Over the past few weeks the debate re-emerged over female genital mutilation, or female circumcision, has re-emerged in Egypt.
Several months ago, a 16-year-old girl died at a public hospital in Suez after heavy and unstoppable bleeding in the wake of a medically performed FGM operation.
The government has ordered a legal investigation into the incident on the basis of manslaughter, but not because it violates a law that was adopted some 20 years ago to criminalise the operation.
And a few weeks later, MP Ahmed El-Tahawy, a physician and professor at the Cairo University's medical school, stated publicly that it is not up to doctors to deny or stop FGM practices, “because this is not a matter for doctors to decide but rather for clergy.”
El-Tahawy, who is a member of the health committee in the Egyptian parliament, was not reprimanded by either the speaker of parliament, the health minister, the dean of Cairo University medical school, or the Doctors Syndicate.
“This is probably the most telling reaction you could ever get – this is the kind of reaction that basically shows that what this MP said is not prompting, as it should have, an outcry, neither in the medical, especially gynaecological society nor in the official or legislative quarters; this is because FGM is so mainstream for everyone, most unfortunately,” said Hussein Gohar, a prominent gynaecologist, women’s rights activist and member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
“Listen, I think we should look facts in the eye: medical doctors are not a separate part of society; they are not just medical operators; they are members of society and they subscribe to ideas that formulate the predominant culture just like everybody else,” Gohar said.
He added that he was not surprised by the findings shared by some anti-FGM activists that indicated an increased participation of medical doctors – not just nurses or midwives as the case has traditionally been – in performing FGM.
According to Gohar, there are two factors there: the first is that there are some who are convinced, whether we like it or not, that FGM is a religious duty “and whatever they are told at the school of medicine they would opt first to follow clerics.”
This is despite the suggestion by a small number of Muslim clerics that the saying supposedly attributed to the Prophet Mohamed approving of FGM is unfounded.
Second, Gohar added, the “lukewarm on-and-off and poorly designed media campaign against FGM argues that girls who undergo FGM risk infection or un-intentional injury because poor hygiene and inefficient midwives or nurses do the job at home, so the parents decided to take their girls to the doctor.”
According to Gohar, “this is precisely the two points that we need to address if we are at all serious about abolishing this appalling violation of girls’ bodies and souls: the convictions of parents and doctors, and the discourse of the clergy on the matter.”
“What we need is really a proper nation-wide and very committed and long-term national campaign,” he argued.
According to Gohar, this campaign should not be just about a few “convoluted and vague awareness spots” as the case has been traditionally, “because what we have had so far has failed to introduce any significant reduction” in what most informed gynaecologists and concerned feminists say is a violation to which around one of every four Egyptian girls is subjected.
“Listen, there is no media campaign that is going to take the percentage down by 50 percent in a matter of five or ten years; I am sorry but this is not going to happen, unfortunately,” he said.
Gohar is convinced, he said, that “we are talking about a generation or two before we start seeing a serious reduction in the percentage of this practice.”
He argued that those men and women in their twenties or thirties who are about to be the parents of young girls have not been brought up to believe that FGM is not a requirement either by religion – be it Islam or Christianity because the practice is shared across religions – or by traditionally accepted social norms.
Those parents, he argued, were brought up to believe that excising a girl’s clitoris is something that keeps her sexual desire in line and thus keeps her away from pursuing pre-marital sex.
“Now this is the starting point that I think we need to openly and with no hesitation share at the widest scale; men and women need to realize that FGM does not control women’s sexual desire but rather blocks women’s sexual pleasure,” he argues.
“But this was never said because our society would not start to even admit, especially in a public forum, that there is such a thing as women’s sexual pleasure,” Gohar said.
“This is the big taboo of all times – not just by women who undergo FGM but even by those who are lucky enough to escape it for one reason or another; women’s sexual pleasure is deemed an act of immorality,” he stated.
“This is not just about the submission of women; but also about the overall ignorance about sexology – and I am not really excluding the schools of medicine here,” Gohar suggested.
What Gohar is proposing is a campaign that tells girls and boys in school, in single-sex classes if necessary, that FGM is not the recipe for good behaviour “because sexual desire is a function of the brain rather than the genitals,” he said.
Moreover, he added, the schools of medicine should give more time to move future doctors away from this practice “and I don’t think that this should be impossible for a medical society.”
The objective here is to get young men and women who will be parents or doctors in the next 25 years to relinquish this practice.
“Of course this is not a job that will have a hundred percent success immediately but if we secure a decent percentage reduction then we are on the right track,” he added.
However, Gohar acknowledged that the battle against FGM will not be won without the support of clerics “who speak openly, repeatedly and firmly against this practice and who are willing to tell society that this is a Nile Basin practice that has no foundation either in either Islam or Christianity.”
“It would not be convincing for public opinion necessarily, or at all, if I, as a gynaecologist, go and tell a clergyman who is arguing that Muslim girls should undergo the partial or full elimination of the clitoris, that he is making it up and that this practice for example is present in Saudi Arabia; but if a prominent and decent clerical figure does this then it makes a big difference,” he argued.
He added that this has to be a vocal and sustainable discourse “whereby the clergy do not change what they say in public, in say a TV programme, when they meet privately with some followers.”
“Of course we have to have the media on board with this campaign, not simply with some promotional material but with substantive discussion,” he stressed.
“Short of this, no fundamental change is to be expected,” he said.
Gohar, who has helped sporadic civil society efforts against the practice, is not convinced that the physical and psychological well-being of girls and women is a priority for the state at this point – no matter what international commitments and national legislations the country had implemented over the years and no matter the lip service that is paid by the state to women’s rights and health.