A Handful of Ash: Challenging FGM in Kurdistan

Female genital mutilation is a practice that has thrived despite its taboo status. A seemingly global inability to discuss a personal and harrowing practise that is prevalent in many parts of the world is without question endangering the lives of children and our misunderstanding of the subject is creating a dangerous legacy of female oppression.

A Handful of AshBut one group of film makers and activists have now started the conversation about female genital mutilation (FGM), in Kurdistan, one of the heaviest practisers of FGM in the world – and to great effect.

Female genital mutilation is the practise of removing women’s external genitalia. This most often involves cutting out the clitoris. Sometimes the inner labia are also removed and in extreme cases the outer labia is also removed and the vaginal opening is fused together to make it smaller. The reasoning behind ‘cutting’ young girls is the belief that FGM reduces female sexual desire reducing the chances of female infedeility and extra marital sex.

FGM is practised openly in parts of Africa and the Middle East, with an estimated 8000 girls being cut everyday. The true extent of the practise is unknown, as it exists in many communities where discussion of the subject is taboo, with many mothers reporting their children taken to be cut by older family members without their knowledge.

Kurdistan is one of the most prominent practisers of FGM in the world. Young girls are reportedly cut at birth, with the average age of cutting varying between two and eight years old. The practise is widespread through rural villages, performed by midwifes with razor blades and knives, who rub a handful of ash into the wound after the child has been slashed.

FGM has blighted the lives of the majority of the female rural community in Kurdistan, yet at the heart of this practise lies grave miseducation. Two film makers in the country have now decided to tackle this lack of knowledge head on, by speaking to the communities in which FGM lies at the heart of. The product? A Handful of Ash, A beautifully terrifying film that exposes the lives behind the practice.

The fifty-minute film speaks to victims and families of FGM, revealing the effect the practise has on their lives. But putting the film together was not easy for its creators. Nabaz Ahmed, one of the two film makers, reported that:

‘It took us weeks, sometimes months to get them to talk and in the end it was the women that spoke out – despite the men.’

The product of this work is a harrowing film, which at times can be extremely difficult to watch. The western world exists in a society where female sexuality and desire is celebrated, so to watch women discuss their sexual experiences when their sexual desire has been stripped from them at an age where they have no understanding of sex is heartbreaking and incredibly hard to comprehend. The result is sort of acceptance that women should not enjoy sex, that is that sex acts purely as a means to an end; reproduction.

A Handful of Ash has sent shock waves through the Kurdish legal system and has resulted in a change the film makers could not of even dreamed of. The film was shown within Kurdish parliament, and the stark contrast in the way in which villagers and government officials live their lives hit the MP’s hard. As a result, female genital mutilation has now been outlawed across Kurdistan, which has had a profound effect on the places where FGM was practised. Many people are now beginning to understand the effect FGM has had not only on their family lives but also on their communities.

A Handful of Ash is proof of the power of education. Tackling subjects which have huge cultural weighting and which are often drenched in religious misteaching is of incredible importance. The bravery of the women and families that chose to speak out against a practise which everyday kills children and causes devastating effects on the lives of women, within a culture in which the practice was so deeply embedded, will live on in Kurdish history and hopefully continue to make changes across the world.

Image via Stephen Regenold.

Leave A Comment