FGM: Mutilating the Female Spirit

This is a picture of a 10-year old at the local barbershop used by the CNN in 1995.
Please note: details have been changed to protect the identity of those I write about.

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She asked me if I liked her, a lot – not only if I liked her, but also if I liked her “a lot”. It’s hard breaking her good heart. But the truth is, I could not see past the fact that this woman she was asking me about, had made the decision to mutilate the genitals of her five female daughters. This woman had made the choice of subjecting all her daughters to a procedure she herself had gone through, one that I was afraid to imagine. She had decided to deprive them, forever, of full sexual pleasure because, she argues, “females are prone to being horny”.

I took the metro to visit this family in a part of Cairo I knew I would be frequenting during my stay here; a key site for my PhD research with street children. I would, of course, be dressed differently when I came for my fieldwork. There would be no designer flip-flops, no low cut maxi dress and no flowers in my hair. I would try to blend in the background, as “decent” women, here, are expected to do. Impressed with how clean, calm and courteous the metro was, one man, well into his 70’s and on a walking stick, got up to offer me his seat and would not have me turn down his offer. My friend had marked the house as the building next to the barbershop.

There was much going on that I know in any other circumstance, would have made me sit here, passionately writing. I would be typing away either about the gender roles and the non-patriarchal household (despite the presence of a husband and father); about the five young ladies that came scurrying out of the shared, tiny, cramped bedrooms with their big dreams; I would have written about the generosity of the poor compared to the rich we’d been visiting. I would have been sitting here being judgmental about a whole range of different things. But, none of the above, could motivate me to write today more than FGM. I walked into this house knowing that all the women in it had suffered something I was lucky enough to escape. It wasn’t only that I sat there knowing I would enjoy sex in a different, fuller way to these girls that outraged me, but more than this, that the mother, herself, had inflicted this.

I sat between them remembering a procedure I had undergone as a child in a clean, relaxed London hospital to check on my kidneys and the “reflux” they thought I was suffering from. The procedure involved a doctor inserting a sterilised tube up my urethra to see inside my bladder. It was done with my legs open in the air. I can still remember the details of the room; how big it was and considerably empty with just the seat i was on, a tray with wheels and a screen. I remember the offensive, but reassuring smell of disinfectant, the doctor’s gloves freshly picked gloves from the box in front of me, and his professional, but kind reassurance. I even remember the length of the hair on his eyebrows and the thickness of the frames around his glasses. It was more embarrassing than painful, but it was a procedure that 24 years later, I have not forgotten. It was also a procedure that meant it took many years before accepting that anyone could touch me “there”. I wondered what smells these girls could remember; could they recall the smell of the rusty blade, the impatience of the local barber, the dirt under his nails, and the humiliation at having lots of people watching? Could they remember the feeling of trickling blood down their thighs, fainting under the pain? I could not imagine how these girls felt at the thought of being touched “there” again.

I have often dismissed engaging with the fight against FGM, arguing to myself that there were plenty others who had taken this fight on. FGM wasn’t personal, I didn’t know enough about it, and I had my sleeves rolled up facing other human right violations. Today, however, I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I could not concentrate on any of the things that usually amaze me in these situations. I came home and couldn’t write about something I didn’t know, so I started doing some research. I wanted to start just by sharing a chronological commentary on FGM; which in many countries where the procedure happens, became known as one of the “Three Feminine Sorrows” – the first was the actually circumcision, the second was the wedding night when the woman had to be cut open again, and the third was during childbirth, where again, she had to be cut open.

The term “Pharaonic Circumcision”, which most girls who suffer FGM in Egypt are subjected to, originates from its practice in Ancient Egypt under the Pharaohs. Leonard Kuber and Judith Muascher, document that circumcised females have been found among Egyptian mummies, and that Herodotus (c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC) referred to the practice when he visited Egypt and there is reference on a Greek papyrus from 163 BC to the procedure being conducted on girls in Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, and Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 BC), the Greek geographer, reported it when he visited Egypt in 25 BC).

It wasn’t just Egypt, or Africa that practiced this, though for the purpose of this blog I did not research more about the history of the practice elsewhere. It was interesting to find, however, that gynecologists in England and the United States carried out FGM during the 19th century to “cure” insanity, masturbation and nymphomania. It is important to note thee pivotal date, June 1993, when the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights agreed that FGM was a violation of human rights.

It took some time for Egypt to catch up, even if only superficially. The health ministry banned FGM in 2007. The five girls would have not benefited from this ban, even though it is naive to think the ban actually made a difference on the practice, in fact, it probably made the procedure worse because it had to be done in hiding. The ban came to save face the Egyptian government after a photograph (above) of a 10-year old girl became public. She was undergoing FGM in a barber’s shop in Cairo in 1995. The image was broadcasted on CNN and caused a public out roar. The photograph was taken in a barbers shop. As soon as I read that I could not stop thinking about the barber’s shop beneath the house were in. The head of the household kept speaking about them being long life neighbours that loved her. I started to feel sick hoping to god it wasn’t here the girls had become “pure, ready for marriage”. 2007 also saw the case of 12-year old Badoor Shakir who had died of an over dose of anesthesia during an FGM procedure in the southern town of Maghagh for which her mother had paid a physician in an illegal clinic the equivalent of $9. After this news broke out, the highest religious authority in Egypt, Al-Azhar, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in Islamic law, enabling the government to ban it – ban it, not outlaw it and hence it’s enforceability is problematic.

