Excerpt of an article originally titled "Confronting Female Genital Mutilation in Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan."
Activist Kurdistan Rasul (right) recently persuaded Mullah Ali Kalak (left) to stop openly advocating FGM.
The prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Iraqi Kurdistan has declined markedly since the Kurdistan Regional Government prohibited the practice in 2011. The KRG conducts educational activities including certification of midwives, who are often asked to perform FGM, police training, village presentations, school programs, and television films.
In a remarkable example of persuasive power, anti-FGM activism produced a dramatic result in the KRG early last month. The Iraqi Kurdish Xelk Media Network disclosed that Mullah Ali Kalak, a Sunni preacher and "healer," had called on Kurdish Muslims to repudiate the anti-FGM regulation. Kalak directs a "Prophetic Medicine Clinic" near the KRG capital, Erbil, and posts popular YouTube sermons.
Kalak told Xelk Media that lack of FGM caused 95 percent of problems among young women who had sexual relations outside marriage. This is a common assertion in countries where FGM is found, to justify the crime: that it safeguards, allegedly, female chastity. Kalak said, "Most of the girls who visit us and face sexual problems had not been circumcised. They have decided to commit suicide." He added, "All the problems that our nation faces result from illegal emotional relations between girls and boys." Finally, he characterized the international anti-FGM movement as seeking to discredit Islam.
Iraqi Kurdistan is making headway against FGM because the KRG is a state of law.
A young woman with the expressive name of Kurdistan Rasul, who is a member of Gender, an internationally supported NGO in Erbil, visited Mullah Kalak and challenged him. He repeated his claim that, "many problems are brought to me by women because of their sexual desires." Rasul replied that the psychological damage caused by FGM was worse, as was any disrepute to Islam. Finally, she said she would be obligated to use the KRG law against him. The cleric decided he would not continue to violate the law. He agreed to cease calling on people to defy the KRG by having their daughters cut, and to refrain from publishing a book defending the practice.
Iraqi Kurdistan is making headway against FGM for the same reason it has developed economically and politically – because of U.S. support for Kurdish autonomy, beginning with the protective no-fly zone extended over the territory by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, with the support of America's allies. The KRG is a state of law.
Irfan Al-Alawi is executive director of the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Stephen Schwartz, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC.