Our volunteer Nancy Kebe has just returned from her five-week trip to Sierra Leone where, in addition to doing charitable work distributing urgently needed food, clothing and other goods to the poor and needy around the country, she launched our pilot project to educate the people on the actual teachings of Islam regarding the culturally persistent practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). There were no reliable Internet connections in the villages in which she worked so this is the first opportunity she has had to tell us about the success of our pilot project to bring an authentic Islamic perspective to a sensitive issue that has provided fodder to Islamophobes spreading disinformation about Islamic law.
She carried 200 copies of our pamphlet on the subject and before leaving underwent training on how to broach the subject with the people as a question of Shariah rather than as just a secular health issue. Because of her charitable mission, her strong family ties to the country, and the solid scholarship behind our pamphlet, she was most warmly received, as if she were the country’s president. She saved three girls from the barbaric surgery and prompted calls from the people and the masjids to return to the country for a follow-up visit bringing more representatives of the Minaret of Freedom Institute with her to complete the job she started.
The secular groups opposed to FGM have reduced the practice from 100% of females to 60% of females, but they have hit a wall. Most of the remaining population are less concerned with secular health questions than with what does Islam teach, and the health workers are unqualified to (and in most cases unwilling) to address. People repeatedly told Nancy that they had never seen anything like our pamphlet before, and they were greatly excited.
One woman’s extended family was pressuring her two young nieces, ages 7 and 8, to join the “Bondo Society,” a cultural rite of passage that involves having their clitorises cut and then sending them into seclusion. The rite is made attractive to the girls by the fact that its completion is celebrated by having their hair done up and dressing them in fancy dresses and gold jewelry. The aunt, a teacher, was opposed to the family’s plans but had been unable to dissuade the rest of the family until she read the pamphlet and spoke with Nancy. Intellectually armed, she was able to explain to the family why what they planned to do was against Islam.
One 14-year-old girl had successfully resisted the pressure to have the operation and was in school instead, but her parents were pressing her to leave school to get the operation. After reading the pamphlet and talking to Nancy, she was able to convince her parents that the operation was not part of Islam and they wholeheartedly agreed to let her stay in school.
Everyone told Nancy that what we were doing there had never been done before and was badly needed. She wants to return and bring Minaret of Freedom Institute scholars with her to speak directly to the imams and the media as she has spoken to the women. The people take their Islam seriously in Sierra Leone, but this is a subject that the local Islamic scholars have feared to discuss. The only way to solve the problem is on the demand side with accurate information about Islam presented in a culturally sensitive manner.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute