Can Iran Eliminate Female Genital Mutilation?
There is a growing body of evidence revealing that women and girls in communities in Iran and other parts of the Middle East are being subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). Yet efforts to end the practice often result in a backlash from conservative sections of society. With little national or international recognition of FGM in the region, activists also face an uphill struggle to secure the resources needed to tackle its prevalence and provide survivors with support.
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The theme for the 2022 International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, which took place on February 6, was accelerating investment to end FGM. With the COVID-19 pandemic seriously impacting efforts to eliminate this harmful practice, it is crucial for governments, international actors and donors to scale up investments in global efforts.
What Is FGM?
FGM involves the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is not recommended in any religious texts, has no health benefits and can cause serious lifelong physical and psychological harm.
With an increase in investment to end this harmful practice, it is important to ensure that sufficient resources are allocated to the Middle East and Asia, which have not been traditionally prioritized, partly due to the absence of official data on the practice. The impact of low investment is felt by women’s rights activists, whose work in both regions is woefully underfunded and lacks sufficient international support.
Globally, an estimated 200 million women and girls have experienced some form of FGM, which is a human rights violation and form of violence against women and girls. However, this data is based only on 31 countries from which national prevalence data is available and does not reflect the true scale of the problem. This has been documented in various reports, including FGM/C: A Global Response by the US End FGM/C Network, the End FGM European Network and Equality Now. This report found that FGM occurs in more countries around the world than widely acknowledged and that the number of women and girls who are affected is being woefully underestimated.
FGM in Iran
In Iran, the lack of sufficient resources and international assistance has impacted the work of organizations such as Stop FGM Iran. This organization, in particular, does not have big statistical studies to provide reliable data on the scale and nature of FGM in Iran. It also faces challenges due to little support and limited media coverage.
FGM has been documented in Iran for almost a century. In 1928, a travel report by pediatrician Dr. Rastegar, writing about Lorestan, a province in Western Iran, was published in the magazine Nahid:
“Another important point that is common among women living in tents is the circumcision of girls, which must be done from the age of five to nine; for until a girl is circumcised, she is not a Muslim and no one will take bread from her. As it was heard from the Lors, the method of circumcising girls is that they put the girl to sleep and cut the outer part of the clitoris, which is out of the small lips, with a sharp razor. Due to the weather and other environmental qualities, the genitals of the nomadic girls are different from urban girls. As is understood, this practice is also common among the Arabs and the tribes of Khuzestan also believe in this practice. To stop the bleeding, the girl has to sit in the river up to her waist, and if she bleeds again, she has to move in the water for a while.”
Despite such early reports, the Iranian press has been reluctant to report on FGM. Homa Sarshar, a pre-revolutionary journalist, said in an interview that she noticed the spread of FGM 50 years ago during a trip to southern Iran. In a report, she tried to make the news public. However, she says, the media outlet’s editor did not publish her piece as he had been instructed by authorities that the government was aware of the situation and was deciding what to do about it.
Although FGM continues to be practiced in western and southern Iran, the lack of news coverage has been a challenge. For over a decade, activists were unable to convince Iranian news outlets to report on FGM, but some journalists have now begun to cover the issue. Reporting on the issue is key as gender-sensitive media coverage has an important role to play in increasing public understanding about human rights violations, holding duty bearers to account and instigating positive change.
Small-scale studies in Iran have found FGM prevalence ranging from 16% to as high as 83% in some communities, and there are still many unknown places in the country where FGM may be happening.
At one point, the government, at the suggestion of Stop FGM Iran, attempted to conduct a pilot project. The project was launched and provided unprecedented insight, but government cooperation was abruptly paused and, despite a follow-up, never resumed.
Efforts to draft a specific law against FGM in Iran continue. Although some legal provisions refer to the issue of amputation of genitals and allocation of blood money, they are incomplete and should be reconsidered to effectively address the issue. A law explicitly banning FGM in Iran would make it clear to the public that FGM is a human rights violation and provide a deterrent effect to would-be offenders. It would also grant specific legal recourse to survivors within the criminal justice system.
Many gynecological centers in Iran advertise under the pretext of genital cosmetic surgery, sometimes even under the name of female circumcision, and exploit the lack of public awareness. No government authority is responsible for raising public awareness against this human rights violation, and with very low costs, women are encouraged to have cosmetic surgery on their genitals.
A recent study on attitudes toward FGM in southern Iran found the continued prevalence of misconceptions about FGM amongst women in the region, including that FGM prevents infertility, reduces the chances of divorce, protects girls from rape and ensures that women deliver more sons.
How can we stand against female genital mutilation without government intervention, changing the law and raising awareness? Today, in addition to the above, activists need to receive financial and other assistance from government and international actors so they can work toward reducing FGM prevalence and, ultimately, eliminate it.
*[Rayehe Mozafarian is the founder of Stop FGM Iran. Divya Srinivasan is a legal adviser at Equality Now.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.