THE NEW YORK TIMES, New York, August 8, 1996: Page A3.

Mutilation of Egyptian Girls: Despite Ban, It Goes on


   MINYA EL QAMH, Egypt -- In the weeks since the Egyptian health minister
banned the ritual genital mutilation of girls, no one in this Nile Delta
farming town has consulted the senior local cleric on whether to proceed with
the custom. People plan to do it anyway. 

   The cleric, Sheik Taha Gad, expects most Egyptians to defy the ministerial
decree. The importance that families put on trying to curb a woman's sexual
appetite is so deeply ingrained that everyone from the local farmers appalled
by the ruling to the top government official responsible for putting it into
effect says that some social customs are too potent to be extinguished by

   "Islam says circumcision for men is a tradition of the Prophet," the Sheik
said. "Men are obligated to do it to emulate him, and for women it is a
virtue. But it is not really an issue that is discussed in public. Remember
that Egyptian society clings tightly to its traditions and principles, so
there is no change under way, and if one ever materializes no one will talk
about it." 

   The expected defiance underscores the difficulty that any government --
even an autocratic one extremely sensitive to its international image --
faces in trying to alter social practices widely denounced abroad when they
are embedded at home. 

   The tradition seems to be more of an African puberty rite than an Islamic
one. It is frequently practiced in Egypt and the Sudan as well as sub-Saharan
Africa, among Christians as well as Muslims, but is virtually unknown in most
Arab countries. 

   Despite the general taboo against discussing the custom, the debate has
been heard periodically in public for almost two years now, pressed by new
women's groups and human rights organizations. 

   They point to the trauma involved for young girls and try to debunk the
idea that a woman's sexual temptations, and by extension her family's honor,
can be safeguarded only through a clitoridectomy, or removal of the clitoris
and sometimes of surrounding labial tissue. 

   The procedure eliminates or severely reduces a woman's genital sexual
sensation. Clitoridectomy is less drastic than infibulation, which involves
removing all of a woman's external genitalia and sewing the wound shut until
she is married, leaving a small hole for urination. These procedures are
often referred to as female circumcision. 

   The recent ban in Egypt stemmed from a combination of factors. The new
health minister, Ismail Sallem, and the new head of Al Azhar, the country's
leading Islamic institution, both refused to endorse the custom. 

   In addition, there has been prominent coverage this summer of a few little
girls who reportedly bled to death -- including a Cairo girl passing through
this town. 

   In Egypt the procedure is performed by midwives or barbers under the
supervision of the adult women in the family, usually without anesthesia and
often under less than hygienic conditions. 

   "The big problem, what makes us really apprehensive, is that most of this
is done behind closed doors at home," said Dr. Mushira al-Shafie, the deputy
health minister. 

   Many have compared the current campaign to the battle to introduce birth
control here. 

   Birth control was widely assailed as a sin when a drive to educate the
public and provide contraceptives began in 1980. That campaign took about
four years to have an effect. 

   "When we started the birth control campaign, everyone was against us,"
Shafie said, recalling the outcry over a poster that included a drawing of a
woman's uterus. "People were asking us why we wanted to limit the number of
children when God takes care of everybody." 

   A coming health education and public relations campaign on clitoridectomy
will emphasize that the practice can scar children psychologically and lead
to future problems in sexual relations, menstruation and labor. The moral and
religious message, Shafie said, must be left up to Al Azhar's scholars. 

   At this point, the religious scholars are not all convinced. The last
leader of Al Azhar had issued a religious decree proclaiming that Islam
endorsed the practice of clitoridectomy. 

   In response to the decree by that leader, Sheik Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq,
who died in March, the Health Ministry declared last year that
clitoridectomies must be performed only in hospitals, to make the procedure
safer for the girls, who are usually between the ages of 4 and 10. 

   Opponents of the procedure were shocked, feeling that the decision to
confine the procedure to hospitals gave the practice a government seal of
approval. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights brought suit against Al
Azhar to have the religious fiat reversed. 

   While the suit has been meandering through the courts, the new head of Al
Azhar, Sheik Mohammed Tantawi, expressed reservations about the practice. He
said the Koran did not mention the topic and references in the sayings of the
Prophet Mohammed, the source of much Islamic law, were too vague to
constitute a ruling. 

   The decision should be left up to the medical establishment, he said. The
Health Ministry stepped in with its ban, superseding its 1995 action. 

   An estimated 100 million women today have undergone some form of
traditional genital mutilation, and each year about 2 million more girls
undergo the procedure. Although more than 20 countries in Africa have
published policies opposing the procedures, they are rarely prohibited by

   Nawal Saadawy, the Egyptian feminist whose book "The Hidden Face of Eve"
described her own experience with genital mutilation, estimates that in the
United States, where she now teaches, about 40,000 of the procedures are
performed each year in immigrant communities. Several states have laws
against the practice, and the federal government has pursued the issue as
well. Britain and France have made the procedures illegal. 

   No one is quite sure how the tradition got started. 

   Marie Assaad, the coordinator of the National Female Genital Mutilation
Task Force in Egypt, wrote in a groundbreaking study that the tradition might
have come from the Pharaohs. They apparently believed that gods were bisexual
but that humans needed to have those tendencies excised through circumcision
for men and clitoridectomy for women. 

   To this day, villagers around places like Minya el Qamh, 30 miles
northeast of Cairo, believe that a woman will pursue sex as aggressively as a
man if she has not undergone a clitoridectomy. 

   "Am I supposed to stand around while my daughter chases men?" said Said
Ibrahim, 53, a farmer aghast over the government ban. "So what if some
infidel doctor says it is unhealthy? Does that make it true? I would have
circumcised my daughter even if they passed a death sentence against it." 

   Ibrahim said villagers would not obey the ruling unless they were
persuaded to by a religious leader. "You know what honor is in Egypt," he
said. "If a woman is more passive it is in her interest, it is in her
father's interest and in her husband's interest." 

   The conviction crosses generational lines. Mohammed Ali, 17, said he would
not associate with a woman who had not undergone the procedure. "Banning it
would make women wild like those in America," he said. 

   Shafie, the deputy health minister, says women feel that their reputations
are at stake and therefore do not object to the practice. 

   Estimates on the number of girls who have undergone the procedure in Egypt
range from 80 to 97 percent. It is believed to be ubiquitous in smaller
villages, but the highest numbers are discounted because women might profess
to having undergone the ritual, since it is considered such a hallmark of
female modesty. 

   Belief in the practice is not limited to rural areas. Dr. Said M. Thabit,
a Cairo obstetrician, said he had not heard about the government ban but
believed that it would be catastrophic on moral and hygienic grounds. 

   "With circumcision we remove the external parts, so when a girl wears
tight nylon underclothes she will not have any stimulation," said Thabit, who
thinks the operation should be performed only by doctors and who keeps a
collection of pictures of procedures botched by village barbers. 

   Dr. Gamal Gaith, who works at the Minya el Qamh Public Hospital, said the
decree finally prompted him to turn families away. "I used to do it," he
said, "even though I knew it was harmful for the women, because of the

Copyright 1996 The New York Times

(File revised 26 December 2003)