Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 19:40 pm (KSA) 16:40 pm (GMT)

Female circumcision and tradition clash in Egypt

97% of women aged 15 to 49, Christians and Muslims, have undergone FGM (File)
97% of women aged 15 to 49, Christians and Muslims, have undergone FGM (File)

Egyptian women struggle to fight against the old tradition of female circumcision, twice circumcised, Wafaa Helmy swore her own daughters would never suffer the same fate.

But one night her own mother secretly took her first-born to go under the knife in their Upper Egypt village.

Despite pronouncements to the contrary by both Muslim and Christian clerics, she believes, as do many Egyptians, that this "purification" is a religious duty that helps preserve a girl's virtue and honor.

The social stigma of not having her granddaughter's labia and/or clitoris cut off was just too strong for her.

Official Egyptian statistics say 97 percent of women aged 15 to 49, Christians and Muslims alike, have undergone what the U.N. prefers to call female genital mutilation, or FGM.

Women here feel they are guarantors of a certain social order and few dare question a tradition that goes back to the time of the pharaohs, in spite of the stories of bleeding, infection and other nefarious effects.

In June, following the death of 12-year-old Bedur Ahmed Shaker, Health Minister Hatem al-Gabali issued a decree banning every doctor and member of the medical profession from performing the procedure.

That ban must still be translated into law and could face a tough debate in parliament's next session in November. A ban was already imposed in 1997 but operations were allowed in "exceptional cases."

Female circumcision can cause death through hemorrhaging and later complications during childbirth. It also carries risks of infection, urinary tract problems and mental trauma.

The government has enlisted the country's top religious authorities to drive home the message against what UNICEF describes "one of the most persistent, pervasive and silently endured human rights violations."

Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the sheikh of Al-Azhar University, the top Sunni Muslim authority, and Coptic Patriarch Chenouda III, also declared it had no foundation in the religious texts of either Islam or Christianity.

"I'm frigid"

"It's simple: I'm frigid," says Wafaa, attending an information session organized by the Coptic Centre for Education and Development NGO at a church in Bayad al-Arab, south of Cairo.

"It's a big problem with my husband. We argue all the time. I never want to make love. I have no reaction, no feelings, no pleasure," says the 35-year-old Copt who was circumcised twice at the age of 10 because "there was still a little bit left."

Kawkaba Fathi, a Muslim, has found her own way of dealing with the problem.

"I pretend I'm enjoying it to keep my husband happy and it's going much better," she says, her round face placid and framed by a black veil.

Kawkaba's operation was carried out "the Sudanese way," meaning that all her external genital organs were cut off. Traumatised, she decided with her husband not to have the operation done on their three daughters.

Around 60 women, all circumcised, are gathered to listen to a gynecologist from the NGO.

"Circumcision is a very, very old tradition and has no connection with religion," says Mariam Munib, describing common side effects: hemorrhaging, incontinence, painful sexual intercourse, problems giving birth.

Some women nod in agreement, but others are concerned about what people will say.

"What if the husband rejects my daughter on their wedding night because she hasn't been circumcised," asks one worried mother.

"People have to know if the girl is normal, if (her sexual organs) are too big, or deformed?" says another. She is echoing a belief among many women here that too "prominent" genitals must be cut off -- at least if they're female.

"Do you take your daughter to the doctor to know if her nose or eyes are too big or small? So why would you do it for that part of the body," asks Sister Joanna, the petite and slightly stern Coptic nun who runs the NGO.

The gynecologist says comparing female and male circumcision is like the difference between clipping a nail and cutting the whole finger off.

The centre is particularly worried about girls aged eight to 12, prime time for circumcision. Arranging seminars in 15 villages in the deserts of Upper Egypt, workers hand out tea, washing powder and soap to encourage women to come.

Sister Joanna insists there has been progress.

"Ten years ago it was taboo even to say 'female circumcision,'" she says, citing progress in spite of widespread local distrust including rumors she is pushing a Western agenda "to corrupt Egyptian girls."

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