Shima Rezaei, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
With over 200 million victims around the world (UNICEF, 2016), the war against female bodies has been waged for centuries in silence and behind closed doors. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an ancient ritual that was practiced from Rome to the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt (Feuerbach, 2011; Ogunsiji et al., 2007), and now it is highly prevalent in West Asia and North Africa (UNICEF, 2020). While some countries in these regions have made major strides to reduce FGM by education and other measures, in some countries such as Iran, the existence of FGM is not officially recognized (Mahmoudi, 2016; Mozafarian, 2017). This has been led to the lack of international recognition and the subsequent interventions to address FGM in Iran. By bringing attention to the practice of FGM in rural areas of Iran, this paper will describe the various types of FGM performing in West and South Iran.
Each province or even village follows a unique procedure. While some women were mutilated by removing a part of or the whole clitoris, many have experienced a less invasive ritual such as scratching or nicking the clitoris (Dehghankhalili et al., 2015; Mozafarian, 2014). The most common type of practice in Iran is clitoridectomy (Mozafarian, 2014; Pashaei et al., 2012), which based on WHO’s typology is classified as the mildest type:
“T 1: the partial or total removal of the clitoral glans (the external and visible part of the clitoris, which is a sensitive part of the female genitals), and/or the prepuce/ clitoral hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoral glans).”
Figure 1: Normal anatomy and suspension of the clitoris. In all types of FGM the clitoral glans is resected (Mirastschijski and Remmel, 2019, p.122).
To find out the violent nature of the practice, documentary films, interviews (with those who have had undergone FGM/C, role players, clerics, religious leaders, and activist), academic and newspaper articles, reports, jurist’s opinions (Fatwas) as well as artifacts, and illustrations are considered to be analyzed.
Several terms are used to address female genital mutilation. FGM in Iran is also known as “Khatne” (i.e., circumcision), which is the same term used for male circumcision. However, in terms of their origin, religious and cultural grounds, procedure, and the consequences, the two practices are far from similar. In some areas, it is called Sunnat (i.e., the tradition) and the term Doing Sunnat refers not only to FGM itself but also directly shows its roots and uncovers the primary motive behind the continuation of the ritual over centuries: following traditions. Nevertheless, due to the irreparable damages and the impaired function of the female genital organ (Feuerbach, 2011, p.79), the term genital mutilation is preferred by specialists.
Background of the Practice in Iran
Why did you that? [asks a questioner] – It is the Mohammadan Razor and tradition” [answers an old female circumciser] (Mozafarian, 2013, 00:01:46- 00:01:58).
This answer includes the two main factors justifying FGM in Iran: religion and keeping traditions. Religion is the dominant discourse whether in promoting or reducing FGM in Iran. The few studies addressing FGM in Iran demonstrate that the prevalence of FGM is high in the rural areas of the South, Hormozgan province (Dehghankhalili et al., 2015; Mozafarian, 2014), and in West, Kurdistan and Azerbaijan (Pashaei et al., 2012), where most people are Sunnis. However, it is mainly common among those following Shafi’I school of law (one of the four Sunni schools of religious law) (Ahmady, 2015a; Dehghankhalili et al., 2015). The procedure is also practiced among Shia Muslims, but the fact remains that there is no scriptural evidence for male and female genital circumcisions in Islam (Abu-Sahleh, 1994; Dehghankhalili et al., 2015). However, some interpretations and opinions of the religion (Fatwa) could support the practice.
According to the Qur’an (verse 16:123) the Prophet must follow the religion of Abraham who, according to the Bible, was circumcised at a late age. Hence, since Abraham is considered as a model for Muslims, it is assumed that Muslims should be circumcised (Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, 1983; Wodon, 2015, p.85). In the context of Islam, “Sunnah” (the tradition of the Prophet) is every behavior, act, or manner attributed to the Prophet, approved by him, or at least not prohibited by him and deserves to be imitated and followed. Accordingly, those who justify FGM through religion believe that it was practiced in the early Islamic era and the Prophet’s and Imams’ wives and daughters had undergone FGM (Ahmady, 2015a).
