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The Common Ground
An interview with Shamis Dirir
NOHARMM Health & Human Rights Advocate - July, 1997
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Shamis Dirir is the Coordinator of the London Black Women's Health Action Project (LBWHAP) and attended the Fourth International Symposium on Sexual Mutilations in Lausanne, Switzerland in August, 1996. Following the symposium, NOHARMM Founder Tim Hammond interviewed Ms. Dirir at the offices of the LBWHAP.
TH: Tell me about the services of your project.
SD: The Project was started in 1982 to fight female genital mutilation (FGM) and to work from the grassroots level to change attitudes of women and to explain the religious foundation of how it happened and to get people to think about why they continue to do this. We offer general health programs, but our main work focuses on FGM. We incorporate it into the larger context of women's health.
What specific work do you do, Shamis, and where does your funding come from?
I am the founder and coordinator, as well as a counselor and writer. I am also a community outreach worker, bringing women together for health sessions. We are six workers. I set up conferences and go to all meetings that address FGM. Our funding comes from London borough grants, private donations, through memberships and sales of materials. Very little of our funding comes from the African community itself because many African residents of the U.K. are immigrants or are here on refugee status and don't have money to donate.
What's the FGM situation in the U.K.? Who are your clients? Are they British nationals, immigrants, or refugees?
In 1985 the U.K. passed a law against FGM. This set a standard, which may have prevented some girls from being circumcised, but no one has ever been prosecuted. It goes underground. Our clients are all types, actually. The majority, however, are single refugee women with children. We serve all of London and annually see about 1,000 people. According to our estimates, there are about 10,000 at-risk women in the U.K., and about 5,000 who are already affected by FGM.
Tell me about Change without Denigration
Change without Denigration was the theme of an international conference on FGM in 1994 sponsored by LBWHAP. This is also the theme of our everyday work. It is very important to understand why people do these things, not to call them names or to denigrate their culture or them as individuals. This only creates resistance. For example, while the term mutilation may be correct in the medical or Western political sense, many in circumcising cultures do not see it as such. Therefore, we find that in initial education efforts with people, we talk about "genital cutting" or circumcision, the term used by the people themselves, and this keeps them open. As they become better educated, they then understand it as mutilation.
Describe a typical educational program in Africa. What are the components and how is it conducted?
There are no programs in Somalia now, but there are in other countries. We would like to see a basic program, a health center where women can come to. Other programs go out to the villages, with a more aggressive education program, because women in rural areas have never seen how the body is supposed to work.
Does the average circumcised women feel shes lost anything important or that it's harmed her in any way?
You told me that most women in your country don't think of themselves as "mutilated." How do "circumcised" women react to learning the functions of the labia, clitoris and foreskin?
After learning this, some women are very angry. They question why they were cut. But there are women who watch films about the functions of intact genitals and they refuse to believe they were harmed. They promise that they will still "circumcise" their daughter, because it happened to them and their mothers before them. They strongly defend female circumcision, saying that their genitals are beautiful and that their daughters' uncircumcised genitals are ugly or they smell and will cause them infections. Some women are difficult to convince. Under threat of the British law, mothers say they will take their daughters to Somalia. I think they feel, "If I had pain, she must have pain."
We in the West are told that circumcised women lose all sexual feeling after circumcision. Is this true?
This is a general myth. After circumcision, some women have no feeling, but others simply lose interest in men because sex is painful. Most circumcised women have never experienced their full sexual response, so how would they know what to compare it to? They experience a type of sexuality, yes, but in a way different from an intact woman.
When did you begin to question circumcision?
Well, I never questioned it, even after my circumcision. I was de-infibulated for marriage at age 15. In the mid-1970s I heard about a nurse in London who talked about FGM. It was then that I began to question it and realize it is absolutely bad.
What were you told about why circumcision is important for females?
We are told that God demands it. We learn early that we are not clean if we remain uncircumcised. We are told that girls are valuable to a family because we bring money, camels or other goods through our dowry and that a circumcised girl brings a higher bride price. People believe that circumcision beautifies us physically and ensures our purity, both hygienically and sexually.
In your opinion, what are the parallels between male and female circumcision?
Of course, the pain. I never thought the pain was same and now I know better. I never knew about the complications from male circumcision, like the loss of feeling. Even though FGM is usually more drastic, I see that they can share similar complications. At the symposium you said that the issue is not severity, but sovereignty, because both male and female circumcisions raise the same human rights questions. Of course! We have to ask: Why are we doing this? I think we both have to question the religious reasons for doing these. Our mutual fight is against ignorance.
