Search This Blog

Thursday, May 6, 2010

FGM: The Pharaonic rite that's a hard habit to break

May 5, 2010
By Norhan Elhkeem - Almasryalyoum

Aswan--In a nation where UNICEF estimates 96 percent of all married womean have undergone some form of female genital mutilation (FGM), Aswan's official declaration against the practice earlier this week, marked by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak's two-day visit to the southern governorate, was one that has human rights and women's rights groups cheering--and gearing up for more action.

But while various units within the Egyptian government--whose Health and Population Ministry banned all forms of female genital cutting in 2007--and numerous non-governmental organizations and civil and human rights groups have all taken a clear stand against the continued practice of FGM across the country and are working toward eliminating it, on the ground and especially in villages, Aswan's declaration means very little.

"All these people, they can say and do whatever they want," says Nabawiya Abdel Hamid. "These are our traditions, and they're impossible to change."

Sitting in a small room, the walls colorfully adorned with traditional Nubian drawings, Abdel Hamid sits with another six village women from Gharb Soheil in Aswan, home to Aswan's Nubian Village, a popular touristic attraction. They are barefoot and relaxed, some sitting on rugs on the floor, others laying on the two neatly made beds framing the room. They're chatting away in the enclave of the room, sipping on cool hibiscus tea and lemonade, tucked away from Aswan's moderate May afternoon heat.

"Even if the whole world bans FGM, we won't," says Abdel Hamid boldly, the most outspoken of the group.

The conversation ensues with an echo-like quality--the moment one woman speaks, the rest of the group nods in approval, repeating their cohort's remark.

There is no confusion about the importance of circumcising women in this village.

"It's to keep her clean. And prevent itching and other problems 'down there,'" says Abdel Hamid. "This tradition has been in our communities forever--no way is it going to change."

In this Nubian village of 1700 residents, all its women have undergone FGM. Here they are circumcised according to what is referred to as the traditional "Nubian," or "Sudanese" way: Virtually every sensitive area of the girl's genitals are cut. Elsewhere throughout Egypt, women are circumcised according to what is popularly referred to as the "Sunnah" way, which entails the partial or total removal of the clitoris. The World Health Organization labels the distinct female cutting operations as Type I, II and III, with variants within each category.

Abdel Hamid draws a picture of how the rite is practiced in their village.

"When the girl is about two or three years old, we take her to the 'doctor' who will perform the act. We dress her in a new galabeya, and adorn her in gold," she says. "After the operation, she is tied by the ankles and knees until the following day."

The tools used to perform the operation, according to Abdel Hamid, are simple: all that is needed is a mousse, or razor blade. Sewing is not used in the Nubian type of female circumcision, unlike in more severe forms. As Khadijah, the most elderly of the group, explains: "Once it's healed, it holds tight by itself."

The perceived necessity of female circumcision in such villages is due to social pressures above anything else. Like elsewhere in Egypt, in this Konouz Nubian community (the main Nubian group residing in Aswan) the practice is seen as fundamental to preserving a women's chastity and ensuring fidelity. It is seen as the answer to maintaining appropriate and "moral" sexual behavior.

"What if someone asks me, is your daughter circumcised? I can't say 'No,'" Abdel Wahab says incredulously, but with a hint of remorse. "And plus, she could never get married!"

Pointing out the well-known physical and psychological dangers of the practice elicits quiet disregard from the group, with a shrug here and there. When the legality of the matter is brought up, the women express a mix of disdain and apparent confusion.

"Why is the government interfering in our social mores? They shouldn't ban it," one woman states. "The costs have gone up as doctors have been forced to do it in secret. We continue to pay because we want it done. Are we going to abandon our traditions?"

According to Abdel Hamid, while circumcising boys used to be a pricier operation than female circumcision, the opposite is now true.

"At clinics, it used to cost LE40-50 for girls. Now it's LE175," she explains. "When the operation is performed inside the village, everyone simply gives what they can afford."

Mariem Hassan sits against the wall. The youngest of the group, the seven-month-old pregnant woman is carrying her first child, but mentions her husband is "absent"' and that she's been having some physical difficulties. She says she can't remember how old she was when she was circumcised.

"If they prevent doctors from doing it, we'll do it in our own homes," she says. "It's impossible to ban it."

