Who owns women’s bodies in Dagestan?

A recent scandal over female genital mutilation reveals how, for Russia’s Muslims, “universal values” are just another instrument of a repressive regime. RU

Badma Biurchiev
16 September 2016


The nascent conflict around female genital mutilation seems to have calmed down – at least, for the time being. (c) Vladimir Vyatkin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

In August, the Russian Justice Initiative published a study detailing how female genital mutilation is practised in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan — to scandalous effect. And now, just as the debate inside and outside Dagestan cools, Russia’s general prosecutor’s office has requested the republic’s government to investigate the matter.

The results of this investigation are likely to provoke another heated reaction. Any repressive measures from the state will be criticised heavily by Muslim communities, who already feel like second-class citizens. But neither Russia’s liberals, nor conservatives will understand attempts to write off the study’s harrowing details as “tradition”.

As public debate cools, now is an appropriate time to analyse the discussion on FGM in Dagestan itself. Why did a significant proportion of Dagestan’s Muslim population express hostility to any public debate on this issue — including people who had not been aware of the practice previously and therefore could not have approved of it? And, most importantly, why do the majority of women surveyed plan to subject their daughters to this traumatic ritual?

Majority rule

The Russian Justice Initiative’s research was carried out mainly in Dagestan’s high mountain regions and the lowland villages where residents of the mountains have resettled. Specialists on the issue from the republic’s capital Makhachkala, the town of Kizilyurt and Rostov-on-Don were also consulted.

Yulia Antonova and Saida Sirazhudinova, the authors of the report, concluded that FGM is mainly localised in western mountainous areas such as the Tsuntinsky and Bezhtinsky districts (almost all girls cut, or at least almost all of those surveyed); the Botlikhsky district (ditto) and the Tsumadinsky and Tlyaratinsky districts (partial mutilation, around half of girls cut). FGM is also to be found among the older generation in Dagestan’s Gumbetovsky and Untsukulsky districts, where it was practiced from the 1970s into the 1990s. South Dagestan was included in the survey, but medical specialists found that quite a high proportion of women there had also been cut.

Three types of operation have been identified. In most cases, it is a ritual small incision and letting of blood: “they gave me a scratch and let the blood flow – that was all”; “I had it done to me as a child, but they hardly cut off anything, why all the fuss”. But the study’s respondents did talk about the removal of part of the clitoris: “they cut the tip off, and it bled”; “there’s a bit that sticks out and they cut it off”; “an old woman cut off a bit of the front part with a pair of scissors”. Others talked about the removal of the tip of the clitoris and the labia minora: “they cut into the clitoris and labia minora and removed them.”


Mosque in Gimry, Dagestan. CC: Varvara Pakhomenko / International Crisis Group / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Rights campaigners are concerned that FGM is strongly supported by the population in areas where it’s practised: “It’s still considered an essential ritual that every girl has to go through and that needs to be continued in the future”. Moreover, the “handing down of the tradition from generation to generation is underpinned by a supposed religious reason for it, which is pushed by the official clergy (the Shafi'i School, one of the schools of law in Sunni Islam), which considers it an essential requirement of Islam.”

Antonova and Sirazhudinova had difficulty in assessing the scale of the issue. FGM is not talked about openly within the community, so women were unwilling to discuss it in interviews. But estimates put the number of women cut at tens of thousands. “The women’s acceptance of the tradition is evidence that FGM is being widely practised, and will continue to be practised in Dagestan,” the authors conclude.

According to the study’s respondents, the aim of the practice is to control women’s sexual behaviour (“so she doesn’t sleep around” or “go crazy over men”). Except that the girls are usually cut before they are three, and more rarely, up to the age of 12.

“Women who have been subjected to FGM have reported problems with their sex life, and more than half have been psychologically traumatised by it”, say the researchers. “The memory of the pain and feeling of adults’ unfairness towards them remain, but the sense of belonging to a large extended family and the need to preserve family honour means that women have no right to choose, so they hand the practice down to the next generation.”

The authors of the report believe that FGM needs to be made a criminal offence. The Russian constitution already contains clauses banning, respectively, “causing of grave harm to health”; “deliberate causing of minor harm to health”; “rape” and “coercive actions of a sexual nature”. The campaigners also believe that awareness of the issue needs to be raised — through secular education, religious education and the media.

