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Until earlier this month, a health clinic in Moscow was offering clitorectomies on religious grounds to girls as young a five

Meduza
The “Best Clinic,” not far from the Baumanskaya subway station in Moscow, November 22, 2018
The “Best Clinic,” not far from the Baumanskaya subway station in Moscow, November 22, 2018
Daniil Turovsky / Meduza

The Best Clinic medical center was recently offering “female circumcision” on its website to patients on religious or ritual grounds

Not far from the Baumanskaya subway station in Moscow, there’s a small two-story building attached to a brick warehouse that dates back to the 19th century. The warehouse was recently converted into lofts, but the annex houses a medical center called “Best Clinic,” which offers a wide variety of services ranging from dentistry and psychotherapy to surgery and cosmetic work.

Among all these options, Meduza also found clitorectomies — a surgery known as “female circumcision.” “There are no medical grounds for this operation, and the intervention is carried out for religious or ritual reasons,” the website explained, adding that the surgery is “crippling” and must be performed at the medical clinic, not at home.” (Best Clinic is a chain, but clitorectomies were available only on the website for the location near the Baumanskaya subway station. The clinic is owned by the “Classicus” company, which belongs to Marina Strokina and Dmitry Afonin.)

The website offered three kinds of clitorectomy: removal of the clitoral hood, removal of the clitoris with the hood and small labia, and infibulation (the removal of the inner and outer labia, and the suturing of the vulva). This last procedure, the purpose of which is to inhibit women from having penetrative vaginal sex, was described in the following language: “The clitoris, hood, and inner and outer labia are sutured, allowing only urination and menstruation.” The practice, known as Type III female genital mutilation by the World Health Organization, is especially widespread in some African countries.

According to the World Health Organization, the surgical methods described on Best Clinic’s website are “mutilating,” “painful,” and “traumatic.”

“Female circumcision” is widespread in Africa. In Russia, it’s common in Dagestan. Experts consider it a harmful practice and a form of violence against women.

Both the World Health Organization and the United Nations, as well as human rights groups across the planet, say “female circumcision” is a barbaric practice. According to the U.N., there are roughly 200 million women throughout the world whose genitals have been mutilated by clitorectomies. Most of these people live in African countries (in Egypt and Ethiopia, 90 percent of women under the age of 50 have been “circumcised”). Unofficially, the surgery is carried out underground in Western countries, as well. For example, last year in Detroit, police arrested a doctor who had been performing the operation on girls as young as six for the previous 12 years.

After “circumcision,” women lose sensitivity, and the surgery often causes severe depression or posttraumatic disorders. There are also common complications, including infections, non-healing wounds, and problems with urination.

Clitorectomies are widespread in certain regions within the Russian Federation. In 2016, the human rights organization “Justice Initiative” published a report on the extensive practice of female genital mutilation in Dagestan, featuring interviews with 25 women who were subjected to the surgery at a young age. Each woman said the procedure was extremely painful and they didn’t understand why they were being subjected to so much pain. Speaking to these women and their neighbors, the researchers concluded that the clitorectomy was considered a “mandatory rite through which all girls must pass.” The report also included interviews with imams who stressed that “circumcisions” must be performed before puberty, because after the operation a girl “becomes a Muslim woman,” “can pray,” and “becomes more humble and moderate.”

A woman who conducts underground clitorectomies in one Dagestani village told the human rights researchers that she “cuts off a little dot to turn girls into Muslim women.” “I get requests to perform circumcisions from people in other villages, not just in our village,” she said. “My aunt taught me how to do it, and she did it for my daughter. I usually circumcise girls between the ages of three months and 10 years. It’s best to urinate afterwards, so the wound heals faster. There’s nobody in our village who isn’t circumcised. If you don’t do it, you’re ostracized.”

Ismail Berdiyev, the mufti of Russia's North Caucasus region of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, responded to the Justice Initiative’s report with the following statement: “All women should be circumcised, to prevent the debauchery we see in the West — to reduce [women's] sexuality.”

Human rights activists say female genital mutilation is a “savage and destructive” practice that “represents an extreme form of discrimination and violence” and violates women’s right to health and freedom from torture. After the Justice Initiative’s report, Russia’s Health Ministry denounced female circumcision as genital mutilation, and federal lawmakers drafted legislation that would have imposed criminal penalties as high as 10 years in prison for performing clitorectomies for religious reasons. The bill’s author, now former State Duma deputy Maria Maksakova, said at the time that Russia, as a secular state, would tolerate no “sacral cults” as an excuse for female circumcision. But the parliament hasn’t returned to the legislation since August 2016.

“You can’t call this procedure a medical operation — it’s a mutilation,” medical attorney and “Melegal” law firm director Alina Chimbireva told Meduza. “It has no medical purpose whatsoever. No medical clinic or self-respecting doctor would perform such a procedure. Without medical grounds, this can be considered religious circumcision. The Health Ministry’s nomenclature includes language about clitoral surgeries [and operations on the inner labia], but this refers to gynecological anomalies with medical grounds. Here we’re talking about barbaric purposes: to keep women from coming into contact with men.”

Best Clinic told Meduza that it does, in fact, offer clitorectomies. Then it deleted this information from its website.

On November 22, Best Clinic confirmed to Meduza that the center performs “female circumcisions.” A representative named Yulia (surname unknown) stated that a clitorectomy, together with anesthesia and a follow-up analysis, costs patients roughly 70,000 rubles ($1,040). Yulia also mentioned a special promotion: clitorectomy consultations for 1,760 rubles ($26), instead of the usual 2,190 rubles ($32). She then recommended signing up with a surgeon, adding that it would be possible to come to the clinic’s reception office immediately.

Best Clinic’s head doctor, Ganipat Gadzhieva, refused to speak to Meduza over the phone. When Meduza’s correspondent came in person to the clinic, Gadzhieva was not present in the building, but Lyubov Aksyonova, the center’s deputy general director, agreed to talk.

“Do you really perform clitorectomies here?”

“It’s, let’s say, a new direction. There are people who need this procedure. We’re responding to demand.”

“What people?”

“Basically, these are people of a certain faith that was formed for religious reasons.”

“Before November 19, your website said you perform this operation on girls between the ages of five and 12. Is that true?”

“No. Maybe [it said that]. Maybe our marketing department missed that. Naturally, anyone should make that decision for themselves. [The website’s editors] saw some article published somewhere else and just copy-pasted it without thinking.”

Meduza was unable to find Aksyonova’s “article published somewhere else.” The closest other text online appears to be a report available on the website of the radio station Govorit Moskva, which summarizes the findings of the Justice Initiative’s 2016 report, and features language about “girls between the ages of three and 12 being subjected to female circumcision.”

“Your website says no medical purpose is needed for this surgery — only religious grounds.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Are you aware that the U.N., the World Health Organization, and other groups consider this practice to be violence?”

“You’d agree that it would be my personal decision, if I wanted to enlarge my breasts? And it wouldn’t depend on the wishes of the U.N. What does this have to do with violence?”

Aksyonova was unable to say if the clinic had actually performed any clitorectomies. “We’ve had inquiries: people ask if we do it, saying they need it,” she explained. “One man asked about it for minors, and we said we don’t do that.”

After Meduza’s correspondent visited Best Clinic and spoke to Aksyonova, the webpage describing the center’s clitorectomy services suddenly disappeared from the clinic’s website.

Story by Daniil Turovsky, translation by Kevin Rothrock