Until recently the 'backward tradition' was common in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Iraqi Kurdish activists stamping out female genital mutilation
In the home of a village elder in northern Iraq, Kurdistan Rasul is quickly making her presence felt. Moments earlier, Said Abdulwahid had welcomed Mrs Rasul into his living room, from where she was scheduled to talk to the women of Gomasheen village about the hazards of female circumcision, a tradition she has been fighting for years.
But after after driving for hours from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, Mrs Rasul arrived at the village at the foot of the Zagros mountains to find that only four women turned up to hear her talk. But she intends to reach a wider audience. Careful to show respect, she launches into a rapid-fire chatter with fifty year-old Mr Abdulwahid, quick with smiles and jokes, gesturing energetically as she asks him to gather a greater crowd. She also harangues the women to call their friends to join.
Gomasheen is just one small battleground in Mrs Rasul’s greater war against female genital mutilation in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Whereas the practice is almost non-existent elsewhere in the country, many women in Kurdistan are still subjected to the custom. That young girls are now less likely to be circumcised than their mothers is due in no small part to activists like Mrs Rasul, who is tireless in driving home her message.
Finally more women show up, and Mrs Rasul starts her lecture. Her first key point is that FGM is not mandated by Islam. Subjecting young girls to the procedure is the result of a backward tradition, not the teaching of the Quran, she says.
An observant Muslim, Mrs Rasul makes a strong case. But she knows her listeners have concerns beyond the religious, and she doesn’t shy away from talking about the potential tensions in a marriage.
“Would you want your husband to take another wife?” she asks the women.
She explains the health risks posed by FGM.
Usually performed on girls at the age of five, the mutilation is extremely painful, and can lead to uncontrolled bleeding and infection that can result in death. The risk of infection, and problems during menstruation and sexual intercourse can plague the victims throughout adult life. Psychological effects such as depression are not uncommon.
Women need to stand up for themselves, she tells her audience. “If a women accepts being circumcised, she will accept any form of violence against her.”
By the end of her talk, Mrs Rasul, 34, sounds more like a feminist in a Manhattan cafe than someone campaigning to rid northern Iraq of FGM.
“Women are always told what to do. That is a form of violence,” she says.
Mrs Rasul’s mission to put an end to the practice of mutilating women in Iraqi Kurdistan is deeply personal. As a young girl she was mutilated, like many women in her age group. Mrs Rasul admits that the experience left her traumatised. It also made her a determined campaigner.
A 2016 study by the UN refugee agency, Chicago-based Heartland Alliance and the Kurdistan Regional Government, found 44.6 per cent of women surveyed had been subject to FGM. Earlier studies suggested figures up to 73 per cent.
The 2016 study found that 63.4 per cent of mothers who had their daughters circumcised did so out of the belief that it was a religious requirement, while 61.8 per cent thought it was tradition.
Traditions differ in the Kurdish region, which is linguistically and culturally divided. FGM is prevalent in the northwest and centre of the region where the Sorani dialect is spoken. It is uncommon in the north-west, where the Badini dialect predominates.
Today the work of non-government organisations, with efforts by the KRG, is gradually changing attitudes to the practice. Mrs Rasul has been touring remote villages and Erbil neighbourhoods tirelessly for the past four years in her capacity as a field worker for the small German NGO Wadi. The KRG outlawed FGM in 2011, and launched an awareness campaign warning against the practice and the consequences of breaking the law.
The efforts have borne fruit. Only 10.7 per cent of girls surveyed in 2016 were subjected to the procedure, a drastic change from one generation to the next. Mrs Rasul treats this cultural shift as a personal victory, flashing a proud smile as she describes how daughter, 7, was spared the procedure.
Gomasheen, which lies in the Sorani-speaking part of the region, also reflects this generational shift. Most of the older women say they have been circumcised, whereas their daughters have not.
Women may be at the forefront of the fight to eradicate FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan, but they have also perpetuated the practice. The procedure is usually carried out in a small circle of female family members, often by a midwife as a way to earn extra money..
Men take a back seat in the decision-making and no part in the operation. Nevertheless, the men of Gomasheen are not spared during Mrs Rasul’s whirlwind tour of the village. After finishing with the women, she gets a lift to the local mosque. Mr Abdulwahid has called in the men for a meeting with the activist, and most have showed up.
Some enter the mosque willingly, others loiter outside, uncertain. They are no match for Mrs Rasul. A short and squat figure, she approaches them resolutely, waving her arms and directing a salvo of Kurdish at the reluctant men. With a mischievous grin, she coerces them into the mosque.
Once inside, the men are boisterious and unruly, like teenagers trying to hide their awkwardness during school sex-education classes. But they quieten down when Mrs Rasul takes a seat and begins to talk.
Mrs Rasul tones down the feminist rhetoric when addressing the men.
“In your family, you have the right to say that your daughter will not be circumcised. You are the head of the family,” she tells them.
The men nod as they listen, running prayer beads through their fingers. But their polite silence does not last long.
“It’s better for us if the women aren’t circumcised,” bellows a rotund elderly man in an olive green Kurdish suit. “It’s better for our sex life.”