Relics of the past

The discussion of FGM was unwittingly brought onto the national level by Ismail Berdiyev, chair of the North Caucasus Muslim Coordination Centre, who spoke out in support of the practice:

“Women’s sexuality needs to be reduced,” Berdiyev announced on 17 August. “It would be good if all women were cut. The Almighty created woman to give birth to children and bring them up. And [FGM] doesn’t affect that. It doesn’t stop women giving birth. And there would be less immorality.”

Vsevolod Chaplin, a prominent orthodox priest and spokesman, lost no time in supporting his spiritual colleague, telling the mufti not to sway from his position “despite the wailing and hysterics that will soon start”. However both the Muslim and orthodox clerics were soon forced to justify their remarks.

Berdiyev soon announced that his statement was a joke, which “people had misunderstood”. And two days later, Chaplin also disowned his previous remark on Facebook: “What I have found out about this procedure in the last two days — at least in its extreme forms — has made me change my attitude to it […] The procedure in question, again particularly in its extreme forms, cannot be regarded as humane.”

By this stage, the report had been commented on at government level — the Russian Ministry of Health condemned the practice outright. The presidential Human Rights Council and Diana Gurtskaya, the chair of the Public Chamber Committee on Supporting Families, Children and Motherhood also lodged material from the report with the General Prosecutor’s Office.

Maria Maksakova, a United Russia Duma deputy, also put forward a draft bill proposing “to include in the Russian Federation Criminal Code norms to protect women and girls from the humiliating practice of partial or complete removal of sexual organs on religious grounds, which is an obvious relic of the past for which there is no place in a civilised society.”

It helped, as well, that the Russian Justice Initiative’s report came out in the heat of the pre-election battle. (On Sunday, Russia goes to the polls.) The pro-Kremlin EADaily immediately came up with a tale about who was really behind the research, playing on the bad feeling between prominent journalist Maxim Shevchenko and Dagestan’s authorities after the former was blocked as a parliamentary candidate from the republic.

At the same time, Shevchenko himself accused the liberal opposition in general and Yulia Yuzik, a democratic candidate running in the southern republic, of “making up stuff about FGM”: “Damn you, informers and secret operatives!” Shevchenko said on Facebook. “Listen, you liberal traitors, there is no FGM in Dagestan!”

Unexpected consequences

These examples are enough to demonstrate on what level the political discussion around FGM has taken place. But the public debate has been more interesting — it wasn’t a question of weighty arguments for or against. Instead, the discussion was curious for how it brought together social groups who, in other circumstances, would have regarded one another with deep suspicion.

Thus, Russia’s liberals (by which I mean all critics of the regime) rallied together with the state in their preference for increasing legal measures to combat FGM. And on the other hand, both “traditional” and “Salafi” Muslims (i.e. representatives of various Islamic movements whose beliefs differ from the position of the official clergy), who, to a man, called on their opponents to concentrate on the problems of their own society and stop telling people in Dagestan what to do.

To give them their due, both sides in the end tried to reach a compromise solution. Journalists Svetlana Anokhina and Vladimir Sevrinovsky and Caucasus specialist Irina Starodubrovskaya wrote a joint letter explaining why legal solutions wouldn’t be effective if the local people wouldn’t obey them:

“The operations would just go further underground and take place in even worse conditions. Legislation could, moreover, be used, for example, as a tool of clan warfare, when someone has to look under the skirt of their opponents’ daughters to establish whether they have been cut or not. And this could increase tension in already conflicted territories.

These issues have to be resolved in the first case “from the inside”, within communities themselves. And Dagestan’s Muslims and their spiritual leadership need to take on the responsibility for helping this to happen.”

Dagestan’s muftiat then announced that it would study the issue, recommending its followers to look at an article on their website that quoted various scriptural sources as saying that Muslims should only use the mildest form of FGM, the removal of just the tip of the clitoris, “which would lead to improved hygiene of the sexual organs and greater sexual satisfaction.”

The potential conflict was apparently averted — for the time being at least. But the fact that opinions were divided along Muslim – non-Muslim lines requires closer attention. Of course, when I say a “divide”, I’m talking more about the general tone of the discussion on social media, where the most extreme opinions were expressed. The report also came in for substantive criticism from Muslims.

