According to the United Nations, 90 percent of Egyptian women still undergo female genital cutting (FGC), although it was criminalized in Egypt in 2008 and at least one doctor has been sent to prison for performing the procedure. Despite international campaigns, government regulations, and advocacy by local NGOs, the practice is still dominant in Egyptian culture.
Most girls are subjected to cutting by the age of 10 or 11 years old but Mona, a mother of three in a poor neighborhood in the suburbs of Cairo, refused to have her daughters suffer through what she went through. It is not an easy stance for a mother to take. She has to convince her husband, confront relatives, and endure gossip as she pushes back against society’s pressure on her as a parent.
Mona’s decision is not related to a human rights movement and has nothing to do with whether the procedure is defined as mutilation or referred to by the term used in Egypt — circumcision. She didn’t have her consciousness raised by a documentary or a women’s advocate. Rather, personal experience drove her decision: Mona’s own circumcision almost destroyed her marriage by impacting her intimate relationship with her husband. She wanted to spare her daughters that pain. Her saving them from FGC is her attempt to ensure healthy marriages for her daughters – specifically, rewarding intimate relationships with their future husbands.
Mona was 10 years old when she was taken to a house where many other girls — cousins, neighbors, friends — were gathered. The men were sent out of the house while the women gathered and took the girls, one at a time, into a room where a woman did the cutting. As is the common practice, the girls were given no pain-killer, and Mona recalls that the screams of one girl after the other echoed throughout the house. What she described seemed more like a scene from a torture house than a traditional ceremonial practice.
At the age of 13, Mona was taken out of school even though she was an excellent student with ambition to continue her education. Her family thought she was too old to be walking in the streets to and from school. Mona continued to read on her own and was married off a few years later. But she and her husband struggled through their marriage, as she derived no pleasure from their sexual relationship. “He accused me of being cold. And when that happened, it destroyed my confidence as a woman and a wife. This tension really challenged our relationship and I didn’t know what to do,” Mona explains.
Mona was at a loss. She didn’t know how to improve her sexual relationship with her husband. So she went to the library and researched all she could find on the subject. She found an Arabic book on the issue, written by an Egyptian woman, with suggestions on how to improve sexual relationships between married partners when one has experienced FGC. Mona took the book home, marked the pages that included suggestions for the men, and put the book on the coffee table of her very humble home. When her husband came home from work, she referred in passing to this interesting book that she’d encountered. He picked up the book, found the marked pages and, without a word, read them carefully. Things got better after that.
When it came time for her daughters to undergo cutting, Mona was adamant. “Over my dead body. My daughters were not to go through what I went through,” Mona explains. “My husband said they must, otherwise no one will marry them. So did my mother-in-law. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t let them go through this,” Mona says of her lobbying campaign. “I did the exact same thing I did when I wanted to help my marital relationship. I found a book on the subject, I highlighted the pages that talked about how horrible the practice is from a psychological and physical perspective, how it is like a torture for women and how it impacts their wellbeing for the rest of their lives. I folded the pages and left them at the coffee table for my husband to read.”
Mona’s strategy worked.
It is usually the fathers who demand the cutting, thinking that they will ensure the honor of their daughters by permanently cutting away any sexual sensation from their body. The practice sometimes entails a small cut and sometimes the cuts are so severe that it becomes a painful experience even to urinate. In Egypt it is widely believed that girls who do not undergo cutting will become promiscuous. When Mona’s husband stood with her in opposing the tradition, the couple’s daughters were saved. “Many people tell me how could I do that, as it will endanger my daughters’ honor. I tell them, the honor comes from how I raise them and how they behave, not whether or not their vagina is cut off and mutilated,” Mona insists.
FGC is discredited worldwide by those who stand at a cultural or ideological distance from it. But for Mona, it’s personal, and she speaks about it in a practical and realistic way that even a husband can understand. Enlisting fathers in the struggle may, in fact, turn out to be an effective strategy for ending the practice.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including the best-selling memoir Between Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.