The fight against FGM: How an Imam is speaking out

Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf - pictured speaking in the community about FGM

Every Friday, Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf goes to Goof Mosque in the district of Erigavo, Somalia, where he is Imam. After noon prayer, he leads the Friday Khutbah, a sermon for the community. Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf is a well-respected figure, and when he speaks, people listen.

One Friday, Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf stood up, took the microphone, and started a conversation about female genital mutilation (FGM) – a subject considered taboo to speak about by most Somali men.

Among girls between 15 and 19 years old in Somalia, 98% have undergone FGM, a deeply rooted traditional practice widely accepted as both physically and psychologically harmful. The majority of girls are cut before they turn 14 years old.

Men in the country simply do not talk about FGM in public – and many do not even discuss it with their wives. Yet they expect women to take responsibility for ‘cutting’ their girls before they can get married.

To help tackle it, CARE has been organising seminars and workshops for 70 religious leaders, including Islamic scholars, across Somalia and Somaliland. The aim of these workshops, which are funded by the UK Department for International Development, is to review and analyse religious texts, such as the Qu’ran, and examine their stance towards harmful practices such as FGM and early child marriage or forced marriage.

After taking part in one of these seminars, Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf said:

To abandon FGM was inconceivable to us because we thought it was a religious obligation. After several workshops, seminars, and research, we started to change our perception of these customs and accepted that it could be subject to debate. 

We were cautious. We really wanted to know if female circumcision was a religious obligation. It was then confirmed that FGM was harmful to women’s health and that it was not at all obligatory in Islam.

Feeling a deep personal transformation, he decided to instruct his congregation about the terrible impact of FGM on women and girls.

It was the first time Sheikh Mohammed had ever spoken on this subject – and he did it in public.

Not only does FGM have nothing to do with Islamic religious obligations, he said, but due to how harmful it is to women’s physical and mental health, it should in fact be prohibited by Islam altogether.

While the Imam was talking, most men in the mosque left, leaving just a handful of younger men behind.

At first, Sheikh Mohammed was disappointed. The first Khutbah against FGM hadn’t gone well. Had he done the right thing?

But when he left the mosque, he found a large group of women outside, reflecting in silence. They had been listening carefully to his words, and started to thank him and praise him. This made him feel that he was surely headed in the right direction – and inspired him to start an ongoing campaign against FGM.

Now, every Friday, he leads weekly awareness-raising sessions in his community on the rights of women in Islam. And people in Erivago are slowly starting to mention FGM in public. This is largely thanks to these workshops – because where respected figures like Sheikh Mohammed lead, the community follows.

Men are now realising that FGM is not a religious obligation but a harmful, unnecessary practice – and they are being supported to make changes in their communities. Sheikh Mohammed said:

Talking about FGM is very difficult, because for men it is a taboo to talk about these things. But I will continue to speak up. I feel it is my duty to educate my people about such awful traditional practices against women.

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The CHANGES project (Challenging Harmful Attitudes and Norms for Gender Equality and Empowerment in Somalia/Somaliland) is being implemented by a consortium of CARE International, Save the Children and the IRC (International Rescue Committee) and is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Norwegian Embassy.

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