Kurdish filmmakers Shara Amin and Nabaz Ahmed spent 10 years on the roads of Kurdistan speaking to women and men about the impact of female genital mutilation (FGM) on their lives, their children and their marriages. “It took a lot of time to convince them to speak to us. This was a very taboo subject. Speaking about it on camera was a very brave thing to do,” they told The Guardian. Their film, A Handful of Ash, changed the law in Kurdistan, and may have reduced the practice by as much as 50 percent. They spoke to Solutions Journal via Skype with a translator.
Let’s start at the beginning. When and how did you uncover that female genital mutilation was going on in Kurdistan?
I discovered female genital mutilation was going on at the end of 2003. I had heard about it when I was a child—15 years old or so. I didn’t hear [anything about it after that]. [Then], at the beginning of war in 2003, I read article in a Kurdish newspaper about female genital mutilation in Kurdistan, and then I heard from the organization WADI, that they had some statistics about the subject, so we started working on it.
Were any other organizations paying attention to the problem then? Was there an existing effort to ban it?
Apart from the organization Wadi, I’m not aware of previous efforts to ban female genital mutilation. [However], the organization Women Advocacy in Kurdistan published a book in 2001 on the subject that raised awareness.
Why hadn’t it been stopped already? Why did society condone it? Why didn’t the government forbid it?
The practice is still ongoing in some places, and we hear there are people who say they still practice FGM [female genital mutilation] and will still practice it, regardless of the law. It now [happens] much less because of media and government. But the government is not serious about solving the problem, and they have not made it a priority. The government [uses the excuse of being] a new government, [and having] other issues to take care of.
The government denied [that FGM was happening up until] 2005. They were ashamed to be a nation where FGM was taking place. We have seen some parliamentary members deny it, and [claim] it is not as [widespread] as others say it is. As [for] society, there were a handful in Sulimaniyah (a city in Northern Iraq) who were trying to raise awareness, but these [were] very few. [Others] said the practice should not be even spoken of, that it is a private family matter. [Yet another] part of society just doesn’t care about it at all.
Tell me about making the film—what were the challenges and what did you uncover?
As I said before, this is a taboo subject. Discussing it was hard and making a film was much harder. I was always worried I would get into trouble with the people I spoke with about FGM. In one incident, we had to run away from a village because of people chasing us for speaking about the subject. One problem was finding a female who could work on the film while staying on location in the villages. I originally started by getting my wife to speak with the woman, but most of the time I couldn’t be there [at all] because women were talking about private things, and men could not be present. Things were difficult in the beginning, until I found Shara, the co-director, who could work on the film more freely and stay in villages and work on location, and who understood their sufferings. There were many more challenges—I can’t remember them all.
Where has the film been shown and to which audiences?
There are multiple versions of this film. One, made in 2006, was called A Handful of Ash. I did this film in 33 minutes. This version was shown at many conferences and festivals in Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. [Specifically], it was shown at Amnesty International in Europe and Zurich and London at a festival for Kurdish films, and probably at 10-15 [other] festivals. It was also shown in the Kurdish Parliament and in the villages where the film was shot. We showed an edited version to protect people’s identity. It was shown in 100 villages. Afterwards, there was another version in the making, with the help of Wadi. We made a longer version of the film, and updated it, but we ran out of funds. The producer searched for someone to fund it, and they found the Guardian. We then made it for Guardian BBC Arabic, and the material helped to create a report for BBC International. The video is on the websites of the Guardian and the BBC. There is a plan to show a longer version for BBC international. It’s not showing in the US—only at a few international festivals.
Did the U.S. war in Iraq affect FGM in any way?
No, I don’t think so. There’s no connection between Iraq and Kurdistan, which got independence from the Iraqi government and Iraqi laws in 1991 after the uprising.
What were you hoping to accomplish by making a film?
As a filmmaker, I was unbiased and not talking sides. But my hope was for this practice to be eliminated, and that was my [main] purpose.
I’ve been to Kurdistan many times, and it is recognized as a modern place, so it is ironic that this practice has persisted. How does Iraq view this practice? What is the historical context of Kurdistan that it has allowed it to occur there?
At the moment, this practice doesn’t exist in Iraq, but it does continue in some Arabian places. It existed prior to Islam, and Islam did not stop it. It does exist in Sudan and Yemen, and when it reached the middle east the kurdish nation became Muslim, and because Islam did not stop this practice. The Arabian culture was mixed with Muslim culture and it migrated. The Kurdish people did not stop it, but many Arab-dominated places did, for example Southern Iraq. It did exist once in Iraq, but it has faded away there.
Is it true that FGM has decreased considerably in the last few years? How much so? Why?
There is data on how much it has decreased, but I don’t know the exact figures because I haven’t come across [this data]. Civil society organizations and the government collect it, but I don’t trust it because it changes too frequently.
Tell me about the law being passed forbidding FGM. What were the major factors at play which contributed to this great success? Is the law enough? What more needs to happen?
I’m very happy with the law that was created. [However], the government has not worked seriously [to implement] this law [nor have they] made it a priority. They [created a designated] place for people to complain, but not a single complaint has been made. Why? The NGOs need to make serious efforts, not just [stop with the creation of a law]. Now we need more awareness-raising campaigns and religious leaders [as spokespeople], because this society listens to religious leaders ten times more. This society is most affected by its religious leaders —they move society. So a lot of mullahs [religious teachers] should be speaking publically about this subject.
What role does the media play in this effort?
The media plays a [limited] role. A few programs were made about the success, and some short awareness films were made, but they only showed on women’s day or on days dedicated to fighting FGM, so it’s not consistent.
What advice do you have for those trying to stop FGM in other countries?
I think what was essential in stopping FGM was time. Islam plays a big role in my society, so we need mullahs and religious leaders to say FGM has nothing to do with Islam. [Indeed], we do have mullahs that say FGM is not a part of Islam. The other thing is pushing the government to make a law, and not to lose hope [even when] [large efforts are made] and FGM still continues to be practiced. The more it exists, the harder one should push to overcome it.
Anything others can do to support his efforts?
Yes, definitely people can help. Especially when one person in a family doesn’t believe in the practice—that is much more effective than someone from outside trying to speak to the family. For example, a father can play a big role by not practicing FGM on his daughters. When a husband marries someone who has been cut, he can create awareness through his wife, and ensure that his children are not cut, and that they don’t believe in this practice. And friends can talk to friends. This is the only way awareness can spread throughout society.