A couple of years ago on a rainy day during my holiday, I stumbled upon a movie on local Georgian TV. As there seemed nothing better to do, I started watching the movie which was halfway through. And at some point, the protagonist revealed something I could not fully grasp: ready to start a new life in the US she, full of shame, confessed that she’d undergone female genital mutilation back in her homeland.
Having had no previous notion of the procedure, I had to ask around what it meant. What I found out was that some people were willing to alter and injure female genital organs for no medical reasons whatsoever. As a girl, I was understandably scared and appalled at the prospect of someone cutting me down there. But my fears were quickly dismissed, because, as it turned out, the practice was only relevant in remote places, too far away from home, places like Somalia, as mentioned in the movie I had watched… The horrifying practice would never be a danger here, I was told.
Fast forward a couple of years and you’ll see news of female genital mutilation emerging in Georgia.
According to the report published by The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, hundreds of girls in three villages in Kvareli were affected. Kvareli, the famous destination for wine tourism, the heart of Kakheti, quite close to the capital. Suddenly, the practice previously branded as “remote” and “barbarian” seemed to be happening right where I lived.
The report detailed procedures conducted at home without medical surveillance, using scissors for cutting and alcohol for disinfection.
“They can put on their knickers right away and go,”, the village “circumciser” declared, labeling the procedures as easy and not dangerous at all. “Yes, blood flows, but it is not terrible.”
The initial reaction from the public was shock and a willingness to interfere. But the first wave of anger quickly subdued as it was reported that female genital mutilation was practiced not by Georgians but by ethnic Avarians residing in Kvareli Region.
This experience has left me wondering about two things: why Female Genital Mutilation is practiced at all; and should we, as a society, turn a blind eye on it, just because it is practiced not by “Georgians” but “ethnic Avarians”?
In contrast with male circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation or FGM has no medical benefits for women and girls. Rather, it can result in severe bleeding, infections, painful urination or menstruation and complications during childbirth. As the procedure is usually carried out on 6 and 7-year-old girls, the shock and pain often lead to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Survivors of FGM experience nightmares and flashbacks, especially during vaginal check-ups at the doctor’s.
Today, FGM is still practiced across 30 countries accross the world and every 11 seconds, a girl undergoes the procedure.
The reasoning behind it is mostly cultural. Those adhering to the practice claim that it is either traditional or religious.
“We are Muslims. We fast during Ramadan. We observe our Islamic customs. Circumcision is also our custom. We cannot do without it,”-claimed a local of Saruso Village in Eastern Georgia, where FGM is still practiced.
But the Quran does not make any reference to FGM. Neither is the practice part of the Sunnah, or the accepted set of customary practices Muslims usually follow. The Mufti of Georgia´s Muslims Administration, Yasin Aliyev further confirms this information, saying that FGM is limited to the Avarian community and other Georgian Muslims do not follow suit.
In fact, no religious text, be it Islamic, Christian or Judean, mentions female circumcision as obligatory. Rather, the practice is seen as a tool to control women and limit their sexual urges. Many practitioners of FGM believe that it makes women more obedient and better tempered, as well as less prone to premarital sex and affairs during the marriage. The practice also serves as an indicator of belonging to a certain society. Leyla Hussein, a survivor, and activist from Somalia, recalls being asked by peers at the elementary school if she too had undergone FGM.
“Now we can play with her!”-her peers rejoiced and Leyla, 8 years old, felt validated by the community she belonged to.
Leyla Hussein also remembers the celebrations that followed her cutting. The scared child was led to a room full of presents right after the procedure “to celebrate her passing into womanhood”. The procedure often carries this symbolic meaning of a turning point in a young girl’s life.
But Leyla Hussein had little to celebrate. Today, she, along with other women, campaigns against FGM around the globe. The practice is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. Most survivors like Leyla call the practice an act of child and severe sexual abuse.
And yet, somehow, Georgian authorities seemed unaware of existing FGM practice in the country. Dismissed as a local Avarian custom hard for us to understand, this violation of human rights did not cause a big enough upheaval in the society. What is strange enough is that those Avarian girls live among us as Georgian citizens and yet we leave them unattended. Very little is known about the Avarian culture in Georgia and I myself claim to be no expert, but what is surprising is how little interest is expressed about people who again are our fellow citizens.
The government pledged to investigate the case and the minister of Jurisprudence even advocated for a new law prohibiting FGM in the country. But the Avarians see it as an integral part of their identity and preserve the custom along with other customs they have brought with them when they settled in Georgia.
If we take the experience of other countries into account, the simple change in legislation is not enough. FGM is considered unlawful in many countries, including those where the practice is widespread. And yet, authorities fail to prosecute the wrongdoers and protect girls from the tradition.
The change that will eventually lead us to the end of FGM has to start from within the communities which are most affected. The French example shows that “Younger generations of French-based mothers from Mali and the other countries where this has traditionally been practised, no longer accept that mutilation is normal, or essential...” This has been achieved through educational campaigns oth for potential victims and medical staff.
Vital in the campaign is the voice of survivors. Again taking Leila Hussein as an example, she has made sure that her daughter is protected from the harm. By protecting one girl she has set the bar for other FGM survivors. Even in the Avarian community in Eastern Georgia there is at least one mother who chooses not to circumcise her daughter. But could one refusal change the deep-rooted attitude of Avarians? Or would the Avarian girls have to keep undergoing painful and dangerous procedures in the name of tradition, religion and morality, while the rest of Georgia remains oblivious to their existence?
Illustration by Ana Tavartkiladze
Source of the map: Unicef 2013