Several hadiths (record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet), accepted mainly by Sunni Muslims, discuss FGM. The first group of hadiths addresses a light type of cutting, whereas according to the other group a harsher type is suggested. The former associate the removal of the clitoris with the virtue and chastity of women (Wodon, 2015, p.85), while according to the latter, the Prophet suggests an excisor not to mutilate the organ and just cut a small piece of the clitoris (Ahmady, 2015a, p.55) “because it brings more radiance to the face and it is more pleasant for the husband” (Wodon, 2015, p.85). Although both groups of hadiths are considered by many -including Shia scholars- as weak and unreliable, the strict Shafi’I view is that circumcision is obligatory for women and men.
Female genital mutilation serves patriarchal hegemonic interests and is organized by various mechanisms. In this section, I discuss those mechanisms that precede the practice. These could embrace normative justifications, for instance, promoting FGM by sharing religious ideologies or degrading practices such as stigmatization.
Promoting from Power Positions
“He [Prophet Mohammed] said that during the circumcision only a little should be cut… because sexual joy depends on this. As a matter of fact, it increases the joy of having sex. Furthermore, it is more enjoyable for a husband too. So it does not only decrease the pleasure of having sex, but it also increases it” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:09:43- 00:10:15). Explains a religious teacher in a mosque. “It has been hygienically proven that circumcision protects against many sexual diseases… some doctors who are not experts in this field deploy this due to skepticism about religion… no one has the right to question it and judge it from their naive point of view” answers a cleric to a question about female circumcision on his Instagram page (Stop FGM Iran, 2020).
The pulpits of local mosques, religious gatherings, education sessions during religious ceremonies, as well as broadcasting lectures on satellite TVs or in some cases social networks such as Facebook and Instagram are all the places where patriarchal hegemony is being propagated and particularly female genital mutilation promoted whenever it is deemed necessary or is asked by the audience. In this way, knowing how to do the practice and the justification are shared and even manipulated. Access to social/mass media and knowing how to use it, along with traditional communication methods such as lecturing in the mosque, can expand the prevalence of FGM and reach not only a diverse audience over the land but also exceed practicing it.
“It needs to be done otherwise girls would have so much sexual desire that it would be scandalous… girls sexual desire would increase if they are not circumcised. It has been said from the past and we know that much” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:12:57- 00:13:15). Said an old rural woman passing her rosary from one hand to another.
Humiliating uncircumcised girls/women is one of the mechanisms to enforce genital mutilation. This is employed by stigmatizing, banning physical contact, isolating them, and prohibiting them from entering religious places. In the view of some FGM-practicing ethnic groups, women are evil creatures who can only be saved from the reach of the devil by being circumcised. As long as women are not circumcised, they are considered non-Muslims and infidels. If they touch something, it gets dirty, water or food will not be accepted from them. The justification mechanisms portray women as having an element of evil by nature and then stigmatize, insult and isolate uncircumcised women through many terms such as Haram (forbidden by God) (Ahmed et al., 2019, p.5), dirty, having ugly genital organ, and scandalous (Pashaei et al., 2012).
Due to the prominent role of religion in social life, when stigmatization is based on religious rejection, it could essentially guide agents to certain practices. Thereby, depriving of and prohibiting from the most basic forms of social life or fear of isolation (psychological violence) force the practice of violence. The evilness of the women would be demystified through circumcision. Accordingly, they become clean (Pashaei et al., 2012) and Halal (Ahmady, 2015b; Dehghankhalili et al., 2015), girls are saved from losing their virginity (Ahmady, 2015c), and women are protected from sexual promiscuity. This illustrates a patriarchal discourse behind the term “Tradition”.
The main ideas behind these beliefs and myths revolve around female’s sexuality. While some believe that circumcision could even increase self-sexual pleasure or sexual arousal of partner (Daneshkhah et al., 2017), many are under the impression that removing a small part of the clitoris would control sexual desire and moderate or eliminate women’s lust (Mozafarian, 2013). Thereby, women feel constrained to practice FGM.
