NAIROBI, Kenya — Trying to stop a bloody ritual undergone by millions of Muslim women in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, health activists are trying a new appeal: They’re citing the Quran.
“The guiding factor is always Islam,” says 34-year-old Maryam Sheikh Abdi, who grew up in a region of northeast Kenya where 98 percent of girls are believed to undergo the procedure, a genital mutilation sometimes called female circumcision. Women believe “the pain, the problems, the bleeding — they are all God’s will.”
Health activists, finding that focusing on women’s rights isn’t working to persuade Muslims to stop performing the ritual, are increasingly using theology to make the case that “the cut” has nothing to do with religion. Abdi, who speaks about female genital mutilation on behalf of the U.S.-based Population Council, said invoking Islam penetrates years of cultural indoctrination.
“Women don’t have to torture themselves. Islam does not require them to do it,” said Abdi, who underwent the procedure when she was 6 and was a college student by the time she realized it was not necessary from a religious viewpoint.
With age-old cultural roots, female genital mutilation is practiced today in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt and other parts of the Arab world such as Yemen and Oman. In the rest of the Islamic world — the Middle East, North Africa, southeast Asia — it’s nearly nonexistent.
U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has taken on the cause in Kenya.
“Stated in its starkest terms, there are mothers, wives, sisters and daughters who are dead today and who will die tomorrow specifically because of the practice of female genital mutilation,” Ranneberger said in a recent speech.
Ibrahim Lethome, legal adviser of Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, said he recently started focusing on Islam as a way to stop female genital mutilation after meeting with Muslim university students who were shocked that the practice had no religious basis.
“I have even met a medical doctor who allows” the procedure, he said. “Even educated people believe Islam demands it.”