I am a 47-year-old Egyptian woman. And I am among the fortunate few of my countrywomen whose genitals have not been cut in the name of “purity” and the control of our sexuality.
Egyptian government figures put the rate of female genital mutilation among women ages 15 to 49 at 91 percent. Among teenagers 15 to 17, it is 74 percent. Unicef estimates that of the 125 million women worldwide who have undergone genital cutting in the 29 countries where it is most prevalent — mostly in Africa and the Middle East — one in five lives in Egypt.
Other than the tireless Egyptian activists who for years have fought to eradicate it, very few talk about a practice that brings nothing but harm to so many girls and women. In her books, the feminist Nawal El Saadawi has long documented her own cutting at the age of 6 and her tenacious campaign against a practice that is carried out by both Muslims and Christians in Egypt. But why aren’t other prominent women speaking out by sharing their own experience of surviving genital cutting? The silence comes at a great cost.
Many international treaties designate female genital mutilation a violation of the human rights of girls and women. On Oct. 30, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, announced a global campaign to end it within a generation.
Egypt first banned the practice in 1959, and then permitted it again in some forms. When Egypt hosted the 1994 United Nations Population Conference, it was embarrassed by a CNN report that showed a cutting procedure, despite official claims that it was no longer practiced. The government then allowed “medical” genital cutting — in which the procedure is carried out in a medical environment or by a medical professional — until 2008, when a universal ban was imposed after a 12-year-old girl died the previous year during a procedure in a clinic.
Next week, in the first trial since that law was passed, the father of a 13-year-old girl, Soheir al-Batea — who died during the procedure after an allergic reaction to penicillin — and the doctor who performed the surgery will be sentenced on Nov. 20. It seems we pay attention only when female genital mutilation kills a girl. Otherwise, we quietly ignore it.
The practice is sometimes erroneously referred to as circumcision. According to the World Health Organization, it “comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons.” The procedure has no health benefits. We hack away at perfectly healthy parts of our girls’ genitals because we’re obsessed with female virginity and because women’s sexuality is a taboo. This cutting is believed to reduce a girl’s sex drive. And families believe their daughters are unmarriageable unless they are cut.
An Egyptian gynecologist I interviewed told me that all of her patients at a university hospital clinic were survivors of female genital mutilation; 70 percent of those at a private practice were. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the more educated a woman is, the less likely her daughters will be cut.
In a BBC report broadcast to coincide with the current trial in Egypt, a traditional midwife boasted that despite the ban, she had a waiting list of mothers who wanted their daughters to be cut. The Guardian reported that many in the village where Soheir al-Batea lived believed that genital cutting was prescribed by Islam. The grand mufti of Egypt pronounced it un-Islamic in 2007, but some local imams persist in attributing the practice to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. Across Africa, Christians and animists follow the custom as well.
The 2008 Egyptian ban, which imposes sentences of up to two years in prison or fines of up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds (about $700), has done little to curb the practice.
“Medicalized” cutting is at 77 percent — up from 55 percent 20 years ago. When I interviewed a 53-year-old survivor of the practice in Cairo for a BBC radio documentary about women in the Middle East, she told me, “It must be carried out, because that’s the way to maintain the purity of girls, to make sure that the girl is not out of control. We don’t care if it’s against the law or if they’re trying to stop it. We know doctors who are willing to continue and have done so.”
Laws are not enough. Countries that have succeeded in lowering the rate of female genital mutilation, like Senegal, have used varied methods: alternative rites of passage into womanhood, campaigns in which brides and bridegrooms state that they both reject the custom, and the involvement of clerics and priests. Higher education levels, family relocation to big cities and sometimes the death of the family patriarch can make a difference. Some of these factors helped my own extended family end the practice.
Mothers must not bear the blame alone. They subject their daughters to the same harm and pain that they themselves experienced because they understand what is required of their daughters in order to be married. Our society must learn to stop brutalizing girls in the name of controlling their sex drive.
We need nothing short of a recognition that ending female genital mutilation is part of the “social justice and human dignity” revolution that we began in Egypt in January 2011. We can better protect our girls when we recognize that those chants of our revolution are essentially demands for autonomy and consent — for all.
Mona Eltahawy is the author of a forthcoming book on the fight for gender equality in the Arab world.