Egypt Bans FGM but What’s the Reality?

Date: January 2011.

ZeinabHaram, Haram, Haram (prohibited, prohibited, prohibited), are the words that greet me from Zeinab, a 60 year old grandmother, midwife and female genital mutilation (FGM) practitioner for 30 years. While Zeinab routinely performed FGM on her clients’ daughters, today she is a fervent anti-FGM advocate.

The Egyptian Government approves: Public law 126 outlawed female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt at the end of 2008.

But Egyptians, mostly, are not following the ban. In 2009, 88% of women and girls had this procedure which is conducted either by a midwife or a male nurse/health barber. The practice is widespread among both Christians and Muslims, even though it is un-Islamic, un-Quranic and not part of Prophet Muhammad’s practices and traditions.

Two Sides of FGM Equation: Supply and Demand

Why is Zeinab – unlike most of her peers – supporting this critical reform? In Cairo, on a recent site visit with the Egyptian Association for Social Development (EASD) which combats FGM, I meet Magdy Amin. He is an activist who informs, educates and helps midwives and health barbers make the jump from practitioners of FGM to anti-FGM advocates. He introduced me to Zeinab, who was on the supply side of the equation. However, in her new incarnation, she enjoys being an entrepreneurial vendor at her poultry shop in Koneissa, an urban slum close to Giza.

The story of Zeinab’s conversion starts with Magdy explaining the facts: “FGM is not Islamic, but a legacy of Egyptian pharaohs”. Zeinab listens. Having performed countless procedures, Zeinab has first hand knowledge of the blood curdling impact of the procedure on women’s lives. Viscerally, she gets the life long pain from wounds inflicted on women physically (manifested during childbirth and intimate relations) and psychologically. What Zeinab did not understand – until she met Magdy – was that FGM is not Quranically mandated. That was her “aha” moment.

The conversations with Magdy were a turning point for the grandmother with furrowed face, missing teeth, a strong and soulful presence. A devout Muslim, Zeinab was quick to connect the dots. She realized local Egyptian customs, historic legacies and Nile Delta traditions trumped faith on FGM. She seized Magdy’s offer to make a career switch, accepted his stipend to start an alternative income generating business and signed the contract to permanently disengage from FGM. Having been raised with chickens in her childhood village, Zeinab started an organic poultry shop where business fluctuates between good and bad days, netting her about 50 Egyptian pounds ($10) a day.

Zeinab was one of four FGM practitioners I met in Koneissa, who changed occupations. The other three included:

Faiza, a midwife who started a grocery story and, two health barbers;

Faiza

Amin an early grantee of the Muslim Women’s Fund, who upgraded his hair salon to attract more clients. I was particularly excited to meet him, having followed his journey of change since 2007. Amin’s willingness to relinquish doing FGM procedures impressed me so much that I made a contribution to the Muslim Women’s Fund to support his remodeling costs.

Amin

Abunamoos, was a dynamic, entrepreneurial young man who became a Tuk Tuk (motor rickshaw) driver, and doubled his income by renting his Tuk Turk for the 12 hours a day that he was off duty.

Abunamoos

The four former practitioners of FGM shared a common refrain: This is haram (prohibited). My conscience is clear. I am satisfied with my decision. I am happy for the change.

On the demand side of the FGM equation are Egyptian mothers. Interestingly, they are the keepers of tradition in this regard and the decision makers about whether their daughters should undergo FGM. Typically, fathers of daughters entrust this decision to their wives.

Mervat, also an anti FGM advocate, who had persuaded Jehand, 38 years old, and Marwa, 27 to not perform FGM on their daughters, escorted Carl, my husband and I to meet these ladies. Both wore burqas, showing their faces.

Mervat

As per custom, all three women had the FGM procedure at the age of 8, 8 and 6 years respectively (since the average age for FGM is 7-10 years for girls in Cairo). Jehand and Marwa were persuaded by Mervat’s religious, medical and historic arguments to not perform FGM on their young daughters.

jenand

Marwa, a mother of four kids, 6-10 years old and a widow talked about the unimaginable pain of FGM, the life long impact and untold conflict in her marital relationship, with her husband. She explained all this softly with a smile, no trace of anger or hostility. I marveled at her human spirit which soared despite the insatiable emotional and physical pain. All she wanted to do was give me a gift – from her home which was utterly bare except for a couple of cushions on the floor.

Nadia, 35, covered her full face except a slit which showed her eyes. She blew my stereotype. Of the three ladies, she appeared to be the most conservative and refused to be included in the photographs for most of our visit. But then she volunteered the fact that she had not allowed her daughter, now 16, to be subjected to FGM. Stunned, I probed. She divulged that she had seen a TV program about the harmful impact of the procedure which convinced her. Her modernity was evident, despite being a fully covered woman.

Both on the supply and demand side, there were two key take away: First, the religious clarification was the most persuasive argument on the supply and demand sides; Second, to inform mothers and FGM practitioners on the facts of FGM is key in empowering them to make the right choices and decisions for themselves and their families.

The opinions mentioned in this blog reflect the personal perspective of Shahnaz Taplin Chinoy, Chair Invest in Muslim Women.

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