Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Female Genital Cutting or Female Circumcision involves the “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.” This debate has reached center-stage in Egypt when recently a 13-year old girl died as a result of surgeries performed to “preserve chastity and honor.”
The irony of the whole matter is that as the NY Times report points out, the outrage was not over the fact that this poor girl died, but the fact that the “government shut down the clinic,” which seems to have stirred up a national debate even in one of the most repressive societies in the world. They will not stop us,” shouted Saad Yehia, a tea shop owner along the main street. “We support circumcision!” he shouted over and over. Even if the state doesn’t like it, we will circumcise the girls,” shouted Fahmy Ezzeddin Shaweesh, an elder in the village?
Though Egypt’s Health Ministry ordered an end to the practice in 1996, it allowed exceptions in cases of emergency, a loophole critics describe as so wide that it effectively rendered the ban meaningless. But now the government is trying to force a comprehensive ban. Egypt’s grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, declared it haram, or prohibited by Islam; Egypt’s highest religious official, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, called it harmful; television advertisements have been shown on state channels to discourage it; and a national hot line was set up to answer the public’s questions about genital cutting.
But as the men in this village demonstrated, widespread social change in Egypt comes slowly. This country is conservative, religious and, for many, guided largely by traditions, even when those traditions do not adhere to the tenets of their faith, be it Christianity or Islam. For centuries Egyptian girls, usually between the ages of 7 and 13, have been taken to have the procedure done, sometimes by a doctor, sometimes by a barber or whoever else in the village would do it. As recently as 2005, a government health survey showed that 96 percent of the thousands of married, divorced or widowed women interviewed said they had undergone the procedure – a figure that astounds even many Egyptians. In the language of the survey, “The practice of female circumcision is virtually universal among women of reproductive age in Egypt.” Though the practice is common and increasingly contentious throughout sub-Saharan Africa, among Arab states the only other place where this practice is customary is in southern Yemen, experts here said. In Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive, cannot vote, cannot hold most jobs, the practice is viewed as abhorrent, a reflection of pre-Islamic traditions.
Even the religious ministry, various other local agencies, and the wife of Egyptian President Suzzane Mubarak are attempting to produce change. But this change has been very slow, little too slow for the 13-year old girl who died cruelly during this unnecessary procedure. So, the question before us is how do we bring about change in a society that is deeply resistant to altering its cultural practices? How do we persuade people who take daughters to the local barber for this procedure to understand that it does not in anyway enhance a person’s dignity, virtue, or beauty? How do we make these stupid men who insist on this procedure prior to marriage understand that FGM will not enhance their manliness or keep their fragile egos intact and that they cannot rely on religion to justify these cruel acts? When should international human rights regimes step-in? What constructive role can the international norms and actors play? It is clear that we cannot go marching into other countries and engage in name-calling or simply ban these practices without sufficient ground-work or sustained implementation efforts.