Culture

The Jordanian town that still circumcises women

RAHMAH, Jordan: Tucked away in a valley bounded by steep ridges of mountains and stretching from the Red Sea port city of Aqaba to the escarpment of the Southern Ghor of the Dead Sea, is the town of Rahmah. From the outside, the nondescript ramshackle town of over 500 residents, whose Arabic name means “mercy,” appears little different from any other, with the exception of an ancient ritual performed there: that of circumcision, a practice otherwise unheard of in the conservative Hashemite Kingdom.

The tradition is believed to have been brought to Rahmah and other villages dotting the sand swept Wadi Araba region, by tribes and nomadic Bedouins who roamed across the boundary-less region decades ago, before they were forced to settle down in areas bordering Israel after the 1967 occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, the Negev desert and the Gaza Strip. Many of these clans, including the tribe living in Rahmah, trace their origins back to the Sinai Peninsula where the tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM) endures, despite a ban imposed on it by Egypt in 1997.

“The FGM is neither part of local traditions nor habits,” said a senior Jordanian official. “It has not flourished here because it has no basis in Islamic doctrine and no infrastructure to support it, as doctors, mosque preachers and officials, do not encourage it,” she said. “It came to Wadi Araba with the Bani Sinai tribes who practice it, and from others living in Gaza and Beer Sheba, but we believe the tradition remains confined to the region.”

A crack erupted in the wall of silence surrounding the practice five years ago, after social workers came across it during a study conducted on the health needs of Rahmah, a nondescript ramshackle town of over 500 residents.

The discovery resulted in a brief article which ran in one of the weeklies and enraged Rahmah’s elders, who saw it as “defaming their women.” Within days, the social workers supervising the community development project were subjected to intimidation and asked to leave the village, after pledging in writing that they would never talk about the practice again.

“Many did not like these door-to-door awareness campaigns and claimed the social workers were challenging traditions, interfering in the community’s internal affairs and empowering women,” said one doctor involved in the effort.

Today, some of the younger women of Rahmah have voiced their complaint against the traumatic procedure, known for the severe psychological and medical repercussions it carries, and its damaging impact on women’s sexuality and reproductive health. A few are working on putting an end to it, yet they face an uphill battle and see no imminent demise of the tradition. FGC remains a deep-seated cultural and religious ritual, perceived as ennobling women.

“We see circumcision as halal (allowed by religion), and therefore all the women in our tribe are circumcized,” said a 60-year-old mother of ten. “If a woman is not circumcized, then she is not as fertile as her circumcized peers. Uncircumcized women are also considered nijes (not pure), so their homes will be shunned by elder tribesmen. Their food does not taste good so no one will eat from it, their face will not glow, and their chastity and sexuality is not safeguarded,” she explained.

In Rahmah, most girls are circumcized between the ages of eight and 12 at the hands of an elder woman who often operates in unsanitary conditions, using sharp basic instruments such as razor blades, kitchen knives and shreds of broken glass.

Sometimes the circumcizer puts a spoonful of ground coffee on the clitoral incision, to stop the bleeding. The circumcized girls are told to disinfect the wound, using saline water. These unclean procedures, doctors say, often result in infections and put the woman’s fertility at risk.

“Often the same instrument is used on several girls without being cleaned with antiseptics,” said another mother, whose eight daughters underwent FGC. “No anesthesia is used, so when that tiny protrusion (clitoris) is cut, the screams of these girls could be deafening.”

Town elders still talk about the girl who fled a mass FGC ritual, terrorized by the screams she had heard. Today, at the age of 22, she remains faithful to her vow of never subjecting herself to the ritual, at the risk remaining single.

From talking to, and examining females there, doctors have established that women in Rahmah and the neighboring villages are undergoing type 1, or sunna, circumcision, seen as the mildest of the three main categories of documented FGC that are practiced throughout the world. The term sunna refers to a tradition, not a necessity, as taught by the Prophet Mohammed, and involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris gland, with the labia minor often getting injured. The two more advanced forms are excision, and infibulation ­ also knows as Pharonic circumcision ­ practiced in Egypt, Sudan and other sub-Saharan countries centuries before the advent of Islam, and which continues today.

Tribeswomen in Rahmah remain divided on the practice. Some admitted they were aware Islam does not encourage FGC, but they could not fight it because elders in the clan see it as a sign of a woman’s purity.

“Even if we are against it, we cannot convince our husbands, let alone, society,” said one woman in her early 20s.

Other women who underwent FGC complained of “sexual frigidity,” prompting many husbands to take second and third wives.

Defenders of the ancient practice say the tradition is a necessity that has to continue, to boost women’s femininity by reducing the size of the clitoris, and to protect her against illegal sexual affairs before and after marriage. They cite a discussion between the Prophet Mohammad and Um Habibah, a woman who performed FGC on slaves. She told him that she would continue the procedure, unless he deems it forbidden. His answer, according to one translation, was: “Yes it is allowed. But if you cut, do not overdo it.”

Urbanization and growing literacy, however, have helped dilute such traditions, say sociologists. Even though hundreds of the members belonging to the main tribe in Rahmah live in Shallalah, a slummy neighborhood in Aqaba, the practice there is not as common as in Rahmah, 50 kilometers away, because the clan opened up to other families living in the port city, who shun the practice.

Um Hajer, an uncertified midwife living in the 18,000-strong Shallahah area, says the practice of FGC there is generally restricted to certain bedouins and children of women married to Egyptian and Sudanese men working at the port. “This habit is not common here. They say it is haram (taboo in Islam),” said the mother of seven daughters and four sons who has learned the skill from her mother.

“But if they come to my house asking me to circumcize their daughters, I have to obey their wish,” she said, clad in light blue long robes and a white headscarf. “By now, I know what to cut, what to leave and what to throw away,” she said of the infibulation procedure that lasts minutes, after which the girl stands up and leaves. “However, I make it clear to them that if anything happens to their daughter it will not be my responsibility.”

Government officials say there is no law banning FGC in Jordan, as the practice is not widespread. But they are in the process of developing a strategy based on the cooperation between the region’s elders, women and circumcizers to gradually weed out the habit, considered a major assault on the rights of children and women.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which has stepped up its worldwide public awareness campaign on FGC, is willing to help. “UNICEF is concerned and is looking into ways as how best to address this issue with the community” said Anne Skatvedf, the organization’s new representative in Jordan.

 

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