Equality for women in Egypt is an open, far from resolved, issue. I am not talking about equal pay for equal work and I am not talking about corporate “glass ceilings.” Nor am I am talking about abortion, child care, or property rights, or access to political positions of power.
The most pressing issue facing womanhood in Egypt today is far less about basic legal equality and much more significantly about human rights.
This issue is at the very core of what it means to have personal control over one’s own bodily integrity and human sexuality.
The issue is female genital mutilation.
Let’s first be sure we understand it:
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an ancient cultural practice that predates both Christianity and Islam. It is not a religious precept of any religion although there is a persistent belief in the minds of millions that it is. Predominantly seen in Moslem communities it is also practiced by small communities of Eastern orthodox Christians, such as the Coptic Christian church (although not widely). Some African cultures practice FGM as a physical rite of passage without any pretense that it is a religious mandate (such as the Maasai). Although predominantly practiced throughout Africa and the Middle East, it has also known up in places as disparate as Indonesia, China, and Chechnya. Because of the widespread dislocation and migration of the many peoples who practice FGM, it is now showing up throughout Europe and the United States.
FGM comes in three basic forms, from the most extreme to the still extreme. It has been referred to as female circumcision but that is a gross misnomer and imparts on this practice a suggestion that it is the equal of male circumcision.
It is not.
If male circumcision were its equal then male circumcision would be (in its most benign form) the reduction or modification of the male penis in order to reduce or eliminate full sexual pleasure. In its most extreme form it is more the equivalent of castration with the exception that reproduction is still possible for a woman because the womb and other organs of reproduction are left intact.
The goal with FGM is not sterility but the mutilation of the external genitalia in order to diminish or erase the sexual drive in women. Some cultures also believe that the modification of the external genitalia is desirable aesthetically or justified under the grossly mistaken belief that is it best for hygienic and health reasons.
Female genital mutilation is an ancient form of social control — that is the bottom line. Whether it is done for quasi-religious/cultural reasons or purely cultural, the primary goal is to control female sexual behavior. FGM is a societal measure driven by a core belief that women cannot control their own sexual urges. Therefore, an “uncut” woman has the uncontrollable potential for disgracing her husband, family, and even ‘the wider community. Traditionally, this myth has been embraced by the women themselves as much as by the patriarchal system that dominates their lives. The belief is so deeply embedded in the communities that practice FGM that those who refuse to submit themselves or their daughters to this ritual have been shunned, beaten, and sometimes physically forced to submit.
The fact that FGM has been harder to erase than small pox speaks to more than merely culture, social control, and the difficult task of public education. In a very real sense it also speaks to the economic realities of female subsistence. In societies that have no pathways to any type of security other than marriage, women have little choice but to acquiesce. Uncut girls are not marriageable goods. Therefore, in the harsh reality of some communities, it is irresponsible to not cut one’s daughters. Failing to do so will condemn the girl to pariah-status and deny her any chance to participate as a respected member of that society. Very few women have been able to escape from these societies; the few who have, like Waris Dirie, are extraordinary exceptions.
Female genital mutilation in Egypt is endemic. As elsewhere, core assumptions about the value of women are at the very heart of the problem. Addressing a 2009 report on violent crimes against women, the Executive Director of The Land Center for Human Rights publicly admitted too many Egyptians still believe “women are fundamentally lacking…. They are not complete, because they are not men.” This statement was made in March 2010.
Statistics compiled by UNICEF for the years 1997 to 2007 show that 96 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced some form of female genital mutilation (FGM). In order to address FGM, as well as the many other gender issues impacting women in Egypt, many governmental and non-governmental organizations such as the Land Center for Human Rights, the courts, and the Ministry of Health have worked together to put new laws into effect that will protect and empower women. One of the most prominent of these has been The National Council of Women (NCW) which is a governmental organization that was headed by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. The NCW works on women’s social, political and economic empowerment in general and has successfully helped tackle two significant issues: raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years and criminalizing FGM. The Mubarak government, for all of its flaws and corruption, was in several ways far ahead of other countries in the region.
Here is a synopsis about the Mubarak government’s attempt to eradicate FGM in Egypt:
The modern Egyptian Penal Code had provisions against “wounding” and “intentional infliction of harm leading to death,” as well as a ministerial decree prohibiting FGM, but neither the law nor decree had any teeth.
In December 1997, the Court of Cassation (Egypt’s highest appeals court) upheld a government ban of the practice after Egyptian citizens fought to have the ban declared illegal. The Court upheld the government ban and actually gave it more legal muscle by stating that those who continued the practice would be subjected to criminal and administrative sanctions.
Nonetheless, the ban on FGM continued to be widely ignored by the general public and a study taken in 2000 found that 97% of the country’s population continued to support the practice and believed the government had no right to ban it. This study included Christians as well as Moslems.
