When a call from FAWCO — the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas – asked Maria Jaschok and me to speak at one of their forthcoming ZOOM meetings, I was delighted, not only because they had chosen as their Target Project for 2020-2022 the Tanzanian initiative S.A.F.E. (Safe Alternatives for Female Genital Mutilation Elimination) and were thus getting involved in FGM activism, but also because of the association’s breadth and outreach. A vast network of independent volunteer clubs including 65 member units in 34 countries, it embraces a total membership of around 12,000.
In fall term 2020, our ten King’s College London FGM symposia had brought Maria and me to their attention. Running from mid-October through early December, the series interrogated Patriarchal Inscriptions on Women’s Bodies, including but not limited to excision and thus had drawn FAWCO’s executives on board. To learn more about this widespread abuse, they invited us on 26 January 2021 to consider “FGM from an inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural perspective” in order that “Well-Being and Healthy Lives for Women and Girls” be realized.
Two weeks later, Hibo Wardere’s book CUT. One Woman’s Fight against FGM in Britain Today was on the agenda. Because I had hosted Hibo at Oxford in 2015 and on page 159 she wrote about it, we thought I might enhance discussion by talking about that encounter.
What has FGM in Somalia to do with excision in Iran?
While concerned just now with UnCUT/VOICES’ author Kameel Ahmady – for reasons described in my two previous posts — but willing to briefly shift focus, I discovered that, contrary to expectations that FGM in Somalia would have little to say about excision in Iran, the two applications of patriarchal tyranny prove to be mutually illuminating.
Admittedly, differences remain conspicuous. Whereas only 8% of the total Iranian population is clitorally cropped, Somalia has a hard time dipping below 95%, and, Hibo contends, emigrés remain all too willing to continue mutilating (her term) even when resident in nations that frown on, even criminalize, the practice.
Regarding the details of what’s cut and what’s left, the visible part of the clitoris or clitoral prepuce of Iranian girls is fodder for the razors, whereas the entire vulva – labia minora, majora and clitoris — of Somali girls would be, in words used by several survivors, butchered. If you’re reading this, you know about infibulation. What may be less familiar – hopefully! — is what it feels like to be sliced and sewn. Hibo assured us, “I’m a walking wound” because girls can never forget the attack. The horror engulfs a life.
Not physical alone, but mental as well. The cataclysmic moment, the rupture of innocence and trust, branded Hibo’s encounter. “While screaming for help,” she said, “I never expected to be ignored.” But her mother turned her head away, or, when fleetingly turning back, offered not comfort but command. “Hush,” she intoned. “The neighbors will hear.”
As an empathic male, Kameel Ahmady respects the boundaries around fraught emotions likely in his female informants, so the subjective experience of amputation isn’t articulated in his study. Yet affect seeds it. “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 where I am from, sunnet had been suffered by my grandmothers, mother and sister. They had all undergone FGM.”
Thus, in In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (UnCUT/VOICES 2016) Kameel offers a section on “The Politics of FGM: Motivations, Justifications, Rationalisations” where we find significant overlap with rubrics in Somalia.
“Embedded in the social fabric of practising communities, the custom elicits a plethora of reasons to justify removing a part of women’s bodies that men do not possess. These pronouncements derive from the ideologies and histories of the groups involved, founded on gender inequalities and patriarchal control of women’s sexuality. Some theorists believe the main motive for FGM is indeed to control women’s sexuality under patriarchy. In other words, institutionalized male supremacy is the bedrock. Without it, FGM would be cut off at the root, a hypothesis that underscores the usefulness of feminist analysis.
“At the same time, motives are complicated by cultural and religious beliefs that drive individuals to ablate female genitalia, including indigenous views about sexual behavior, beauty, health, and chastity. The following passages will provide an overview of justifications that permit FGM to survive.
“For instance, many peoples hold a (totally erroneous) belief that FGM stimulates fertility in women, decreases sexual – including homosexual — urges, and increases loyalty to the bride’s arranged groom. Thus, it is thought, infibulation preserves the woman’s virginity and fidelity toward her husband, a warrant achieved by stitching her vagina to be unsealed exclusively by the spouse on the wedding night. Beyond ensuring the organ’s delivery in a pristine state, infibulation affords extra sexual pleasure to the man, thus serving male desire. Interestingly, those communities that integrate FGM into their initiation ceremonies reinforce the link between mutilation and the sexual intercourse that quickly follows on attaining (socially enforced) maturity and subsequent wedded ‘bliss’.
“FGM supporters who claim it empowers their daughters understand it as ensuring marriage and the girls’ ability to protect the family’s good name. Practising communities’ cultural beliefs about gender and sexuality also bolster FGM. Many associate the procedure with beauty, modesty and cleanliness in women. Still, some critics look beneath the surface to identify an underlying motive, namely as mentioned above, to limit and control women’s sexual behaviour. Where virginity is required for entering the wedded state, freedom from sexual experience is valued (though more in women). In other words, some clerics and laypeople believe that FGM minimises sexual desire outside wedlock but, by corollary, oddly ceases to do so once the vows have been exchanged. And it is true, a girl who has been subject to FGM receives a good many more proposals than the outlier who is left intact.
‘Indeed, supporting beliefs associate genital erasure with hygiene, aesthetics, and definitions of gender. In FGM-practising communities, for instance, an unmutilated woman is considered unclean and her genitalia unsightly. The fear that her clitoris will grow also enters into play, for how can a woman have an appendage to rival a man’s?’”
A census of beliefs in Somalia surrounding Gudnin – circumcision, the same word for both males and females but far from the same procedure – echoes the foregoing list of rationalizations, leading to a fraught summation: a hierarchical binary divides humanity into males with prerogatives and females with social disabilities expressed in the hostility toward women’s sexual potency that motivates FGM, whether in Somalia or Iran – or indeed, anywhere.
To date, FGM has been observed in 92 nations.
 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.
Amazon carries both Hibo Wardere’s CUT and Kameel Ahmady’s In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (UnCUT/VOICES 2016). Thanks for ordering and letting others know it’s available.