-face for the first time, and others quickly to become new friends. For all this and much more we must thank Angela Peabody, the inspiration and mover behind the scenes of this globally significant and very special event.

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For the UN Day of the Girl Child: Launch at the University of Oxford, Kameel Ahmady’s FGM in Iran

Introducing the first volume on the subject in English. We were joined by several Iranian women scholars; also, Tom Randall, journalist,  and John Howarth, filmmaker.

Kameel Ahmady introduces the first volume in English on the surprising revelation of FGM in Iran. We were joined by several Iranian and Egyptian  women scholars as well as, above back row right, Tom Randall, journalist, and mid-row second from right John Howarth, filmmaker. Also pictured in the back row right Rosa von Gleichen, and in the front, Graziella Piga, Dr Maria Jaschok, Dr Kate Prendergast.

Author Kameel Ahmady entered the Deneke Common Room at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, at 2 p.m. on 10 October to mark the UN’s international day, 11 October, dedicated to a better future for girls. His mission was to inform us about  model research that has both uncovered the regrettable existence of female genital mutilation in Iran — the manner of performing it there called ‘sunnet’ — and a reduction in incidence coinciding with inquiry undertaken in the four provinces where the practice prevails: Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Hormozgan and Western Azerbaijan. Hence we celebrate the news, that long-term effort — this having been a ten-year project — can bring quantifiable results.

10 October 2016,  Kameel Ahmady presents his book on FGM in Iran at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

10 October 2016, Kameel Ahmady presents his book on FGM in Iran at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

This is especially so when not only women but also men lead. I am  honored to introduce a male scholar doing this work, investigating prevalence while explaining ill effects and introducing motives to cease even the kind of cut deemed least invasive. Sunnet is defined as WHO classification Type 1 which, though generally removing some flesh, can be as little as a prick or scratch which, when tissue heals, becomes invisible not only to laypeople but also to the physician’s trained eye. This is not to weaken the need to abolish a rite whose raison d’etre continues to damage girls. Now that Bohra Muslim and Indonesian victims are speaking out, first-person testimony brings an unequivocal message: psychological scars remain.

And behind  proactive symbolic wounding is fear of female sexuality  whose imagined malevolence — or voracious, irresistible force — is nearly everywhere inscribed among reasons for clitoral blood-letting in the first place. Clearly, men choosing to advocate against FGM deserve  applause, for they  risk what other men think of as ‘honour’ but do so convinced that their inconvenience melts beside humiliation imposed on girls when their legs are spread and ‘illicit’ parts cut.

Graziella Piga and Dr Maria Jaschok

Graziella Piga and Dr Maria Jaschok

Here are excerpts from the Prologue.

“Although analysts emphasize the challenge of eradicating a custom that has survived for millennia, ending Female Genital Mutilation[1] is considered imperative by feminists, human rights campaigners and social activists as well as responsible governments and international organisations (such as UNICEF). I join them.

“Thus, the project culminating in this book started 10 years ago. Since then considerable energy has nourished the effort to learn more about the practice in Iran and to launch pilot interventions to stop it. Admittedly, where the complicated custom lurks beneath the surface, FGM is difficult to comprehend and even harder to eliminate.

“My research has its roots in 2005 when I returned after many years’ absence from Europe to my birthplace, Iranian Kurdistan. Previously, working in Africa with a number of humanitarian relief NGOs had given me the opportunity to observe UN projects to end genital ablation of girls in countries like Egypt, Somalia, Kenya and Sudan. Remembering vaguely from my childhood that cutting the clitoris (locally called sunnet) existed in some parts of Iranian Kurdistan, I decided to research first among my own family and close relations.

“The evidence shocked me. Long existing in areas of Mukriyan[2] where I am from, sunnet had been suffered by my grandmothers, mother and sister. They had all undergone FGM.

“In fact, within Iran, the number of people from non-FGM-practising provinces with any awareness at all of the tradition’s existence is exceedingly low. As a male with an ‘unusual’ background, in the sense that I had lived abroad, in Africa and Europe, my detailed questions about this sensitive topic—concerning cutting the private part of a woman’s body— created resistance and bewilderment. Moreover, the research was belittled by some locals, especially men. Not a few with whom I spoke, including a number of my relatives, felt that the project would dishonour me. No educated man would want to deal with a topic incompatible with masculine ‘pride’, they felt. Here I would like once again to thank my late father. Despite the pressure of ‘neighborly’ viewpoints shared at times by the federal government, he supported me throughout.

