The number of academic papers that focus on the perennially taboo subject of female genital mutilation has risen steeply since 2011. Research productivity on the topic in 2014 was 80 times higher than it was in 1976. This, say activists and experts, is crucial in the fight to reduce and eliminate the practice, which remains stubbornly prevalent in much of the Arab world.
“It’s highly important for academics to research FGM,” says Hannah Wettig, project coordinator at the Frankfurt-based Stop FGM Middle East initiative, which campaigns on the issue. “It’s important to prove it exists and then to find out the reasons for it, because they vary in different countries. If you try to tackle FGM the wrong way, you’re not going to achieve anything.”
Female genital mutilation—procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs without medical necessity—persists in much of the Arab world. According to data from UNICEF, 98 percent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 in Somalia have been subjected to the practice. Djibouti follows with 93 percent, Egypt and Sudan with 87 percent, Yemen with 19 percent and Iraq with 8 percent.
According to the World Health Organization, the practice is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights and has no health benefits. In fact, the procedure is likely to cause severe pain, fever, infections and even death in some circumstances.
Despite the prevalence of female genital mutilation in the region, awareness and opposition to the issue in some Arab countries are low. For example, in Somalia just 33 percent of 15 to 49-year-old girls and women have heard of female genital mutilation and think it should stop. In Egypt, this figure rises slightly to 38 percent, but just 28 percent of Egyptian boys and men of the same age agree.
It’s a different story elsewhere in the region.
For example, in Iraq 88 percent of girls and women have both heard of the practice and want it stopped, and in Yemen that figure is 75 percent. In Sudan, there are more men and boys that oppose it than women and girls. There is no uniform pattern of practice and attitude towards female genital mutilation, which is why Wettig says it’s so important for academics to conduct quality research to paint a clear picture of what’s going on in each country, to empower both policy makers and activists with facts and data.
Fortunately, growing numbers of academics are taking on the subject.
In a recent paper, Waleed Sweileh at An-Najah National University in Palestine, conducted a bibliometric analysis of academic papers on female genital mutilation published worldwide between 1930 and 2015. He searched electronic databases for key words to find the total number of papers published about the subject for each year. He found that the research has been increasing since the 1970s, with two periods of steep rises in the mid-1990s and then again in 2012.
While the United States and United Kingdom topped the table as the most productive in this research, the Middle East and Africa were represented in the top five. “Nigeria and Egypt were the most productive African countries,” Sweileh wrote.
Thalia Arawi, a bioethicist at the American University of Beirut and chair of the Bioethics Network on Women’s Issues in the Arab Region, says it is essential for researchers in the Arab world not to shy away from this topic.
“There is a need for all of us in the Arab region to join forces and address issues related to women and their health,” she says. “It is important because these issues affect the lives of women all over, and we can make a difference.”
The publications with the highest impact in Sweileh’s sample tended to discuss FGM as a medical issue. “The highest number of citations were those that focused on negative physical and mental health consequences of girls and women who were subjected to FGM,” Sweileh wrote.
While there are innumerable points to be made about the health risks of female genital mutilation and it’s important to continue making them, Wettig says arguments from religious scholars and experts may have more impact in some countries.
“In Iraq we found that FGM was heavily linked to religion. Shafi’i law schools were actively encouraging the practice there,” she said. Wettig’s organization has observed a similar influence from schools of Islamic law in Somalia, parts of Southeast Asia and among Iran’s Sunni minority populations. “Syria and Lebanon seem to be the exception that proves the rule. The law schools seem not to be so important there,” says Wettig.
Her point is that many deeply religious people are likely to place greater value on religious arguments than on medical advice. “People focus a lot on health issues, but if you believe God told you to be cut, you’re not going to care about health arguments, because it’s God’s will,” she said.
That’s why she’d like to see more scholars formulate an alternative religious case against the practice. The strain on a marriage caused by the mutilation is significant, which could be one avenue to explore, she says.
“We see a connection with divorce rates, but this is something that academics haven’t really considered,” Wettig said.
She’d also like researchers to investigate why cutting in the Bedouin tribes of Israel stopped—not due to Israeli government influence, but because of a push within the tribes: “This is something we’d like to learn more about. We’d like to know why there was that success, and whether it could be replicated.”