This evening, Orchid Project was due to be on BBC2’s flagship evening news programme Newsnight, to talk about female genital cutting. We were bumped in favour of a DFID Minister, but we’ve still got this informative blogpost about Egypt and there’s been a lot of news coverage about FGC recently.
Could there be an end to FGC in Egypt after 2011’s ‘Arab Spring’?
According to an alarming recent article in the New Republic, “the decades-long movement to stop FGM has become a casualty of the power struggle in Egypt.”
Since the revolution, and despite gradual progress, the fight to end FGC in Egypt has become even more of an uphill struggle. The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) has been stilted since the revolution, and there is increasing concern that FGC will fall off the political agenda. Political instability has led to a 75 percent cut in Egypt’s FGM-related donor funds from the United Nations since January. A lack of current funding means that Egyptian NGOs cannot push the issue.
On top of this, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, filling the gap left by Mubarak’s departure, is worrying due to their past opposition to a complete ban on FGC on grounds that Islam does not forbid FCG. Manal Abul-Hassan, a female leader of the Muslim Brotherhood sees the campaign to end FGC as a promotion of a western agenda by NGOs. Activists fear that the traditionalist elements in the group pose a threat to their work.
First Lady involvement
Another factor negatively impacting the campaign to end FGC is its former association with Mubarak’s wife who played a major role in politicizing the anti-FGC movement. The backlash against Mubarak is a threat to the integrity of the continuing anti-FGC movement, and activists are who are keen to distance themselves from Suzanne Mubarak.
“We didn’t wait for Madame Mubarak to talk about FGM,” says Sidhom Magdi, head of the Egyptian Association for Comprehensive Development. But there is real fear that Suzanne Mubarak’s former involvement will undo the success of recent years .
The depressing news is that post Arab Spring, FGC activism is making glacial progress. “We have no leader and we have no strategy,” says Nihad Abu Kumsan, a lawyer and head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights. The U.N is keeping a low profile, fearful of the minefield of politics surrounding the issue.
The current activist movement in Egypt has tough times ahead. It must be careful to steer clear of being seen as promoting a western agenda, and of carrying on Mubarak’s legacy. However with the wave of optimism and possibility that has swept across the Arab spring, Orchid has every hope that the new generation will lead Egypt’s women away from having to conform to a tradition that no longer holds a place in Egypt’s contemporary society.
The history of FGC in Egypt
Female genital cutting is thought to have originated in the Nubia region of the Horn of Africa which is recognised today as Egypt and northern Sudan. Scholars date FGC back to around 200 BC. They suggest that infibulation (the most extreme form of FGC–type 3) was practised across all layers of society, spreading from the ruling classes to lowest class slaves. The term ‘pharaonic circumcision’ stems from the practise of FGC by the ancient Pharaohs.
Two thousand years worth of custom still influences, and today statistics place Egypt as one of the countries where FGC is most prevalent; according to 2008 UNICEF figures, 91% of Egyptian women are cut.
Yet despite high prevalence rates, there has been a gradual change in attitudes over time, particularly in younger generations. Studies suggest that FGC is becoming less common among the younger surveyed age groups. According to UNICEF, the percentage of married women who think FGC should be continue to be practised has dropped from 82% in 1995 to 63% in 2008.
The movement to end FGC in Egypt
FGC has been taboo in Egypt, and in large part continues to be so. Until the last two decades it was not part of any public dialogue. What brought FGC in Egypt into a national and international agenda was the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, hosted in Cairo.
This conference succeeded in highlighting the negative health impacts of FGC upon girls. As a result, FGC became medicalised and families had their daughters cut by the medical profession. Prevalence figures in Egypt according to the 2008 DHS showed 31.9% of FGC was medically performed.
At the same time, a movement was emerging in the 90s which brought together grass-roots organisations, human rights activists, feminist groups, doctors and civil society, who began lobbying the government to act to end FGC.
Government champions the case for abandonment
The government was beginning to champion the case for abandonment which the anti-FGC movement was pushing for. In 1996, Egypt’s Health Ministry ordered an end to the practice. However it allowed for exceptions in cases of emergency, a loophole that critics described as so wide that it effectively rendered the ban meaningless.
Despite this policy and FGC being raised within certain spheres and receiving press coverage, it had not yet widely become a contested issue. In Egypt the practice is common among Muslims, but also in the Christian community which make up 10% percent of the population. Waters were muddied as many religious leaders from all faiths claimed that FGC was a religious requirement. There was also a rising backlash against what was being perceived as a ‘Western conspiracy’ against Egyptian traditions.
High profile tragedy
Then in 1997, two young girls died after botched operations and local media began reporting the details, including making front page news in Egyptian independent daily, Al Masry al Yom. Activists reacted to the deaths with public demonstrations, generating even more coverage.
Prominent Egyptian doctor and activist Nawal El Saadawi spoke out about ten year old Badour Shaker’s death at the hands of a doctor performing FCG:
“Bedour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price … for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn’t cut children’s organs.”
Following this incident, a broadening movement of opposition to FGC grew from the grassroots upwards, fuelling the case for legal reform. The NCCM, a government agency that sets national health and social policies, played a leading role in pushing FGC onto the agenda. A new generation of medical university professors and doctors established a movement called ‘Doctors against FGC/M’ which publicly announced their support for abandonment. They worked with NCCM to increase awareness amongst medical staff around the dangers of FGC as well as the implications of violating medical ethics codes.
Yet there was still opposition to any kind of ban on FGC. A 2005 government health survey found that, “the practice of female circumcision is virtually universal among women of reproductive age in Egypt.”
FGC on religious grounds remained a difficult issue and there was a push for Christian and Muslim scholars to publicly denounce FGC. The Al-Alzhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, which is the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a fatwa against FGC, saying that it has no basis in Islamic law (see our previous blog about that conference). Religion is powerful in changing attitudes, but this specific fatwa does not seem to have had the influence it could.
A recent UNICEF report for example commented that programmes by the Coptic Evangelical Organisation of Social Services resulted in 50 villages abandoning the practice in 2009. The report also notes that the subject of FGC has ceased to be a taboo and is now widely discussed by men and women especially in younger generations.
In 2008, the Egyptian parliament responded and banned FGC outright, categorising it as a deliberate harmful bodily injury on girls and women.
New York Times, ‘Voices Rise in Egypt to Shield Girls from an Old Tradition’
The New Republic, ‘For Young Women, a Horrifying Consequence of Mubarak’s Overthrow’, October 2011