Nigerian artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus provided the cover pastel for In the _Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran_.

Nigerian artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus provided the cover pastel for In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran.

“As the scope of the investigation gradually grew, I began looking at other regions in Iran. On this journey, I enjoyed much assistance in fieldwork as well as in analysis and assembly of data. My research results appear here in book form for the first time. While focused on areas most affected by FGM in the western part of the country, namely West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces, and some areas of southern Iran, namely Hormozgan province and its islands, I provide a comprehensive overview of the prevalence of FGM in the nation as a whole.

“At the same time that my study anticipated book production, I also filmed research activities such as interviews and talks, providing material for the internet [available at <http:/kameelahmady.com/fgm-in-iran>]. The first and so far only documentary about FGM in Iran, In the Name of Tradition captures the views of residents in various Kurdish villages and neighborhoods of the city of Mahabad as well as others from the nearby Kurdistan province and Hawraman, a region located where Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces meet (http://kameelahmady.com/fgm-in-iran). A later edition of this anthropological documentary contains footage and interviews from regions and villages of Kermanshah and Hormozgan province, including islands such as Qeshm, Hormuz and Kish. [3] In addition to featuring local women and bibis, i.e. women cutters, the documentary collects opinions from local men, medical staff and clerics and provides an eloquent illustrative record of FGM in some of the less-visited and infrequently reported rural areas of Iran.

“In my view, sunnet and the hidden beliefs behind it violate human rights in general and women and children’s rights in particular. Hence it is incumbent upon everyone to eradicate the custom.  The great news is that FGM rates are declining, albeit slowly, across the globe, including in the secret pockets in Iran.  However, a lot of work remains to be done there.”

At the Cozswold Lodge after the launch to celebrate the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK Charity Commission # 1169186) with l to r: Kameel Ahmady, Comfort I. Ottah (former executive director of FORWARD), Trustee Dr Tobe Levin, Trustee Nolan Victory (NHS), and Haldi Shoshan

At the Cotswold Lodge after the launch to celebrate the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK Charity Commission # 1169186) founded 14 September 2016 with l to r: Kameel Ahmady, Comfort I. Ottah (former executive director of FORWARD), Trustee Dr Tobe Levin, Trustee Nolan Victory (NHS), and Haldi Sheahan.

[1] You will find that some authors refer to ablation of female genitalia by a euphemism, calling it Female Genital Cutting or FGM/C. Throughout this study unless otherwise stated, FGM will refer to both female genital mutilation and female genital ‘cutting’.

[2] The Greater Mukriyan region encompasses several cities such as Bukan, Piranshahr, Nagadeh, Mahabad, Sardasht and Oshnaviyeh. It is part of Iran’s West Azerbaijan province.

[3] The documentary can be accessed through the author’s website http://kameelahmady.com

With gratitude to Lady Margaret Hall for an attractive venue, and to the International Gender Studies Centre with Director Dr Maria Jaschok for active encouragement of this book launch event.

You can take advantage of the pre-order discount for

Kameel Ahmady. In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran. “AfterWords” by Tobe Levin and Hilary Burrage. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2016. ISBN 978-3-9813863-7-0

by writing me at tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com

FGM in Iran? Yes, as a new book shows

Is female genital mutilation an African issue? A women’s problem? A religious requirement? A feminist concern?

Playing devil’s advocate, the answer in every case is that FGM shatters these limiting frames. Ablation of girls’ genitalia isn’t the unique concern of Africans, women, theologians or feminists. Ending FGM requires all people of good will, as Kameel Ahmady and his research team convey in the just published volume, In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2016).

Sharp metal objects bite vulvas in Iran, thus providing certainty that FGM exceeds the confines of a continent known to have birthed our earliest recorded ancestors. … Indeed, these facts imply excision’s spread from a Blue Nilotic epicenter to be taken up, for complex reasons, elsewhere around the globe.

