British Muslim girls' painful secret
(Video) This summer, up to 2,000 British girls face traumatic experience of undergoing female circumcision. Some will be cut at home, others will be flown to Africa, Mideast - but all will return with emotional scar that will never heal. Observer publishes special report on age-old practice
VIDEO - "Then I just lay down, and I remember looking up at the ceiling and just staring at the fan. The woman who cut me she was very old, and I remember before it began I was still lying there, she was negotiating with my mom with the money, and my mom had to pay her extra for using a new razor. And I remember the blood everywhere. And actually there were the maids, we had these Ethiopian maids. One of the maids actually saw her pick up the bit of flesh that they cut out, because she was mopping up the blood because there was blood everywhere."
This is how a trembling Jamilia, now 20 years old, describes the ceremony she will never forget – the day she was circumcised eight years ago, when she was just 12 years old. Anyone who thinks this took place in a tribal region in Africa or in some remote village in the Middle East, is mistaken. Jamilia lives in east London, and she is by far not the only British girl to suffer through such an experience. The British Observer published a special report on the issue last week.
It is no coincidence that most of the operations are carried out over the summer. Jackie Mathers, a nurse for safeguarding children, said that it takes between four to six weeks to recover from the traumatic experience. In some cases, the girl's legs are bound together to keep the wound from opening while she walks. "When the circumcision happens, they tie your legs together so you don't take big steps because if they take big steps the stitch come out. Second you have to go to the toilet and pass urine, and that was hell," says 32-year-old Miriam, a UK resident who remembers all too well her and her sister's circumcision in Somalia when she was only seven years old.
Religious obligation or deep-rooted custom?
"I screamed with pain despite the tight hand held over my mouth, for the pain was not just a pain, it was like a searing flame that went through my whole body. After a few moments, I saw a red pool of blood around my hips. I did not know what they had cut off from my body, and I did not try to find out. I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes, it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago." (Nawal Saadawi – "The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World")
While it is not something that is broadly discussed in public, female circumcision stretches far and wide. According to the World Health Organization, which continues to fight the age-old custom, an estimated 100 million to 140 million across the globe are currently living with the consequences of circumcision, and 2 million girls join the circle each year – some 8,000 per day. The custom is most popular in northeast Africa, where its dimensions spread to some 95% of women.
Female circumcision does not only take place in tribal regions. Recent data show that in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, for example, some 70%-80% of women are circumcised – an incredible finding that led the Kurdistan Islamic Scholars Union to issue a religious edict against the act, and rule that the practice is not a religious obligation. According to other reports, 60% of Iraqi women are circumcised, and there are also accounts of the phenomenon's existence in Yemen, Mauritania, Djibouti, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and even Israel.
Here lies the most crucial point. This is not a religious obligation in Islam, but is a custom that is believed to be rooted in the days before Islam. In Egypt, the government of President Hosni Mubarak tried to curb the extensive practice when it outlawed it in 1996. Egypt's former Grand Mufti Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, who recently passed away, also spoke out against the act, calling it un-Islamic and saying, "The scholars of Islam are unanimous in agreeing that female circumcision has nothing to do with religion," – a statement that evoked much criticism. Cairo's al-Azhar University, where Tantawy also served as grand sheikh, harshly condemned the custom and called it a "criminal offense."
Some three years ago, after a 12-year-old girl, Budour Shaker, died of complications following the operation, Egypt's first lady Suzanne Mubarak joined the fight against the practice. Israel's neighbor to the south was possibly the first country where a public outcry emerged against the act, thanks to a chilling description by Egyptian writer Nawal Saadawi in her book, "The Hidden Face of Eve", which was published in 1988. In the book, Saadawi recounts how she and her younger sister underwent a similar ceremony in their home, while their father, who opposed the practice, was absent from the house.
Hiding their pain
"I felt strangely a lot older," a tearful Jamilia says as she speaks of her return from the summer holidays during which she was circumcised. "It was odd because no one says to you 'This is a secret, keep your mouth shut', but that's the message you get loud and clear so I didn't really discuss it with anyone. Not even with the girls from my country who I assumed had the same done. I didn't really talk to anyone. It's kind of like personal pain; don't tell anyone else about it, what's the point?" "It happened to a lot of generations back," Miriam adds, "they just didn't have any clue that it's not a religious thing to do, it's just a bad cultural thing that has been picked up."
The practice was also outlawed in Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, where around 90% of women are circumcised, but to no avail. Authorities there still have a difficult time fighting the so deeply rooted custom. And the practice continues to develop among immigrant communities in Europe as well. While British law forbids the act, these laws are not properly enforced, which is what led the Observer to publish its report.
Britain is not alone. Accounts of female circumcision in Europe were also found in France, where one cutter was sentenced to eight years in prison. It seems that in some ways, the girls living in Europe have an even tougher time dealing with it than they would in Africa, where the practice is considered a natural part of life. Circumcised girls in Europe have a different life experience, and are forced to conceal what they have been through, which often evolves into a traumatic experience that will haunt them for many long years.
And what does the future hold? To be blunt, it is hard to imagine who can put an end to female circumcision in the Middle East and Africa. In Europe, on the other hand, the matter has been of growing concern in recent years. Last week's report in the Observer may even lead to harsher enforcement in Britain and severe punishments for cutters just as Miriam wishes. But will this put a final end to the practice? It is unlikely, especially when taking into account the fact that even after the recent official Egyptian campaign against the custom, some 80% of women expressed their support of the procedure. As it stands, the day the practice disappears or is significantly curbed is a long way away.
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