Our study: FGM in Iran
As noted, my comprehensive research shows that FGM is prevalent in the rural parts of three western and one southern province of Iran: West Azerbaijan (Kurdish population in the south), Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Hormozgan provinces, and close-by islands. The provinces of Kurdistan are populated by a Sunni Shafi’i majority and certain Shi’a communities. The remaining provinces have mixed Sunni, Shi’a and other ethnic and religious groups. In these regions you also find substantial minorities of Shi’a Turkish Aziri and small minorities of Turkish Ahl-e-Haq (in West Azerbaijan, between the towns of Mahabad and Miandoab), plus a minor community of Armenian Christians in Urumiye and Shi’a Kurdish Kalhor as well as Ahl-e-Haq Kurds in parts of Kermanshah who do not practice FGM. However, some Shi’a women residing near Sunni-populated areas in Hormozgan province are currently subjected to cutting; and, historically, many groups of Shi’a Kurdish women in parts of Kermanshah and Ilam province have been excised.
This variety notwithstanding, it is important to stress that FGM is mainly associated with Sunni Kurds of the Shafi’i sect who speak the Sorani dialect, and not those in the Kurdish Kermanji-speaking areas of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syrian Kurdistan, even though they are also Shafi’i Muslims. In contrast, the Ahl-e-Haq Kurds, Alevi, Yezidis or Kurdish minority of Armenia as well as the forcibly migrated Kurds of the east and north of Iran perform FGM. Thus, the practice in Iranian Kurdistan is geographically scattered.
As we have seen, the first type of FGM is prevalent in Iran. According to the World Health Organization’s classification system, it falls under type 1 which entails either cutting the tip of the clitoris, ‘merely’ pricking it, or limited circumcising of the prepuce without ablation of the organ. The latter appears most common, at least in theory, and is understood as simply following tradition. In other words, Iranian forms of the practice remove a part of the clitoral hood. Nevertheless, 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.
As mentioned, it is important to highlight that genital cutting in Iranian Kurdistan is patchy and demonstrates sharp variations from one region to another, even from one village to another.
With respect to the southern part of Iran, it is unclear how FGM appeared in this location. Some argue that the custom entered the country through a naval exchange between India and Somalia (Mohajer, 2010), and to this date some small communities of Afro Iranians live in Qeshm.
In addition to southern parts of the nation, FGM exists in a few villages and rural areas in Western Iran as well as in Kurdistan, Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan provinces.
Girls are usually ‘circumcised’ between the ages of three and six with a sharp razor or a knife. Tradition then dictates that ash or cold water be applied to the wound. This is changing, however; increasingly, more hygienic materials such as Betadine and bandage pads are used.
Some locals in these parts including Hormozgan province contend that FGM came down from the Prophet Muhammad and that circumcised women who have undergone it are purified. According to these believers, FGM keeps girls chaste by decreasing their sexual desire, preserving their virginity until marriage and producing faithful wives.
Another local custom in limited areas is cheheltigh (forty razors) believed to ablate girls’ sexual urges, sweeten their aroma, and thereby increase their sexual allure for men. In the south and west of Iran, some bibis make a small razor cut in the girl’s thigh for those parents who cannot bear to see their child suffer worse. This practice is called Tighe Muhammedi (Mohajer, 2010).
While Tighe Muhammedi and cheheltigh appear limited to Hormozgan province, beliefs elsewhere justify further varieties of excising. In various villages in Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces, for instance, some women defend circumcising or at least cutting girls to rid them of dirty blood, even if only a small amount exits the child’s body. Both religious and health reasons are given as motivating factors for this practice which locals call Pajela.
Similarly, some residents of Bandar Kang believe that women are evil creatures who can be saved from the reach of the devil only by ‘circumcison’ (Jalali, 2007). Bandar Kang is located five kilometers from Bandar Lengeh in the south of Iran. In Bandar Kang a shaving razor cuts the clitoris when infants are 40 days old or older. According to Parisa Rezazadeh Jalali’s study, 70% of girls in this port city have been ‘circumcised’.
As noted, faith plays a motivating role vis-à-vis FGM in Iran, as most groups that practice it call on religion to justify their actions. Many believe that FGM emerged during the early years of the Islamic Kingdom and that the Prophet’s and Imams’ wives and daughters were ‘circumcised’. (This is not, true, however; at least the Prophet’s daughters and wife went genitally unscathed, but the belief, even if erroneous, motivates the cut to the present day.) Others argue it is both a religious duty and local tradition, and because their mothers and grandmothers did it they will continue. It should be acknowledged as well that most are unaware of FGM’s medical consequences and health hazards (Jalali, 2007).
In sum, FGM remains a taboo issue in Iran even after the nation was included on the FGM-practicing list (Alawi and Schwartz, 2015). Government ministries either deny it exists or conceal its existence from the general population.
In Chapter Three, an argument will be made for the legitimacy of the claim that FGM is not totally an Islamic belief, or more specifically that it should be associated only with the Shafi’i sect, because FGM is found neither in Kurdish Kermanji-speaking areas nor in large swathes within mainland Iranian Kurdistan where there has been no evidence of FGM for the last three generations.
In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran by Kameel Ahmady is available through Amazon.