Kameel Ahmady photo

Kameel Ahmady

Moreover, Kameel Ahmady is a man whose questioning of male peers reveals degrees of men’s involvement, broadening ownership and thus accountability beyond the female sphere. Regarding religion, Ahmady opens the door to Farsi discussions inaccessible to most readers of his book, and what he shows is a fascinating potpourri of clerical back and forth. Writ large in most analyses of genital excision is the custom’s absence from the Koran and indeed from the scriptures of most faiths. Yet we find the local mullahs differing as to the duties of their flocks. Some tell the devout that releasing clitoral blood is not forbidden; others recommend it; still others leave the decision to the grown-up children; many also counsel against it. Ahmady himself is sure: Islam doesn’t condone ablation of a child’s genitalia given Koranic commands to ‘do no harm’.

And as a feminist issue?

Here, too, Kameel Ahmady stands out among students of these ‘rites’. Though in youth he had suspected it, only later in life did he learn of his own female relatives’ victimization; empathy with his mother and sisters spurred him to take up the abolition cause. He supports women’s empowerment. He understands the challenge to self-confidence resulting from the symbolic and actual infliction of a disability. He sees that clitoral attack, beyond rationalizations and even in the mildest forms that leave few or no physical scars, affects the mind. Why should female organs of sexuality and procreation be handled fiercely rather than gently? What possible psychological reality could account for such behavior as espoused by individuals and groups when the act itself is surely counter-intuitive for everyone?

Anthr/apologists have a ready answer: pain itself is valued. If, however, this explanation once sufficed, it does so no longer as human and children’s rights have, since at least World War II, presented themselves as universal standards to which Ahmady unequivocally subscribes. Thus, if we define feminism as the theory seeking to enhance the world by cleansing it of gender-based discrimination, FGM is a feminist issue par excellence.

As Verena Stefan writes, “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 a healthy organ.”1 Rather, “the clitoris appears as the primary threat to a phallocratic world view and to the power of individual men.”2

Ahmady never loses sight of this, reiterating (often) the challenges for him, as a man and a feminist, in trying to stop FGM in Iran. One of his most poignant scenes concerns the colloquy of males newly informed of what the custom brings women — risks and pain. “Later [the men] were asked whether, in light of their new knowledge…, they would be willing to have their daughters cut, thereby exposing them to the same agony in bed and perhaps to a husband who cheats. Our interviewees could not answer. Instead,” Ahmady writes, “silent, they looked away.” …

The work of unveiling the cutting culture in hitherto unrevealed places, in locations in Iran and elsewhere, is only just beginning, but it could not be more important in the struggle to make FGM history.  Kameel Ahmady’s contribution to that work is enormous.

From “AfterWords” by Tobe Levin and Hilary Burrage in Ahmady, Kameel. In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran. 146-149.


[1] Verena Stefan. (2104) “Mutilation of the Vulva and Circumcision of other Female Freedoms – or the Perfect Vulva’s Aura and Revolt.” In Levin, Tobe, ed. Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy and the Global Movement to Ban FGM. Trans. Tobe Levin.  Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES P., 69.

[2] Ibid. 68.

FGM in iran cover

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. FGM in Iran. Watercolor. 2015.

What Are Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs)? Why Do They Occur?

We can all appreciate the marriage of economics and psychology in this pioneering explanation.

Hilary Burrage

12.05.05 cutting 004a

Harmful traditional practices (HTPs) are group-sanctioned but usually now illegal actions taken to reinforce the power of one person or group over (an)other/s.  HTPs occur in all societies but are more prevalent in less advantaged communities than elsewhere; and women and girls are more likely to be the victims of HTPs than are boys and men, albeit both experience them in specific contexts.  HTPs are historically underpinned by contests for scarce resources and economic control and power. The recent past has seen global moves to address the issues and stop these practices.

Some examples of harmful traditional practices are listed below. NB This is not pleasant reading.

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Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists Confronting FGM: An Exhibition, Oxford, June 2016

Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists Confronting Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) 6th – 16th June, Lady Margaret Hall, Jerwood Room, University of Oxford Duke Asidere . Wande George . Helen Idehen .…

Source: Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists Confronting FGM: An Exhibition, Oxford, June 2016

DAY of the African Child, June 16th, and Bloomsday: on art and FGM

Had you been in Soweto on June 16th, 1976, –forty years ago today –, you would have been awed by about 10,000 children, girls and boys, risking their lives in a ‘long march.’ The two-week protest to improve their schooling was disrupted by government bullets, killing hundreds and injuring far more. To enable our remembering the importance of children’s rights and especially the right to education, in 1991 the Organization of African Unity designated June 16th as the Day of the African Child.

