Religion as a strategy to tackle FGM

It is essential to deconstruct religious beliefs as they are one of the main arguments as to why communities perpetuate the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (Mahmoodi O., 2016).

The positioning of religious figures is an essential step towards disarticulating the false links between FGM and religious obligation, as in the case of the Muslim scholars of Al-Azhar University in Egypt, the Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomar, Ayatollah Fadlallah, Muhammed Salim AAwwa, Secretary General of the International Federation of Islamic Scholars, etc…

Nevertheless, there are still many obstacles to this public stance (Mahmoodi O., 2016; Sheikh Abdi M., Population Council 2007):

  • Lack of knowledge and doubts about whether the practice is religious or not.
  • Social pressure and fear of losing social status within the community
  • Lack of knowledge about the real consequences of FGM
  • An underestimation of the seriousness of the practices by the leaders of certain communities
  • The authority of religious people who speak out in favour of FGM

Examples of membership practice

Sudan: Programmes to abolish FGM in the religious sphere must respect certain objectives: 

  • Stopping the spread of false links between FGM and religion and spreading a religious consciousness confirming the illegitimacy of FGM 
  • Strengthening community participation and the role of community leaders and Dawa (Islamic disseminators) in order to mobilize communities and change behaviour.    

Senegal: The Islam and Population Network brings together religious leaders who raise awareness of the fight against FGM through several strategies: 

  • The elaboration of arguments and sermons, training of Imams and religious leaders in the 14 regions of the country, TV and radio programmes with different profiles (doctors, sociologists and religious) 
  • The production of videos on social networks 
  • An exchange trip in order to share experiences 
  • The establishment, by the religious leaders, of regular informative talks with women.

It is important to note that religious leaders are sometimes unable to express themselves openly: they may receive death threats preventing them from expressing themselves (as in Mali).

What can be done?

According to the members, the involvement of religious leaders is fundamental, particularly through the elaboration of fatwa in order to sensitize the population to the fact that a practice that is harmful to the health of girls and women (and which is not obligatory in the Koran) should not be practiced. In order to involve them, the issue at stake is not the veracity or not of the hadiths put forward, but rather how to get opinion leaders who strongly believe they are right to promote the practice to admit another religious “truth”?

A doctor/religious leader tandem would be interesting to set up (such as in Mali where the religious authorities have called on doctors). The main obstacle is posed by the fact that “those who defend the practice have the answer to everything”

  • In religious circles: emphasis on medicalisation to combat the consequences on health
  • In the medical field: resistance of doctors to highlight the health consequences of the practice in Mauritania

Attention must be paid to the terms used during sensitization: confusion between the Arabic terms male circumcision and female excision.

During awareness-raising activities, it is therefore better to use another term than “Sunna”, because the more we call it “sunna”, the more we legitimize it as an Islamic practice. For example, the terms “fircooni” (pharaonic) and “fiid-jar” (to cut off the cap = “sunna”) are more appropriate.

Emphasize that FGM can damage women’s health and even their lives, so it is crucial to stop the practice.

One member explained that a barrier to achieving meaningful results is “the fact that in Muslim societies where the practice is prevalent, FGM is a women’s issue”, and they do not take part in Friday prayers where the preaching against FGM is broadcast, so they do not benefit from these messages in relation to Islam’s position on FGM.

Furthermore, it should always be kept in mind that the root cause of FGM lies in the inequality between women and men. It is therefore necessary to transform attitudes through “the adoption of a holistic approach that includes all actors” (religious, health personnel, decision-makers, sociologists, psychologists, opinion leaders, women’s groups, watchdog committees, etc.) and a fluid coordination mechanism for better monitoring.

Furthermore, it is important to strengthen civil society outside religion by encouraging freedom of thought and debate, in order to make people understand that religion can be debated.

Finally, one member stressed the importance of putting this debate into perspective. Indeed, to say that FGM is not religious implies that if it were religious, then it would be morally and legally permissible (Brian D. E., Hendry J., 2017). Instead, we must argue that even if cutting a child’s genital organs were an explicitly religious practice, it would not make it morally or legally permissible.

« The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation » is part of the « Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM » project, supported by the « UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM ».
The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNFPA, UNICEF or any other agency or organization.

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