Somaliland, the unrecognized self-governing region of Somalia, is known for two things: its relatively stable government, and its staggering rate of female genital cutting (FGC). In early February authorities in the Somaliland Ministry of Religious Affairs issued a fatwa against FGC and stated that victims should be compensated. The fatwa was issued on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation,* and parliament is expected to vote on a bill outlawing the practice in the coming months.
While this fatwa and the legal force it carries is an excellent step to eliminate FGC in Somaliland, it is by no means a comprehensive solution. An estimated 98 percent of women 15 to 49 in the republic have undergone the procedure. Predating Christianity and Islam, FGC is a deeply entrenched cultural practice reinforced by economic, political, and social structures across the Middle East and North Africa, effecting 200 million women worldwide. The earliest known reference to FGC was in the 5th century BCE writing of Herodotus, and FGC was also practiced in 19th century America and Europe as a cure for insanity, masturbation, and female libido.
Despite the lack of scriptural support for FGC in either Christianity or Islam, in the highly religious societies where FGC is most common, religious leaders’ approval or condemnation is pivotal. That this ban carries the weight of religious edict is crucial, but the subsequently planned legal codification of the ban is ultimately empty if it’s not accompanied by further grassroots action. The Ifrah Foundation, which combats FGC in Somalia, says a national action plan is forthcoming from government and civil society, though the role of Somalia’s government in Somaliland’s application of this fatwa remains to be seen.
The fatwa has received more pointed criticism from the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), who argue that since it only bans the more severe type 2 and type 3 forms of FGC, the fatwa actually gives religious legitimation to type 1, even though the practice exists outside of the framework of Islam. A ban on the most common type 1 should have been included, but SIHA is mistaken in asserting that religious leadership should refrain from providing juridical guidance altogether because FGC “has nothing to do with the Islamic faith.”
True, FGC isn’t scripturally mandated in Islam, but crafting a religious prohibition against FGC is a crucial step in engaging a multitude of community actors in an interpretative and agential process. SIHA goes even further by arguing that the persistence of FGC is “directly linked to the rise of…repressive political Islam,” completely ignoring the history of FGC, its widespread practice in Christian African countries, and its deep roots in the social fabric of the communities in which it’s practiced.
Attempts to frame FGC solely within a legal framework are misguided. If civil-society actors in Somaliland and the region, and women’s health and human rights advocates across the globe really want to implement change, they need a more multi-faceted strategy.
The age at which girls undergo FGC varies by community, but in these societies, when a girl is cut she becomes fit for womanhood, and her citizenship is confirmed. FGC carries the cultural weight of modesty, marriage, and ideas of inclusion and exclusion, and its implementation or abandonment has far-reaching reverberations for a family’s reputation and a woman’s future. If a mother decides not to cut her daughter, she decimates her daughter’s marriage prospects. And since families often intermarry with families in other nearby towns, it’s not enough to convince one village or community to abandon the practice.
Whole networks of communities must come together to advocate for change. This model was the exact outcome of a human rights curriculum introduced in Senegal by the organization Tostan. While not initially focused on eradicating FGC, Tostan realized that when women learned about human rights, they came to the decision to end FGC on their own and began to advocate for far reaching, lasting change. In the past 25 years, Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program has influenced over 8,000 communities in 8 countries to publically declare abandonment of FGC.
Grassroots activism is indeed underway in Somaliland. Midwives see the consequences of FGC up close, so the Edna Adan Maternity and Teaching Hospital in Hargeisa is training midwives to advocate for change. Youth education campaigns, including the UNFPA-affiliated Somaliland Youth Peer Education Network, targets health students at universities across the country and shares information via social media about the complications associated with FGC. These programs are vital, and they lead the way, but they target only one set of actors. Whole communities, and not just health workers, need to be involved in the mindset shift.
FGC can’t simply be banned out of existence, because law and practice rarely act in lock step when cultural change is involved. People on the ground have to know that the law exists, know that it will be enforced (and is not simply a ploy for positive Western PR), and believe in the justness of the law itself. Local community empowerment programs that provide the education and agency to envision another future are the tools needed to end FGC. Law is important, but without donor support and international advocacy for local religious leaders to argue for change, along with organizations like those previously mentioned, it amounts to little more than dusty paper.
It takes a great deal of time and space for communities to come to these decisions on their own, and to hear “wait” when women’s health and human rights are at stake can be enraging. And yet, cultural shifts take time, sometimes generations. Without careful investment and consideration, efforts to end social practices might come to nothing or even spur a backlash. Lasting change and the end of FGC will only come about through bottom-up approaches that provide entire networks of actors (including families, religious and political leaders, traditional cutters, health workers, and students) the space, education, agency, and time to engage in an iterative process.
In a 2015 Atlantic article, anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan relayed an experience in Northern Kenya where she was discussing FGC with women from the Rendille ethnic group. “These women were my very good friends, and they were covering up their faces to not show how repulsed they were by the idea of somebody being uncircumcised and delivering a baby. They were, you know, revolted.”
The power of this practice is invisible, but it voices the animating narrative in the lives of millions about what’s right and good and respectable. Crafting new narratives, both religious and secular, about women’s bodies, women’s power, and women’s rights is the surest path forward in the eradication of FGC in Somaliland and around the world.
*“Female genital mutilation” is a widely used and accurate term, but following the lead of those activists dedicated to ending the practice through programs of community empowerment and consciousness-raising, I too have chosen to use the less value-laden FGC, which is more effective in sustaining dialogue around the practice and eventually ending it.