Cheryl-Ann and Nolan Victory

Cheryl-Ann and Nolan Victory in Oxford. In the background are miniatures of paintings by Nigerian artists on FGM.

The struggle to enhance learning goes on, and teaching about FGM is increasingly important. But how can it be taught? What curriculum promises the most? Among strategies of choice, art is a privileged medium.

Somali author and educator Hibo Wardere, for instance, encourages her pupils to draw and paint their feelings when confronted by this painful topic. Community Mediator for Waltham Forest, Wardere brings the abolition message into UK schools, sensitizing pupils and staff at primary and secondary level. Breaking the silence — FGM is never mentioned at home — Hibo highlights danger signals. Is your classmate at risk of being taken abroad for FGM? she asks. It’s getting close to holiday time. Is she nervous, fidgety? “I tell my own story in graphic detail,” Hibo told us at an FGM symposium  at Lady Margaret Hall last year. “Three women come to your house and hold you so tight you can’t breathe. … I was screaming for my mum but all she said was quiet, be quiet, the neighbors will hear.” For Hibo, girls (and boys) should learn about the cutting. Why? In order to refuse. “They have the right to know and to say ‘NO’,” she insists.

But June 16th commemorates not only South African children’s courageous march to learn  – their saying ‘no’ to the ill they endured. It is surely serendipity that June 16th is Bloomsday, too, the twenty-four hours in 1904 when renowned Irish author James Joyce, in Ulysses, traces his hero’s steps through Dublin into the concluding chapter ending in Molly Bloom’s bed with her famous affirmative words – “yes I said yes I will yes.” Scholars devote their lives to this ‘seminal’ text, appropriate to mention here as the nadir of genital assault. For the knowledge that sexual pleasure, — jouissance –, exists stokes the rage at its destruction.

The illuminating, liberating medium was discussed at the vernissage which took place on June 6th as artist and curator Godfrey Williams-Okorodus reported how, once he’d begun to paint symbolic scenes protesting FGM, the topic wouldn’t let him go. Holger Postulart, of Global Alliance against FGM (Geneva) told a similar tale. Not an artist himself, he and associate Elisabeth Wilson founded an association to promote use of the arts – including music and literature – to address the emotional levels of meaning attached to FGM; they  brought the canvasses displayed at Lady Margaret Hall to the Human Rights Council and, in Switzerland and France, are also promoting a Chair in female genital mutilation studies. Similarly, Maggie O’Kane, recipient of British Journalist of the Year and Foreign Correspondent of the Year awards and head of the Guardian Global Campaign to End FGM, showed how media, acting on a pioneering understanding of the dialectical relationship between reporting and creating news, sponsored a poster competition among schoolgirls in Kenya whose prize-winning billboard was broadcast nationwide. Art, of course, benefits not only viewers but equally creators. Naomi Rosen, Alexander von Humboldt Fellow, described her research into trauma therapy, drama, and FGM as these unstudied but increasingly deployed approaches are implemented by healthcare and NGOs. And finally, Kaddy Touray (Oxford Against Cutting) introduced a key initiative in Oxford which, among many activities, encouraged pupils from age 13 to take up their brushes and easels. From workshops teaching the subject and relevant “campaigning skills,” a booklet emerged “to help professionals start conversations with girls at risk of FGM.” In addition to writing copy, students “ran an art competition,” determining criteria, themes, and winners. [See http://oxfordagainstcutting.org/schools-champions/cheney-school/%5D

To my knowledge, the paintings and sculpture on display at LMH represent the first of the world’s art exhibitions aimed at hastening the end of FGM.