The practitioners in Iran are generally called Khattan. Several Khattans are involved in doing the operation that varies based on the region. In some areas in southern Iran (Hormozgan), local surgeon women are mainly performed, known as Daye, Bibi or Mama (Malahizadeh, 2016). All of these terms usually refer to the traditional midwives (Mozafarian, 2017).
“[I learn it] From Haji Maryam…, we went with her and watched what was she doing. It required a big heart and courage” (Malahizadeh, 2016, ).
In Western Iran (Kurdistan, Azerbaijan), often (Iraqi) Roma women are responsible for cutting. This group crosses the border and makes money by conducting FGM in the border areas (Ahmady, 2015a). However, traditional circumcisers, Bibis and Dayes, also do the operation in the West. Furthermore, in both regions family members, relatives, and local women could also take the role of Khattan (Ahmady, 2015a; Mahmoudi and Hosseini, 2020; Mozafarian, 2014, 2017). Dayes are appreciated by the small amount of money, chocolate, and sweets but all circumcisers believe that they serve Islam and do their duty as a Muslim.
Some of them have their own rules and season for performing the procedure: “They don’t do it for girls over five years old, because the clitoris is bigger, the bigger it gets, the more dangerous it become” (Mozafarian, 2014).”I do it when ‘Anbu’ [Cordia myxa- a kind of flowering plant] bloom. In the Spring. In [Jun]. During the Summer holidays. I do not Sunnat on 8 years old girls, it causes annihilation. [Doing on] Five [years old girl] is pain [and suffering]. [Doing on] three [years old girl] is ominous” (Malahizadeh, 2016) explained by an old circumciser (Mama) living in Qeshm Island in the South (Hormozgan Province).
In a context in which talking about the genital organ, pointing at it, looking at it, and touching it is considered taboo for women and girls. Being informed about the female genital organ and how to cut parts of it, is something that generally goes back to the prior knowledge of circumcisers as (traditional) midwives. Others usually learn it hereditary from their (grand)mothers or on their own:
“How did you learn? – By chance. I learned to do it by myself. When we take female genital with cotton, it has a sign, then I cut off its head” (Mozafarian, 2013), said a middle-aged circumciser with passion and a smiling voice.
Dayes who learn on their own mostly have (grand)daughters, which means they have the opportunity to watch, touch and practice the working with artifacts on their daughter’s genitals several times.
“I spread a piece of plastic on the floor, put a piece of cloth on it, the girl sits in front of me between my L-shaped legs, and another woman sits behind the girl … I cut with one move, I cut very little [of it], until the vein is not cut and then I take the wound with the hands for 5 minutes. In total, this operation does not take more than 10 minutes, and to disinfect it, I use ‘Sorkhu’ (Merbromin), alcohol, and betadine” (Mozafarian, 2014, p.606).
The practice is carried out without anesthetics medicine or any kind of medical equipment. Usually, a Blade or shaving razor is used for cutting the head of the clitoris. Nevertheless, sometimes also a sharp knife might be enough, then sterilized by Sorkhu (Malahizadeh, 2016), afterward cold water (Ahmady, 2015a), ash of wood (Mahmoudi and Hosseini, 2020), fire or cloths, or natural soil and the smoke of turpentine (Mozafarian, 2017) is put on the mutilated part to avoid bleeding.
“I cut the head of clitoris, a small part of it. – your razor is clean? [asked the questioner] – [yes] clean and disposable” (Mozafarian,2013, 00:03:31- 00-03:50). Depicted an old illiterate rural woman in Hormozgan. “First they cut then the girls sat in the ashes of the fire. They used one razor for many girls. But I use Betadine and cotton and only a razor for each girl” (Mozafarian, 2013, 00:02:00 – 00:02:11), described by a middle-aged circumciser, interviewed at home.
In recent years, circumcisers use more hygiene materials such as Betadine bandage pads (Ahmady, 2015a) and disposable razors (Mozafarian, 2013). However, the benefit of accessing new materials that apparently make the procedure safer would enhance the demands for the practice. Since using a disposable razor, or sterilization is considered a special promotion of Dayes.
