It started with a report and erupted into a controversy involving a mufti, a Russian Orthodox priest and a rabbi.
The subject: female genital mutilation.
On Aug. 15, the Russian Justice Initiative issued a report called "Production of Genital Mutilation of Girls in the Republic of Dagestan." Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is the practice of cutting away all or part of the clitoris and sometimes the labia. It's usually done in the belief that it will reduce female sexual desire and therefore, promiscuity. The report said that the mutilations were being performed in remote mountain villages in predominantly Muslim regions of Dagestan on girls as young as 3 and as old as 11.
Although FGM has been condemned by the U.N. and the World Health Organization, the report says it's not banned by Russian law. The report marks the first systematic documentation of FGM in the region. Human rights activists in Russia called for an investigation of the findings.
Then came the controversy.
Asked to comment, Mufti Ismail Berdiev — a Muslim religious leader from the area — told a Moscow radio station, "Moscow Says," that female circumcision is a "healthy custom" practiced in one of the republics of Russia's North Caucasus region. Berdiev even said that all women should be circumcised "to end depravity on Earth and reduce sexuality."
The Russian news agency, Interfax, promptly contacted the mufti to ask if what he said was an endorsement of FGM. Berdiev expanded on the theme, saying female circumcision is "necessary to reduce women's sexuality.... God created women to give birth to children and to raise children. And [circumcision] doesn't have anything to do with that. Women can still give birth, and there's less depravity."
Berdiev is an influential cleric, the chairman of the North Caucasus Muslim Coordinating Center, so his words carry weight.
He soon got qualified support from another religious conservative, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a former spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. In a post on Facebook, Chaplin wrote, "Ay-ay-ay. Now we're seeing some real feminist howling because of what Mufti Ismail Berdiev has said." The archpriest said he respects female circumcision as a "time-honored practice recognized by the majority of women living in this [Muslim] tradition. "We probably don't need to circumcise all women," he added. "There's no need with Orthodox Christian women, for example; they don't fornicate as it is." As a parting shot, Chaplin said "Without a doubt, Feminism is the lie of the 20th century."
A prominent rabbi also weighed in. Boruch Gorin, the head of public relations of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, didn't address the propriety of FGM but didn't condemn it either. He did concur that "debauchery" and "licentiousness" are serious problems in the community. "A faithful man is surrounded by a huge number of temptations," Gorin said, though he added that female circumcision does not solve the "problem of corruption."
Berdiev has since walked his comments back. After the uproar broke, Berdiev told the Meduza news website that he was "misunderstood" in his earlier interviews and that he'd been joking about circumcising all women. He said he hadn't read the report and didn't in fact know whether FGM was still being performed in Dagestan.
But he didn't back down on the message that women's sexuality should be controlled. "For what purpose did the Almighty create woman? To give birth to children, to raise them and not to work outside the home.... According to Shariah [Islamic law], this should be done."
He acknowledged that circumcision wouldn't improve a woman's ability to care for children. "But why did I make that joke? Because debauchery is everywhere now. Women must dress appropriately. Christians have this, too."
In its report, the Russian Justice Initiative called for a ban on FGM in Russia. A Russian lawmaker has now drafted legislation to outlaw the practice.