Excerpt from “A Handful of Ash:” “It started out as a film about a practice that has afflicted tens of millions of women worldwide. It culminated in a change in the law.”
Compiling footage from their extensive interviews and research in Iraqi Kurdistan, Shara Amin and Nabaz Ahmed created a deeply moving film, A Handful of Ash. The film provides insight into the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kurdish society and its impact on girls and the greater community. The film was shown in the Kurdish parliament, and has actually impacted law and practice. The numbers of girls being “cut” in these communities has fallen by over 50 percent in the past five years. The success of the film highlights a potential approach to combating FGM in communities around the world.
The nature of FGM in Kurdistan is deeply rooted in tradition and, to some extent, religion. A mullah tells the film-makers that “Khatana [the Kurdish term for FGM] is a duty; it is spiritually pure.” That is the position of the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam that is practiced by Iraqi Kurds. It is the same branch of Islamic law that is predominant in Egypt, where studies show that up to 80 percent of women have been mutilated.
It is not only about religious traditions, however. “It is about controlling women’s sexuality and keeping them under control,” says Nadya Khalife from Human Rights Watch. The film exposes how this practice is harmful and how many religious leaders are now shifting their tone, acknowledging the weak connection between FGM and religious doctrine. FGM is practiced in 29 countries according to the WHO, and is not just confined to some Muslim countries in the Middle East – it is also widespread in parts of Africa and Indonesia.
The actual practice of FGM varies from the cutting of the clitoris in some countries, such as Kurdistan, to removing all external genitalia. Cutting reduces a woman’s libido and is therefore considered necessary for women to remain “chaste,” helping her resist “illicit” sexual acts. The effects of the procedure have much wider consequences, as it puts a woman’s health at major risk. Medical complications often include severe pain, hemorrhaging, infection, and sores in the genital region. The practice also results in severe long-term consequences such as infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications, and infant mortality. According to WHO estimates, there are around 140 million girls and women worldwide living with the effects of FGM.
The success of the film, as well as a range of organizations and individuals committed to ending the practice of FGM, has made a huge impact. This isn’t to say that the practice is generally declining, or that it will be easy to overcome. One reason for this is that many view FGM as a practice that is part of a tradition and a cultural right that must be respected. While the sentiment seems empathetic and harmless, this mode of thought unnecessarily harms young girls. Another argument has equated female cutting with male circumcision. This is fundamentally wrong, as male circumcision has little or no negative impact on the sexuality or future health of the male. Female cutting has much more severe and harmful consequences. Mutilating young girls is not only physically scarring, but also sets an emotional and mental expectation for a life of submission and obedience. In fact, according to medical experts, “excision of the clitoris is the equivalent of removing the head of the penis”.
Changing minds about FGM and reducing its prevalence is not simply a matter of spreading awareness. The practice of FGM is often rooted in a set of beliefs, values, social norms, and economic pressures that govern the lives of women around the world. In other words, the embeddedness of the practice will make it all the more difficult to eradicate. And although the criticism of FGM raises questions about the right to judge culture and the precarious balance between tradition and modern consciousness, there is no excuse for systematic cruelty towards any group, in any society. In the case of FGM, these cultural arguments come in direct contrast with human decency. Though the practice must be combated in a holistic manner, within its social and religious context, there is never a valid reason to violate a woman’s fundamental right to her own body and her own happiness.