Figure 2: A Daye in a southern village (in Hormozgan Province) with materials used for FGM. Having a razor in hand and the hygiene materials around; a cotton pack and a bottle of liquid Betadine (stopfgmiran.com).
Figure 3: Sterilized cotton used by a Daye in a village on Qeshm Island (Mozafarian, 2014).
“I just put some ash on [the clitoris] before they go to pee… they do not [bleed]. They bleed if I cut the whole clitoris off. But, since they [circumcisers] only cut a small part of it, they do not bleed” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:06:41 – 00:06:57). “We cut a little part of it, the skin. But if the razor goes on the blood vessel, it would bleed a lot… it [heavy bleeding] was not Daye’s fault. It was the fault of someone who did not hold the girl well”(Malahizadeh, 2016).
On the other hand, working with razors is not free from danger, even for experienced circumcisers. Especially in the case of old circumcisers, who may cut the wrong part or amount of clitoris due to hand tremors or low eyesight. “Daye cut another part of my nephew’s genitals and because of the bleeding she could not be circumcised at that moment. A few days after she recovered, we met the Daye again and [she] circumcised her”(Mozafarian, 2014, p.587).
“The Daye cut her daughter’s vena, therefore she decided to circumcise her second daughter herself. She did this with a small scissor, sterilized it with betadine, then disinfected the genitals and the area to be cut with betadine, then cut a small amount of clitoris with scissors. And from then on, she becomes a Daye. The new Daye asked the village clerics about female genital mutilation, and he said: “it must be done”. Since then she circumcised in the areas where there was no other Daye” (ibid., p.614).
This particular case indicates how an unsuccessful circumcision by an old circumciser led to the emergence of a new Daye and guided toward using a new handy artifact (scissors). Working with it did not require prior knowledge or any instruction, something that facilitated the operation, ensured its success and increased the rate FGM in the area.
Sensitive, Secret, Intimate
“Whatever we have done; we have done it in our houses without letting anyone knows” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:08:05 – 00:08:14). Says a grandmother who circumcised her own daughters and granddaughters in West Azerbaijan.
Unlike male circumcision, one of the most prominent features of female genital mutilation is that it is imposed and (sometimes) performed by close relatives and in a familiar, private place, behind closed doors.
” [After the circumcision] we were playing, my mother told my grandmother that “we should leave soon before her father came back home”, so I cried… after my father came home, I told him and he began the quarrel” (Mozafarian, 2014, p.588). A woman explained about her circumcision memory.
Women, especially mothers and grandmothers, play a crucial role in practicing FGM, since their request and decision are crucial in conducting the mutilation (Daneshkhah et al., 2017; Dehghankhalili et al., 2015; Mozafarian, 2014; Pashaei et al., 2012). A history of FGM (among grandmothers, mother, aunts, and sisters) is notably associated with practicing on the younger generation (Mozafarian, 2014). Even though some studies suggest that men are not the determinant role player (Dehghankhalili et al., 2015; Mahmoudi and Hosseini, 2020), in some areas (e.g. Hormozagan), fathers have a substantial influence on doing FGM (Mozafarian, 2014). It can be argued that men are mostly passive actors. As it is for their pleasure (as husband) and their honor (as father and male relatives) or sometimes under their pressures, FGM is carried out on female members of the family. Moreover, (some) mothers bring their girls to do FGM without letting their husbands know or despite their objection. This could be explained by the stigmatization that uncircumcised women face. Among FGM practicing communities, the social pressure for preserving tradition is so high that mothers, as a solder of patriarchy, prefer to circumcise their daughters to protect them from social stigma. In some cases, even educated women with their desire choose to be mutilated, since otherwise they feel humiliated (Mesbah, 2008). Not surprisingly, mothers, female relatives, neighbor women, and rarely fathers accompany girls to the circumcision’s place (Mozafarian, 2014).
