Martin Bentham, London Evening Standard, April 17, 2014
The Somali cutter sat with her 10-year-old daughter beside her and explained calmly why she will take a razor blade to her this summer. “I am a circumciser,” she declared. “This young one I haven’t circumcised yet, but my other daughters are circumcised. I will circumcise her in the school holidays in June or July.
“I believe that she will not get married if I don’t circumcise her. At the same time, it is important for me because I’m a circumciser and people will not trust me if I don’t do it with my own daughter. It would be shameful. They would say, ‘you are doing it to our daughters, but you are not doing it to your own’. I will also do it for cultural reasons because people will talk otherwise and say she has not been circumcised.”
The logic of Khadija Geedi, a 50-year-old cutter in Somaliland, appeared flawless but her seeming indifference to the pain she will inflict on her daughter Fihiima was unsettling, as the pair sat together on the floor of their home in the rural village of Baki. As Ms Geedi explained, however, the bloody procedure that she will carry out on Fihiima this summer is a routine task to which she has become inured after a career as a “traditional birth attendant” lasting three decades.
“I started doing this when I was 20 and I can’t calculate how many I have done,” she says, adding that her price for cutting is $15 a time. On average now I do 10-15 a month, but sometimes it can be 30 or 35. In towns I do it mainly during the school holidays. In the rural places it depends when they have enough girls ready to be circumcised.
“I use a blade, some material to stop the bleeding and some local anaesthetic. I go to the local health centre to get them. Before I used to remove all the clitoris and all the labia, major and minor, and sew them. Now I only remove the clitoris. I changed about 10 years ago.”
Ms Geedi says her decision to switch to the less extensive type of mutilation, known as “sunna” in Somaliland, followed a move by clerics to revise their religious guidance and declare the alternative “pharaonic” form as contrary to Islam.
“When I heard the sheikhs say that it is forbidden to do the pharaonic type I stopped, but I still do the sunna one. In Islam, that is okay–it says that we can do that,” she said.
By contrast, efforts by the Somaliland government, local campaigners and aid organisations such as the charity World Vision to emphasise the damaging health consequences of mutilation have had no impact.
Neither does she worry about inflicting pain on her clients’ daughters, insisting that her need to earn a living must prevail.
“The health workers gave us health advice about FGM,” she said, “but I don’t feel any trouble doing it because it is my profession. Although I know the girl is feeling pain, it is my profession and I am doing what the mother wants. I don’t have any choice. I have no other way of earning a living. I need the money to live and pay for my family. So how can I feel for the girl?”
Ms Geedi says the cutting should take about half an hour but admits that resistance frequently means it can last longer.
“Typically, the girls are aged 10 or 11. The youngest I have done was six years old,” she said. “It usually takes about 30 minutes if the girl doesn’t struggle. If she does then we call lots of people to help the mother and relatives try to force her to be still. Mostly the girls are not accepting this so they start to move around.”
Her determination to continue in her job is clear and with the law in Somaliland still allowing cutting, the main hope of campaigners against mutilation lies with the country’s clerics.
They began reassessing five years ago what Islam says about FGM. Opinion now, while united in opposition to extensive cutting and sewing, is divided between those who advocate supposedly minor “touching” with a blade and a minority who support leaving girls entirely unharmed.
Sheikh Elmi Ismail Mohamed, who preaches in the Somaliland town of Borama, said he believed girls should have only a “small” cut to the clitoris, which he claimed would not amount to FGM, and added he was determined to prevent more severe mutilation.
“FGM was traditional and people used to practise a very bad kind, the pharaonic type, which involves lots of cutting and destroying,” he said.
“Now Islamic scholars are talking about another kind, sunna circumcision, which we can’t call FGM because it involves only a very small cut to the edge of the clitoris. It is very little, it is not mutilation, it is not destroying.”
He added: “It is not painful, it is not harming and it is better religiously. That is what is written in our religious books. Any cutting or destroying is very bad religiously, but this is not doing that. I preach in the mosque. People think it is shameful to talk about these things, but sometimes I talk about it and give them this message.”
Sheikh Elmi added that some parents, particularly in rural areas, believed that extensive “pharaonic” mutilation was necessary to “protect” their daughters “from being sexually active”. He said he told them instead that such cutting was “wrong and harmful”.
The small “sunna” cut to the clitoris advocated by Sheikh Elmi would still amount to a crime under British law, however, and is regarded as FGM by campaigners in Somaliland and elsewhere.
But another cleric, Sheikh Farah Jama, said that while “sunna” cutting was “optional”, he favoured leaving girls untouched.
He added: “We are starting to reduce the number of FGM cases. We discovered that both in sharia law and culturally it is against what it means to leave a person as Allah created her.”
“I tell parents that as Allah created the woman, every organ is important. If someone has lost an organ it is important.”
Sheikh Farah said he would not allow any mutilation of his daughter, aged three, and that he and other clerics took part in community meetings at which they used both religious and health arguments to persuade parents and cutters against FGM.
He added: “I’m not refusing sunna, it is optional, but I tell people not to go too far. For my girl I am not doing even sunna.”
In the cutter’s house, though, a mobile phone ring shows how much remains to be done. Ms Geedi laughs after answering, before revealing: “It was someone wanting to hire me.” She adds that her next job is tomorrow. Meanwhile, her own daughter’s genitals will meet the blade soon.