November 19, 2010
Mail & Guardian
Abdul Rahman, a 25 year-old Bedouin from North Sinai, is trying to change 2,000 years of tradition.
Through a local non-governmental organisation in a remote village called el-Gora, Abdul Rahman has met with local tribesmen to talk about a sensitive topic -- the ending of the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
The procedure, which involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, is estimated to have been performed on 91% of Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49, according to a United Nations' 2008 report based on Egyptian government figures.
Rahman said the tradition is hard to break because most believe it is a religious norm for both men and women to be circumcised. He admits that his own wife has undergone FGM and she will be the one to decide if his daughters will also have it performed on them.
He was given training by the Egyptian government and brought to Cairo to meet with religious leaders, who told him that the practice was not Islamic.
But carrying the message back home, Rahman acknowledged that he has not been successful at convincing locals to stop the practice on young girls.
Control her sexual desire
"Those who perpetuate the practice are often motivated by the belief that FGM makes a girl eligible for marriage, controls her sexual desire and prevents adultery," a new UN study stated.
Sheikh Abu Malak, a father in his late 20s from one of Egypt's poorest governorates Beni Sweif, said in a phone interview that "the government and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs are taking a position that this is tradition and not religion".
But Malak said that the official government position has not convinced the large majority of people to stop the practice. In fact, he said that his newborn daughter will likely be circumcised by a medical professional when she is around 12 years old.
FGM, while prevalent among Egypt's middle and lower classes, is not as widespread in the more educated elite, according to government studies.
The Egyptian Parliament criminalised FGM and banned medical professionals from performing the procedure in 2008.
"My opinion is that this is Sunna, the way of the Prophet Muhammad," said Malak.
Despite a religious edict from the country's highest Islamic authority al-Azhar, explaining that FGM has no basis in Islamic law and is a sinful action, which should be avoided, Malak represents a common sentiment felt in Egypt.
Although the procedure, if carried out correctly, is not particularly dangerous, there have been cases where young girls bled to death or were cut using unhygienic tools.
FGM's most lasting consequences are the inability of the woman to fully enjoy sexual intimacy and orgasms, while others have reported suffering mental trauma.
The UN characterises FGM as "a serious violation of human rights", which can cause severe, lifelong health problems including bleeding, problems urinating, childbirth complications and newborn deaths.
Most Islamic countries do not report high FGM figures, but Egypt and several other African nations continue to struggle to convince parents that the procedure is an outdated tradition rather than a religious practice.
It is estimated that between 70-million to 140-million girls and women have undergone the FGM procedure worldwide.
"It is truly a tradition, but a tradition we do for God," insists Malak.