They Oppressed the Wrong Woman

Friday, July 12, 2013

Waris Dirie
Waris Dirie was born in the desert of Somalia. Her family were Muslim nomads. When she was 13 years old, her father announced to her he'd found her a husband and she would soon be wed. Her "groom to be" was an old man. She protested and begged, but the old man had already paid her father, so the deal was done.

The next morning, before her father awoke, she ran away. She took off into the desert knowing only that somewhere was a city named Mogadishu and somewhere in that city she had an aunt. Amazingly, after a very difficult journey, she found her aunt and stayed with her a short time. Then one of her uncles became the Somalian ambassador to the UK and would be stationed in London. Waris begged her uncle to take her with him to be a maid. He consented.

She eventually became a fashion model whose face adorned the covers of many glamour magazines.

At one point in her career, Waris had been interviewed many times. The interviews were always about how a barefoot Somalian nomad became a famous model. But one day as another of these interviews was beginning, Waris took a bold step. She said the rags to riches story had already been told. "Would you like a real story?" she asked.

She told the interviewer about the day she experienced female genital mutilation (FGM), an ancient practice of removing a woman's clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora. Waris was then sewn up with a small hole for urination, which is usually how it's done. This procedure guarantees that she will be a virgin when she gets married, and it ensures she will not feel pleasure during sex (and thus helps prevent infidelity). A girl is not considered marriageable if she is "uncut" — she is considered no better than a whore, so parents make sure she undergoes FGM.

The interviewer was moved and shaken by Waris's story. And the magazine had the guts to print it. This was the beginning of an increasing global awareness of FGM and a movement to do away with it, in the same way that binding girl's feet was banned in China in the early 1900s. Already several countries have committed themselves to eradicating the practice.

Banning FGM would not only save millions of girls from the horror, pain, and death caused by this barbaric practice (it is done to 8,000 girls a day worldwide, with one out of four girls dying from the procedure), it would also help to marginalize, discredit, and disempower orthodox Islam.

The practice is over 4000 years old, and it was taken for granted during Muhammad's lifetime that all women underwent FGM, so he mentioned it a few times as a forgone conclusion, and his mention was written down, so it has now been enshrined in Islamic doctrine as an Islamic practice. Fundamentalists want it to continue because whatever Muhammad said is right for all time.

Banning the procedure would stop this orthodox practice, which would help disempower the fundamentalism itself. Everywhere we can prevent an orthodox practice, like covering women or beating them for disobedience or FGM, we weaken the forces of orthodoxy. If some Islamic fundamentals can be abandoned or seen as wrong, other fundamentals might be more easily abandoned as well.

I encourage you to help your friends and family become aware of FGM. You don't even have to mention the word "Islam." Read Waris's story in her excellent book, Desert Flower (written with Cathleen Miller). And then share the book with people you know. Talk it up. And watch National Geographic's movie by the same name and share that too. This is a way to help innocent girls, a way to pit humanistic empathy against Islamic domination, and a way to get people involved in marginalizing orthodox Islam — people who might never otherwise get involved. The Islamic oppression of women can and should be stopped. Let's start by saving the weakest and most innocent victims: Girls.

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