Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Dhofar: The Woman with the Frankincense Burner

Published  June 7, 2011 - Muscat Daily

A few days ago I was at Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah visiting a friend who had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl.

There were several other women there when I arrived, and we all took turns holding the baby and marveling (naturally) at how perfect she was. When the baby was in my arms, I heard someone whispering ‘Come on, Susan. We have to leave’.

I looked up and saw an odd-looking older woman standing at the foot of the bed with what looked like a toiletries bag and a large frankincense burner. I must have had a confused look on my face because the woman standing next to me whispered into my ear again, “We have to go. She’s going to do it.”

The mother of the baby looked distressed and helpless but her mother-in-law seemed to be in control of the situation. I was herded out of the ward along with the other women, and only then did I realise the old woman with the frankincense burner had come to circumcise the child.

Shocking, isn’t it? To think that we live in the 21st century and such primitive practices still take place behind closed doors and secretly in hospital corridors. Almost all girls over the age of about 15 in Salalah have been circumcised. I thought the practice had died down over the past decade and was no longer prevalent in Salalah but evidently I am mistaken. I decided to make a few enquiries regarding the woman with the frankincense burner.

According to my sources, she has been at the hospital for as long as they can remember. She roams the maternity wards all day and makes herself available to anyone who wishes to mutilate their newborn daughters’ genitals.

Obviously she does not work for the hospital, and I have no idea how she supports herself because evidently she does it for free. All I know is that people demand her services because they truly believe it’s the right thing to do.

Many women in Salalah and in other parts of the Middle East claim it is obligatory in Islam and they refuse to discuss it any further.

Al Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a statement saying female genital mutilation (FGM) has no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions and that it is harmful and should not be practiced.

I have no idea how prevalent the practice is in other parts of Oman and how much brutality is involved, but I know for a fact that it is widely practiced in Dhofar. If they tell you everyone carries it out ‘lightly’ like a small paper-cut, that’s a complete lie.

It may be true for a handful of families, but after speaking with several women I know, they confirmed that traditionally the whole clitoris is removed and the area burned to ensure that all nerves are dead, hence the frankincense burner. There are also several local clinics in Oman that can do it. Is it even legal?

What baffles me is that many men are not aware that this practice still exists in Dhofar. The problem with FGM is that it is performed by and defended by women, and is considered one of Dhofar’s best-kept secrets. In most cases, women do not ask the permission of the father before performing FGM on a newborn. I wonder how our men feel about that.

Education seems to be the only answer and change won’t happen overnight. The first step is to bring it out into the open without fear or shame. This should not be a taboo subject. The Ministry of Health (MoH) should start an awareness campaign explaining the health risks. There should be posters up in the maternity wards at all hospitals.

People still practice FGM because they think it’s healthy and they’re afraid of what will happen to their daughters if they aren’t circumcised. Many believe that by putting their daughters through this they are protecting them. From what, I wonder?

At times like these people need to distinguish between Islam and culture. Because the practice holds much cultural and marital significance, FGM opponents recognise that ending it requires that they work closely with local communities in order to spread awareness of the profound social, sexual and medical consequences of this practice. This tradition is kept alive by the lack of dialogue. This is where MoH should come in.

I could go on about this forever. The practice is considered a violation of the basic rights of women, and since it is mostly carried out on newborn girls, it is also considered a violation of children’s rights. Now, what can you, as an individual, do about this? You can start by spreading the word. Speak to the women in your family and help bring this issue out into the open. Change begins at home! 


  1. It might appear to the mothers in the hospital that it is a service provided/authorized by the government of Oman; otherwise how would she wander through the wards and do it for free. The hospital presumably provides ‘aftercare’, reinforcing the impression of official sanction.

  2. .... I'm sad to hear that this still goes on here. And I'm shocked that it's the WOMEN themselves that are forcing this on little helpless girls. What a strange world we live in!

  3. I am sure that if all mothers had been informed about all the side-effects of such brutal practice on those innocent baby girls,it would at least reduce that big number progressively. The only solution is to educated women in general, because when you ask yourself: Whose responsibility is this? You will definitely say mothers,so men don't have anything to do with this,try to solve the matter among yourselves.
    Try to give some seminars to women to spread the news in order to stop this happening.

  4. Susan!
    It's been so long!
    just wanted to drop a line to say you're doing a GREAT job...keep it up ;)

  5. Noooooo Noooooooooooooo Nooooooooooooooooo.
    I cant stop saying Nooooo. How very uneducated, ill and sick these people are who abuse young girls and take their pleasure from them that is given by fitrah.
    I feel like finding this bakhoor lady and telling her to take her bakhoor else where. My blood is boiling.

  6. the mothers probably do because their own mothers did it to them, etc.. but this does have to stop somewhere, this is unhealthy, and simply monstrous :S .. if this is how things are, why isn't the culture cutting off half of the male genitals then? this is simply unfair :S

  7. Hi, I am a Dubai-based journalist with Voice of America. I will be coming to Salalah this weekend to do some research for a story I am putting together about the recent unrest in Oman and how things are now.
    I am looking for people in Salalah who have opinions on the situation and would be willing to talk to me. I would like to know if you would be willing or if you know someone who would.
    My email address is: pwwnews@hotmail.com
    Thank you for your consideration.


  8. Dear Susan,

    My name is Najuan Daadleh, I manage a blog under the title Connection Point. I am very interested in reposting your piece about FGM. Please take a look at our blog:

    I am looking forward to hear back from you. Thank you for this great blog.


  9. Dear Susan,
    I am very happy and proud of you, as my former student, to see you writing on this daring subject. I am (Dr. Najjar from DU0 doing research on this subject as one of the social problems that could be studied and dealt with from all of its aspects in an academic environment. I am amazed at how widespread this barbaric practice is still practised in the Gulf and particularly in Dhofar, yet few critical voices are heard against it. I am particularly proud to see you expose it so naturally and bravely. Your heart is in the right place. I am also happy of the reactions to your blog. If you like to answewr me, here is my personal email: najjaribrahim@yahoo.ca. I am sure you have more to say about this problem, and it might be helpful for me to see how effectively we can make people aware of the superstitious, not religious, origin of this criminal act.