TAKING A STAND AGAINST CIRCUMCISION
by Jennifer Reidy
“I still remember everything – the shock, the feeling of the razor, the warm blood between my legs. I felt like I was dying and going to hell.” Magda Gad, a poor farmer’s wife in Abu Gelban village in Minya, Egypt, remembers how her mother crept into her bedroom one night when she was eight years old. Her mother held her arms while a midwife forced the girl’s legs open and cut her with a dirty razor.
By cutting off part of the girl’s clitoris, Gad’s mother wanted to curb her sexual appetite and keep her chaste until marriage. Thirty years later, as a mother herself, Gad ordered the same sudden, brutal operation for her two older daughters. “I love them. I thought I was doing the right thing”, she says. “ I wanted people to know they weren’t ‘wild’ so they could get married and be happy one day.”
Gad’s daughter Hanna is eight years old, the same age Gad was when she was circumcised. But Hanna and Nagwa, Gad’s month-old baby girl, will escape the midwife’s knife. After generations of women have suffered the effects of this savage custom, the tiny village of Abu Gelban has outlawed the practice of female circumcision.
“The operation is very dangerous. Young girls can bleed to death or get sick from an infection:, explains Ibrahim Kamel, Gad’s husband and a member of the “village committee”, which ordered an end to the custom. “The only way to stop a girl from having sex before marriage is to teach her the correct values – not by cutting her sex organs.”
The leaders of Abu Gelban are not liberal radicals or champions of women’s rights. They are simple farmers who live just as their parents, grandparents and great grandparents did. But a small group of local leaders were convinced of the physical and psychological traumas of circumcision by a group of social workers from the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS) in Minya.
Where many development projects have tried and failed, CEOSS has decreased the practice of clitorectomy by between 30-50% in 20 rural villages since 1987.
Despite the village edict against circumcision, one courageous villager had to be the first to obey it. CEOSS and local leaders hoped to use that person as an example for the rest of the village. Magda Gad and her husband, who later became members of the village committee, were one of the first couples to comply, although when CEOSS first tried to convince them of the medical risks of the unsanitary and needless operation, Gad was the most stubborn of the two, insisting her daughter’s clitoris would grow long and “look like a man’s”.
“Women are usually harder to convert than men, even though this practice is hurting them”, explains William. “People who don’t have any power, women especially, cling to tradition and codes of behavior because it gives them a sense of security, false as it may be.”
But Gad soon accepted what CEOSS was telling her. Her own memories of circumcision are still vivid. “I am so sad this thing happened to my older daughter,” she says now. “I told them it was wrong, it was my fault. They are happy it won’t happen to their younger sisters.”
While women rebel against the practice because they remember the physical pain and mental torture, men see circumcision as a threat to their fertility and sexual pleasure in marriage. “The operation is very dirty. Girls can get an infection that will make them sterile”, stresses Kamel, Gad’s husband. “Cutting the girl’s sex organs also makes it difficult for her and her husband to enjoy sex.”
Most of the villagers are convinced of the health risks of female circumcision. But they do not realize the practice is part of the lives of women who are valued and devalued by their sexual status. Although circumcision is a brutal, visible example of virginity at any cost, the attitude that “sex is wrong” for women (but not for men) is not unique to Egypt or Third World countries. In the West, young people learn early that “nice girls” do not have sex, while “bad girls” do. Even the elite and educated do not escape such views. In Britain, before Lady Diana Spencer was to wed Prince Charles in grand ceremony, the royal family had Diana “checked” to see if she was a virgin.
Aside from stemming a girl’s sexual adventurousness, circumcision is allegedly performed to clean her “dirty parts.” The practice is commonly known as tahara (“purification”) in Arabic. Again, the notion that female genitalia is dirty is not specifically Egyptian: in the West, feminine hygiene forms the basis of an entire industry manufacturing sprays, creams, shampoos, and douches. Television commercials often show female models, dressed in white, running through a meadow of fresh flowers. The message? Keep it clean, ladies.
Female circumcision is the horrible physical manifestation of common beliefs about women and virginity. The practice occurs in more than 40 countries, but mostly in West and East Africa. More rarely, the operation is performed in southern parts of the Arabian peninsula, Southeast Asia, Peru, Brazil, eastern Mexico and Australia. In rural Egypt, almost 100% of women are circumcised. In cities, only the educated and privileged few are spared: in one study at Ain Shams University hospital in Cairo, 98% of the poor and working-class women visiting the gynecological ward were circumcised.
