Theater of Cruelty

- A lifelong struggle

Over 90 percent of women in Somalia are circumcised. Edna Adan Ismail is a pioneer in the fight against the dangerous tradition.


[circumcision] The dry river bed winds between white-painted brick houses and dusty streets, where more camels and goats are found than humans. Small crowds are gathered around tea houses, stalls selling khat or outside the mosques, places that provide some shade. The sun is high in the sky.

The buildings are low, and from the roof of the hospital, Ny Tid has a view of the entire city. A large modern hospital is not something you find in many places in Somalia. The founder Edna Adan Ismail is not just any lady either. She is by first name with most of the city, and the hospital is called Edna Adan Maternity Hospital.

Ny Tid is located in the Somali city of Hargeisa, far from the debate in the Norwegian media about immigrant women and circumcision. Female circumcision, or genital mutilation, which Ismail believes is the most descriptive description, is very common among Somalis.

There has been little research into the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Somalia in the past, but Ismail keeps accurate statistics of those who visit her hospital.

- This is the only hospital in the world that researches female genital mutilation, she says, without trying to hide her pride.

Edna Adan Ismail is a woman of the type Norwegians do not like to find in male-dominated African societies, but which most people who have visited Africa have encountered: vigorous, principled, committed and fit dominant, which is certainly necessary in her work.

- I think genital mutilation is a practice that needs attention. I've felt it all my life. This is a lifelong crusade for what I believe in. Women and children have suffered a lot, and have been exposed to great injustice when it comes to health and rights, she says.

Over 90 percent of all women in Somalia are circumcised.

Is not about religion

That Ismail calls it a crusade is apt for how she is perceived by some Somalis. Before we meet her, several people we have talked to say that she has converted to Christianity. She even says that she is still a Muslim, but that such rumors are often put out by people who are skeptical of the work she does.

Ismail struggles to convince people that circumcision of women has nothing to do with religion. Many believe that circumcision is a Muslim tradition. She tells the women she treats that there is nothing about female circumcision in the Qur'an. Yet she must constantly confront imams who believe it to be a religious practice.

- I meet opposition from religious leaders. I ask them to look in the Qur'an if they find injunction there, and say to them, "If this is a religious practice, why do they not do it in other Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia?"

The fact that a girl is circumcised is considered a guarantee that she is a virgin when she marries, and women who are not circumcised are often seen as loose. They also do not provide the bride price for the family as much as those who are circumcised.

Ismail also faces resistance in other areas. For many Somalis, it is difficult to talk openly about sexuality and genitals, which she experienced when she started the fight in 1976, after being appointed director of the Somalia Department of Health. Educated as a midwife, it was natural for her to focus on genital mutilation, although both family and politicians would like to see her stay away from such a sensitive topic.

Shame on the family

- In our culture we do not talk about genitals. This is not something polite people do. My husband, my family and the neighbors were upset when I started working on this. The family said I was ashamed of them. 'Why do you have to talk about this? You are the representative of the government and you are the most important woman in the country. " I replied "just because". Because I am a woman, because I am a representative of the government and because I am a health director. says Ismail.

-It became more and more interested, and more and more wanted me to talk about the problem. If I'm in a good mood, I do.

Ismail smiles disarmingly. This is something she has been talking about for 30 years, and it is clear that she would rather return to the practical work at the hospital than talk to journalists. But today, fortunately, she is in a good mood and continues to talk. Since she started work in 1976, the extent of genital mutilation has been somewhat reduced, but Ismail is far from happy with the result. The UN and other international organizations have been involved in the case, without giving much results.

- The prevalence has declined somewhat, but there are at least ten percent fewer who practice genital mutilation today. The reason why there is no change is that conferences are held in conference rooms, not on carpets in the villages. It is the people, who believe in the practice, one must speak to.