“My mother told me to come back inside and there was a woman there. My mother was holding me and I don’t remember what that woman was doing to me” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:08:25 – 00:08:38). Says an approximately eight year old girl.
The place where FGM is carried out could also vary upon circumcisers, where they live and whether they are mobile or not (Malahizadeh, 2016). If there is a circumciser in the village, the family invites her or takes the girls to the practitioner’s accommodations. “They take them to the barns and then cut them there” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:14:46 – 00:14: 48) Says a middle-aged man.
As far as young girls are concerned, mutilation is performed by beloved ones. The trusted relatives, who live together, attack the girl’s body in an instant, which is the moment when the wall of trust collapses. Moreover, this mostly happens within the girls’ private places like their room, bathroom, or places where no one knows about it. The sensitive and intimate nature of FGM is linked to taboos around women’s sexuality, which, in turn, makes interventions to prevent violence difficult.
Violative and Collective Nature
“This is usually done in groups, usually the grandmothers, they invite and gather a few girls (granddaughters) together under the pretext of celebration, and circumcision is performed on them, we were about eight girls there” (Karimi Majd, 2016). Says a woman who had been undergone FGM as a child in Kurdistan.
Female companions play the role of circumciser’s assistant. They keep the arms and feet of the girl to avoid moving and injuries (Mozafarian, 2017). “They usually did this lying down. The woman called Hajieh Khanum did this. They did not take us all to one room, they called us to separate rooms. Usually, there was a resistance. For this reason, someone was holding us. Because when they take one’s pants off, resistance is subconsciously formed. Two people had held me” (Karimi Majd, 2016).
“… Some hold her from one side and another person holds her other side and they cut a little part of her clitoris. Not all of it. Just a little part of it is cut by a blade. Noting more” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00: 06:20 – 00:06:35). Said an old circumciser squatted in the middle of an alley in a village in Kurdistan.
Practicing FGM consists of several violative elements; it is physically and socially coercive. It is applied by lying or at least deceiving the subjected girls, ignoring the agency and suffering of the girls/women, intimidates and harasses them, disrupting and manipulating their relationship with their bodies. On the other hand, it is collective in nature, which means it is not conceivable without the other active or passive actors.
Not all types of circumcisions involve mutilation of the genital organ. Other patterns of circumcision might not involve cutting or mutilating. However, the main elements exist: A sharp artifact (razor, knife, etc.) that touches the female body and the attendance of others. In some southern areas, circumcision is performed so that only a vertical line is applied to the clitoris with a razor to allow some blood to flow (Mozafarian, 2014).
Over a ceremony called Chehel Tigh (forty razors) the girl’s chest and belly are forty times scratched with a blade. It is believed that it takes girls’ sexual urges away and makes them smell more pleasant to men and renders them more sexually pleasing to men (Davoudi Mohajer, 2010; Mesbah, 2008). Likewise, a symbolic circumcision custom is a knife dropped inside the girl’s collar. When the knife slips and slides down of the girl’s skirt, the girl is considered to be circumcised (Mesbah, 2008).
In each village or by each family there are (were?) a number of rituals that took place before, during, or after FGM is performed. In some areas, FGM is done with a traditional ceremony called “Khatne Sooran” (But this ceremony is mainly typical for male circumcision). Moreover, on Qeshm Island, over the days or weeks after the procedure, a circumcision party was held (Mozafarian, 2014), during which some henna was put on the girl’s arms and feet. Women sang folklore lyrics (Vassunak). Sweets were distributed among children. Chickens and roosters (scarcely also goat) were sacrificed for girls, whereas for boys it would always be a goat (Malahizadeh, 2016). Some girls received gifts (Mozafarian, 2014).
All these ceremonies aim to normalize mutilation; participating in them prepares uncircumcised (younger) girls and their mothers for the practice. It happens in front of others and is celebrated by them. FGM is not performed only by circumcisers or mothers. It is impossible to conduct without collective participation. In this way, by Doing Sunnat facing up to violence became part of the female socialization process.
