“I will never forget that day until the day I die. I was a little girl, lying snugly in my bed as dawn broke, when my mother and aunts suddenly woke me and got me out of bed. They took me
The cruellest cut
“I will never forget that day until the day I die. I was a little girl, lying snugly in my bed as dawn broke, when my mother and aunts suddenly woke me and got me out of bed. They took me into another room where I saw the village midwife. They held me firmly and stripped me, and the midwife began to cut up parts of my body with a knife. I will never forget my terrified screams. I screamed until I fainted from the pain. The pain lasted for two weeks, especially during micturition when it became excruciating. Today I am a woman; the physical pain ceased long ago but the pain inside me can never go away. Had I been so savagely punished because I was a girl? Now my husband complains that I am frigid, but he knows nothing of my emotions that can never be fulfilled.”
The young Upper Egyptian woman who described these events of her circumcision did not wish to reveal her name. The story is typical. Girls are circumcised before they reach puberty, without anesthesia, mostly by midwives. The common belief is that circumcision will guarantee a woman’s chastity, but medical opinion refutes the idea. Since sexual desire emerges from the brain, the mutilation of parts of the outer reproductive organs only serves to deprive the woman from a fulfilling relation, not to keep her chaste.
The procedure as such carries severe health hazards that may end in fatality. Following several deaths in 2008, a law was finally enacted in Egypt criminalising the practice. Yet Islamists in parliament are now calling for this law to be annulled. Earlier this month, news circulated in the Egyptian media that the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood group, had dispatched ‘medical convoys’ to towns and villages in Minya, Upper Egypt, to circumcise girls.
Diaa’ al-Mughazi of the FJP in Minya denied the story and accused the media of distorting the party’s image by circulating “hearsay”.
However Amna Nusseir, an Islamic scholar and a member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), said the source of the story was Mervat al-Talawi, secretary-general of the National Council for Women (NCW), who was in Minya at the time and saw the convoys for herself. She called the governor who immediately called the police and stopped them; so it is no good denying it, Ms Nusseir says.
Ms Talawi said female circumcision operations are still legally prohibited. She added that the council would deal strictly with any complaints related to the case, and the authorities would be informed immediately. “This is exactly what happened when we received a complaint that there was a flyer circulated by the FJP urging families to circumcise their girls. We called the governor and the deputy minister of health to take the necessary action.
“These people should be sentenced, whoever they are or whatever their rank. In 2008, parliament passed a law that criminalised FGM except in ‘special cases’. The law states that whoever circumcises a girl will be sentenced to three months to two years in prison and will be fined EGP1,000 to EGP5,000”, said Nasser Amin, member of the NCHR.
Old customs die hard, however. Bekheita Mohamed, who comes from Upper Egypt, believes that circumcision protects girls from wayward desires. “It is part of our customs and traditions and we should maintain it,” she says. “I circumcised all my daughters, and now they are married and have children. A girl who is not circumcised is a shame to her family.”
“Female circumcision is a dogma in Upper Egypt”, says Mohamed Younis, a neighbour of Bekheita’s. “All respectable families who keep their customs and traditions circumcise their girls regardless of all laws that criminalise FGM. But if there are parents who believe that it will badly affect the health of their daughters, they don’t have to do it. In all cases, the law that criminalises FGM should be cancelled and these kinds of operations should be done legally by doctors in hospital under safe medical conditions.”
This, incidentally, is what many Islamists are calling for. Yet it does not have to be that way. Almost a decade ago, one village in Minya, Deir al-Barsha, took a collective communal decision to abolish the practice of female circumcision. The move was a huge success because the decision was communal; it was sponsored by the Church in the predominantly Coptic village, and no single family felt it was going against the general tide by taking an ‘eccentric’ decision on its own.
The same decision was taken some two years later by another village in Aswan, also predominantly Coptic.
In many other places in rural Egypt, NGOs have been active trying to educate people on the hazards and futility of FGM in efforts to change the predominant folk culture.
Statistics reveal that 90 per cent of Muslim families versus 47 per cent of Copts practice FGM. FGM victims are between the ages of five and 10 years, and usually have the operation during school and feast holidays.
Bishop of Youth Anba Moussa says that female circumcision was not mentioned in the Holy Bible but is an ancient custom aimed at preserving the chastity of girls. However, such a concept contradicts the concept of virtue in Christianity, which can never be attained by suppressing the body but only by good education and spiritual strength.
As for Islam, the supreme legislation committee, Dar al-Iftaa’, which issues Islamic legal opinions, says female circumcision “in the current way” is a tradition that is legally prohibited. It has certainly been proved to cause serious physical and psychological harm to girls. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti, issued an official statement in which he criticised FGM and said it was “a tradition that has nothing to do with Islam”.
15 June 2012