...(T)he issue is not severity, but sovereignty.
Do you think it was valuable to have a conference that addressed both FGM and MGM?
Yes, the conference was valuable because I met people fighting male genital mutilation (MGM). I used to think it was harmless, and now Ive learned more about it. After I saw the film Whose Body, Whose Rights? I can better understand the problems circumcised men suffer. I knows exactly why men are fighting this because I personally understand the pain. I was particularly moved by the use of babies foreskins by companies testing cosmetics and making artificial skin. I think that is disgusting. [NOHARMM note: For more on this aspect of male genital cutting, see Foreskins for Sale]
Why do you think men in African and Muslim countries don't speak out against male genital mutilation?
Most men are as ignorant about their bodies as women are about their own.
Do you see any signs that questioning FGM might cause men to question their own mutilation?
Yes. I see that immigrant African men in the U.K., when they realize the harm done to women from circumcision, are beginning to question their own mutilation. But this is not happening yet in Somalia.
Do you think because circumcised men in the West, including many Jewish men, are questioning their mutilation, that it might influence African and Muslim men to do the same?
Definitely! Yes, particularly the younger men. Any public information will influence other communities.
Some people have suggested that if you can't eradicate FGM right away, it should be medicalized to make it safer (in hospitals, with anesthesia, sterile equipment and not so drastic). What do you think about this?
If we want to eradicate it, we should eradicate it from everywhere. Doctors make money from it. We need to stop it and not to institutionalize it. As long as you medicalize it, you're still doing it. What is the use?
Were you aware of America's history of medicalized FGM?
No. That was a shocking revelation for me! Read Female Circumcision: Indications and a New Technique (1959)
In the West, those who campaign against MGM also speak out against FGM, but those fighting FGM do not speak out against MGM. Why is this?
First, FGM is certainly not a religious requirement, but people are convinced that MGM is.* We need to do more religious study to get a better understanding of what God intended and to find a religious justification not to do it. Women are also not respected when they speak. They, like many people, are afraid to talk about MGM. They don't know how to start. FGM is also part of the overall fight for women's rights. While I can talk about MGM, the struggle for women is so difficult that I can't fight for men against male circumcision. That is men's work.
[*Neither male nor female circumcision are mentioned in the Moslem Holy Book, the Quran (Koran). In the Hadith, the supplemental writings by followers of Mohammed, male circumcision is called obligatory and female circumcision is called honorable. Religious scholars note that while the New Testament of the Christian Bible rejected the need for circumcision, this Jewish ritual likely influenced Mohammed, who was enamored of the early Hebrews. For clarification, visit To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah.]
In the U.S., uncircumcised American women who are fighting FGM often say that MGM is harmless and even beneficial. Do you think they should use this tactic and what would you say to them?
It's dreadful. I would certainly question them and say "How would you know it's not harmless?"
What do you think campaigners against MGM can learn from those fighting FGM?
People who want to stop MGM can use the methods that are being employed by us, especially the educational components. Both campaigns need to make people in the community ask, Why are we doing this? There needs to be more research on the religious components of the Bible and the Quran. We need to go out into the community and talk about circumcisions negative effects, and in the professional community too.
Is there anything you think FGM activists can learn from those fighting MGM?
I think we can learn more about the historical components of how social customs like genital mutilation get medicalized. We can benefit from knowing the progress of your campaign, where you get your funding, and who your contacts are.
What do your opponents say about those of you who work against FGM?
They spit at us, or throw hot water. Sometimes there is even physical abuse. They say our work will encourage loose women and no one will marry uncircumcised girls. They feel that ending female circumcision will destroy our culture or religion. They treat us as fanatics or outcasts. Others simply encourage us to give up our fight and to be one of them, to be part of them again.
Is there anything else you'd like to say or add?
There are a lot of ignorant people, especially in the professional community. You lose faith in these people because they do more damage than good. People like us, those who have the pain, are the best fighters, because we know the pain of circumcision. What happened to you, you cant change it, but you can help to stop it from happening to other children.
Donations, in Pounds Sterling or U.S. Funds, can be made to the London Black Women's Health Action Project, Cornwall Avenue Community Centre, 1 Cornwall Avenue, London E2 0HW England.
Full proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium of Sexual Mutilations are available from Plenum Publishing Corporation, New Loom House, 101 Back Church Lane, London E1 1LU England [Tel 44-171-264-1910, Fax 44-171-264-1919]. They are also available from NOCIRC
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