Coercive dispossession of a female body
“They circumcised an elder girl, who was about to marry. Two men grabbed the girl and closed her eyes during the operation” (Mozafarian, 2014, p.606).
Two people (usually mother and grandmother) grab the girl’s thighs from both sides and pull them to the sides to expose the outer genital area. “Two women forcibly grabbed my legs and cut my clitoris. Three people were circumcised together, they took me by force and I did not eat anything for a few days, I ran to my aunt’s house, and then they came and took me by force” (ibid., p.589).
Over the practice, girls were forcibly stripped and their genitals were cut. In the case of young girls or adult women, FGM always has an element of depriving authority and agency over the female body and could, therefore, be considered a justified and socially accepted form of sexual assault.
Looking at the age at which girls and women become mutilated, it varies from the ages when they can be physically coerced to the ages when their interests – their status in the family and society- are at stake (being socially coerced). Some ethnic groups mutilate the girls as early as infancy (6 months) (Ahmady, 2015c; Mozafarian, 2014), whereas by others it ranges from 2 to 38 and might happen after marriage or parturition (Daneshkhah et al., 2017; Dehghankhalili et al., 2015; Pashaei et al., 2012).
“I honestly did not know if we had this tradition or not, I just heard from my mother that I had been circumcised too. It is the first time I am hearing this from my mother” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:05:07 – 00:05:11). Says a young woman who over the research heard that she had been undergone FGM.
“I was playing with the children, my mother came and said let’s go home, the other children are waiting at home to play with you. We left and [a couple of] women grabbed my hands and feet and circumcised me” (Mozafarian, 2014).
Deception is one of the techniques that contribute to mutilation; Before the practice, girls are often unaware of where they are supposed to go. Several girls were brought to the circumcision site using some trick, giving candy or a dull and only a few are told the truth (ibid.). Often, depending on the age, some of those who have had undergone FGM have no memory of that, whereas others remember it as a terrible and painful memory. During the operation, little girls might be afraid and cry which might be ignored. The procedure continues coercively.
“And how long and how much do they bleed? -Noting. Noting serious. [She pulls herself back and denies any bleeding by shaking her head in negation and her hands in the air]” (Ahmady, 2015b, 00:06:37 – 00:06:41) claim an old circumciser.
“My cousin and I resisted a lot, and the woman who was doing the circumcision was old and her hand was shaking, so she cut our clitoris deeper. For children, the female reproductive organ does not grow much and the damage is much more serious … all the girls in the village were scared and screaming. I also saw the operation on the others. There was not much bleeding and it did not take more than a minute, but it hurt. When you went to pee, you felt severe a pain” (Karimi Majd, 2016).
“If the girl cries, I won’t show any gentleness, because she should not move” (Mozafarian, 2014). “Some cry a little out of fear, some cry a lot. It does not matter if their voices are heard” (Malahizadeh, 2016), said an old circumciser.
The use of force and disregard for pain is a prominent element of coerciveness. Physical pain is something that is usually denied by circumcisers, if girls react severely to pain, it will be ignored or underestimated. While (some) younger girls have no understanding of what is happening to them except fear and pain, the manipulation about the body and genital organ is internalized by (some) older girls/women (Mozafarian, 2014). They believe their clitoris is a tiny, negligible skin that, ironically, getting rid of it would have such a hugely positive effect on their social status and sexual life. The practice manipulates women’s relationship with their bodies, deforms their genital organs, and alienates them from their bodies. Some women have no idea about orgasm and know nothing about women’s ability of sexual pleasure (Dehghankhalili et al., 2015).
Generally, FGM brings about several drastic health consequences, especially when practiced in a non-clinical setting, and psychosocial difficulties. The most apparent health consequence of FGM is diminished sexual function, which means FGM affects sexual desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, feeling pain during the sexual relationship (Dehghankhalili et al., 2015). Studies on circumcised women show that Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) and bleeding are the most common physical complications (Pashaei et al., 2012), followed by dyspareunia and a decreased libido (Daneshkhah et al., 2017). By doing FGM, the clitoral glans gets resected. Studies show that clitoral reconstruction, including five techniques such as re-elevation of the clitoris, can also improve libido and sexual function (Mirastschijski and Remmel, 2019). However, there are some medical and ethical concerns about its benefits. Due to insufficient evidence supporting the surgery, it is not yet recommended by WHO (Sharif Mohamed et al., 2020).
