Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Protecting Girls in Egypt

Sometimes I think I should stop reading medical journals and start studying, oh, maybe the history of gardening. (Hmm - that might not be any cheerier. Think pestilence. Think famine.)

Last week, this sad, disturbing, depressing item appeared in the British Medical Journal:
Egypt has announced that it is imposing a complete ban on female genital mutilation. The ban was imposed last week by the Ministry of Health after a public outcry over the death of a 12 year old girl, Budour Ahmad Shaker, who died from an overdose of anaesthetic while being circumcised.

After the much publicised death of the girl, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights appealed to the government for a law that would criminalise the practice and that would "punish doctors who commit this crime, and close clinics and hospital that continue to practise it." The doctor who had carried out the circumcision on the girl has been arrested, and the clinic where it took place has been closed down.

In Egypt 75% of female genital mutilation is carried out by doctors and nurses, and 25% are carried out by birth attendants, or "dayas," most of whom are poorly qualified. Subsequent death from various causes, including bleeding and infections, is common.
On the one hand, there appears to be a kernel of good news in this. Egypt appears to be cracking down on a brutal practice, right? And more importantly, at least one feminist group strongly backs the new law?

But not so fast. Since I don't know much about feminism in Egypt, I thought I'd better dig a little deeper. The practice is still widespread in Egypt. And so it stands to reason: if the hospitals are totally boxed, won't the dayas' business explode?

Umm, yeah. A Reuters article that includes the voice of actual girls hints at why the new law may indeed backfire, putting girls at greater risk than before:
The death of the 11-year-old schoolgirl at a private clinic in the Egyptian village Mughagha in June prompted the government to outlaw the custom of female genital mutilation, which is so widespread in Egypt that 95 percent of the country's women are estimated to have undergone the procedure.

But the ban may be hard to enforce and activists fear the practise may go underground as the vast majority of Egyptian families still view circumcision as necessary to protect girls' chastity. Most girls are cut by the time they reach puberty.

Even in Mughagha, a village of low rise houses hemming the Nile, many women and girls say they want the procedure to be allowed but under more stringent medical supervision.

"If a girl is not purified, she will just go hook up with men. This protects women's honour. Otherwise it will become just like America here and girls will go with guys," said Asma Said, a 16-year-old secondary school student.

"Those who say it doesn't happen are lying 100 percent. There is not one person here not circumcised, and it will continue."

She like many of the schoolgirls in Maghagha who spoke to Reuters said they supported the practice, even if they were frightened of having it done.

The only girl who spoke against the practice was shouted down by her classmates until she conceded that genital cutting was a necessity.

"No one can get married without it," said the girl.
So it comes down to patriarchy. I don't often say that. But what real choice do these girls have? How else should we understand this, when even the girls themselves see cutting as a form of male control over female sexuality? Of course they know they'll be social outcasts if they remain intact. And so, as long as a girl's access to marriage, children, security, and social adulthood hinges on it, she's unlikely to protest.

I'm reluctant to prescribe a better solution because as an outsider, I just don't know enough. I only know that we have to be cautious about assuming that any crackdown on genital cutting will automatically improve women's lives. And that new laws often don't matter worth a darn if they're not matched by new attitudes.


Sugarmag said...

Hey Sungold, if you get a chance to see it, you might enjoy the movie Moolaade. It is an African movie about FGM.

Sungold said...

Thanks for the tip, Sugar Mag. I'm not sure if the right word would be "enjoy" - I find this a really tough topic to think about, so much so that I had very divided feeling about even posting on it. For one thing, it's emotionally very upsetting. For another, it's very easy to play the know-it-all about other cultures, and I want to be careful to avoid that.

Sugarmag said...

Hi again Sungold, I know what you mean about not being an expert on other cultures. Moolaade is an excellent film about a culture that is very different from our own and in this movie, women in a family take a stand against FGM, it is truly an enjoyable movie.

Sungold said...

Well, I trust your judgment on these things. You and I have very similar taste in books, so that makes me think we'd probably agree on most movies, too.

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

Thank you for this post, despite its sad news. I read a book, a long time ago--The Great Cosmic Mother by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor. It had some things in it that I didn't necessarily agree with, but one point that has reverberated with me ever since:

"...there is a profound psychological and institutional reluctance to face the repercussions of the fact that the female clitoris is the only organ in the human body whose purpose is exclusively that of erotic stimulation and release. What does this mean? It means that for the human female, alone among all earth's life forms, sexuality and reproduction are not inseparable"

Sungold said...

That's a great quotation. It's ironic: The big cultural myth is that men can compartmentalize their sexuality. Biologically, though, it's women who are equipped to do just that.

Thanks for dropping by again!