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|The Scars of Tradition|
Genital mutilation remains a rite of passage for girls throughout much of Africa - and Europe
Charles P. Wallace, Copenhagen (The Time)
Rahmah Ali Kudar is facing one of the most important decisions of her life. Her daughter, Huda, is 4 years old, and Kudar must decide whether to submit her to so-called female circumcision, an appalling practice to Westerners - surgical removal of the clitoris and labia - that remains a rite of passage for girls throughout much of Africa. Yet Rahmah doesn't live in Africa; she lives in Copenhagen, where the custom is widespread enough to have stirred vocal opposition. Female genital mutilation is specifically against the law in Denmark, Britain, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland and is outlawed in other European countries, such as France, by laws on violence against children; but in March the Danish government introduced legislation making it a crime to take girls or young women to another country to be circumcised. Kudar, who is now 32, underwent the procedure in Somalia when she was 9, and will probably spare Huda the operation. "I face so many medical problems myself that I don't want to give the same problems to my daughter," she says.
A growing number of the estimated 17,300 Somalis in Denmark disapprove of female circumcision, but many others still feel the tug of this tradition; some Somali parents skirted the law by taking their daughters to Somalia or an Arab state for the operation. "In Africa it's a very common practice deeply rooted in tradition," says Amel Fahmy, an expert on female circumcision at the World Health Organization. "In some societies it's a rite of passage from childhood. In others it ensures chastity, while in some societies it's a sign of cleanliness." The new Danish law provides for six to 10 years in jail for a parent who takes his or her child abroad for the operation, regardless of whether the procedure is legal in the third country or not. "It's such a disgusting assault against girls," says Eva Kjer Hansen, the social-policy spokeswoman for Denmark's ruling Liberal Party. "It's simply unacceptable behavior."
A bill introducing a similar law is wending its way through the British Parliament, where it had a second reading two months ago. "This is a human-rights issue, it's a woman's issue and one that very much needs to be addressed," says Ann Clwyd, the M.P. for Cynon Valley, Wales, who sponsored the measure. In France, while statistics are scarce, very rough estimates have determined that 30,000 women and girls may have suffered the procedure. A woman of Mauritanian origin received a three-year suspended sentence in Paris in March for having her French daughter circumcised in Africa.
The practice is common in 28 African countries, where an estimated 100 million women are circumcised. The origins of the tradition are murky; some imbue the ritual with Muslim religious significance, but Muslim scholars say there is no religious basis for it. The type of mutilation practiced in Africa has three levels of severity. The first level involves removing part of the clitoris. The next level, excision, involves removal of part or all of the labia minora. The most severe form, called infibulation, is the removal of the clitoris, labia minora and part of the labia majora, which are then sewn shut. Because medical personnel often refuse to perform the operation, says Amina Kamil Jibrel, a Somali woman who offers counseling to other Somalis at a municipal office in Copenhagen, it is usually carried out by a woman lacking medical training and knowledge of infection. When she was circumcised at 6, Jibrel says she couldn't move for a week: "You sit on the floor for seven days and your legs are tied together with a piece of cloth so you can't move and the wound will heal."
Jibrel, 46, has three sons and never faced the decision about female circumcision in her own family, though she clearly would have rejected it. She recalls the operation as one of the most horrific experiences of her life. "It was terrible," she says. "It was very painful. I didn't have any choice. My parents didn't explain what was happening. An old woman came and held me down with her feet while she performed the circumcision."
Rahmah Ali Kudar says the pain of her circumcision was so intense that she passed out. Even 23 years later, she is still dealing with medical complications from the operation. She has trouble menstruating; there were severe difficulties during her pregnancy; she spends hours on the toilet to pass urine. Kudar arrived in Copenhagen in 1997. Ever since, she has lived in Bispebjerg, a working-class neighborhood of the capital dominated by five- and six-story apartment blocks.
Kudar says her husband has agreed that Huda should not be circumcised. "He agrees because the religion says that circumcision is not important," she says. "It is not a religious thing. It is a cultural tradition."
Despite the brutality of the practice and the lifelong health risks, there are still those in Denmark who support circumcision. One Somali imam, Mustafa Abdullahi Aden, was quoted in November by the newspaper Information as saying, "It's good for the girls to be circumcised. It is a signal you are a true believer in Islam." After the article appeared, Aden's employer, the Danish Refugee Relief Council, told him he had to denounce circumcision if he wanted to keep his job. He then signed a letter saying he no longer supports the practice. But a number of other Somali imams in Denmark also approve of the custom.
The new law will be difficult to enforce. Most children in Denmark are examined by school doctors, so it could fall to health professionals to report cases to the authorities. "I must admit, it's not going to be an easy task," says Justice Minister Lene Espersen. "We can't go around checking people." There was a public outcry in January when a city councilman in the city of Aalborg invoked child abuse laws and ordered an examination of a Somali girl, after a social worker reported her suspicion that the girl had been circumcised. A school medical officer carried out an examination, but the girl had not undergone the procedure. Jibrel argues that a better approach is to talk to parents so they can see for themselves the dangers of circumcision. "We need to explain it's not part of the [Islamic] religion and they have to stop because it's bad culture with a lot of [medical] risks," she says. Only then will children like Huda be protected.