WORLD OCTOBER 29, 2011
Cairo—Ali, a 34-year-old Cairo businessman who asked that his real name not be used, is weighing whether or not to circumcise his 12-year-old daughter. Female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM), as it is also known, involves removing part or the entire clitoris. In more severe forms of the procedure, the labia minora is removed and the vaginal opening is stitched up. Ali’s wife has told him about her own experience; describing her story to me, he said, “It is her most terrible memory.” He has heard discussions on television of potential harm the procedure can cause, but he feels a responsibility to protect the chastity of his daughter until she is married. Three thousand years of tradition instruct him that circumcision is the best means to this end. And, in the post-Mubarak Egypt, there are fewer and fewer voices offering an alternative view. The decades-long movement to stop FGM has become a casualty of the power struggle in Egypt.
The campaign to end FGM in Egypt was fighting an uphill battle before the revolution. Although FGM was outlawed in 2007 after a 12-year-old girl died from the procedure, the practice is still widespread. Despite efforts to reduce it, the number of girls aged 15 to 17 who underwent FGM only dropped from 77 percent in 2005 to 74 percent in 2008, according to the 2008 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS). EDHS also showed that 91 percent of all women in Egypt between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM. The practice is common not only among Muslims, but also in the Christian community, which constitutes 10 percent of the Egyptian population. A sanitized version of FGM has gained increased prevalence in recent years, presenting additional challenges. In 1995, only 45 percent of all FGM operations were conducted by doctors; by 2008, the percentage had risen to 72 percent. A young woman working as a maid and living in Cairo, who asked to be referred to only as Ayesha, did not even know that FGM is illegal. Her mother had put her through the procedure, and she told me that she would do the same. (Experts have found that the practice is mostly perpetuated by mothers making decisions for their daughters.) “Unless someone can show me what is wrong with it I don’t think there is any reason to change,” she said.
Since the revolution, international support for this fight has significantly waned. Political instability has led to a 75 percent cut in Egypt’s FGM-related donor funds to the United Nations since January, according to Marta Agosti, the head of the anti-FGM program for the U.N.Changeover among government ministers has also slowed official work. The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, the government body charged with addressing the problem, was shuttered after the revolution, and there is concern among activists that the capacity of the Council will shrink in its new home under the Ministry of Health. Instability and a lack of funds have curtailed the day-to-day work of NGOs; less field work and fewer workshops are taking place, according to Agosti.
In addition to the general shrinking of U.N. and NGO funds and efforts, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the strongest political forces attempting to fill the void left by Mubarak’s departure presents potential obstacles to the campaign to end FGM. While the Muslim Brotherhood does not have an official position on FGM, the group has, in the past, opposed a complete ban on the practice. “Nothing in Islam forbids circumcision,” said Saad El Katani, the leader of the Brotherhood in parliament in 2008. Some members of the Brotherhood have argued that opposition to a complete ban does not indicate support of the practice, but they generally don’t speak out against it.
For instance, Manal Abul-Hassan, a female leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who plans to run for parliamentary elections in November, told me that FGMis “not halal (permissible) and it’s not haram (forbidden).” She does not favor its complete ban and disagrees with the U.N. characterization of FGM as a human rights violation. (Many parents share Hassan’s view and reject the word “mutilation”—especially for procedures like removing the excess skin around the clitoris. Young women argue that certain kinds of circumcisions are no different from plastic surgery in the West.) Like others in the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan sees the campaign against FGM as stealth promotion by NGOs of a Western agenda. Activists fear that the more traditionalist elements in the group pose a threat to their work—that attitudes like the one expressed by Hassan might harden to condone the procedure.
In addition, activists are also fighting the shadow of Suzanne Mubarak, who, for all her husband’s transgressions, was a force behind the campaign to end FGM. As the former dictator’s wife,Mubarak gave speeches and organized conferences opposing the practice, making her one of the most recognizable faces in the international fight against FGM. She played a key role in getting Christian and Muslim religious leaders to forbid the procedure, which had a far greater impact than the legal ban. After declaring their position, the fatwa office in Cairo—the office of the Grand Mufti of Egypt—set up a hotline; several anecdotes emerged about women changing their decision to go ahead with the practice based on advice they received from this hotline. Activists assert that their efforts to eliminate FGM were well underway before Suzanne Mubarak demonstrated interest in the issue. “We didn’t wait for Madame Mubarak to talk about FGM,” Sidhom Magdi, head of the Egyptian Association for Comprehensive Development, told me. But they do not deny that her involvement gave the movement political momentum that it had previously lacked.
Now, however, anything attached to the Mubaraks’ legacy is, if not explicitly tainted, an easy target. Civil society groups characterize Mubarak’s efforts as self-promoting. “She was devoid of a feminist vision or a socialist vision,” said Nihad Abu Kumsan, a lawyer and head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. Hassan insists that FGM-related figures were exaggerated by the Egyptian government so that the former first lady could pocket international funds. “Suzanne Mubarak used these numbers to make money and steal money,” she told me. While most activists were not Mubarak supporters, the backlash troubles them. Agosti worries that Suzanne Mubarak’s previous involvement will “become an excuse to undo all the past work.”
For years, activists combating FGM in Egypt have described their fight as “painfully slow.” In the post-revolution Egypt, the process has become glacial. “We have no leader and we have no strategy,” said Kumsan. The U.N., aware of that the issue is a minefield, is also keeping a low profile for the time being. “We have to be very careful right now as we don’t want the issue to be captured by the ultra-orthodox,” said Agosti, expressing a fear that the U.N. will be characterized as an agency promoting the Western agenda or worse, Mubarak’s legacy.
Ali, the Cairo businessman, and his wife ultimately decided against FGM for their daughter. “We don’t want to change what God has created,” he told me. In making this decision, Ali is already among the minority of parents who reject FGM. This minority is in danger of shrinking further in the new Egypt.
Betwa Sharma is a New York-based journalist who covers human rights. Her work can be found at www.betwasharma.com.