CAIRO: A group of girls accompanied by their mothers sit in a small room on a regular sunny day, playing and laughing. A woman comes out from behind a curtain and beckons one of the girls, whose mom nudges forward. The girl smiles at the rest of the guests as she walks by and disappears behind the curtain with the woman.
Her mother looks anxious. The rest of the girls continue to play. Amina looks on in terror.
While the girls have no idea the fate about to befall them, Amina – like the rest of the mothers – knows exactly what’s in store. Amina hugs her own daughter tight as she remembers a similar day in her own life a long time ago.
At a young age, she too was brought to a crowded house, filled with giddy little girls playing with dolls and singing. Through a series of flashbacks, we see that Amina was also taken into a quiet, dreary room once as the ladies outside ululated and danced.
This is a day Amina could never forget – the day she was circumcised. And this is the most powerful scene in the short dramatic narrative “Tahara, written, produced and directed by Sara Rashad.
“Tahara, Arabic for circumcision, explores the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) through the eyes of Amina, a mother who struggles with the decision of whether or not to circumcise her own daughter, Suha, in keeping with tradition.
Amina, played by award-winning actress Caroleen Khalil, lives in Los Angeles and is pressured by her mother Zeinab to circumcise her daughter while the father is away on a business trip. Despite her strong objection to the practice and regardless of its illegality, Amina still finds herself compelled to put her daughter through the same brutal experience she once suffered through.
Her memory of that day in her life, the abandonment she felt and the psychological and physical affects she suffered afterwards encourage her to try and save her daughter from the same fate.
The film is a little over 17 minutes long, but manages to encapsulate and humanize the controversial issue of FGM and the uncertainty that comes with breaking away from the traditional practice.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt, Rashad said, “The film is set in the US, and this is done intentionally in order to globalize the issue. To break the stereotypes that it only happens in African countries.
“There’s a social stereotype that assumes only poor people circumcise their little girls. There’s also a religious stereotype – perpetuated by the media – that it is only practiced by Muslims.
“I wanted to change these widespread stereotypes; this is exactly what people get so defensive about.
A first generation Egyptian-American, Rashad’s started visiting Egypt at the age of 18 to meet her extended family and find her identity. What she found was an issue deep-rooted in traditions and beliefs, and this is when her activism against FGM began.
She initially made a five-minute film about FGM that screened in villages around the country. She spent several months traveling from Giza to Aswan, working with a national FGM task force comprised of 40 member organizations dedicated to eradicating the practice.
Copies of her five-minute film were distributed to and screened for women in rural villages. “Once I saw their response, I realized I had to make a longer version, said Rashad.
“When I screened the film to these women, I realized that a drama – and not a documentary – was the key to driving the message home. Storytelling is what reaches people.
“The point was to grab their attention without pointing a finger of blame, which is what some documentaries unintentionally end up doing, she said.
“The debate at the time was a lot similar to the one going on right now. At the time, the government had legalized FGM with the idea that it’s better to impose safety regulations on practicing physicians rather than have it conducted clandestinely and suffer the consequences of malpractice, which often results in fatal hemorrhaging.
“Basically, they tried to medicalize it, said Rashad, which was futile. In 1997, a little girl died after the surgery, prompting a public outcry. A decree was issued banning FGM, says Rashad, making it “so-called illegal.
Fast forward to the summer of 2007: The death of 10-year-old Bodour Shaker, who died in June while being circumcised in an illegal clinic, provokes the same reaction. Several such tragedies occurred this past summer, and were met with fury in the media, with officials, NGOs, Unicef, and even celebrities taking up the cause.
“We are now caught up in similar tragic stories of little girls who die after the surgery, and again it’s getting really political, said Rashad.
There is a lot of criticism, closed-mindedness and ignorance surrounding the issue, she said. “We need a national grassroots educational campaign against this practice, to promote positive social change. Public personalities have to condemn FGM. Religious leaders, the Ministry of Health, Muslims, Christians – everyone needs to come together.
Statistics show that 97 percent of Egyptian women aged 15-49, Christians and Muslims, have undergone FGM. This past July, health and religious authorities again issued a ban on the practice, but it is yet to be translated into law.
Minister of Health Hatem El-Gabali issued a decree fully criminalizing FGM with Unicef hailing the move as a step in the right direction. Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research issued a statement saying that FGM and cutting are harmful, have no basis in core Islamic law and should not be practiced. First Lady Suzanne Mubarak launched a national awareness raising campaign, calling for the amendment of existing child laws.
“Egypt is behind the times, other countries have made it illegal. Most African nations are in the process of making it illegal. When it becomes illegal, the practice goes underground, and this is where NGOs come in.
Rashad once met a group of 12-year-old girls in a Beni Suef village who started their own anti-FGM initiative. They were the first generation of girls in their village not to be circumcised, and they spoke out publicly against the practice. “This is the result of fieldwork and the efforts of NGOs. This is what comes of educating people and raising awareness about the harmful effects of FGM. In this village, people started to change their opinions on the issue.
Rashad has a masters in film production from the University of Southern California, and was involved in theater for 10 years. She has written, directed and produced several films, screening her works at festivals around the world.
“The reason I wanted to become a filmmaker was to dispel stereotypes perpetuated by the media.
Among the main awards she has won for “Tahara, in 2005 she was named Best Human Rights Director at the San Francisco Women’s Film Festival and Best Live Action Short in the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival.
Rashad says many of the women she spoke to during her work with NGOs look back at what they have been through in pain and regret doing the same to their daughters. “What we’re looking to do is turn people into positive deviants; we’re working on changing minds. This is not easy, but when the community as a whole gets involved in the process, it gets rid of the stigma.