Woman with an incense burner

June 07, 2011

A few days ago I was at Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah visiting a friend who had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl.

There were several other women there when I arrived, and we all took turns holding the baby and marveling (naturally) at how perfect she was. When the baby was in my arms, I heard someone whispering ‘Come on, Susan. We have to leave’.

I looked up and saw an odd-looking older woman standing at the foot of the bed with what looked like a toiletries bag and a large frankincense burner. I must have had a confused look on my face because the woman standing next to me whispered into my ear again, “We have to go. She’s going to do it.”

The mother of the baby looked distressed and helpless but her mother-in-law seemed to be in control of the situation. I was herded out of the ward along with the other women, and only then did I realise the old woman with the frankincense burner had come to circumcise the child.

Shocking, isn’t it? To think that we live in the 21st century and such primitive practices still take place behind closed doors and secretly in hospital corridors. Almost all girls over the age of about 15 in Salalah have been circumcised. I thought the practice had died down over the past decade and was no longer prevalent in Salalah but evidently I am mistaken. I decided to make a few enquiries regarding the woman with the frankincense burner.

According to my sources, she has been at the hospital for as long as they can remember. She roams the maternity wards all day and makes herself available to anyone who wishes to mutilate their newborn daughters’ genitals.

Obviously she does not work for the hospital, and I have no idea how she supports herself because evidently she does it for free. All I know is that people demand her services because they truly believe it’s the right thing to do.

Many women in Salalah and in other parts of the Middle East claim it is obligatory in Islam and they refuse to discuss it any further.

Al Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a statement saying female genital mutilation (FGM) has no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions and that it is harmful and should not be practiced.

I have no idea how prevalent the practice is in other parts of Oman and how much brutality is involved, but I know for a fact that it is widely practiced in Dhofar. If they tell you everyone carries it out ‘lightly’ like a small paper-cut, that’s a complete lie.

It may be true for a handful of families, but after speaking with several women I know, they confirmed that traditionally the whole clitoris is removed and the area burned to ensure that all nerves are dead, hence the frankincense burner. There are also several local clinics in Oman that can do it. Is it even legal?

What baffles me is that many men are not aware that this practice still exists in Dhofar. The problem with FGM is that it is performed by and defended by women, and is considered one of Dhofar’s best-kept secrets. In most cases, women do not ask the permission of the father before performing FGM on a newborn. I wonder how our men feel about that.

Education seems to be the only answer and change won’t happen overnight. The first step is to bring it out into the open without fear or shame. This should not be a taboo subject. The Ministry of Health (MoH) should start an awareness campaign explaining the health risks. There should be posters up in the maternity wards at all hospitals.

People still practice FGM because they think it’s healthy and they’re afraid of what will happen to their daughters if they aren’t circumcised. Many believe that by putting their daughters through this they are protecting them. From what, I wonder?

At times like these people need to distinguish between Islam and culture. Because the practice holds much cultural and marital significance, FGM opponents recognise that ending it requires that they work closely with local communities in order to spread awareness of the profound social, sexual and medical consequences of this practice. This tradition is kept alive by the lack of dialogue. This is where MoH should come in.

I could go on about this forever. The practice is considered a violation of the basic rights of women, and since it is mostly carried out on newborn girls, it is also considered a violation of children’s rights. Now, what can you, as an individual, do about this? You can start by spreading the word. Speak to the women in your family and help bring this issue out into the open. Change begins at home!