Although scarce research on circumcised women in Iran does not reveal substantial distinctions in the mental well-being such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) between circumcised and non-circumcised women (Dehghankhalili et al., 2015), reports addressing several interpersonal difficulties associated with FGM. For instance, reduced sexual desire could end up with divorce or remarriage of the husband (parallel with the first marriage) (Ahmady, 2020). Therefore, it could be claimed that women might also suffer from psychological trauma.
Terminating FGM in Iran
Looking at FGM’s profile, FGM is mainly practiced under less educated or illiterate people (Ahmady, 2015a; Daneshkhah et al., 2017; Mozafarian, 2014) which seems to be a direct consequence of their socio-economic status. On the other hand, studies also suggest that the more educated mothers are, the less likely it is to conduct FGM on their daughters (Pashaei et al., 2012). Therefore, providing more employment and educational opportunities and the equitable distribution of wealth and resources is the fundamental step in reducing FGM in the West and South of Iran. Women in these regions also experienced gender discrimination, such as polygamy, and are subjected to horrific types of violence such as honor killing, suicide (commonly self-immolation), and child marriage. Centralist policies have led to the ignorance of the less-discussed issues (including FGM). Since the dominant religion in the country is Shia and FGM is mainly practiced by Sunni Muslims, for the Iranian government FGM remains the issue of others. As a result, FGM is not officially recognized and no official attempts have been made to its termination. On the other hand, even if prohibited by the government and Shiite religious leaders (Ayatollahs) it is not mandatory to be followed by Sunni Muslims. In fact, as Nnaemeka (2005) points out successful campaigns should consider:
“sensitivity to context and complexity, cultural understanding and its integration in project design, participatory processes, use of local languages, collaboration between women and men, participation of local religious and ‘traditional’ authorities, and genuine, meaningful collaboration between local communities and foreign entities” (Nnaemeka, 2005, p.45).
Similarly, interventions to end FGM in Iran were focused on religious leaders. In doing so, clerics, religious leaders, jurists (Muftis, Ayatollahs) were informed about FGM by local activists, researchers and, media. Some were convinced to reconsider the FGM supporting arguments or explicitly express their attitudes about the illegitimacy of the practice. Some Sunni jurists (Muftis) prohibited FGM by relying on scientific facts, while by others it was based on the reconsideration of religious sources that justified FGM (Ahmady, 2015a). However, still, a great majority of them indicate agreement with FGM (Mahmoudi, 2016).
Besides campaigning against FGM, other factors have also influenced jurists’ opinions. The most prominent Shiite Ayatollah (Iraq based) who had expressed before “FGM is not forbidden” (which means it is allowed), has changed his opinion soon after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) commanded circumcision for women between 15-50. Based on his current opinion, cutting the skin of the clitoris is not recommended and mutilation of the female genital organ is forbidden and could be considered a crime (Mozafarian, 2020; Sistani, 2021). A possible explanation could be that this reconsideration aimed to distinguish between Shiite Islam and violent extremism that represented Islamic ideology. Therefore, if taken the explanation for granted, approving a violent practice by an extremist ideology has revealed the violent nature of mutilating female genital organs and caused rectifications.
Simultaneously, efforts have been made to increase awareness about the harmfulness of the practice and female circumcision is neither a religious obligatory nor an Islamic tradition. Even though Iranian law criminalizes any type of mutilation or injury to a human’s body including female genital mutilation, evidence shows that for some people FGM is a legal act and they urge to perform it (Mahmoudi and Hosseini, 2020).
