by Manar Ammar
“I was weeping and called on my mother for help, but the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. It was her, yes. I could not be mistaken, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them as though they had not just participated in slaughtering her own daughter just a few minutes ago,” writes Nawal al-Sa’dawi - the influential Egyptian feminist, novelist, physician and international speaker on women issues - in her book The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World.
Sa’dawi was describing her own very real, very horrific experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) or circumcision. The ancient practice is forced on over 140 million women around the world, most notably in Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia, according to UNICEF. FGM aims to keep girls ‘pure’ and to take away their ability to enjoy their own body, all in the name of virtue.
“When I returned home after having recovered from the operation, I asked my classmates and friends about what had happened to me, only to discover that all of them, without exception, had been through the same experience, no matter what social class they came from,” Sa’dawi recalls.
The New Women Foundation in Egypt put the number of women who go through FGM to be around 86 percent, while government statistics, as recent as 2008, claim nearly 91 percent of women have undergone the procedure. Current Egyptian law bans the practice of FGM and gives prison sentences to any medical staff who performs the surgery. However, many families still go to underground clinics for their daughters to have the procedure, risking permanent scars and even death.
“Why would anyone do that?” said Noha Yacoup, an activist and artist.
“Is it to further control and repress women?” Yacoup asks. “Not only are women treated as sex objects…and not worthy of independence, but to also rid a woman of her God-given sexual libido to make sure that she won't sleep around?”
Yacoup, who was protesting in Tahrir Square during the 18-day revolution that brought an end to 30 years of tyranny, says she has not undergone FGM nor have any of her close friends. She notes that FGM is not often discussed. “Obviously it's no topic for small talk.”
In June 2007 the news of 12-year-old Badour Shakour, who died on the operating table, shocked the nation. She was being circumcised and was given an extra dose of anesthesia and never woke up again. The nation was faced with the fact that no matter how strong our legal penalties are, it is up to families to grasp the inhumanity of the practice.
Shakour’s cause of death was an overdose of anesthetic, but her memory was the cause of an awakening that reached to the upper echelons of government.
The young girl’s death drove Egyptian activists to intensify the campaign against FGM. Women and children’s rights groups galvanized to push for more stringent penalties against those who carry out female genital mutilation.
In the summer of 2008, Egypt’s Parliament passed a law that ostensibly bans the controversial procedure. Not that it should have needed to legislate against FGM – it was already officially banned in the country during the mid-nineties – but with doctors continuing to perform the procedure on girls as young as five, Parliament felt it was necessary to intercede.
Yet the battle seems far from over.
The new Egypt - the proud country whose women and men brought down the old regime, jailed its dictator, and continues to campaign for rights – could see a return to the legalization of female genital mutilation. Egyptian women are anxious that statements and actions by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the now dissolved parliament, still have much political weight in the country.
In early May, women’s advocates’ fears increased when reports that the Brotherhood were employing mobile clinics to advise women on the importance of FGM for their daughters in the Minya governorate, an administrative division nearly 150 miles south of Cairo. News of the mobile convoys were first reported and circulated on local news websites and social networking websites, including Facebook and Twitter. The convoys were reportedly organized by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood - to promote circumcision among girls in Minya.
Human rights groups and women’s organizations lashed out at the Islamic group, submitting legal cases against the organization to the Attorney General’s office. They called on the prosecutor to investigate the complaints from Minya. Yet despite the request from the newly re-established National Council for Women (NCW), the prosecutor’s office has not moved, and as Egypt’s future remains uncertain, women’s rights are again under threat.
Mervat Tallawy, head of the NCW, held a meeting with the governor of Minya shortly after the reports went public. Tallawy called on the governor to combat such operations, and to “coordinate with the council on any issue related to women.” The Council said it would not stand silent and will “combat these calls, which is an affront to Egyptian women, especially since the law criminalizes this act.”
Tension over FGM in Egypt began in February when Azza al-Garf, a then Freedom and Justice Party member of Parliament, called for the legalization of FGM. On her personal Twitter account, the MP called for lifting the laws that criminalize FGM. She added that it was the ‘Islamic’ thing to do to protect one’s daughter’s ‘honor.’ The statements stirred criticism, and worried women’s rights advocates in the country.
Garf’s statement brought a flurry of action from local rights groups, including the New Women Foundation, who wrote in an open letter to the speaker, “We are on our way to sue Garf to preserve our rights and the gains of Egyptian women. We are suing her for going against Egyptian laws that criminalize sexual harassment and FGM, practices that go against women rights and human rights. We completely refuse Garf’s statements and announce that she does not represent us.”
Egyptian law stipulates a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (USD 164) to 5,000 Egyptian pounds (USD 822) and a prison term of anywhere between three months and two years if caught performing FGM. Doctors can also lose their medical license. In the case of Shakour, the doctor who performed the procedure languishes in prison after being convicted of manslaughter.
“Now we know where our tragedy lies. We were born of a special sex, the female sex. We are destined to taste misery, and to have a part of our body torn away by cold unfeeling cruel hands,” writes Sa’dawi.
About the Author:
Manar Ammar is an Egyptian journalist who was born and raised in Cairo. She studied fine arts at Helwan University in Cairo and independent film making in Chicago, Illinois. Manar's work has appeared in the Daily News Egypt, All Headline News (AHN), Al Helwa Weekly, Women News Network (WNN) and Bikya Masr. Her writing and reporting focuses on politics and women's issues in the MENA region (Middle east and North Africa). Other than traveling the world, Manar dreams of retiring in a small European village - with no internet - by the age of 40.