There is much to speak of, of course, other than historical dates that bought about change. There is the procedure, the experience, the cultural resistance of women, more than men, to give it up. There is the link between the ideas of mutilating the female reproductive system with a pure maternal being. There is link between FGM and the cultural expectations of some for women and the unnatural immobility during intercourse and their efforts to hide orgasms should they be lucky enough to experience them.

The physical and psychic trauma that these girls I visited have gone through and that which still awaits them makes me ashamed of all the times I have turned away from this debate. Education and awareness is key. For them, I start judging. For the children whose bodies are still being mutilated, I start writing.

2 Comments

  1. Fantastic piece of writing Nelly. Very powerful. This is a heinous crime, which like you said, needs to be outlawed and not just banned.

    “Education and awareness is key” – Your blog will work towards both. Hopefully your message will reach those who need it the most.

  2. I understand what you went through. Because I went through it too. I am a European woman married to an Egyptian man whose family (until recently) practiced FGM on their daughters. I already knew the huge FGM records in Egypt before I met him; but it is all different when you come to know that the man you love and you want to marry has a mother or a sister who underwent the procedure. I almost stopped our relation because of that. But we spoke… a lot. And I cried … a lot. And I acquired the conviction that my future daughters would be safe. Since then, he has publicly taken position against FGM. So I felt quieter. Furthermore, our kids are in an Egyptian-school where FGM is 0%. They are now living in a FGM -free world where a girl cut could even meet difficulties to find a husband. But even when I felt relieved for my daughter, I still have difficulties to live with this idea that my in-laws did it. They are nice people, I really love them but there was this stain.

    I think I overcame this bad feeling when I made research on the practice, saw, for example, that it was prescribed by a famous British pharmacist named Kellogg (cereals). To prevent masturbation, he advised to burn clitoris with acid and to practice circumcision on boys without anesthesia.
    I also looked at the practice we have, nowadays, in the Western countries regarding woman’s body. I read a lot and found out terrible things about the practice of episiotomy. In France, 3 women out of 4 have their perinea cut during the delivery. In Sweden it is less than 1 out of 10 in the limit of what WHO recommended. An hospital in the East of France, has been able to reduce the episiotomy rate under 1,25% without increasing the rate of torn perinea and of course without increasing the rate of deaths (mothers and babies) which are the main arguments given to justify the practice. What does it mean? It means that in France, almost 3 out of 4 women are cut during the delivery whereas this is useless and worse it can be harmful. I have read a lot of testimonies of women destroyed physically and psychologically by a useless episiotomy. Some of them are unable to resume their sexual life and when they ask their gynecologist, they are told it is all in their head or that they can use an anaesthesic cream to avoid the pain during sexual intercourses. Do you want me to tell you about the “husband’s stitch”? When an obstetrician stiches up a perineum, it happened that he put one more stitch to tighten the vagina. “Your husband will thank me for that”. After the delivery, some women say they don’t understand why they have the feeling to be tightened and why it is so painful when they try to have sex… Thanks God, most of the time, they can resume a normal life after few months (or a couple of years) and after several rehabilitation sessions during which they have their vagina massaged and electrified.

    If you ask the midwife or the obstetrician that you don’t want to be cut, they reply they are the ones who know the best, this is the procedure, they always do like that, it is cleaner, it is safer, it is better for the baby, for the mother. The similarities of arguments between the pro-episiotomy and the pro-FGM stunned me. Babies go through our vaginas since everytime, why do they want to change that? Are the women in the East of France or in Sweden better shaped cause they are able to give birth without being cut? And some women say “I trust the doctor, if he says it is ok, then let’s do it”. Studies has proven the harmfulness of episiotomy. But WE are civilized as Westerners, they are the barbarian. We do that properly in our hospitals; they do that as savages in their barbershops.

    FGM practice is barbaric, not the people who perform it. The only thing they can be reproached is their inability to question this harmful practice for the well-being of women. For them, FGM is part of womanhood just as wedding, delivery… and as episiotomy is part of delivery. They are stuck in a tradition (for Egyptian) or a protocol (for pro-episiotomy) and do not want to admit that what they consider as a good practice for so long is in fact a bad practice.

    I am fully backing women fighting FGM. However, I don’t want to intervene in the fight against FGM in Egypt because pro-FGM are using westerners to tell that they want to pervert their girls. This fight has to be led by Egyptian women and men. It is a long way, but they are doing great. When I came to Egypt for the first time in the late 90′, figures were something like 97% of women circumcised. Now it is 86%. It is huge, but better when you consider this 5000 year-old practice. Let’s hope FGM will end : sooner is better.

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