In recent years, several radio programs, internet websites, workshops, and lectures for women, parents, and couples have addressed the issue and broken the silence about FGM (Mahmoudi, 2016). Besides, some believe disrupting the process of becoming circumcisers and convincing them to stop practicing would be a crucial step towards reducing FGM prevalence (Mozafarian, 2017). Recent investigations demonstrate that raising awareness has resulted in a considerable decline in FGM prevalence in Iran (Ahmady, 2017; Mahmoudi, 2016).
FGM is a cultural ritual that is not rooted in religion, but it is extensively entwined with religious beliefs in Iran. It has been inherited from generations and in order to be eradicated, it should be understood first. As Danelzik (2016) highlights, the leading questions to understand FGM are finding out what FGM means to the specific groups, what values it embodies, and why people continue the practice.
Rituals convey a feeling of order, security, and acceptance (Feuerbach, 2011, p.65). Likewise, female genital mutilation mediates the establishment of social order. It could be said that different types of circumcision practiced among diverse groups serve the values institutionalized by them. In a class-based society driven by patriarchal values, FGM has to be done to meet patriarchal purposes and follow the principles of class society. For instance, in the Middle Ages, upper-class women had to remove their clitoris, while female slaves were infibulated to prevent pregnancy (ibid., p.78). Thus, practicing FGM, on the one hand, perpetuates patriarchy, which is based on male supremacy and (sexual) control of women and, on the other hand, maintains the established class order by coercive dispossession of female bodies.
However, as discussed above, the leading role players in conducting FGM are women like mothers and grandmothers, and female relatives or circumcisers. Here, then a pressing question comes to mind is that why do women, who (often) suffered from FGM, oppress themselves (their own (grand) daughters)? Austin (2020) takes focus away from actors and argues that there is “assemblage” or “actor-network” that “compel” violence:
“These assemblages construct situations that place certain stresses or pressures on human beings—the fear of death, emotions of anger and fear, etc.—that force them to do ‘something'” (Austin, 2020. p.176).
Regarding FGM, it seems that assemblages around women are stigmatization, the rejection by their patriarchal society and religious community that not only compel violence but works as a kind of punishment if FGM was not performed.
Another argument could be that the violent nature of female genital mutilation is not realizable for those involved. One possible explanation could be that the power structures, which allow individuals to practice violence against specific groups (women) and then justifies it, are invisible. Popitz (1992) unmasked the relation between actors and power. He uses the term instrumental power to refer to having (at least supposedly) access to the punishments and rewards. This could also get power-productive by exploiting future orientation human actions and taking advantage of their concerns and worries for the future (Popitz, 1992, p.32). Women are forced to be circumcised since otherwise, they would be non-Muslims, dirty and evil. In a patriarchal society, the religious concerns, which are vital for living in the community, meditate to internalize the practice of power and violence. In doing so, circumcisers become true Muslims, who serve God, and circumcised girls/women become real Muslims and decent women.
With the help of internalization processes and incentives and the exercise of instrumental power, a certain congruence is achieved between the social expectation of individuals and the constitution of individuals. Accordingly, a successful internalization precludes individuals to realize the norms including their implicit threats (Danelzik, 2016, p. 128). It might explain why some circumciser stated: ” [bleeding] is noting” or the coercive nature of fooling girls, holding them firmly, mutilating them and violating their fundamental rights seems to note than a regular practice for the practitioners and all FGM supporters.
Having considered all the arguments above, it concludes that FGM secures social norms and orders to a vast extent. Therefore, eradicating it would be feasible over a long-term, constant and continuous process.
A considerable part of this paper is based on the studies conducted by Kameel Ahmady, who is accused of sexual abuse, and his team. His colleagues, most of them young women, tried to give voice to the silent victims of FGM, by bringing the issue to the surface, but they were subjected to sexual harassment and abuse. Hence, the research ethic requires that not to disregard the experience of women who were harassed by him and had to remain silent for years. The hope is that their efforts will be effective in ending violence against women, that their voices will be heard, that their pain will be alleviated, and that research into violence against women will not be a mean of committing another form of violence against them.
Shima Rezaei studies in the master program Social Science (Culture & Person) at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (April 2021)
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