Origins of the Exhibition and FGM in Nigeria. In the 1980s, Nkechi Nnaji, age five, underwent ‘female circumcision’. No simple ‘cut’, the damage was so severe that, while her peers attended school, she was hospitalized, time and again. Advertising executive Joy Keshi Walker met the suffering girl, then age 12, and was so moved by the ‘financial, physical and emotional torture’ she had borne that Joy ‘vowed then and there to do what [she] could’ to end the ‘rite’.[1] A specialist in visual communication, the social entrepreneur approached Sam Ovraiti, principal lecturer in painting and drawing at Auchi Polytechnic in Auchi, Nigeria. Could he gather students to attend a seminar in which Joy would teach them about FGM? There Joy and artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus joined forces to create this exhibition.

Why art? A paradox, the aptness of the medium lies in its non-verbal, multi-sensory appeal, especially suitable in an environment where not everyone can read and while confronting a controversial issue as painful and dangerous as FGM, able to trigger flashbacks not only in the excised but also in the audience. Emotional impact can indeed be great but may also turn into constructive resolve. The first display in Lagos in October 1998, consisting of 80 artefacts hosted by the Goethe Institute, attracted politicians, diplomats, students, the press, as well as victims, by-standers, parents and girls. Its appeal to decision-makers, too, has been significant. Shortly after the exhibition travelled to a number of regions in Nigeria, two states abolished the practice, and recently, former president Goodluck Jonathan, in his last act in office, banned FGM for the nation as a whole. Given Nigeria’s 120 million people –the most populous African country–, where few of the ca. 250 ethnic groups are free of clitoral excision, Nigeria may account for as much as 25% of FGM worldwide.

When the exhibition moved to Germany, it was welcomed by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, then Cabinet Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2000, it attracted the attention of MP Christine McCafferty preparing to welcome passage of the renewed Female Genital Mutilation Act in a joint session of the Houses of Lords and Commons. On 22 November 2000, a selection of paintings displayed here at LMH were shown in Parliament for celebration of the enhanced legislation opposing FGM.

Once returned to Germany, the artworks travelled between 4 February 2000 and 26 February 2006 to more than 65 venues. They were displayed in federal, state and local ministries of health or city halls in all major urban centres. Expo 2000 presented the pictures; the GIZ – German counterpart to DFiD – invited the exhibition twice; women’s groups and civic organizations also found the canvasses appropriate, not only in raising awareness but in stimulating commitment to act. Most adept at breaking taboos, artists share their impressions, calling on intellect, feeling and heart. As Joy Keshi Walker resumes, art ennobles. About FGM, it is also about the artist, the viewer, and a future free from a harmful traditional practice that slows development, inscribes inequality, and causes untold suffering to generations of girls. The end is overdue.

If you are in or near Oxford, join us TONIGHT at Lady Margaret Hall, first in the Chapel, then in the Deneke Common Room, where canvasses address this millennial custom, break the omerta, and confront the viewer in a complex, nuanced way with one of the key on-going scourges of our times. The pictures detail aspects of the ‘rite’ as it has been and, sadly, continues to be practiced in Nigeria.

Tonight’s program includes Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen offering a narrated tour of the artwork followed by discussants Comfort Momoh MBE, FGM/Public Health Specialist; Hilary Burrage, sociologist and author; Nolan Victory, Equalities, Diversity & Human Rights Manager, London North West Healthcare NHS; Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE Rights in Exile Legal Aid; Dr Sharon Dixon, Donnington Medical Partnership in Oxford; Dr Phoebe Abe, Dr Abe Foundation and Fatou Ceesay (Oxford Against Cutting). Dr. Maria Jaschok, Director of the International Gender Studies Centre at LMH, will welcome you.

Finissage 16th June 6:30 p.m. in the CHAPEL, then in the DENEKE COMMON ROOM from 7 p.m. Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

[1] Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists: Confronting Female Genital Mutilation. Exhibition Catalogue. Vernissage in the USA. 6 April – 15 June 2006. Women’s Studies Research Center. Brandeis University.

Resources include Twitter: SupportGuardian@EndFGM

The Guardian Campaign: http://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2015/feb/06/highlights-of-the-guardians-global-media-campaign-to-help-end-fgm

The exhibition: https://www.facebook.com/stopfgmnow/photos/?tab=album&album_id=427511341804

Urhobo Bride

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. The Urhobo Bride. Oil on Canvas. 1998. The painting was part of the original exhibition.


Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya The Scourge. Oil on Canvas. 2009

Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya. The Scourge. Oil on Canvas. 2008.