Dull and rusty knives

So far, the hospital has examined 4000 women. Of these, three percent are not circumcised. The most common form of circumcision in Somalia is infibulation, which is also the most severe procedure. The clitoris and genitals are cut away and the vagina is stitched again. It is common to do the procedure when the girls are three to five years old. It is usually older women who do the procedure, often with blunt and rusty knives or razors. Poor sanitary conditions, especially in rural areas, often cause infections. Ismail and the other midwives at the hospital tell patients about the medical dangers of circumcision.

- Even women from Norway have been examined here. Of the 4000 women surveyed here, some do not want to do this to their daughters.

Edna Maternity Hospital is also a teaching hospital. 23 nurses and midwives are undergoing training, in addition to the permanent staff. The hospital also arranges shorter courses for health workers who work elsewhere in the country. Especially through midwives Ismail wants to spread its message. Most doctors in Somalia are men, and genitals are not something to be talked about.

The fact that she is a midwife is also part of the reason why she has engaged in this particular cause.

- My job is affected by genital mutilation. I'm going to get a baby out of there, and genital mutilation has always created problems for me. I have also suffered through circumcision myself.

Ismail is not a modest lady, and boasts unsurprisingly about her merits. Not that she has any reason to be modest, the track record is impressively long. When she was 17, she was the first Somali girl to receive a scholarship to study abroad. At that time, Somaliland was a British colony, under the name of British Somaliland. After completing her education, she returned to Somaliland, where she engaged in politics and the burgeoning liberation movement.

June 26, 1960, Somaliland became independent. Ismail was then married to the first prime minister in the independent country. Four days later, the Italian Somaliland colony became independent, and the two young nations entered a union under the name


In 1965, Ismail went to Libya to teach for midwives. In 1986 she became UN Administrator for East Africa and later became representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Djibouti. She was one of the first in the UN system to put women's circumcision on the agenda.

Hargeisa is far from Mogadishu. This is not the Somalia you see on the Day Review, with street battles and pickups with mounted machine guns patrolling the streets. People here don't carry guns. The Muslim courts, which had control of the southern part of the country for six months, had no influence here. Instead, you will find bustling markets and small restaurants serving tea and goat meat (if you are lucky, they have camel steaks).

This part of Somalia calls itself Somaliland, and governs itself, as a separate country, but according to the Royal Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Somaliland does not exist. Somaliland declared itself independent in 1991, when dictator Syad Barre was overthrown after a protracted civil war. Somaliland is not recognized by any other country (except Wales, if it can be called a country). Still, things have gone much better than with the rest of Somalia, which has not had a functioning government since Syad Barre fled the country.

Hargeisa was roughly leveled with the ground by Barre's bombers during the Civil War. Several hundred thousand people were driven to flight. The city is rebuilding, and refugees, previously scattered around the world, are about to return. In 1992, Ismail retired from the United Nations and traveled back to his home country to help build the fragile new state.

- I sold my house, I sold my jewelry, I sold the Mercedes. All to afford to build this hospital.

Activist for 69 years

Later, Ismail was included in the policy. In 2002 she became Minister of Social Affairs and the following year she was given the important post of Foreign Minister. Last year, she retired from the ministry to concentrate on running the hospital.

- I'm an activist. I have been active for 69 years. Somalis are my people. Women and children are my family. If this draws me to politics, then so be it. The president said, "This country needs you." I had done a lot for Somaliland before I became Minister, and I still speak

for my people.

This is a theme that engages, and Ismail

delivers a long, fiery defense of Somaliland's independence.

- We were the first independent Somali nation. It was like an independent people we chose to enter into union with a neighboring country. We did not get what we wanted out of the union, so we chose to withdraw. We have had fifteen years of success.

Despite a few deep grooves in the face, Ismail seems exceptionally youthful for its 69 years. There is something about the smile, the twinkle in her eyes and the power of her voice that testifies that she still has several years left as an activist. She herself has no plans to retire.

- I am a nurse and midwife, and I will always be. I have not yet lost my curiosity. ?

See also Pages 8 and 9 in the latest issue of Ny Tid

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