Toutkhal: Kurdistan is one of Iraq’s rare success stories; autonomous from Baghdad since 1991, the region has recently enjoyed an oil boom that’s fuelled foreign investment unknown elsewhere in the country.
And recently Iraqi Kurdistan has been looking closely at its human rights record. Two years ago Female Genital Mutilation was banned, as part of a wide-ranging law to improve women’s rights, and since then the rate of FGM has fallen dramatically.
But how have they achieved this? Kurdistan is very much the exception.
Many other countries in the Middle East and Africa still suffer from high rates of FGM. According to Unicef the countries where FGM is most prevalent is Somalia and Guinea, while Egypt is in the top five.
However according to Unicef the practice is ‘practically non-existent’ in the rest of Iraq. In a special report that is part of the BBC’s 100 Women Season, I found out more about the grass roots campaign that led to this practice being outlawed. I wanted to know if enough is being done to enforce the law, and end FGM in Kurdistan altogether.
One leg of my journey was to the sleepy village of Toutkhal — in a remote and mountainous area in Iraqi Kurdistan. At first glance, life seems untouched by the modern world. The small mud houses, surrounded by farm animals and people living off the land make it hard to imagine why this village would make the news.
But there have been dramatic changes here. Toutakal is one of a handful of villages in Iraqi Kurdistan to have banned female gentile mutilation after the practice was outlawed in 2011. The mayor of the village, Sarhad Wahab, proudly told me that after the ban the government started paying attention to Toutkhal — providing the village with a new school and electricity in the past few months alone. But he tells me that’s not why they banned it.
“We believe that your body is yours and cutting part of it is an act of violence. We are very proud to be the first to start this campaign. We banned FGM because we knew it was wrong”. The mayor and his wife Nesri seem to have a genuine commitment to the cause — they stopped their youngest daughter Dunia from being cut years ago. But her elder sister Seibar was cut in secret by her grandmother while her parents were out of the house.
Nesri told me what happened to her eldest daughter. “They knew I would not want to cut my girl. So they cut her when I was out. And it was irreversible. For many, the ban has come too late here — almost every woman and girl I spoke to had already had ‘khatana’.
Deeman, one of Dunia’s friends, told me about her experience: “I was very little and I was playing with a friend of mine when my mum grabbed me and said the man who sells fruits and vegetables and sweets is here in the village, so we’re going to buy you something. They took me to a house and that’s where i had khatana. If I had known I would not have gone.”
She told me,“I remember it was very painful...two women held me down. I know our bodies belong to us so why did they take something that was mine why did they cut a piece of me that was mine?”
Her mother Talaat cut all five of her daughters — including Deeman. She told me she never meant to harm her daughter, she was only doing what she thought was best.
Sitting next to her mother, Deeman looked upset. I asked her if she was angry at her mother.
“There’s no need to be angry with my mother. It was a widespread practice and we love her. We should be angry with those who spread this practice in the name of religion,” she told me.
One of the main reasons why Khatana or FGM is prevalent is that many still believe that it’s part of Islamic practice.
Mullah Omar Chngyani, an Islamic scholar, has written extensively about the subject. “This practice is not in Islam, it’s a traditional practice not a religious one — it’s a form of oppression for women”. It’s a tradition that’s been passed on through generations.
Chngyani says, “Some people choose to follow a certain school of Islam literally without really understanding the teachings. But if you read and understand deeply you’ll know that Islam could never tell us to hurt anyone.”
The dramatic change in the village of Toutakal is part of a campaign funded by a local charity — Wadi — to end FGM in the Middle East.
When FGM was uncovered, it sent shock waves through society. What’s remarkable is that it was discovered by chance. In 2004 — following the fall of Saddam Hussein — Kurdistan was braced for refugees from the rest of Iraq. And Wadi sent teams into the villages to provide support.
The refugees never arrived, but Wadi’s staff started coming back with stories of young girls being cut. Falah Muradkan Shaker is the head of Wadi and one of the champions of the campaign. “One of our team members in Gamiyan region informed us that people were asking them about female genital mutilation: if they cut how they should cut, these kind of things, and we were quite surprised. We knew that it existed but we didn’t know this practice was still continuing.”
Falah took his findings to the authorities, who were shocked by the idea that FGM could still be happening in Kurdistan. “When the reports came out the Kurdistan Regional Government denied it.
“Then it became a kind of challenge between us and we needed to prove whether or not it existed.” This was a start of a seven-year campaign with other charities and film makers who travelled from village to village to get women’s testimonies on camera.
After years of campaigning, a law was eventually passed criminalising FGM.
Gasha Dara was head of the Women’s Rights Committee when the law was passed and helped push the ban through parliament. “This matter has been difficult for the members of parliament and even society to accept. We were often told by ordinary people — don’t you have anything better to work on than FGM?’ We knew we might face difficulties in mentioning FGM due to cultural sensitivities, so we decided we should put FGM within a wider proposal for a law against domestic violence,” Gasha said.
The law was a huge milestone but the campaign to end FGM was not over. When the law changed in 2011 some warned that banning the practice would simply drive it underground.
“This law is trying to change a culture that existed for a long time. As a result, the law has not penetrated people’s minds yet. In the next term we need to work more to understand the problems with this law and why it isn’t being implemented. Is it a problem with the law itself, or the way it is policed? We have to make sure this law will prevent FGM,” Gasha added.
The Kurdish Government has now promised a comprehensive survey of the levels of FGM, which should be delivering results in the next few years. But the human cost of this practice is much harder to quantify.
— Shaimaa Khalil is a BBC journalist