A Savage Surgery

By Ezzat, Dina | The Middle East, January 1994 | Go to article overview
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A Savage Surgery

Ezzat, Dina, The Middle East

The practice of female genital mutilation has been condemned by health organisations around the wo of the region, it continues. In Egypt, between 70 and 85% of females, are believed to have suffered circumcision. In recent decades it appeared the barbaric practise might be on the wane. However, rec the tide has once again turned and today, despite vigourous campaigns by health organisations who ha pointed out the many dangers involved, female genital mutilation is again on the increase.

MAGDA was 13 years old when her mother and a group of female neighbours held her down while a local doctor circumcised her. "All the women were holding my arms and legs... I was crying and screaming... I was a hideous and painful experience, she recalls.

Magda is far from alone in having suffered the trauma of this operation. The circumcision of females - the partial or full removal of the clitoris and the labia minora and majora - is still a fact of life for more Egyptian girls.

According to government and international health organisations the percentage of circumcised women in Egypt varies from between 70% and 85%.

Egypt is not the only country where the practice is prevalent. Recent World Health Organisation statistics reveal that female circumcision (which the WHO describes. more graphically as female genital mutilation) occurs in about 40 countries - mainly parts of the Arabian peninsula and East and West Africa and has affected 80 million females.

Social traditions and religious beliefs allow the practice to continue in Egypt. In the eyes of the greater part of the society, circumcising a girl protects her from her own sexual desires and makes her more pure and thus more marriageable. Muslims and Christians alike circumcise their daughters.

In recent decades, while Egypt was exposed to increased westernisation, the practice, known in Arabic as khitan, came to be regarded as a sign of backwardness by the more educated elements of society. As a result, the ratio of women escaping circumcision began to increase.

Today, the trend appears to be reversing. Some of those women who themselves were spared by their mothers are now re-evaluating the tradition. Over the last year, Egypt's leading women's magazine Nisf Al Dunya has received letters from literate mothers who are confused as to whether they should circumcise their daughters.

"I have three daughters aged between seven and nine," wrote one reader. "I am unsure whether I am ordered by Islam to circumcise."

Her confusion is understandable. With the increasing trend towards religious conservatism, there have been calls from some preachers to adhere to tradition and to circumcise females.

Such orders conflict with advice from health workers and the government, that the practice is dangerous and can lead to infection, disease and even death.

Through the confusion emerges one clear signal: The practice of female circumcision is shrouded in ignorance. "Neither the Koran nor the Bible prescribes it," says Dr Marie Asaad, a sociology professor who has spent many years researching the issue. The Koran, indeed, is so specific about other aspects of women's life that it is hard to believe that female circumcision would have been omitted were it divinely ordained.

According to Islamic religious authorities, circumcision was practised in the Arabian peninsula before the advent of Islam. Perhaps this is why one of the very few references to the practice is the often-quoted sunna (prophetic) tradition to "reduce but not eradicate; This is better for the women and preferable for the husband."

Reduce means severing only the tip of the clitoris. And even this tradition is acknowledged to be weak in its authenticity, says Dr Said Al-Naggar, a prominent Islamic scholar. His study of the sira (history of the life of the Prophet) has revealed not a single mention of circumcision.

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A Savage Surgery


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