YEMEN: Females fight ritual mutilation

Martin Chulov,
Middle East correspondent

December 11, 2006--SIHAM Rabiyah was 12 when her uncles sliced her genitals to uphold her family honour. She remembers the searing pain, the crowd around her and the blood, but little else about the day of her mutilation in the coastal Yemeni city of Aden.

One decade on, Siham is married with an infant son, living far away from her family home, but still haunted by her ordeal and trapped in a culture where women are routinely circumcised and "honour crime" is increasing.

From behind her black burka in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, Siham says she wants to talk about what happened to her to highlight the practice of female circumcision, which is still ritually performed in many areas of coastal Yemen and throughout the Middle East. Women's rights groups estimate that up to 25 per cent of Yemeni women have been circumcised, with numbers likely to be sharply higher in tribal areas outside their reach and the realm of health officials.

For many women in Yemen, the procedure is performed shortly after birth - not with the sharp edge of a knife, but with salt or warm cloths pressed repeatedly against an infant girl's underdeveloped organs during the first 40 days of her life.

"They do it to try and stop the clitoris from forming," said Amal al-Basha, head of the most prominent women's rights groups in the eastern Arabian state. "It is a procedure that is done for weeks and sometimes months."

A women's rights conference held in Cairo last month heard that 8000 girls a day fell victim to the ancient custom, which is aimed at maintaining a woman's morality and loyalty by curbing her desire. The conference heard that up to 50 per cent of Egyptian girls in coastal communities, and 60 per cent in northern Iraq, have been mutilated. The figures were even higher for Ethiopia, with estimates ranging from between 75 per cent and 85 per cent.

The Cairo summit led to a decree by 20 Muslim scholars and sheiks that female circumcision was not sanctioned by Islam. But that ruling, and those of other scholars who had earlier given the same views, are yet to move the Muslim world.

In North Africa, parts of Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan and parts of Saudi Arabia, the method of mutilation is more brutal than the practices used in Yemen, with all external parts of a girl's genitalia cut away. The procedure is almost never performed using any sort of anaesthetic.

Siham, who agreed to speak out despite fears her family might seek vengeance, said: "Most women know nothing other than to accept it. What they are taking from us is an important part of our identity as women. It is up to us to defend our rights and make sure this practice stops."

Now estranged from the uncles who mutilated her, she is worried they could find her at any time.

Her fears of being targeted are given a grave backdrop by the official statistics in Yemen, where so-called honour crimes against women have sharply increased over the past decade.

"Honour crime is an unspoken phenomenon," said Ms Basha. "The law gives the right to the family to kill. The penalty for doing so is one year in prison or a fine. But usually neither is enforced. It's the same penalty as if you killed an animal."

A study prepared by the Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights reported that suspicion - almost never based on reality - was a prime driver of honour crimes, which often ended in women being severely beaten or killed.

"We never found a case where a woman was murdered and really committed adultery," the report said. "And nor have we found a case where a man, or male members of a family, served anything like an appropriate sentence for killing or maiming their wife, daughter, or niece."

Ms Basha said Yemeni attitudes towards women were rooted in the impoverished state's deeply conservative culture - and partially backed by a fundamental interpretation of Islam.

"In the mosque sermons we hear that the husband has the religious right to make his wife behave," she said.

"In Yemen, men own the place and they own the time. When you walk on the streets during the day you are lucky to see a woman."

She said Yemeni society's attitudes towards women was making slow progress, but that a lot of the steps forward were cosmetic.

"There are a growing number of NGOs and human rights organisations, but we have a long, long way to go. At the policy level there is not a view that women are complete human beings and should be treated with the same status as men.

"In the rural areas, the tribal law is really the governing law. This is a fragile state with fragile institutions. There is no real separation of powers. The level of women's consciousness about their rights in rural areas is very low."

Earlier this year, the Yemeni Health Minister issued a directive banning female circumcision in official health centres. He was backed by Yemen's chief mufti, who said the practice was un-Islamic.

But elsewhere in the region, and particularly in the Horn of Africa states of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, the practice continues unabated.

Quantifiable statistics on the standard of healthcare available to girls after the procedure are impossible to come by. However, a German human rights activist who co-ordinated the conference, Rudiger Nehberg, said anecdotal figures suggest as many as 30 per cent of girls die afterwards because of chronic bleeding or infection.

Among Sunni Muslims, the main practitioners of female circumcision, there is no central religious shura or council that can impose a ruling on anything as sensitive as an ancient cultural tradition. At least 10 summits on the issue have been held over the past decade, but none has led to a decree that unites the Sunni world against it.

SOURCE: The Australian
Published On: December 11, 2006
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