Egypt – Continuing Challenge of Female Genital Mutilation - FGM
Mona Eltahawy - Dec. 23, 2014
Perfectly healthy parts of, sadly, many girls' genitals are still mutilated/cut by FGM because of obsession with female virginity.
Egyptian government figures put the rate of female genital mutilation among women ages 15 to 49 at 91 per cent. Among teenagers 15 to 17, it is 74 per cent. Unicef estimates that of the 125 million women worldwide who have undergone genital cutting in the 29 countries where it is most prevalent – mostly in Africa and the Middle East – one in five lives in Egypt.
I am a 47-year-old Egyptian woman. And I am among the fortunate
few of my countrywomen whose genitals have not been cut in the name of “purity”
and the control of our sexuality.
Other than the tireless Egyptian activists who for years have fought to eradicate it, very few talk about a practice that brings nothing but harm to so many girls and women. In her books, the feminist Nawal El Saadawi has long documented her own cutting at the age of 6 and her tenacious campaign against a practice that is carried out by both Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
But why aren’t other prominent women speaking out by sharing their own experience of surviving genital cutting? The silence comes at a great cost.
Many international treaties designate female genital mutilation a violation of the human rights of girls and women. On October 30, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, announced a global campaign to end it within a generation.
Egypt first banned the practice in 1959, and then permitted it again in some forms. When Egypt hosted the 1994 United Nations Population Conference, it was embarrassed by a CNN report that showed a cutting procedure, despite official claims that it was no longer practiced.
The government then allowed “medical” genital cutting – in which
the procedure is carried out in a medical environment or by a medical
professional – until 2008, when a universal ban was imposed after a 12-year-old
girl died the previous year during a procedure in a clinic.
The practice is sometimes erroneously referred to as circumcision. According to the World Health Organisation, it “comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons.”
The procedure has no health benefits. We hack away at perfectly healthy parts of our girls’ genitals because we’re obsessed with female virginity and because women’s sexuality is a taboo. This cutting is believed to reduce a girl’s sex drive. And families believe their daughters are unmarriageable unless they are cut.
In a BBC report broadcast to coincide with the current trial in Egypt, a traditional midwife boasted that despite the ban, she had a waiting list of mothers who wanted their daughters to be cut. The Guardian reported that many in the village where Soheir al-Batea lived believed that genital cutting was prescribed by Islam.
The grand mufti of Egypt pronounced it un-Islamic in 2007, but some local imams persist in attributing the practice to a saying of the Prophet Mohammad. Across Africa, Christians and animists follow the custom as well.
The 2008 Egyptian ban, which imposes sentences of up to two years in prison or fines of up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds (about $700), has done little to curb the practice.
“Medicalised” cutting is at 77 per cent – up from 55 per cent 20 years ago.
When I interviewed a 53-year-old survivor of the practice in Cairo for a BBC radio documentary about women in the Middle East, she told me, “It must be carried out, because that’s the way to maintain the purity of girls, to make sure that the girl is not out of control. We don’t care if it’s against the law or if they’re trying to stop it. We know doctors who are willing to continue and have done so.”
Laws not enough
Laws are not enough. Countries that have succeeded in lowering the rate of female genital mutilation, like Senegal, have used varied methods: alternative rites of passage into womanhood, campaigns in which brides and bridegrooms state that they both reject the custom, and the involvement of clerics and priests.
Higher education levels, family relocation to big cities and sometimes the death of the family patriarch can make a difference. Some of these factors helped my own extended family end the practice. Mothers must not bear the blame alone.
They subject their daughters to the same harm and pain that they themselves experienced because they understand what is required of their daughters in order to be married. Our society must learn to stop brutalising girls in the name of controlling their sex drive.
We need nothing short of a recognition that ending female genital mutilation is part of the “social justice and human dignity” revolution that we began in Egypt in January 2011. We can better protect our girls when we recognise that those chants of our revolution are essentially demands for autonomy and consent – for all.