Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) in Dagestan, a muslim region in Russia, according to a report published Monday by the Russian Justice Initiative (RJI). While many were shocked that the practice existed at all in Russia — the RJI investigation was the first ever qualitative report on FGM in Russia — at least one prominent Muslim cleric has now publicly endorsed FGM, suggesting that “all women” undergo it.
Earlier this year, researchers from RJI discussed FGM with dozens of women between 19 and 70 in the mountain regions of southeastern Dagestan, near the Russian border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. They discovered that the practice had been in place in the region for several decades — the Avars, one of the largest ethnic groups in Dagestan, had practiced FGM from the 1970s through the 1990s. Although the Avars have given up the practice in recent years, other communities within the region have now adopted it, said Vanessa Kogan, executive director of RJI.
“It certainly is not an Islamic practice, and it’s most likely more rooted in ethnic tradition and predates even the conversion to Islam by some of these communities,” Kogan explained. “The overriding rationale, in general, is purity … to really tamp her sexuality so she’ll eventually be faithful to her husband. They believe it decreases rates of divorce.”
With many in Russia shocked at the prevalence of the practice, Ismail Berdiyev, head of the North Caucasus Muslim Coordination Center, inflamed tensions further by suggesting that “all women” be circumcised to “reduce lechery.” Berdiyev said that FGM is necessary “to limit the unnecessary energy of women” and to solve a “problem of depravity” among the world’s women “about which one has to do something.”
The Russian government has already begun to react to the report, and the president’s council on human rights is now planning how best to take up the issue of FGM, Kogan said. “The first step is about rendering the issue less taboo than it is now and having it be a topic of public discussion,” explained Kogan. “Then the real work lies ahead, in really trying to eradicate the practice.”
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