Maryam Sheikh Abdi’s is a researcher on FGM. She is the co-author of a report of the Population Council « Delinking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting from Islam » and the study « A Religious Oriented Approach to Addressing FGM/C among the Somali Community of Wajir, Kenya». She’s also an activist involved in combating FGM. She has undertaken FGM abandonment programs (community dialogues, religious scholars engagement, research, documentation, working on policy and legal framework), and she participated in the drafting of the Prohibition of FGM Bill in Somalia.
It’s in our discussion on religion, in which she was an expert, that she told us about her path, and how she came to deconstruct the link between FGM and Islam.
« I am a survivor of FGM, cut at age 6 and in the worst form of FGM (type 3). As a Somali girl, I grew up knowing every Muslim girl is cut but that my community did ‘a bad type’ because of our culture. When i joined University in the 1990s I met other Muslim girls in campus. One day the topic of FGM cam up (we referred to it us female circumcision). My friend, an Indian girl was shocked that Muslims cut themselves saying she thought it was a ‘savage’ practice undertaken by people who did not believe in God. It was my turn to be shocked- that this friend of my, clad in her Buibui (Burka) was not cut. Her prayers are not accepted if not cut was the script I had. But she was praying and fasting and dressed in hijab. So who was on the right? This question stayed with me till 1995 after Beijing conference. For the first time I came across a document that said ‘May Muslims practice FGM thinking it is religious when it is only sunnah’. What? You mean the painful thing I went through was only sunnah (I took the meaning of it is optional). I wondered why I was forced through something that was not a Must in Islam. I recounted the number of optional religious acts that nobody forced me to do. Like fasting Mondays and Thursdays. Anyway after batting anger and lots of questions, I decided it was time to say no to FGM. In my own small way, armed with the narrative that it was only an optional practice, I would engage family members and I tried saving my nieces. Too bad, I couldn’t. Only I didn’t know I was even sinking it further by that affirmation that it was an optional Islamic act. We were legitimizing it. FGM was one thing that always stopped me on my tracks whenever it came to mind; and I would immediately begin conversation with Allah- show me what you want me to do, I will undertake.Maryam Sheikh
When in 2006 I got the opportunity to work with Population Council, I knew I had to address FGM from religious perspective. I wanted an interrogation of the support for the so-called ‘sunnah’ because linking such a painful thing to my religion of mercy and prosperity was unsettling (we are not allowed to mutilate even animals imagine of human beings). We crafted the religious oriented approach together with renowned Muslim scholars in Kenya who were consultants in the project. These scholars were non-Somali- decisively chosen to lead the dialogue.
Today, I can proudly say that I know it had no link to Islam. I canals say that there are a number of Somali scholars who delink FGM from Islam. Slow but progress is there. We can easily discuss FGM on TV, radio, in community gatherings etc. I am a firm believer that it is easy to end FGM among the Somali if we use the correct formula- delink FGM from Islam and use the same Islam to change the scripts and narratives holding it in place. »