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Religious leaders join the fight to end female circumcision in Somalia

© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Mike Pflanz
Senior Muslim religious leaders from Puntland gather to declare that they are all opposed to female genital mutilation, and to promise to tell their congregations it is not an Islamic obligation.

By Mike Pflanz

BOSSASO, Puntland (Northeast Somalia), 9 December 2011 – Until five years ago, and for the 20 years before, Kharda Nur was circumcising up to 20 girls a month, a job she says “used to make me proud”.

Today, she has turned her back on her old profession. Now she actively encourages others still carrying out what is also called female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) to stop too.

“I came to realise it was a disaster when a girl became a mother, because she can be taken to hospital with problems during labour and delivery,” said Kharda, 38.

“But the most important thing which made me stop was when I was told that this is against our religion. Religious leaders in my community said again and again and again do not do this. That’s when I decided I have to stop.”

Across Somalia, Islamic leaders and Muslim scholars have a huge influence among their congregations, perhaps more than any other authority.

Their support, it was realised, would exponentially boost efforts to end the harmful practice of FGM/C, which can cause infection and death when it takes place, and potentially fatal complications later on during childbirth.

The struggle against FGM/C took a significant leap forward one recent Saturday in a bland conference room behind the Governor’s office in Bossaso, capital of Puntland.

Senior religious leaders, who together preach to an estimated 100,000 people, gathered to declare they were against all forms of the practice.

Further, they promised publicly to say again and again that female circumcision was not, contrary to widespread belief, demanded by Islam. The gathering, and the weeks of public meetings and dialogue which led to it, were supported by UNICEF as part of its child protection programmes in Somalia.

“FGM has continued because there is a perception that this is a religious requirement, and that is wrong,” said Sheikh Abdirizak Isse, a teacher and well-known Muslim leader in Bossaso who led the recent discussions.

“It will take time to change attitudes, but we are talking about this on the radio, we are talking about it in the communities and we are talking about it in the mosques.”

© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Mike Pflanz
A Muslim leader in Borama, Somaliland, addresses a public gathering including many schoolgirls, where senior religious officials declared that female genital mutilation was un-Islamic and should be banned.

Already the situation is improving, especially in urban areas. Women like Kharda now refuse to carry out female circumcision. The stigma of being “uncut” – which used to mean women would struggle to marry – is slowly fading. 

“There has already been significant progress,” said Sheikh Abdirizak. “We see an acceptance in communities who used to do FGM/C now to defend their position against it.”
What is crucial, he said, was for the state actively to support these efforts.

“There is a strong role for the government to play in this. They should be working with the courts, and legal instruments, to support this initiative with laws that are enacted and reinforced.

“At the moment, all they do is talk and say they are going to issue something but so far nothing has been done.” 

The call for greater government backing for efforts to end FGM/C is echoed across northern Somalia. In Somaliland, Sheikh Aden Musa was telling a public meeting in Boroma town that “nowhere in the Quran does it tell you to do this”.

“People are talking publicly about it, in the tea shops, in their homes, and that is something new, that they are talking about whether this thing is demanded by the religion or not,” he said afterwards.

“Us religious leaders can argue and debate and show people that not even Prophet Mohamed cut his daughters. But really what is needed is government support to make legislation against all forms of FGM/C.”

Abdihafid Yusuf, Governor of Bari region, with Bossaso at its heart, said there was an “ongoing initiative” at the Ministry of Justice and Religion “pushing” for laws banning FGM/C in Puntland. Similar moves are underway in Somaliland.

“It will soon be finalised,” he promised, adding that events like the Puntland Declaration were evidence of sincere support from the higher levels of regional administration.

But there are still challenges. Mohamed Hashim al-Kahim, a prominent Sudanese Muslim scholar invited to lead debates over FGM/C in Puntland, said many Somalis believed Westerners were trying to force an end to a centuries-old tradition.

“Many Somalis think foreigners have a hidden agenda to destroy society, to make debauchery, to send out diseases to kill our future with our women going freely outside with no hijab, looking for men just to have sex with them,” he said. 

“But we have brought many senior Islamic leaders from other countries, people Somalis see on Arabic satellite television, to show that this is something we as religious leaders oppose as well. 

“We know the truth, and this is our message for all the people: please, please, please sever the link between Islam and FGM/C. There is no relationship between the two.”



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