Back in the 1980s, activists from around the world rallied around the issue of FGM and urged UN institutions and governments to take actions against it. Yet during the 1980 UN Conference on Women in Copenhagen and the 1985 meeting in Nairobi marking the end of the UN Women’s Decade, tensions arose between North American and European feminists who condemned FGM outright and African women, who were seen by Western feminists as apologists for their cultures. As the issue became sensationalized and politicized, some Africans grew defensive and made a rallying point of the authenticity of their specific cultural traditions. However, the fact that we, as Southern women’s rights advocates, are branded as agents of Western cultural imperialism when we speak out against FGM indicates that defenses of FGM are often less about maintaining traditions for the benefit of society than about sensitivity to geopolitical power inequalities. In my country, Egypt, where 97 percent of married women are circumcised, polarizing international debate doesn’t contribute to my area of concern: changing the minds of parents who are planning to circumcise their daughters.
Over the last century in Egypt, some doctors have argued that FGM is a necessary procedure because the clitoris would otherwise grow to rival the male penis and issue bad odors. Religious lore from the Koran is then harnessed in support of these absurdities. Those arguing against the practice point to the negative health side effects of FGM and back up their position with rival religious quotes, posing one hadith (saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad) against another offered in support of FGM. However, these strategies have not worked. In the eyes of the audience, activists will never have the same authority to comment on religion as religious officials do. Highlighting health risks also presents credibility problems, because many women do not suffer from them or are not aware of them.
Emphasizing the health problems related to FGM has also had the disastrous effect of focusing debate only on the conditions under which the practice is performed. This has prompted calls to seek the assurance and sophistication of modern medicine and allow doctors to perform FGM in hospitals and private clinics. Even the government has considered institutionalizing and legitimizing the practice in this way. While it is true that sterilized surgical tools and anesthesia are preferable to the practices of hala’een seha (“health barbers” who perform male circumcisions) or traditional birth attendants, underscoring the negative health consequences does not effectively challenge the reasoning behind FGM and thus allows it to continue.
The Egyptian Female Genital Mutilation Task Force seeks to question the “why” of FGM rather than the “how,” and to counter the straitjacket of prevailing religious and medical arguments and strategies. We are a coalition of 60 NGOs working at the grassroots level with an advisory group of researchers and activists in the fields of reproductive health, education, law, and human rights. When we were drafting a document outlining our strategies, one of my task force colleagues referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a way to convince people to stop the practice. This evoked an array of responses from the coalition. Some asked if they could be furnished with a copy of the document, others were unmoved, and a minority thought it could have relevance to our work. We ultimately decided, however, that appealing to specific universal norms and UN documents would make no impression on those whose behavior we sought to affect at the local level, because such terms would be unfamiliar to them.
In order to argue against FGM at the local level, we use people’s own life experiences and frames of reference. For example, I would never approach circumcised women using terminology that referred to them as “genitally mutilated.” Although “female circumcision” misleadingly equates the practice with male circumcision, it focuses on the intent rather than the consequence and is respectful to the people practicing it. With concepts that are familiar and understandable, and grounded in the idea of huquq (a precedent set by God, government, law, or man, or that which is just or fair), we contest the credibility of “female circumcision” as a practice.
We begin by asking those who practice FGM why they insist on it. What are its imagined benefits? Who made the decision to do it? By what right? What about the girl’s rights according to God? We remind people that children are God’s blessing, and it is their duty as parents to protect them. We ask, how can the removal of the clitoris and/or labia minora help to calm a woman’s sexual desire, when desire is located in the mind? Why do they circumcise when they know the clitoris does not grow to the size of a penis? We show them anatomical models and explain the functions of the reproductive system. We question beliefs that clitoridectomy serves as a beautifying procedure. Are they improving on the hand of God? Surely, if God did not want women to have a clitoris it would not be part of their anatomy. How can FGM be a sunna (a good religious action) if the aim of religion is to guarantee the dignity and welfare of people? If women are supposed to be the weaker sex, why hold them responsible for society’s morality? Where does male responsibility fall? Our positions are more forceful when uncircumcised women, “positive deviants,” are present to prove to people that they have married well, remained faithful, and have husbands who have found pleasure in them and are unashamed of them.
We may not be able to convince our audiences to stop circumcision with our first conversation, but at least they begin to realize certain contradictions, and they start to rethink the “facts” as they understood them. It is a slow process of change, but arguments supporting FGM can be dismantled with persistent questioning. Human rights declarations, treaties, and languages aside, an appeal informed by an understanding of human rights but which draws upon local cultural and religious notions of common sense, justice, and dignity is often the best way to promote human rights and change the cultural norms that violate them.
To read the second part of this article, click here.