Iraq Isn't Ordering Female Genital Mutilation — But The Practice Is Very Real

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It's been a month full of horrible news from Iraq, and last Thursday's was no exception. The U.N. announced that the Sunni militant group currently controlling about a third of the country had issued a fatwa, or religious mandate, ordering that all women ages 11 to 46 in the northern Mosul region undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). "This is something very new for Iraq, particularly in this area, and is of grave concern and does need to be addressed," stated U.N. official in Iraq Jacqueline Badcock. She estimated that four million women and girls could be affected. Outrage erupted across the international community.

Fast-forward a few days, and it appears that the militant group (known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, though it now refers to itself as simply the Islamic State) didn't issue the command after all. To many, the fatwa did not seem out of character for the group, which has seized large swaths of Iraq with the aim of creating a fundamentalist state across Iraq and Syria. But, almost immediately after the U.N.'s announcement, doubts about the authenticity of the fatwa document arose: It was dated July 11, 2013, and it called the militant group by its former name, the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria." The document also appears to have been issued from a Syrian province that the group no longer controls. The discrepancies suggest that the fatwa may have been doctored by one of the many groups that oppose ISIS, with the goal of undermining the militant group in the public eye.

This is good news for Iraq, but female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting, continues to pose a threat to girls and women around the world. The practice is observed in some isolated areas of Iraq, but it's far more common in other countries — such as Somalia, where 98% of women ages 15-49 are affected; Guinea, where 97% of women are; and Egypt, where some 91% of women undergo the procedure. According to UNICEF, over 130 million women and girls have experienced genital mutilation worldwide; almost all of them live in Africa or the Middle East.

FGM is the term for any procedure that alters female genitalia for non-medical purposes. It usually involves partial or total removal of the external genitalia and can range from clitoridectomy (the partial or complete removal of the clitoris) to excision (the removal of the clitoris and labia, either inner or both inner and outer) to infibulation (the removal of all external genitalia and closure of the entry to the vagina). Regardless of the reasons behind FGM — religious, cultural, societal — it can lead to chronic pain (especially during sex and childbirth), pelvic and reproductive system infections, scar tissue, cysts, ulcers, and abscesses, as well as lifelong psychological consequences.

And, because the procedure is deeply rooted in religious and cultural traditions, the fight against it is controversial, contentious, and slow. Due to overall population growth, while FGM rates in many countries are dropping, the total numbers of women and girls who undergo the procedure are increasing. However, momentum in the struggle to end the age-old tradition continues to grow as NGOs, governments, and local leaders and communities band together to combat it. Last week's announcement may have been a false alarm, but it has directed fresh attention to a very real problem.

Click through to the website of the World Health Organization for more information on female genital mutilation.