A woman in Iran's southern Hormozgan province which has the highest practice of FGM in the country. Photo: AFP
A new study has found the practice female genital mutilation (FGM) to be common in areas of Iran, refuting repeated government claims that the practice does not exist in the Islamic Republic.
The comprehensive report about FGM in Iran, released June 25 by Kurdish social anthropologist Kameel Ahmady, identified FGM in at least four Iranian provinces, most notably Hormozgan where nearly six out of 10 women had undergone the practice.
The rate of FGM was discovered to be 21 percent in West Azerbaijan, 18 percent in Kermanshah, and 16 percent in Kurdistan, according to field interviews and research conducted by Ahmady and his team.
The southern Hormozgan province, with a rate of 60 percent, had the highest FGM prevalence in Iran. Hormozgan province is one of the most impoverished and undeveloped provinces of Iran.
In June 2014, the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in a direct letter to the Iranian government asked Iranian authorities to “accept” the existence of the practice in Iran, and take active steps to eradicate the practice in that country. Women's rights groups have for many years condemned Tehran for trivializing or officially denying the issue.
The UN noted that Iranian Shiite authorities justified their inaction by framing FGM as a religiously sensitive issue that would cause anti-Shiite sentiment among the Sunni minority if it were banned.
Research shows the four provinces associated with FGM also have high rates of other types of violence against women, such as honor killings, child brides, forced marriage and polygamy.
“Religion is used to justify the practice by all practitioners of FGM,” the research found. Among the Sunni Muslims, a branch known as Shafi’i has the highest rate of the practice.
According to Shafi’ie faith, a woman becomes a Muslim only when she is circumcised. Although there are different interpretations of religious directives, Mohammad Rabi’ie, a distinguished cleric in Kurdistan, believes that “FGM is the Prophet Ibrahim’s tradition.”
The followers of the Shafi’ie faith believe that a woman's sexual desire is harnessed after being cut and whatever she does subsequently become halal, or acceptable to Islam.
It is also believed by some that FGM facilitates marriage by reducing the a woman's sexual desire and helps her to remain virtues and pious.
The recent study shows that the same religious interpretation dominates the current practice. “They usually believe that FGM was practiced during the early years of Islamic Kingdom when the Prophet’s and Imams’ wives and daughters were circumcised,” Ahmady said.
Among the Kurds in Iran, FGM is mainly practiced by Sunni Shafi’i Kurds who speak the Sorani dialect, but not among Sunni Shafie Kurds who speak the Kermanji dialect. Followers of the Sunni Hanafi sect do not follow the practice, research found.
The Kurdistan province in Iran is predominantly populated by Sunni Shafi’i but there is a Shiite religious minority.
“The prevalence of FGM in Kurdistan is patchy and varies sharply from one region to another,” the researcher said, adding that FGM is mainly practiced in rural and undeveloped areas.
“FGM stems from men’s desire to subjugate women and is another sign of injustice rooted in imbalanced gender power relationships and men’s power over women’s bodies,” said Iranian Kurdish women and children rights activist Parvin Zabihi.
“Enacting such a practice perpetuates women’s oppression and pushes women to a submissive and inferior position in the society,” Zabihi told Rudaw.
According to Iranian women rights activist’s, Iranian government either denies the existence of the practice in Iran or considers it as a minor issue that only exists in a handful of villages.
FGM is locally referred to as “Khatne” or “Sunat” in Iran. In this context, Sunat ("tradition") means "mandatory practice" not Sunat as a voluntarily act. The practice is generally carried using traditional methods by the elder women in the community.
"In some locations, girls are usually ‘circumcised’ between the ages of three and six with sharp razor or a knife and, afterwards, some ash or cold water is applied to their mutilated genitals,” Ahmady said.
“The attitude of officials and authorities is that FGM doesn’t exist in Iran. The Iranian public is also largely ignorant about the subject,” he added.
Ahmady said the Iranian government has been reluctant to tackle the problem and has framed it as a practice that exists in Africa not Iran.
The UN describes FGM as “a manifestation of deep-rooted gender inequality that assigns [women] an inferior position in society.”
Based on 2014 UNICEF figures, roughly 130 million girls and women alive today worldwide have undergone some form of FGM. Further UN research indicates 92 million of these women are over the age of 10 and mostly live in Africa.
According to UNICEF, FGM is most common in 29 countries in Africa, as well as in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among certain migrant communities in North America, Australasia, the Middle East and Europe.