It’s far from an ideal solution but one has to start somewhere.
Last month 12 year-old Bodour Shaker died while undergoing a routine cliterodectomy at a private clinic in Minya, in Upper Egypt. Her death led to a new ban on the procedure, forbidding all medical personnel from any involvement.
Theoretically, those are two words that have no business being part of the same sentence; “routine and “cliterodectomy. Otherwise known as female circumcision or, more aptly, female genital mutilation (FGM), cliterodectomy involves the removal of part or all of a girl’s external sexual organs, like the clitoris and labia. It has been banned in Egypt, in one form or another, for over 50 years.
However, it’s been practiced in Egypt for thousands of years so it’s rooted in our culture like some malignant weed. And it will take more than a government ban to uproot it.
FGM is practiced throughout Egypt, in Sudan, in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Morocco and Yemen. It is largely unknown in other Arab or Asian Muslim countries.
To say that FGM is a common practice in Egypt is to understate the issue – a 2003 Unicef survey found that a horrifying 97 percent of married women had been circumcised. Apart from the psychological trauma that a child will go through after having part of her body sliced off, FGM sets up a host of problems that may haunt the girl through the rest of her life.
There is a popular misconception that the removal of the sex organs helps girls retain their ‘purity’ and is therefore necessary to preserve their chastity and the family honor. Unfortunately, the removal of the sex organs doesn’t necessarily remove the desire to have sex, it merely guarantees that the chances of a woman’s having a normal sex life are minimal.
This often leads to marital problems – women cannot enjoy sex, their husbands believe that their wives are sexually unresponsive and may divorce them in an attempt to find a wife who’s more sexually compatible. Since the vast majority of women in Egypt have been circumcised, there is an excellent chance of repeating the whole sorry mess. It’s a vicious circle. And if the couple can overlook the sexual problems or has been lucky enough to escape them, there are other dangers. Since the operation is often done by amateur hacks like midwives or barbers, it can lead to a host of infections and other complications, including possible sterility.
Few people realize that the procedure was first banned in Egypt in the 1950s. However, it forced its way onto the national and international stage after a frighteningly graphic CNN story showed a young girl being held down and circumcised by the local barber. More damningly, the story was aired while Egypt was hosting the World Population Council conference with thousands of international delegates attending. The government was embarrassed enough to issue a new ban, saying that only qualified medical personnel could perform it. In many ways, it was significantly more astute than the latest ban, which forbids medical personnel from performing it.
This latest ban is likely to be as ineffective as the ones before but more dangerous to the girls’ health.
There appears to be an impression in Egypt that merely passing an edict, or even a law, will be enough to bring about a desired state of affairs. This is difficult enough when the situation involves legislation on matters like finance or real estate. However, when one is dealing with a deep-seated cultural bias, as with matters concerning say, women’s rights or FGM, matters need to be handled with significantly more delicacy and thought.
FGM has been perpetuated by thousands of years of culture, practice and the lack of any solid religious edicts banning it. It is only recently that the Mufti passed a fatwa declaring it to be haram – before this, Al-Azhar’s position had been oddly noncommittal. One might speculate that the institution did not want to handle an issue perceived by the vast majority of the population as a moral one. Be that as it may, the fatwa was finally announced.
However, both Muslims and Christians circumcise their girls so the issue is clearly a cultural one. Nor are they going to stop simply because the government says they should. In fact, this latest ban will merely push parents into the arms of those unqualified practitioners like midwives and barbers. Such people are doubly dangerous; they have slightly more skill than the local butcher and much the same sense of hygiene. The operation is often performed under conditions more suited to a cheap horror film than an actual medical procedure.
However, they are also dangerous because, especially in rural areas, they have a particular social standing. Midwives have access to every home in the village and they are often older women who set and maintain peer standards. When the government wants to initiate a national campaign, for example, on family planning, the local midwife must be brought on board if you want the women of the village to listen. And the local barber is often trusted with minor medical procedures and has often acquired a bogus and therefore highly dangerous medical standing. For both these professions, FGM represents a lucrative source of income; the operation can cost anywhere from LE 20 to LE 50. There is no reason for them to argue against it.
This latest edict bans any medical professional from performing this procedure. In effect, it hands the entire market over to the midwives and barbers. One obstetrician recently told me that many doctors performed a minor version of the procedure, some merely nicking the labia. In this way, he said, the girl was spared and her parents satisfied. While this might be a rosy view of matters, at least the procedure was performed under sterile conditions.
Bodour apparently died of an anesthetic overdose, which might have happened during an appendectomy. Her death was caused by an apparently negligent doctor who allegedly tried to bribe her parents into remaining silent; the girl’s mother, Zainab Abd El-Ghani, told the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that the doctor offered them LE 3,000 to keep their mouths shut.
To make matters perfectly clear, this is not an attempt to claim that FGM would be an acceptable practice if only it were performed under sterile conditions. It’s a vile evil that is perpetuated through ignorance and fear and it must be stamped out.
However, it’s a mistake to think that it will cease just because someone says it has to. FGM is a misguided attempt to protect family honor. Girls who ‘dishonor’ the family are still murdered in many parts of Egypt. The lives of the girls, then, are not as important as the protection of the family honor. Families in Upper Egypt continue with vendettas, burying one slaughtered male family member after another without ever informing the police, although they know the identity of the murderer. Family honor requires that the murderer be killed in return. It’s a bizarre social obligation and it has not ground to a halt merely because it’s illegal.
Weeds are not destroyed by pulling off the surface leaves. They must be torn out by the roots. There needs to be a massive campaign involving the government, NGOs, the Church and Al-Azhar. Parents need to understand that far from ensuring chastity, this is a barbaric custom that predates all religion and ensures nothing but misery. Attitudes are slow to change and parents must be aware of the dangers to their children and of the futility of the procedure. There has already been some movement on this – Secretary General of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, Mushira Khattab told NPR that the circumcision rate had dropped almost 20 percent, with victims currently measuring “in the seventies percent.
In a way, the death of the little girl gave impetus to those crying out for an end to the practice. Her death should not be in vain; constructive measures need to start immediately. Perhaps there is some way to bring midwives and barbers into the fold by introducing either incentives or strict punishments, or both. The ban eventually ne
eds to become actual legislation with a prison sentence involved. Most importantly, parents need to be informed that behavior is a matter of upbringing and not biology and that honor can only be maintained through purity of mind, rather than body.
Mirette F. Mabroukis the former publisher of The Daily Star Egypt.