On the other side of the barricades, well-known journalist Pavel Pryanikov, for example, suggested looking at the issue from a wider perspective, in the context of “one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century — does a child have subjectivity?” [...] I understand the anger of liberals and, in particular, libertarians over FGM. But in discussing this subject, we cast doubt on the validity of parental protection and responsibility for the child and even the very fact of parenthood.”

Brave new world

This is the point where we should revisit the main question. If the Russian Justice Initiative research was carried out correctly (and we are only analysing the discussion around it), then why do women who have gone through this trauma themselves visit it on their daughters?


Portraits of imams at a school in Gimry, Dagestan. CC: International Crisis Group / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Is devotion to tradition enough to make women suppress their maternal feelings and not try to avoid the ritual? Do the rights campaigners not deny the subjectivity of the women they are trying to protect? Do they perhaps see them as merely as a function of a religious village community?

Of course, Muslim society in Dagestan displays all the signs of Foucault’s “disciplinary community”. But then any modern society, whether totalitarian or democratic, is disciplinary in some fashion — the principle of “knowledge equals power” penetrates deeper and deeper through the constant collection of information on individuals. In turn, this power is guaranteed not so much through state structures of repression, but social institutions (family, school, church, university) that form people’s views on the world and approved standards of behaviour. As it appeals to people’s desire for security, biopower relies not on law, but norms. And it is the bodies of our fellow citizens that are normalised first and foremost.

Dagestan, in fact, is host to two disciplinary societies, each with its own institutions. The first is oriented towards Islamic norms and has an ideological basis, the second is rather more technological, standing up for the standards of the state and the global market. In the first, disciplinary practices are emphasised, and in the other - carefully hidden.

The consolidation of Dagestan’s “traditional” and “non-traditional” Muslims, as well as the alliance of “liberals” and government supporters during last month’s discussion on FGM, tells us that a feeling of belonging to one or other disciplinary community is important to the point where other political disagreements become secondary. Indeed, perhaps the people who took part in this discussion realised intuitively that women’s bodies have become part of the battlefield for power in the republic.

This is why an attempt to collect information from a position of “knowledge equals power”, when an agent of that power assumes they know more about their subjects than the subjects themselves, met with hostility from Dagestan’s Muslims. This in no way means that there is no point in pursuing human rights-based or journalistic activity. But it’s important to understand that human rights and universal values as such are, in the eyes of many of the republic’s Muslims, just one more tool in the hands of a foreign power.

There is some truth in this. As Giorgio Agamben writes in Homo sacer: Sovereign power and naked life: “In a national state system, so-called sacred and inviolable human rights lose their protective power and cease to be real at the moment when it becomes impossible to imagine them as the rights of citizens of any particular state.”

For Russia’s North Caucasus and Dagestan, in particular, Agamben’s abstraction is all too real. Until the civic rights of the republic’s Muslims are genuinely respected, while the authorities’ actions are perceived as “normal” under the emergency situation in place across the region, for many in Dagestan, the discourse of human rights (of which protection against FGM is a constituent part) will be firmly associated with Russian state repression in the North Caucasus and western states’ actions in the Middle East.

In a disciplinary society, the majority of subjects obey power unconsciously. The mere understanding of this system won’t liberate them from it. And if we believe ourselves to be capable of taking important decisions, then we have to recognise this capacity in members of another disciplinary society.

In other words, when parents in Dagestan’s mountain villages subject their daughters to FGM, they are not just blindly following tradition or social pressure. There is also an element of conscious choice — they are choosing to which world their daughters will belong when they grow up.

We need to ask ourselves more often — what’s wrong with our society if mothers are prepared to permanently deprive their daughters of sexual pleasure for the sake of keeping them away from our “brave new world”? The choice before them isn’t between an abstract constitutional state and a utopian caliphate, but between concrete systems that already exist in their republic.

Late last month, news broke that Russian security forces were behind the murder of two innocent young men in one of Dagestan’s mountain regions. This ritual tragedy leaves no doubt that the republic’s villages will choose to stick with the “relics of the past” for some time.

Translated by Liz Barnes.

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