Approximately 6.5 million Somali girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) — otherwise known as female circumcision — according to a new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Although support for the practice is waning, the report indicates that 98% of Somali women between 15 and 49 have been cut or mutilated — the highest per capita percentage in the world.
In addition, the report states that female circumcision is higher among Somalis even in countries where the practice is less common.
For instance, 74% of Ethiopian women aged 15 to 49 have undergone the procedure, although 97% of Somali women living in Ethiopia have. Only 27% of Kenyan women in the same age bracket have experienced FGM/C, but Somali women living in Kenya have a 98% rate.
In Djibouti, where the majority of the population is ethnically Somali, 93% of women are circumcised. In Tanzania, 15% of women are circumcised.
The report is based on Demographic and Health Surveys, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey conducted over the past 20 years.
Deeply rooted Somali traditions and customs
In most countries where FGM/C is prevalent, traditional practitioners perform the procedures, cutting the female genitalia and removing some flesh — generally the clitoris and inner labia.
Sometimes, the cut edges of the labia are stitched together to cover the urethra and vaginal orifice, only leaving room for urine and menstruation, and must be reopened for intercourse and childbirth. This form of FGM/C, called “infibulation” or “pharaonic circumcision”, is the most common form in Somalia, affecting 63% of women who undergo circumcision.
Pharaonic circumcision is deeply rooted in the traditions and customs of the Somali people, said Saadiya Abdulqadir, who works at the Somali Women Development Centre. Incorrect religious beliefs and social traditions are used to justify the tradition, she said.
“In spite of the efforts of non-governmental organisations and child protection agencies to end this phenomenon of female circumcision, this practice is still common throughout the country,” she told Sabahi.
“Lots of parents believe that this tradition protects the chastity of their daughters,” she said. “Others are convinced that this will ensure that girls remain virgins until they are married.”
“We call on religious leaders to work toward dispelling the widespread misconception within Somali society that female circumcision is a religious duty and to announce that female circumcision is not a religious issue,” she said.
The Somali constitution bans female circumcision, but Muna Abbas Mohamed, a 25-year-old student at the College of Nursing at Plasma University in Mogadishu, says counteracting tradition with law is not easy.
“Laws alone are not enough to stop female circumcision as it is difficult to change customs that have been inherited without educating society about the dangers associated with this practice,” she told Sabahi, stressing the importance of involving clerics in campaigns to abolish female circumcision.
“Combating this phenomenon cannot happen merely by yelling slogans and writing texts; we have to raise our voices loudly and clearly against female circumcision, and religious and tribal leaders have to work towards educating the public and raising awareness within local communities about the dangers of this practice,” she said. “We urge the religious leaders in particular to explain to people that infibulation has nothing to do with Islam.”
Female circumcision not endorsed by religion
Sheikh Abubakar Moalim Ibrahim, a cleric in Mogadishu, said female circumcision is undesirable and neither a religious duty nor an obligation.
“Female circumcision is neither a favourable duty nor a sunnah and the prophet (PBUH) reprimanded women who performed this practice and directed them to only practice ishmam,” he told Sabahi.
Ishmam refers to “symbolic circumcision”, a form of cutting to draw blood, but with no removal of tissue and no permanent alteration of the external genitalia. While symbolic circumcision is still considered a form of FGM/C, it is less invasive and has been proposed in some places as an alternative to more severe forms.
Ibrahim said the Qur’anic context does not apply to pharaonic circumcision. “There is no reference or text in the Holy Qur’an that refers to circumcision, and the hadiths on female circumcision are weakly supported,” he said.
“It has no societal value and actually contradicts the principles of Islamic sharia because it causes harm — both physical and psychological — to girls’ health,” he said. “For this reason, it has to be avoided in order to prevent harm and to follow the teachings of Islam that considers causing harm to humans in any shape and form as sinful.”
Abdulrazaq Hassan, a gynaecologist and obstetrician at the Benadir Maternity and Children’s Hospital in Mogadishu, said female circumcision puts women’s health in danger.
“Circumcision causes damage to women’s health, such as urinary and genital infections and germs entering women’s bodies,” he told Sabahi.
“In lots of cases, circumcision causes severe bleeding and during the first couple of days after the operation, girls find it difficult to urinate as a result of the severe pain and the narrowing of the urinary tract,” he said. “Upon reaching puberty, menstrual cycles become extremely painful because girls suffer from serious infections, not to mention complications during childbirth, as circumcision causes problems during the birthing process that could lead to the mother’s death.”
A painful, scarring experience
Leila Abdirahman, 21, is studying medicine at Benadir University. She said being circumcised was a horrible experience.
“I can never forget that painful experience of having my genitals cut,” she told Sabahi. “I was nine years old when several women came to our house, some neighbours and some relatives.”
“My mother ordered me to lie down on my back,” she said. “Moments later, some of the women held me down on the ground while one put her hand tightly on my mouth to prevent me from screaming. Another woman holding a pair of scissors and a knife cut off parts of my genitals.”
“I still remember the amount of pain I felt during this process and suffer from complications from the circumcision as I have severe pain and infections during menstruation,” Abdirahman said. “I call on all Somali mothers to be aware of the huge health hazards associated with female circumcision. They should abandon this tradition once and for all.”
Despite the dangers, many mothers still insist on having their daughters circumcised.
Naima Ahmed said she wanted her three daughters to be circumcised because she did not want to become the only one who ignored social norms.
“My sisters, my female cousins and I are all circumcised, as are all the women in our area,” the 32-year-old mother told Sabahi. “If I leave my daughters uncircumcised, this will bring them dishonour, ridicule and insult from their circumcised friends. I cannot allow my daughters not to be circumcised unless all of society does the same.”
Yet Yasmin Mohammed, 31, explained why she has not subjected her daughters to circumcision.
“I have three daughters and I have not nor will I ever circumcise any of them because I do not want nor do I accept disfiguring my daughters or being responsible for mutilating their genitals,” she told Sabahi.
“Female circumcision is a harmful tradition that our society has been plagued with and most Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Gulf countries, do not know this tradition at all,” she said. “Why would the Muslims in these countries leave out an important ritual in Islam or the sunnah if female circumcision is considered such?”
Mohammed criticised the notion that circumcision protects girls from moral deviance. “This is an incorrect idea,” she said. “Circumcision plays no role in preserving girls’ chastity. Instead, a sound upbringing suffices to protect a girl.”
Question: What are your views on female genital mutilation/cutting? Would you want your daughters to be circumcised? Why or why not? Share your views in the comments below.