Sun, Jun 13, 2004 - Page 9 News List

'Cutters' join fight against genital mutilation

Women's rights groups in Africa are having some success in convincing women who carry out mutilation on girls not only to give up the practice, but to advocate against it

By Mark Lacey  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Nairobi, Kenya

Isnino Shuriye still remembers the pride she felt years ago when she leaned over each of her three daughters, knife in hand, and sliced into their genitals.

Each time, as the blood started to flow, she quickly dropped the knife and picked up a needle and thread. Quickly, expertly, she sewed her daughters' vaginas almost shut.

"I was full of pride," she recalled recently.

"I felt like I was doing the right thing in the eyes of God. I was preparing them for marriage by sealing their vaginas," she said.

Now she feels like a butcher, a sinner, a mother who harmed her own flesh and blood, not to mention the thousands of other girls she says she circumcised in the last quarter-century as part of a traditional rite still common in Africa.

Slowly, genital cutting is losing favor. Parliaments are passing laws forbidding the practice, which causes widespread death and disfigurement. Girls are fleeing their homes to keep their vaginas intact. And the women who have been carrying out the cutting, and who have been revered by their communities for doing so, are beginning to lay down their knives.

Shuriye, an elderly mother of eight known far and wide in northeastern Kenya for her expertise as a genital cutter, is one of them.

When local members of Womankind Kenya, a grassroots group opposing the practice, visited Shuriye's hut outside Garissa two years ago, she chased them off her property.

This was something her mother did before her. She started as an apprentice while still an adolescent by holding down girls' legs for her mother to perform the rite, which opponents call genital mutilation. "I thought my mother would curse me from the grave if I didn't carry on the tradition," she said.

There were tangible benefits as well. She had prestige in her community and earned a good income, more than her husband did as a camel herder before he died of tuberculosis.

She said she had no use for these people who came around denouncing her way of life.

But the advocates were a determined lot. They knew that Shuriye was one of the longest-serving genital cutters around and that she held sway over the community. If only she could be converted, they figured, others would certainly follow.

Shuriye, a frail but feisty grandmother who wraps her head in colorful scarves, was rather set in her ways. Again and again she refused to hear their arguments.

"It was so difficult to change her mind," said Sophia Abdi Noor, the founder of Womankind Kenya, which works with the ethnic Somalis who live in Kenya's rugged northeastern province and has attracted local supporters throughout the region.

"We knew she was respected, and we wanted her on our side," she said.

Finally, the anti-cutting advocates tried a different tack. They showed up with religious leaders. Shuriye, a religious Muslim, could not chase them away. She sat down with some of the influential clerics in her community who had come to the realization that the tradition was harmful, and not dictated by or consistent with the teachings of the Koran.

The imams denounced the practice. They told her that the vagina was a part of the body, just as important in the eyes of God as an eye, a finger or a limb. Cutting it, they argued in their long session outside her home, is a sin.

They went even further. They told Shuriye that her sins required her to compensate the girls she had maimed. Each of them was due 80 camels, they said. Shuriye, prosperous by local stand-ards but not that prosperous, was shaken.

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