Seven years later, in 2007, in an effort to try yet another way to eradicate the practice Egypt’s Ministry of Health and Population took the matter under its wing as a public health issue rather than merely as a legal one. The Ministry identified and eliminated a loophole that allowed girls to undergo the procedure for alleged “health reasons” in physician offices and hospitals and reiterated there were absolutely no medical benefits to the procedure but that, in fact, it was a great medical harm. They further stated physicians who performed the practice were breaking the law.
Suzanne Mubarak threw her considerable political weight, international stature, and personal charm into the government’s widespread effort to educate people about the serious long term medical, psychological, and even social ramifications of this horrific practice. This was not an easy public position for her to take and certainly challenged any sense of decorum about what should be openly discussed by well-bred First Ladies. It may also speak volumes about her husband, his opinion on the subject, and his willingness to allow his wife to get out front about the problem. Although widely practiced, FGM is not something openly or easily discussed in mixed company. In some circles, open discussion is considered highly offensive, even taboo. Mrs. Mubarak’s public stand might legitimately be viewed as rather heroic.
The Egyptian people greatly respected Mrs. Mubarak for her dedication to the health and welfare of children, as well as her efforts to promote literacy, and her international recognition in these efforts was also a source of pride. Nonetheless, her hard work to eradicate FGM was not equally appreciated. Nor, it should be said, were the efforts of the many other people who also worked to eradicate this dreadful custom.
In 2008 a 12-year-old died as a result of the procedure and the government again stepped up prosecution and increased criminal penalties. Religious leaders were asked to get on board and the Grand Mufti of Egypt and the head of the Coptic Christian Church issued statements that FGM was not mandated by either faith and was not mentioned in either the Koran or Bible. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced the practice.
However, since the practice has always been one that was more cultural than religious, these pronouncements by Islamic and Christian leaders didn’t produce their intended effect and the practice continued to be surprisingly widespread. This is not to say that the aggressive government campaign to end FGM met no success; there were a few villages that publicly announced their residents would no longer practice FGM. There has been some debate about the truth of these announcements; some people have wondered if these villages didn’t make these announcements to please the government, without any serious commitment to maintain their pledges.
The practice is as common in Cairo as the outlying towns and villages. In fact, I first learned about FGM approximately ten years ago when a BBC or CNN reporter and his cameraman managed to get invited to a family party that was a celebration of a young girl’s “rite of passage” — the occasion of her being genitally mutilated. The party was unobtrusively filmed. It was very much like any home movie.
From all appearances it looked like a typical middle-class home and a typical middle-class birthday party for a girl who was about 10 years old. It was no mud hut, that’s for sure. The kitchen table was overflowing with food, streamers hung from the ceiling, and prettily wrapped presents that were gifts to the child stood in a corner. The home was crowded with happy friends and relatives.
The women looked very Westernized. They dressed like European or American women and I didn’t see a burka or head scarf anywhere in the crowd. The men looked reasonably prosperous. It could have been a party in Athens or Rome. At a certain point a number of women took the child into a bedroom and while she was being mutilated the party continued unabated. The reporter and cameraman stayed with the rest of the revelers.
This happened in a middle-class home in Cairo not a mud hut in some godforsaken village still in the Stone Age.
When the story broke (and this was about ten yrs. ago) all hell broke loose and the reporter fled the country; he refused to turn over the film to the Egyptian police. Mubarak’s government was embarrassed by this incident because it demonstrated how brazenly the people continued to practice FGM in clear contempt of the government ban.
I don’t remember who actually performed that barbaric ritual on the child or if it was ever explained in that film if it was a medical professional or not. Some well-to-do families have “medicalized” it in order to make it “safer.” In those cases, it will be done at the hands of a physician or trained nurse despite the Health Ministry’s condemnation and the criminal charges that could ensue.
Medical professionals often rationalize their actions and argue that if they don’t perform the ritual (I refuse to dignify it by calling it a “surgery”) then someone without adequate medical training will. Their logic is flawed because no matter how they may look at it their own complicity lends credence and respectability to the procedure and does much to fortify the community’s false belief that it is a “benefit” and not a “harm.” This cannot be overstated: physicians who perform this procedure send a powerful contradictory message negating the validity of the government’s message that female genital mutilation is a physical and psychic mutilation that haunts its victims throughout their whole lives.
Among other health problems, FGM causes severe complications in pregnancy, higher infant mortality rates, and has been cited as a significant factor in the spread of HIV. From a very utilitarian viewpoint, FGM also diminishes a woman’s ability to contribute to the economy and shortens her lifespan. Female labor in third world agrarian economies is an important lynchpin in the total economic health of a community. The days, months, and years of severe illness caused by this procedure seriously impact local economies.
Egypt now faces a major reconstruction of its government, must address an economy in crisis, and meet the many other demanding challenges of a nation anywhere, especially one in the political crucible of the Middle East. My hope is that it will not abandon the previous government’s campaign to eradicate FGM. A twenty year government sponsored campaign run by a dictatorial government could not. One wonders whether a post-Mubarak nation will be more successful.