Image courtesy of Aktion Mensch.
In Egypt, female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, was outlawed five years ago after a 12-year-old girl bled to death. However, this ban has done little to stop the widespread practice, and some conservative lawmakers are now pushing to make it legal again, to the despair of those fighting the centuries-old tradition.
Over 90 percent of all women of child-bearing age in Egypt have undergone female genital mutilation, or FGM, according to the 2008 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey. And despite educational campaigns, girls between 15 and 17 who underwent FGM only dropped from 77 percent to 74 percent between 2005 and 2008. In Egypt, FGM generally entails removing part of or the entire clitoris; in some cases, the labia may be removed, too. The procedure can take place anytime from infancy to early adolescence.
The revolution has not made matters easier for anti-FGM campaigners. Two-thirds of Egypt’s lower house of parliament is now controlled by Islamic parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the more hardline Salafis. Earlier this week, MP Nasser al-Shaker, of the Salafi-led Nour Party, defended FGM on a morning television show, arguing that it was mandated by Islam. He also pointed to former first lady Suzanne Mubarak’s efforts to eradicate the practice as all the more reason to repeal the ban. His comments immediately drew the ire of women’s rights groups.
A few weeks ago, a female member of parliament, Azza al-Garf, also called for the FGM ban to be repealed. Al-Garf is a member of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political branch. She too was chastised by women’s rights groups, one of which is now trying to sue her.
These controversies come on the heels of reports that the Muslim Brotherhood allegedly organised mobile caravans offering medical treatment – including female circumcision – in the region of Minya, in Upper Egypt. FRANCE 24 could not independently verify the veracity of these reports. The Muslim Brotherhood has denied this ever took place and stated that their organisation is officially against FGM.
“During the Egyptian revolution, we changed a whole political system, but deep-rooted beliefs are harder to change”
Nourhan Refaat, 22, lives in Cairo, where she works as a social media consultant. She is one of the hundreds who have signed a petition against female genital mutilation, addressed to the Egyptian parliament.
I was really shocked when I heard the news that members of parliament were calling for making FGM legal again, especially in the case of the woman MP. It is heartbreaking to see that politicians are still having such conversations today; it feels like Egypt is stagnating, and maybe even moving backwards, instead of moving forward.FGM is not a religious practice – it’s just a traditional one. Unfortunately, some members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis lacking religious knowledge try to make people think this practice is dictated by Islam, when many serious religious scholars agree that it is not, and it is not practiced in most Muslim countries. In fact, in Egypt, it is practiced by both Muslims and Christians.Younger Egyptians in their 20s and 30s, who are in the upper-middle class and educated, are completely against FGM. Personally, I’ve never met someone my age who is in favour of it. We speak freely about it, thanks to TV campaigns aired in the early 2000s that raised awareness of the issue and taught us to think about it critically. However, for the older generation, my parents’ generation, only a small fraction of them are against the idea. (Thankfully, my parents were among those.) Even well-educated people in the older generation did this to their daughters, because they thought that even if it was painful, it was better than taking the risk that their daughters might become sexually promiscuous before marriage.“It’s the basic right of every woman, when she gets married, to enjoy her sexual relationship”Of course, that’s ridiculous. The effects of FGM last a lifetime. I believe it’s the basic right of every woman, when she gets married, to enjoy her sexual relationship.Even though young people speak freely about their dislike of this tradition, women who have been circumcised don’t admit it. That’s just too personal, and for some of them just too traumatic.During the Egyptian revolution, we changed a whole political system, but deep-rooted beliefs are harder to change. I think it might take another generation before the practice is eradicated - that is, if extremists don’t gain more power and make our country slip backwards.
“The circumcision ban is totally ineffective”
Dr. Hussein Gohar is a gynaecologist. He heads the Gohar Women’s Health Center in Cairo.
I would probably put the percentage of circumcised women in Egypt well above 90 percent. However, because my clinic is in Cairo, where I deal mostly with upper-middle class women, much, much fewer of my clients are circumcised. Those who are, they’re usually from the older generation. Outside big cities, the practice is still rampant today.Unfortunately, the circumcision ban is totally ineffective. Many doctors throughout the country continue to circumcise girls in private clinics, behind closed doors. By law, they’re supposed to report parents who do this to their daughters, but if they believe in it too, why would they report it? They only report it in cases were the procedure goes seriously wrong, and then they have no choice.I was in a debate with an advocate of female circumcision on Egyptian television a while back. I told him, ‘If you want to cut off a girl’s clitoris, you should do the equivalent, and chop off your penis.’ In reality, removing any part of the genital system doesn’t decrease desire, as those who support the practice so often argue – if you cut off your tongue, you’d still like some soup, you just wouldn’t be able to eat it.“Even if they heal well, these girls are in for a lifetime of sexual dysfunction”Female circumcision brings with it serious psychological trauma. It’s very painful, and because the clitoris is close to an artery, it is possible to bleed to death. I’ve also treated women who develop cysts because of it. But even if they heal well, these girls are in for a lifetime of sexual dysfunction.Of course I’m worried that government representatives are even considering rolling back the ban, but the truth is that ban or no ban, I don’t think the law makes any difference. This fight will take place in villages, not in parliament. What’s really needed is much, much more education. And not just education on the part of activist, urban youth, who are preaching to the choir, or from secular doctors like me, but from religious organisations – moderate Muslims – who can explain to those who believe this is a religious practice that it is in fact just a tradition, a dangerous tradition that must end. Religious groups need to step up their game.