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feminist wire | daily newsbriefs

July-10-01

FGM Exposed

One day last year, a 20-year-old woman named Kadra walked into a mosque in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. For a young Somali-Norwegian of Muslim faith, this was nothing out of the ordinary. But underneath her traditional dress, Kadra was equipped with a hidden camera. Her mission, in alliance with national television network TV2, was to expose imams—Muslim religious leaders—for publicly denouncing female genital mutilation (FGM) in Norway, while privately recommending the practice among their followers. In 1995, Norway outlawed FGM and ruled that it was illegal to perform it on a Norwegian citizen or legal immigrant either within or outside the country.

The law, however, had rarely been invoked and was virtually unknown. Enter Kadra. "No one else would bother to [expose the imams]," she says. "The cost was too high." But Kadra's own brush with FGM encouraged her boldness. Two years earlier, her mother had tried to make her undergo the procedure, so Kadra ran away from home. While living in a women's shelter, she met Tonje Steinsland, a TV2 reporter who was recruiting sources for a story on FGM. "At first, I didn't want to get involved," says Kadra. "But my conscience wouldn't let go of me."

So Kadra posed as a confused young woman and made several visits to Oslo's Somali mosque seeking advice on whether to undergo FGM. She said her mother was pressuring her to have the procedure performed in London, where expatriates from the Muslim world flock to the city's underground FGM clinics. "You'd better obey your parents," said the imam. "That's Allah's will."

Ditto for two Gambian imams and Kebba Sekka, leader of the Oslo Islamic Council. Barely able to believe her ears (and the tapes of the conversations), Kadra went back to the Somali mosque. This time, the imams were suspicious—a young, Muslim woman wasn't supposed to ask so many questions. The staff wanted to search her, but in the space of a few minutes, Kadra escaped with her footage intact.

On October 4, seven months after Kadra first visited the mosques, TV2 aired her piece, contrasting it with public statements from imams condemning FGM. Aware that the documentary could put Kadra in danger, Steinsland urged her to appear anonymously. But Kadra insisted on showing her face. The African Muslim community in Oslo is small and people would recognize her anyway, she argued. "My goal was never to be liked," she says. "Only to inform."

Overnight, Kadra, who no longer uses her last name for security reasons, was lauded in every major newspaper and magazine in Norway. Her exposť propelled seven national ministers to put together an action plan against FGM that was adopted in December, with a budget equivalent to U.S. $1 million. So far, some parents have been put on trial for pressuring their daughters to undergo the procedure, and Kebba Sekka has resigned from the Islamic Council.

"Something had to be done," says Kadra, who doesn't regret her actions despite death threats and charges of being a whore from some Muslims. "FGM is a terrible tradition. I wanted to stop the men who want to control women's bodies and sexuality."

For now, Kadra is lying low and working hard to get into the country's most competitive journalism school. "I'll keep an eye on things," she says. "See what politicians actually do about FGM—be a little watchdog."


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