Trying to stop a bloody ritual undergone by millions of Muslim women in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, health activists are trying a new appeal _ they’re citing the Quran.

“The guiding factor is always Islam,” says 34-year-old Maryam Sheikh Abdi, who grew up in a region of northeast Kenya where 98 percent of girls are believed to undergo the procedure, a genital mutilation sometimes called female circumcision. Women believe “the pain, the problems, the bleeding _ they are all God’s will.”

Health activists, finding that focusing on women’s rights isn’t working to persuade Muslims to stop performing the ritual, are increasingly using theology to make the case that “the cut” has nothing to do with religion. Abdi, who speaks about female genital mutilation on behalf of the U.S.-based Population Council, said invoking Islam penetrates years of cultural indoctrination.

“Women don’t have to torture themselves. Islam does not require them to do it,” said Abdi, who underwent the procedure when she was 6 and was a college student by the time she realized it was not necessary from a religious viewpoint. . .

Late last year, the top cleric in Egypt _ where the practice is pervasive and many believe it is required by Islam _ spoke out against it, saying circumcision was not mentioned in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, or in the Sunna, the sayings and deeds of Muhammad _ the two main sources of Islamic practice.

“In Islam, circumcision is for men only,” Mohammed Sayed Tantawi said. “From a religious point of view, I don’t find anything that says that circumcision is a must” for women.

Laws against female genital mutilation exist in many of the regions where it is practiced, but poor enforcement and lack of publicity can hinder the laws, human rights groups and women activists say. They say laws aren’t effective unless those who practice and require the tradition are first made aware of its physical and mental damage.


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