|© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Nur El Din|
|Sheikh Ali Hashim Al Siraj with his nieces.|
Millions of women and girls in Africa and the Middle East are at risk of some form of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) every year. On 24 November 2005, UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre will release a report providing new figures on just how many are affected, detailing the countries where FGM/C is still practiced, and describing the most promising approaches to ensuring that it is abandoned.
In Sudan, a number of religious leaders are questioning deeply-held convictions on FGM/C in their communities and urging other leaders to support an end to the practice.
Sheikh Ali Hashim al Siraj, Director of the Population Enlightenment Programme in the country’s Ministry of Guidance and Endowments, discusses here his reasons for opposing FGM/C. He begins by describing what he witnessed in the summer of 1985 while he was teaching in the Northern Rural Council of Omdurman, a major Sudanese city. (Published 15 November 2005.)
“As I was discharging my duties, I heard loud cries and wailing coming from a hut. We abandoned our lesson and rushed to the noise. It was the hut of Sheikh Hajj al Basher, a respectable, good-hearted man who was married to a woman by the name of Zainab. Four years after their marriage, Allah had granted them a baby girl, whom they named Amna.
“When the girl was eight years old, Zainab convinced her husband that Amna should undergo female genital mutilation as it was a known custom and would be a purification. They believed it was in line with their religious dictates.
“The midwife came carrying her ‘black box’. Amna regarded her parents with apprehension. Then there was the noise of singing and of jubilation as everyone examined the future bride, with a pious family and good ancestry.
“In the midst of the noisy crowd, the midwife proceeded with the cutting despite the cries and wailing of the small girl calling on her mother to rescue her. ‘Please mother, rescue me please!’ And then calling on her father, ‘Please father, rescue me!’ Tears of sad happiness rolled from the eyes of the mother, hoping to see her only daughter a bride.
“But all of a sudden the girl fell silent. There were no cries...no wailing...the mother called her daughter’s name: ‘Amna, Amna, talk to me!’ Amna did not respond. She was dead and never became a bride because of this harmful custom.
No basis in law
“Amna's story spread throughout the neighbouring villages. During the mourning days the villagers who came to offer their condolences asked me, being their sheikh and their teacher, about the view of Islam. Did this practice belong to our religion in any way?
“The story of Amna was an impetus for me to dig deep in the ‘figh’ [Islamic legal texts] and into the sayings of the Prophet so as to come out with a ruling on this practice. I searched for a long time in the Islamic texts and I have come to this conclusion: This practice has nothing to do with the Islamic religion.
“In 1992, the government began to focus on some harmful practices, in particular FGM/C. I was selected as a member of the committee for a special programme in the Primary Health Care Department in the Ministry of Health.
Saying ‘no’ once and for all
“As fate would have it, I was asked to present a paper on any religious basis for FGM/C. I came up with uncontested proofs about the falsehood of the practice and showed that it has no relationship whatsoever with Islam.
“Later, I was asked to write a book on the roots of the practice and the role of religion. Seven years later, thanks to Allah, the book was printed, the first of its kind in the Sudan, the Arab world and the Islamic world. It is titled, ‘Circumcision: Killing girls alive’. The book was published in 2002 with support from UNICEF in Sudan.
“For 20 years, I have been working to end the practice of female genital cutting in the Sudan. So many parents in thousands of communities still put their girls through this agony. With more attention being given to ending FGM/C globally, maybe 2006 will see a dramatic fall here in the Sudan.
“Truly, we can end the practice in less than a generation if at all levels, from top Government official to village leaders and midwives, say ‘no’ once and for all.”