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ISSUE 121 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/5/2007

Egypt resists genital mutilation

By Cody Venzke
Variety Editor


Friday, October 5, 2007

Whenever I come across an article about female circumcision, it usually begins with a description of the procedure (and appropriately so). Sometimes, the description is relatively mild.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, 24-year-old Fatma Ibrahim describes how her parents took her to the surgeon, having told her that she needed blood tests. As she lay there half-sedated, the surgeon put her legs up.

She remembers screaming. She remembers awaking the next day unable to walk.

However, other times, the procedure is even more violent. Sociologist James Henslin describes one 12-year-old girl's circumcision. "As two women pinned her down, someone wrenched open her legs.

Without administering anesthesia, they proceeded to cut away her clitoris and labia minora.

Helpless and trapped, all she could do was scream as the vicious procedure dragged on."

In Sudan, virtually all of the genitalia is cut away; the remaining edges of tissue are sewn together to seal the vagina.

After marriage, it is the husband's responsibility to cut the scar tissue open, permitting sexual intercourse.

If this seems like an archaic and outdated procedure, long-forgotten in the modern era, you are sadly mistaken.

Female circumcision is a modern procedure widely practiced in certain regions of Africa.

The practice (referred to by opponents as female genital mutilation) is especially prevalent in Egypt. 97 percent of Egyptian women have been circumcised despite a 1996 government ban outlawing the practice.

Today, an unusual coalition of Egyptian government officials, activists and religious leaders publicly oppose the practice. Doctors have established programs in rural villages to educate the populace about the physiological and psychological dangers of genital cutting.

Some religious leaders argue that Islam prohibits female circumcision.

Reports of girls dying during or after circumcision now receive attention in national newspapers and television programs.

For the first time, female circumcision has entered Egypt's public dialogue.

It seems that this fight is nothing less than a fight for equality, for basic civil rights. Standing comfortably from a Western vantage point, practices such as female genital mutilation seem undeniably wrong.

For us, it seems obvious that bodily mutilation is nothing short of barbaric, and it is cruel at best.

Female genital cutting leaves psychological scars that remain throughout a woman's entire life.

"It broke something inside of me," Ibrahim told her interviewer. "Something that is irreparable."

It is obvious that female circumcision is a dangerous, outdated crime against women and female sexuality.

It is the product of a patriarchal society, or so it seems to us.

I whole-heartedly applaud every effort made in Egypt.

However, what can we St. Olaf students do?

How can we address this situation and still respect the cultural practices of others?

The answer, it seems, lies in dialogue.

One of the movement's key factors is the technology that allows Egypt to learn of foreign forums concerning female circumcision, especially those discussions occurring in the international Islamic community.

Slowly, as women in Egypt begin to share their personal experiences, the movement gains speed. Slowly. Is talking all we can do? For the most part, yes. But talking can affect more than we realize.

Writing to congress persons, informing others and entering the international dialogue (the United Nations Population Fund would be a good place to start) can foster an international community dedicated to human rights, change and cultural understanding.

According to Michael Slackman, the bureau chief of Time Cairo, female circumcision is "neither Islamic nor moral." Nor is it safe, and for this reason it must be stopped.

However, the fight against female circumcision must overcome drastic barriers.

As opponents point out, female circumcision is rooted not in Islam (most Islamic countries consider the practice abhorrent and archaic) but in tradition.

In Egypt and in other countries, female circumcision has been practiced since the rule of the pharaohs.

As Islam became the prevailing tradition in these communities, it appropriated circumcision practices.

Consequently, the practice resists change, as is true of most cultural and traditional norms.

As The New York Times recently reported, a group of men were enraged after a 13-year-old girl died at a local clinic while being circumcised.

Their outrage, however, was not over her death, but over the government's decision to close the clinic. "We support circumcision!" one man shouted. Female circumcision is indelibly ingrained in the culture.

Furthermore, there is a multitude of widespread misconceptions regarding female circumcision, including that the clitoris will eventually rot if it is not removed, that removing the clitoris promotes chastity and that men will refuse to marry an uncircumcised woman.

Because female circumcision is so ingrained into these cultures, its discontinuation will not occur overnight.

Although Slackman states, "As a result of generation upon generation practicing this procedure, there's a tremendous ignorance about both the scientific and social aspects of this procedure," we must hesitate to decry the deplorable "ignorance" of these nations.

Consider our own situation in the United States; we criticize sexist and racist attitudes in our past, but we are all aware that women and minorities continue to face major challenges today, despite nearly a century's worth of activism. Clearly, cultural patterns are difficult to transform.





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