Tutakal is a remote village nestled in Kurdistan’s parched mountains, accessible only through its dusty mountain tracks.
Here in this village, women circumcision was a common norm practiced by many families. All but two of the women and girls from about 17 families in the village have been circumcised, most of them at a very early age.
Her chin marked by a faded blue traditional tattoo, and her hair pulled back inside a black headscarf, Amena’s face is one many Iraqi Kurdish girls probably wish they had never seen.
A rural village midwife, Amena practiced female circumcision across Iraqi Kurdistan for so many years even she struggles to recall how many girls passed through her hands.
“I couldn’t count them. I just can’t count how many. I circumcised many children here and in Surjnar area, in Takya area, in Kirkuk and in Ranya where I had lived for four years before fleeing to Iran. In Iran too I circumcised many children of the Kurdish families who fled from Iraq. They asked me to do it and I did, but I did not do it to Iranian females, only for daughters of fleeing Kurdish families. When I was in Iran all the families that fled from this area and from Kirkuk and came to live next to me asked me to do the operation for their daughters and I did it. I just can’t count how many. Ten children, a hundred children, a thousand children, I just can’t count how many”, she said.
More than a year after lawmakers in Iraq’s self-governed Kurdistan region passed a law banning the practice of female circumcision; activists say the tradition goes on in many villages even as the government tries to stamp it out.
End of an inheritance
For Amena, the midwife who is now partly jobless, it means the end of an inherited job she learned from her relatives and that brought her meager income from her village, from nearby towns and even Kurdish communities in neighboring Iran.
“Everyone knows that I do not have sons. I have four daughters, they are all married and only one of them is living next to me with my little grandson. I do not have a son. I don’t have a husband, a father or a brother or son to look after me. And I call on the organization that asked me to stop doing the operation to find me some alternative,” she said.
Autonomous from Baghdad since 1991, Kurdistan has its own government and enjoys an oil boom that has helped make it one of Iraq’s safest areas, with the kind of glitzy hotels, shopping malls and services unavailable in the rest of the country.
Tradition vs. development
In remote villages, though, tradition often rules and female circumcision and honor killings -- where women are murdered to protect family honor -- still occur.
But in Tutakal, Amena’s small hamlet in northern Kurdistan, residents this year agreed to stop the practice, in part in exchange for assistance with the basic services and a small classroom they said they badly needed.
It is a promising model, activists involved in the campaign say. One they hope will spread to other Kurdish villages to convince them the practice has no basis in Islam, as some claim, and inform them it is now a crime under Iraqi Kurdistan law.
“Now the people can understand very well that this is a crime and they can’t practice it any more. But sometimes it happens still in this area in Ranya Najim, which is, we call it is very bad region for the women, because not only the FGM (female genital mutilation) happens, but also the honor killing, early marriage and exchanging of wives. Many things are happening here, but still we need to implement the law all in Kurdistan and more awareness about the law,” said Suaad Sharif, a member of WADI organization campaigning to end female circumcision.
According to the World Health Organization, female circumcision or female genital mutilation -- the partial or total removal of external female genitalia -- is practiced in countries across Africa and in Asia and the Middle East for cultural, religious and social reasons.
For some practitioners those reasons often range from the belief it will help women resist improper sexual activity, to religious beliefs. But activists say it is a brutal form of oppression and potentially life-threatening.
Kurdistan parliament passed the law last year, criminalizing the practice, winning praise from human rights activists as showing the Kurdistan Regional Government’s resolve to end the practice and protect women's rights.
As many as 40 percent of women and girls in Kurdistan have been subject to circumcision, according to Human Rights Watch citing government reports and activists.
But in a statement last month, the New York-based rights group criticized the Kurdistan government for not taking sufficient steps to enforce the law, including informing police and government officials to increase awareness.
Pakhshan Zangana, secretary general for the Kurdistan’s High Council on Women’s Affairs, said circumcision had been widespread in urban and rural areas, but was decreasing thanks to the new law and campaigns.
For many of the families, it was simply a practice passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, believing girls would be considered “unclean” if they were not circumcised.
For women like fifty-year-old Golchen Aubed, social pressure played its part.
Like many of the mothers in Tutakal, she said she allowed her four daughters to be circumcised by the community midwife because she did not want to break a cultural norm.
“In our culture when you don't do this, everyone else asks why,” she said sitting on a carpet in her home with her youngest daughter, Sharaban.
“Why should I stand out? I knew it was bad, I knew it hurt the child, but even so I went ahead. I know how to do the operation myself, but I never did it because I know it hurts the child. But what can I do, I was obliged to do it because everyone else is doing it,” she added.
But her son refused to allow his own daughter to suffer the same way -- she is one of the two small girls in the village to escape circumcision.
“My son Lukman, whose daughter is sitting beside, says now that if he finds out about anyone doing this he will go and report them to the police. He did not do it for his daughter and my second son has two daughters and both of them are not circumcised,” Aubed said.
For village elders in Tutakal, the decision to stop the practice was a pragmatic one.
Activists discussed the small community projects the village needed and decided on a new classroom in exchange for an accord to stop circumcision.
Port-a-cabin classrooms have replaced the ramshackle mud-brick and wooden room that served as a school before. Older children are provided with transport to a nearby town where a middle school is available.
“We now feel the pain of the woman. The woman feels incomplete because when they do this, they cut a piece of flesh from a woman,” said village headman Sarhad Ajeb, sitting on the floor of Tutakal’s simple mosque explaining the reasons why they stopped. “There is no mention of this practice in the holy Quran.”