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06.17.10 10:50 PM ET

The Plight of Women in Northern Iraq

A new report highlights the widespread—and brutal—practice of female genital mutilation in northern Iraq, even as the country stabilizes. How the U.S. can help now.

Violence in Iraq may have abated. But in the northern region of Kurdistan, women continue to suffer. A new report by Human Rights Watch, out this week, calls for a ban on the widespread practice of female circumcision in Kurdistan.

Instead of quietly tolerating this practice that blights the lives of so many girls and women, the government needs to move swiftly to adopt a law to ban female genital mutilation.

Known locally as “xatana” and described as a “harmful traditional practice” by the United Nations, the procedure is brutal and sometimes enforced on girls as young as 3. Typically, the child is taken to the midwife’s house and, while several women hold the girl down, the midwife cuts her clitoris with a sharp razor that is sometimes unclean or used to cut several girls in succession. Girls who hear the screams and try to run away are dragged back for their turn. Most women recall the intense pain for many years.


Marietou Diarra tells a powerful story about what her Senagalese community calls "the tradition" at the first Women in the World summit, March 2010.

The new report from HRW, "They Took Me and Told Me Nothing: Female Genital Mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan," examines the complex reasons—cultural, social, and religious—as to why women subject their daughters and other female relatives to this practice.

Many women in Kurdistan refer to FGM as "sunnah," an action to strengthen one’s religion. The girls and women told us that when they were young, their relatives would tell them that they must undergo xatana, or the food and water from their hands would be haram—forbidden. A striking number of older women firmly believe that Islam demands this practice.

However, the Quran does not mention FGM, nor is it practiced in many countries with a Muslim majority. And many clerics in Iraqi Kurdistan have acknowledged that FGM is not a religious requirement.

Sadly, only a few have been courageous enough to take this message public. In 2004, a group of leading Islamic scholars meeting in Egypt to discuss the subject concluded that FGM is not a religious requirement and called on Muslims everywhere to stop the practice.

The clerics aren’t the only ones with an important role in halting this practice. The Kurdistan Regional Government needs to take a clear stand. Although the government has vowed to make eliminating violence against women a priority and has taken significant steps, including abolishing a penal code article that reduced penalties for so-called honor crimes, lawmakers have failed to pass a draft law prohibiting FGM. It also has inexplicably delayed a public awareness campaign on FGM and its health consequences.

Instead of quietly tolerating this practice that blights the lives of so many girls and women, the government needs to move swiftly to adopt a law to ban FGM, and to begin an awareness campaign that targets men, women and families, clerics, health-care providers, and traditional midwives. The government should also ensure that health-care services, including mental-health services, are available for women who suffer pain and emotional distress as a result of FGM.

This is a huge challenge, but the regional government should know that it has an important ally in the United States. Vice President Joe Biden is a strong proponent of combating violence against women, both at home and abroad, and he has longstanding friendships with key players in the Kurdistan Region.

And there are other ways the U.S. can help: by passing the International Violence Against Women Act, which is currently before Congress. This bill would offer American assistance to governments to help curb domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation.

When I was growing up in Kurdistan, a shroud of secrecy concealed the widespread nature of female genital mutilation. I was spared because my mother realized its negative consequences,  but after my father married again, all my sisters by his second wife were cut, and some in my family still believe in the practice.

Six years ago, I joined a mobile health team funded by the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation, a German nongovernmental organization working in Iraqi Kurdistan. We would travel to remote areas of Kurdistan to visit women in their homes and speak directly to them about health issues.

At first, we didn’t talk about FGM directly because the subject was still taboo and it was difficult to start these types of conversations in these socially and religiously conservative places. Instead, we talked to them about general health problems, and in the course of these conversations, the women began to open up. It soon became clear that FGM was the source of many of their physical, emotional, and sexual problems.

When I speak to women in the villages about the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, they assure me that they won’t cut their daughters. But, after I leave, I wonder whether they will one day bow to community pressure.

Every day, we hear that young girls are still being cut.

More on Saud's group WADI here.

Take Action: Click here to learn how to support the International Violence Against Women Act.

Suad Abdulrahman is a project coordinator with the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Co-operation (WADI) in Iraqi Kurdistan.