Female Genital Mutilation Banned by Islamic Leaders in Mauritania

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This week, 34 well-regarded Mauritanian religious and national leaders signed a fatwa, or Islamic law, banning female genital mutilation (FGM). The fatwa is considered a huge stride toward women's rights in the Islam world.

Female genital mutilation, or genital cutting, is a form of female circumcision. It entails removing all or part of the external female genitalia, including the clitoris and labia.

It is often practiced on girls between the time they're born and their early teen years. After the circumcision is complete, many experience severe bleeding, difficulty urinating, childbirth complications and, in some cases, death.

According to the World Health Organization, the procedure has no medical benefits.

Female circumcision is not a religion practice. However, it has become a "law by custom," says Jacqueline Castledine in an article posted on the Mount Holyoke College website.

She states, "The practice has become important to Islam because it is associated with female sexual purity. FGM is intended by its practitioners to both control women's sexual drives and also to cleanse women's genitalia by removing the clitoris, which is seen as masculine, a female penis."

The law was passed on Jan. 15, 2011, by 34 Mauritanian religious and national figures. It prohibits the practice of FGM within the country.

According to Magharebia.com, "The authors cited the work of Islamic legal expert Ibn al-Hajj as support for their assertion that [s]uch practices were not present in the Maghreb countries over the past centuries."

This new law will certainly curb the practice of female genital mutilation in Mauratania.

"It removes the religious mask such practices were hiding behind," says Dr. Sheikh Ould Zein Ould Imam, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Nouakchott in a Magharebia.com article. "We do need, however, a media campaign to highlight the fatwa, explain it and expound upon its religious and social significance."

Many men and women -- both Islamic and not -- declared this a victory for female rights, saying the fatwa was long overdue.

"Where were those imams for the past decades, when [FGM] killed dozens of girls each year? Were the imams and circumcision victims on two different planets? Personally speaking, I find no answer to those questions. All I am trying to say is that we needed that circumcision-prohibiting fatwa a long time ago. I was victimized by that brutal custom when I was seven, and it left an indelible psychological scar," said Miriam, a 30-year-old housewife circumcised as a young girl.

Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance journalist who resides in Phoenix. Her work has appeared both online and in print for Hearst, Conde Nast, AOL, USA Today and other publications. Gould is an avid traveler who has lived abroad and traveled the world extensively. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and another in Philosophy.

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