The first time I heard from Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs that FGC (Female Genital Cutting) is practiced in Pakistan was in the December of 2010. I was in Washington DC to attend the first seminar as part of the Women’s Edition program, which is a program of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) that helps train, educate and facilitate chosen female journalists from developing countries regarding reproductive health issues, gender, population and other similar fields.
“Do you know that it is done in Pakistan?” Charlotte asked me, and as Program Director, Gender for PRB, I knew that she knew what she was talking about. As a journalist who had been working in the field of journalism for more than fifteen years, my reaction was one of denial for two reasons. Firstly, because I did not want to believe that it was happening in my country. And secondly, I could not fathom how come I, who works in this field of reproductive health and knows about FGC being done in African countries specially Egypt, does not know about this. Perhaps I was not a well-informed enough journalist. Or perhaps, and most probably, because this is one of the country’s best kept secrets.
As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), FGC “includes procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.
Today, as I sit down to write this blog, the date is Feb. 6, 2012, and today marks the ninth commemoration of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Worldover, an estimated 100 million to 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and more than 3 million girls are at risk for cutting each year on the African continent alone.
On my return from USA, I wanted to find out more about FGC. I discovered, upon research, that it is a custom carried out by the Dawoodi Bohra community and some other isolated communities in Pakistan. The Bohra community, some 100,000 strong in Pakistan according to official figures, are an extremely civil and respected community. Some tribal communities in Southern Pakistan are also known to practice FGC. Among these is the ethnic Sheedi community as well.
Even upon much research, I did not find out a whole lot about FGC practice in Pakistan, specially in the said community. What I did found out, though, is that it is something that was not talked about even among the family’s where it was practiced. What I did find out was that they considered it obligatory according to their faith. What I did find out was that since recent times, the trend to have a less invasive procedure (in which only a bit of the skin is snipped off symbolically) had caught on in the community. What I did find out was that an increasing number of women, today, do not want their daughters to undergo what they had gone through.
The idea behind FGC is to contain a woman’s sexual drive to ensure that she is not “promiscuous”, and for some it is considered a part of faith. Interestingly, it is not isolated to Muslims only.
It is done in more ways than one. In 2007, the World Health Organization classified FGM into four broad categories:
- Clitoridectomy: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the clitoral hood.
- Excision: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
- Infibulation: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and placing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris.
- Unclassified: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization. (Source: World Health Organization, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation, An Interagency Statement, Geneva: WHO, 2008: 23)
FGM is generally performed on girls between ages 4 and 12, although it is practiced in some cultures as early as a few days after birth or as late as just prior to marriage. It is practiced in at least 28 African countries, and a few others in Middle East and Asia. Some 17 countries have laws that specifically prohibit FGM. Since the early 1990s, FGM/C has gained recognition as a health and human rights issue among African governments, the international community, women’s organizations, and professional associations.
A majority of Muslim scholars world over agree that it is not an obligatory custom in Islam. Mufti Muhammad Afzal Asari whom I interviewed for my story, says, “It is one of those customs that existed in Arab culture prior to the coming of Islam. Leave alone Fardh (obligatory), it is not even Sunnah. It is neither advised nor recommended. At the most we can call it a custom the doing of which will neither give us a reward nor be counted as a sin by Allah. It is a cultural thing.”
Yet, it is a custom still carried out in many Muslim countries. Closer to home is Indonesia, where the custom is observed fervently in rural communities, in spite the government’s ban on FGC.
It is important to remember that Islam does not deny the right to sexual pleasure for women. Yet, generations of women globally (and not just Muslim women) have been denied this right at the hands of this custom.
Months of research and hard work led me to a written piece of work which was in my hands, but which nobody was ready to publish as it is a subject shrouded in mystery. Finally, the story got published in August 2011. The link is as follows:
Our third of the series of Women’s Edition conferences led us to Senegal, an African country, where we got a chance to visit rural communities who are now FGC free, thanks to the efforts of Tostan. Tostan’s mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights. Tostan means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof. And a breakthrough it indeed is. With the motivating and undefeatable Molly Melching at the helm of affairs, Tostan’s work has resulted in over 5,000 communities having declared abandonment of FGC. Senegal is on track for complete FGC abandonment by 2015 and the movement has taken root in seven additional countries.
In the village of Keur Siambara, we met Village Chief and Imam Demba Diawara, who according to Molly Melching is “a PhD in wisdom”! The one mantra Demba kept repeating that had much to be learnt, especially for activists, was: “Beautify Your Words.”
As we sat under a huge Neem tree in that village in Senegal, little girls sang a touching song for us in which they expressed joy at not being cut like their mothers and showed awareness of their basic human rights like education, respect and not being violated, physically or otherwise.
FGC may result in complications like urinary tract infections, infertility and scarring. Cysts may also develop, and the World Health Organisation has found that the practice increases the risk of infant mortality. Also significant is the reduction in how much sexual pleasure circumcised women can experience.
But the psychological trauma a little girl may go through when she is violated and taken by surprise when she is often too young to realize what is happening to her may be even more traumatic than the physical side-effects.
On this February the 6th, it is time, yet again, to bring this subject out of the closet and at least think over it, for awareness means informed decisions.
For More Information on FGC: