The recent death of the 12-year-old Soheir Muhammad Ibrahim from the east Delta village of Manshiyat al-Ikhwa owing to a circumcision operation gone awry had Egyptians in shock and bewilderment. Egyptian law bans female circumcision
, even though Islamists have been vociferously calling for a legal return for the practice.
Watani offers its readers an analysis of the erroneous myth that female circumcision is an ancient Egyptian legacy.
In an article published in the July-December 2008 issue of the magazine Al-Funoun
Al-Shaabiya (Folk Arts), Safaa’ Abdel-Moneim interviewed a woman named Hajja Fatma (Hajja denotes a female Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and is often also used as a mark of respect when addressing an older women). Hajja Fatma, who lived in the south of Egypt, remarked in the interview that female circumcision was practiced in her village as an Egyptian custom that dated back to Pharaonic times.
If this was the opinion of Hajja Fatma who has no knowledge of history; was it also the opinion of her interviewer? And if this was not her opinion, why did she not comment? Does her silence mean that she agrees with Hajja Fatma? Is the journalist or researcher’s role limited to writing an interview as it is, even if it contradicts historical facts? Or is it his or her duty to use ‘open brackets’ to cite the facts?
What Hajja Fatma said supports a widespread culture of scientific misinformation, and reveals a general lack of awareness on ancient Egypt. Regrettably, prominent writers and scholars have fallen into the same trap, including Professor Ahmed Shawqy al-Fangary who mentioned in his book Mafaheem Khati’a Tu’akhir al-Muslimeen (Misconceptions that Hold Muslims Back) that female circumcision in Egypt was a Pharaonic custom.
I thought that the issue of female circumcision in ancient Egypt was closed, since when it initially came up years ago Egyptologists proved through archaeology and papyrus documentation that the ancient Egyptians did not know the savage custom of circumcising girls. Dozens of wall paintings exist that depict male circumcision in ancient Egypt, such as the paintings on tombs in Saqqara and Giza. Yet not a single depiction of female circumcision has been found. If you think that there were no wall paintings of female circumcision because it is indecent, you might consider that there are several depictions of the naked female body, among them the daughters of Pharaoh Akhenaton and Queen Nefertiti who, like their mother, were always painted in transparent clothes. Female musicians and dancers were also shown naked, as were women undergoing surgery or giving birth while seated on the chair of Isis. There are also statuettes of Isis suckling her baby Horus.
If the wall paintings and papyri often portray situations of little importance, like a man and his wife eating a grilled goose, why did they not portray an important situation like female circumcision if it really existed?
If some people do not like to admit that they were wrong, the prominent intellectual and writer Husn Shah, who died in 2012 in her late seventies, was an exception. She courageously confessed that she had been mistaken when she wrote that female circumcision was a Pharaonic custom. This was on account of a letter she had received from Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Halim, professor of history and archaeology at Alexandria University, who wrote refuting the claim she had made and asking her to publish the correction in the following issue, which she did. Since Dr Abdel-Halim’s article is a seminal one and contains well-researchers proofs, I will reproduce it here:
“Dear Ms Husn Shah, kind greetings.
In your article about female circumcision published in ++Al-Akhbar++ on Friday 16 December 2005, you mentioned that it was a Pharaonic custom. This is a totally incorrect piece of information, and rather dangerous because your words carry credibility with your readers. So I kindly ask you to publish the evidence I will cite here to prove the falsity of this information.
First: although paintings of male circumcision are common in ancient Egyptian tombs (such as the tomb of AnkhMahor in Saqqara), not a single illustration of female circumcision has ever been found.
Second: although there are prescriptions in ancient Egyptian papyri for cures for wounds resulting from the male operation (such as prescription number 734 in the Ebers Papyrus), there is nothing similar for females.
Third: many female mummies have been checked, but no evidence was found that any of them was circumcised.
Fourth: the ancient Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt in the fifth century BC at a time when the pharaonic civilisation held great influence. Yet he did not mention anything about female circumcision, whereas he pointed to male circumcision in three topics in his book on Egypt; paragraphs number 36, 37 and 104.”
Dr Abdel-Halim continued:
“It was also mentioned in your article that this custom is African, which is absolutely correct. During the Roman occupation of Egypt, which began in 30BC, a long time or after the end of the Pharaonic era, Upper Egypt was invaded by an African nation which engaged in border skirmishes with the Romans. The capital of this kingdom was Meroe, close to the present-day town of Shendy. These Africans brought the custom of female circumcision to Egypt along with many other customs, and the proof is that the Roman historian Strabo, who lived in Egypt during the Roman occupation, mentioned that the custom entered Egypt during the Roman occupation. The proof that it is an African custom is that it is still practised in the regions of the Nile Basin. Female circumcision was practised in these regions in a much more savage way than it was practised in Egypt because the purpose of it was to guarantee complete virginity of the odalisque to increase her price. Accordingly, female circumcision is an African custom and has nothing to do with Pharaonic Egypt.”
Husn Shah commented on Professor Abdel-Moneim’s article:
“Dear Dr Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Halim, I was greatly pleased by your letter and the information it included. But what pleased me most was to know that our great ancestors never practised such a savage, harmful custom against women whom they placed in the noblest ranks. And I apologise for you and for the readers for this mistake I made according to incorrect information I read in the book Hadaret Khitan al-Inath (Civilisation of Female Circumcision).”
3 July 2013
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