There are three types of circumcision. In the first, the midwife cuts off the labia minora. Usually the operation is performed by unskilled “midwives”, frequently using an unsanitized knife or razor. Both the labia minora and the clitoris are removed in the second type of circumcision. These two are the most common forms of circumcision in Egypt and are referred to as sunna (“traditional”) excision. The most brutal operation is the third type in which the labia minora, labia majora and the clitoris are removed; this also involves stitching the vaginal opening closed, leaving just a pinhole to allow urine and menstrual blood to flow. In Egypt, this is known as “Sudanese circumcision”. In Sudan, where it is widely practiced, it is called “Pharaonic circumcision”.
No one knows the origins of the custom, but there are a few scattered references which indicate it was practiced in ancient Egypt. One theory is that it came out of the Pharaonic belief in the bisexuality of the gods. Every person was thought to have masculine and feminine “souls”. The feminine soul of the man was located in the prepuce and the masculine soul of the woman was found in the clitoris. Both of these are shed during circumcision; only after that point can a boy become a man, or a girl a woman. Today, one of the first reasons Egyptian mothers give for circumcising their daughters is, “She’ll look like a man if we don’t cut it off.”
Female circumcision is widely mistaken as a religious ritual. However, this belief is without foundation. The tradition predates the Prophet Mohamed, and there is no mention of it in either the Old or New Testaments of the Bible. The operation is unheard of in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Iran, and Iraq, yet in Egypt, both Muslims and Copts traditionally circumcise girls.
Although widely practiced in Egypt for many, many years, circumcision has been off the “things we can talk about” list ever since it began. The government has not officially banned the operation, contrary to popular opinion. The only action taken was a Ministry of Public Health decree in 1959, which forbade persons other than doctors, particularly midwives, to perform the operation. If a family should choose to follow the custom, the Ministry recommended partial, or sunna, circumcision. The decree also prohibited the use of government hospitals and clinics for the operations.
It was not until 1969, with the publication of Egyptian feminist Nawal el Saadawi’s Women and Sex, that clitorectomy became a public discussion. El Saadawi, a psychiatrist and author of 27 books, wrote about her own circumcision and put the subject into a broader feminist framework. In 1981, she was put in jail by Anwar Sadat during his campaign to silence almost 1,500 dissenting voices.
Although el Saadawi’s books and lectures on circumcision spawned both national and international debate, not much has changed until now. The case of the Abu Gelban village is rare, but others like it are appearing. Apparently, the sentiment to change is there in rural villages, and groups like CEOSS are the catalysts. “Some of us felt that this thing (circumcision) was wrong, but we didn’t know why”, says Isaac Gad, the village committee’s secretary. “As just one person, I didn’t know how to make a change.”
The committee’s public campaign to end circumcision seems to be a huge success. But CEOSS may encounter a backlash in some villages from midwives, whose financial mainstays are delivering babies and circumcising young girls. “So far it’s not that bad. But I’ve heard the midwives sometimes tell women not to take birth control pills because it will give them cancer. They say, ‘You’re young. Why aren’t you having babies while you still can?’” says William. “I’m sure a few of them scare mothers into circumcision, predicting that their daughters will never marry.”
Despite vengeful counterattacks from midwives, the village committee has been successful in ending other harmful traditions to women’s health and status. The community has embraced family planning, and, aside from parents having fewer children, pregnancies are spaced far enough apart for the mother’s good health.
A common ritual on wedding nights in the village is the display of a blood-soaked cloth by a midwife, who has confirmed the virginity of the bride. This event is often a difficult or embarrassing situation for the bride, the groom and their families, for some women may not bleed, even if they are virgins. The village committee has stopped this practice as well, by appealing to villagers’ pocketbooks. “The parties we have on wedding nights are very expensive. The whole village turns out, and we have to kill our best cows, goats and chickens”, says Isaac Gad. “It’s better to save our money for something else.”
The village committee in Abu Gelban has reformed people’s thinking about dangerous practices they once took for granted, and even admired. But their campaign against female circumcision is their greatest victory yet, sparing new generations of women a few moments of pain and decades of lingering horror.
“Soon there will be more girls like Hasnna”, says Magda Gad, stroking her daughter’s hair. “We’ve told our sons it’s good for them to marry uncircumcised girls. The future is going to be filled with happy families.”
Our thanks to Feiruz Aram for submitting this article to Habibi. Reprinted with permission from The Middle East, August 1991. (7 Coldbath Square, London, ECIR 4LQ, U.K.). Suggested reading: Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, by Nayra Atiya.