When the religious aspect is mentioned, none of the women can state where within Islam the procedure is instructed, but insist there is a connection.

Maintaining chastity is the number one motivation for the practice, which predates both Islam and Christianity, originating during Pharaonic times. Egyptians abide by the practice due to African and Pharaonic traditions, contrary to the popular belief that the act is rooted in Islamic tradition.

According to Fardos el-Samdouny, head of Aswan's branch of the Egyptian Association for Community Initiative and Development, an Aswan-based NGO created in 1994 with branches across Egypt, women--and men's--convictions are gradually changing.

"In the beginning, they always say 'these are our ways and we won't change them,'" el-Samdouny says. "But when they attend conferences and understand that it isn't useful at all, they are convinced. And then, they themselves say: 'Stop FGM.'"

From her office in Aswan, el-Samdouny adds that the religious aspect is becoming more widely undersood, since Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt and a leading institution in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a statement in November 2006 declaring that the practice is outside the realm of Islamic law and should not be followed, a breakthrough announcement for anti-FGM activists and supporters worldwide.

Pope Shenouda, the head of Egypt's Coptic Church and leader of Egypt's Coptic community, has stated that neither the Quran nor the Bible require or mention female circumcision.

Regardless, the cultural aspect of the practice is the more pivotal factor leading to its continued execution--despite the misconception that FGM has a significant impact on sexual libido.

According to Dr. Hassan Abdel Kader, general manager of Aswan's Teaching Hospital and a gynecologist, the practice has been banned from inside Aswan hospitals for approximately 20 years, with related operations performed strictly in cases of medical necessity, such as in the case of an infection.

"Female circumcision is believed to prevent a woman from becoming sexually 'loose' and so on," he says, "but this is nonsense, as sexual desire is largely in the head."

"The problems of female circumcision are well known," he adds, with death among the potential dangers.

According to el-Samdouny, who has has been working at the grass-roots level since 2003 to eliminate FGM from Aswan and six other governorates, attitudes change fairly quickly if villages are approached and provided concrete evidence of the rite's dangers and lack of usefulness--despite always initially encountering resistance from both men and women.

The association has awareness campaigns going strong in 16 villages throughout Aswan, working closely with residents of the villages to spread knowledge of the negative physical and psychological impact FGM can have on girls, according to el-Samdouny. They also have a monitoring committee in place, where members of the association are working with villagers to assess, and attempt to regulate, the practice's prevalence.

"Now, Aswan has declared it's 'against' FGM. In the future, it will stop," el-Samdouny says with conviction, adding that Suzanne Mubarak's visit was an extra boost.

Mohammed Hassan, public relations director for Aswan Governorate reiterates the significance of this week's announcement.

"Everyone is agreeing to put an end to FGM and ongoing projects are being implemented to stop it," he says, mentioning for example that groups involved will continue coordinating efforts with religious leaders to spread awareness of the lack of connection between the rite and religion.

"Egypt is one of the very few Islamic nations where this happens," he points out.

The village of Benben, located on the West Bank of the city of Daraw, one of Aswan's five cities, is a well-documented success story in the fight against FGM in Egypt. The small village is considered Egypt's first "FGM-free" village, with efforts launched there in 2005. In 2010, no cases of FGM were reported, with all residents abandoning their previously highly esteemed beliefs on the ritual.

But Benben is one village of 552 in Aswan alone. According to Dr. Hoda Abdel Waheb, head of the Aswan branch of the National Council for Women's Rights (NCWR), men constitute the biggest challenge.

"After five years helping coordinate projects in villages, I can say it's the men that need to change," she says. "We had mostly just woman attending and paticipating in our awareness campaigns. Even highly educated men are refusing to attend."

The Aswan branch of NCWR was the first to set up an official complaints office, boasting two full-time lawyers on site and 26 on a volunteer basis. While Abdel Waheb says the office receives numerous complaints, they have yet to receive an FGM-related complaint.

Ultimately, while most might agree that Aswan's announcement is a significant step, changing perceptions remains the key to eliminating FGM in Egypt.

El-Samdouny, who has refused to circumcise her ten-year-old daughter, has her own solution to the problem.

"To remedy and maintain strong morals, we should rely on faith in God, and good upbringing. Not FGM."