An interesting and sobering article about the anti-FGM campaign in Mauretania, that gives important insights for activists in other Muslim countries:
A recent fatwa banning female genital mutilation/cutting in Mauritania will help reduce the practice only if religious leaders take the message to the people, scholars and anti-FGM/C activists say.
Given the widespread practice of FGM/C in Mauritania and the belief that it is imposed by Islam – families cut their girls “as Allah wishes”, one woman said upon hearing of the fatwa – convincing people to stop will take time and engagement from religious leaders.
“Imams and Muslim scholars must not stop at just talking about the ban in their sermons,” Muslim scholar Baba ould Mata told IRIN. “They must go before the people, especially in remote regions where FGM/C is prevalent.”
A group of Muslim clerics and scholars on 12 January signed the religious decree against FGM/C after two days of debate led by the Forum de la pensee islamique et du dialogue des cultures in the capital Nouakchott.
A 2007 Health Ministry study showed that 72 percent of women in Mauritania had undergone FGM/C – about the same proportion as in 2001 despite years of awareness campaigns and a 2005 law punishing anyone cutting a child and “causing injury”.
But education campaigns did help bring about the fatwa, religious heads said. The Muslim leaders issuing the decree drew on a 2008 declaration by Mauritanian doctors and midwives that FGM/C is “harmful to health and can have grave consequences including death”.
In 2006 a Mauritanian association of Islamic scholars issued a fatwa denouncing FGM/C but few religious leaders agreed to sign it. The 2008 declaration put more weight behind the move this time, Muslim scholar and secretary general of the forum, Cheikh ould Zein told IRIN.
He said of the recent fatwa: “Our reasoning went like this: Are there texts in the Koran that clearly require this practice? No. On the contrary, Islam is clearly against any act that would have negative repercussions for health. Today Mauritanian doctors unanimously declare [FGM/C] threatens health; therefore it is against Islam.”
But many Mauritanians, like one in Nouakchott who gave her name just as Fatimatou, say they cut because Islam requires it. “We practice this from generation to generation as Allah wishes,” she told IRIN. “A girl who is not cut cannot pray or get married.”
She asked several times for confirmation of the fatwa then said: “I have my doubts. I am going to ask about this in the village; we have a marabout [religious leader] there.”
Fatimatou, pregnant with her third child, added: “But if the child I’m carrying is a girl, I think I’ll have her cut because I don’t want her to have a bad life.”
Ould Zein said FGM/C is too often seen as required by Islam. “The difficulty is separating tradition from religion.”
Given “the weight of tradition” scholar ould Mata told IRIN, hearing of FGM/C’s harmful effects from NGOs will not be enough. “Though if an imam goes to a village and says, ‘Yes, Islam is against FGM/C’, men and women can no longer defend the practice with a religious argument.”
Mauritanian law has had little effect on the ground, said Yakhare Soumaré with the Mauritanian NGO Action. She agreed that the fatwa can have influence only if religious leaders actively promote it. “It has been the position of many religious leaders up to now that was the greatest obstacle to our awareness efforts. Even if our campaigns reach remote populations, it is always the religious leaders who have the last word.”