Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt: Negligible Tradition or Mass Rights Violation?

One day in June of 2013, a 13 year old Egyptian girl named Suhair al Bataa, nicknamed Soo-Soo, was led into a private clinic in the home of the local doctor, Raslan Fadl Halawa. In Suhair’s rural farming town, outside of Mansoura, ‘beneath the lush green landscape lies a bedrock of faith and tradition.’[1] In this landscape, an Egyptian male may live the simple, unassuming life of a pious farmer, yet an Egyptian woman can expect her concurrent existence in the same community to be quite different. Suhair al Bataa’s short life can attest to this reality most powerfully, principally because she has since died. Shortly after she was led into the home of this doctor, she was subjected to the outlawed procedure of female genital mutilation. Her cause of death was a ‘sharp drop in blood pressure resulting from shock trauma.’ [2] No matter how horrifying the result, this autopsy report is not shocking, if you understand the typical procedure of FGM; ‘anesthetics and antiseptic treatments are not generally used, and the practice is usually carried out using knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass or razor blades. Girls may be forcibly restrained.’ [3]

Image courtesy of Anmon Shavit © 2004

Image courtesy of Anmon Shavit © 2004

For those that do not understand the exact procedural aims or the intended result, it is predominantly carried out to, allegedly, curb the sexual desires of females and ensure premarital chastity by ‘the removal of the clitoris and labia minora and to a lesser extent slashing the labia majora when it is bulky and protruding’, and/or sewing the vagina shut save for a small hole for basic functions such as urinating. [4] The procedure is intended, among other reasons, to forcibly ensure that the girl is physically unable to engage in sexual intercourse before she is married or less likely due to a reduced libido (the former in the case of a full shutting of the vagina, the latter in the case of clitoris removal). [5] To emphasize the existence of these viewpoints, Suhair’s uncle admitted after being asked if it was right to subject Suhair to FGM, “Yes, of course. It has been done in the countryside for a long time. People here are used to it. Without circumcision, girls are full of lust.” [6]

The perpetuation of FGM lies in the traditional and religious perception that female chastity brings the family honor and dignity within the community. Yet, there are many factors that result in the persistence of this practice. There are the women that want to uphold community or religious custom and ensure their daughter is marriageable and she and the family are not ostracized. Furthermore, there are the men who want it for those same reasons, plus masculine empowerment, female docility, religious and community respectability, and because it is the norm. Then there are the doctors who often see it as ‘a useful source for extra income.’ [7] And they are of course not immune to cultural influence. For example, a doctor named Ahmed Almashady in northern Egypt told the Guardian in 2014, ‘it gives the girl more dignity to remove it. If your nails are dirty, don’t you cut them?’[8] Additionally, there is the varied support of religious leaders and cultural leaders, and the Egyptian government itself did not outlaw it until 2008.

In Egypt, over 90% of women under 50 have experienced FGM. [9] As Jaime Nadal, the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) representative in Cairo, says, the rate is so high, that “if we were able to eradicate FGM in Egypt, we could get rid of one-fourth of the cases worldwide”.[10] The numbers are alarming, but most disturbing are the health issues that result: as in Suhair’s case, shock is one of the main immediate effects of the procedure, along with severe pain, bleeding, infections, inability to urinate, injury to vulva tissue, damage to nearby organs, and possibly death. Yet, the long-term risks and consequences cannot be reconciled by time and the frailty of human memory. These include chronic infections, abnormal periods, difficulty passing urine, kidney impairment or failure, infertility, pain during intercourse, and psychological damage including low libido, depression, and anxiety. [11] Yet, the full social and psychological extent of these consequences of mutilating the genitals of female children have yet to be evaluated. Preliminary evidence, however, suggests that the psychological consequences of female genital mutilation is very similar to that of rape victims.’[12]

So, the big question is what is being done and what can be done? The existence of this practice transcends specific cultures, religions, and geographic regions. Egypt is just one of many, predominantly African and Middle Eastern, countries that practice FGM. But because tradition and religion are ingrained far deeper in community values than governmental ruling, force might push it underground, causing a further health risk to the young girls. It is the collective perspective that must change, along with educative understanding of the true suffering it causes. Some people argue that being against FGM often represents an imposition of western ideals on eastern customs, and that elective plastic surgery functions within the same role and mentality in western society. But it is just that that separates the two, choice. Martha Nussbaum, American philosopher and Law and Ethics professor at the University of Chicago argues that ‘the key moral and legal issue with FGM is that it is mostly conducted on children using physical force.’ [13]

With that said, there is progress being made. While 96% of Egyptian women between the ages of 45 and 49 are victims of FGM, only 81% of girls between ages 15 and 19 have their genitals cut.[14] It is a marginal difference, but a positive change nonetheless. Although former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi rejected condemning FGM during his presidency, religious leader support for it has declined. Mohamed Suleiman, a leading imam, ‘claims the number of imams who support FGM in his network has fallen from an overwhelming majority to a significant minority in the space of just a decade.’[15] Some contend that FGM has no justification within the Qur’an and ‘it is unlikely Muhammad advocated it.’[16] Yet the most critical advancement is the vocalization of women on the matter. They are more unafraid to speak to their classmates concerning it, they convince their parents that their younger sisters shouldn’t be mutilated and they speak ‘with unusual candour about their own experiences.’ [17]

Exemplifying this strength is Suhair’s friend, Amira, in an interview after Suhair’s death. While the community publicly boasted that ‘a thousand or so girls were circumcised after she died […] What’s all the fuss about?’, Amira spoke out, ‘It’s a very bad thing for girls, there is no need for it. It’s wrong because it’s dangerous. It’s the custom of the area. The problem is the mentality of the farmers.’ [18] Hopefully strong women like Amira will take this traumatic experience and loss and promote the eradication of FGM instead of the opposite. Along with widespread education about the risks and reality of the procedure, the government should uphold its law with authority. These changes seem to be developing little by little already. In a landmark case in January 2015, the first conviction of its kind, a doctor was charged with manslaughter for the fatality of an FGM procedure conducted in his home in a small farming community in Egypt. This was the conviction of young Suhair’s doctor. He has received two years three months imprisonment and her father, three months. Although this is a ‘monumental victory for women and girls in Egypt’, it is unfortunately the first conviction, in itself a result of much lobbying, an appeal, and change of prosecutors. And campaigners warn, ‘it will take more than one prosecution to spare other girls.’

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27322088

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/10/suhair-al-bataa-13-year-old-dies-circumcised_n_3417528.html

[3] http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/female-genital-mutilation/pages/introduction.aspx

[4] http://www.nocirc.org/symposia/first/badawi.html

[5] http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/female-genital-mutilation/pages/introduction.aspx

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27322088

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/06/female-genital-mutilation-egypt

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/06/female-genital-mutilation-egypt

[11] http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/female-genital-mutilation/pages/introduction.aspx

[12] http://www.nocirc.org/symposia/first/badawi.html


[14] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/09/egypt-genital-mutilation_n_4389619.html

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27322088