In the mind of Hasanat Fawzy, ten dollars was a small price to pay for her daughter’s honor. Ten dollars, and her little girl, Soheir, would be ready to take her first step on the road to womanhood. All it required was a trip to the clinic. There, the local doctor would take a sharp knife and slice off the 13-year-old’s clitoris.
Young Soheir was no exception. Generations of women in her family and village had undergone the same procedure. If they ever objected, it hardly mattered. After all, this is what happens to honorable women—they are professionally mutilated to prepare them for the world of men.
But last week, while the doctor was carving up Soheir’s genitalia, the operation went catastrophically wrong. According to local media reports, Soheir had been placed under an aesthetic for the procedure. But she was given an overdose which killed her.
The doctor handed himself over to the authorities, explaining that the girl’s family had asked him to perform the operation. An investigation is now pending; the family, meanwhile, is in mourning—their daughter is dead because of a tradition which brutalizes young women.
The death of Soheir has thrown a spotlight on the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM), a ritual which is still widely practiced across Egypt despite being official outlawed in 2008. This week, UN agencies called for the prosecution of the doctor involved in the case. In a joint statement, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and the UN Population Fund, UNFPA, urged a full investigation into Soheir’s death. They said the incident was “another sad illustration of the terrible consequences” that female genital mutilation can have.
The precise origins of the ritual are ancient and disputed. One of the strongest theories suggests it may have emerged in Ethiopia during the time of the pharaohs. It is believed the practice may have become bound up with notions of Hapi, the Nile god, an androgynous being with the appearance of a man and prominent, female-like breasts. Believing that, like Hapi, their girls might eventually develop masculine features, people practiced FGM to prevent the clitoris from turning into a penis, it is argued.
Eventually the tradition was brought into the cultures, beliefs, and religions of the Nile Valley. According to the most recent authoritative survey, more than 90 percent of women aged 15-49 in Egypt have undergone FGM, while Egypt itself accounts for more than a quarter of the 91 million women in Africa who have had their clitoris removed.
Nadra Zaki, a Cairo-based child protection specialist for UNICEF who has campaigned for an end to FGM, said it is a tradition which now serves largely to perpetuate the repression of women.“It’s a way of decreasing the power of girls and women,” she said. “This is what FGM is about.” Along with dozens of other NGOs, UNICEF has for the past decade been campaigning to raise awareness about the misery which befalls women who are subjected to genital mutilation.
Going from village to village—it is far from Egypt’s urban centers where FGM is most prominent—campaigners arrange workshops and school seminars to highlight the perils of continuing the ancient tradition. Local, nonmutilated women are encouraged to discuss the benefits of abstention from FGM, while villagers are urged to sign a register declaring their neighborhood “FGM-free.”
According to Vivian Fouad, one of Egypt’s leading anti-FGM campaigners, about 70 villages across the country have now declared their support. Though in a society where, to some minds, genital mutilation is now inextricably linked to religious doctrine, she admitted it has not always been easy. “Once we were in a village in central Egypt and having an ‘FGM-free’ celebration,” she said. “Suddenly five or six guys, who were in their late teens, got up on the podium and started shouting that what we were doing was against Islamic law.”
“I was trying to convince them to let the celebration continue, and eventually they did,” Fouad says.
Although FGM is common among both Muslims and Christians in Egypt, it is only in an Islamic context that adherents sometimes claim a theological justification. Believers point to one of Mohamed’s hadith, or sayings, which makes reference to FGM. Yet this utterance is considered weak by Islamic scholars, and is contradicted by another which permits authorities to prohibit acts, such as FGM, which are harmful to the individual.
Nevertheless some campaigners believe that the strides made by political Islam since the 2011 Egyptian revolt may undo much of their hard work. According to Dr. Mohamed Magdy, a leading figure within an organizational called NGOs Coalition Against FGM, the rise of Egypt’s Islamists “might put a lot of obstacles” in their way.
“The conservative trend is pro-FGM,” he said. “Before when we were working, we were fighting against traditional views in the communities. Now we’re fighting the political parties too.”
He claimed that following the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood—whose long-time member, Mohamed Morsi, is now the Egyptian president—dispatched mobile clinics promoting FGM to Minya, a city which lies about 245 kilometers south of Cairo.
Yet so far there have been no high-profile efforts to roll back the 2008 legislation. The practice has been condemned by Al Azhar, the leading Islamic authority in Egypt, and also by Dar el-Ifta, the body responsible for issuing Islamic legal decisions. There is also statistical evidence to suggest that FGM may be on the wane. The national health survey in 2008 suggested that the rate of mutilation for girls aged 15-17 was 74 percent—compared to the 91 percent figure for women aged 15-49.
Perhaps of more concern is the fact that, apart from the death of Soheir last week, campaigners are unaware of any action the authorities have taken to combat illegal clinics and law-breaking doctors since 2007. Under the recent legislation, the Ministry of Health has the power to investigate and close errant clinics, while doctors and health professionals performing FGM can be jailed for up to two years.
The Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for a comment, but Dr. Mohamed Magdy said his organization had no records of any clinics closing or doctors being punished following the laws passed to criminalize genital mutilation. “The Ministry of Health say that people don’t report FGM,” he said. “I think we have to be honest and say the ministry is not really well structured in terms of being able to deal with reports.”