Thursday, September 20, 2007

Voices Rise in Egypt to Shield Girls from an Old Tradition

It has been a while since my reaction to an article has been as visceral as to this story that appeared in the New York Times today. The lede was certainly eye-catching and compelling. "A 13-year-old girl was brought to a doctor's office to have her clitoris removed, a surgery considered necessary here to preserve chastity and honor."

"Here" referred to Egypt, which I have always thought was very modern and urban when it came to their living situation and habits. Unfortunately, according to Michael Slackman, despite the modernization of Egypt, this surgery has been performed on girls between the ages seven and thirteen for many centuries. Even though Egypt had issued a nationwide ban in 1996, it allowed a loophole that have caused critics to believe that it countered the ban, allowing for this practice to nevertheless continue.

However, it is only recently that the voices against genital mutilation have risen to a necessary roar. Slackman credits it to the country's growing ability to talk frankly about sex. The issue is now receiving attention at a national level through television advertisements, news shows, and newspaper coverage. Religious leaders are also stepping forward to say that the Koran (as the majority in Egypt is Islamic) does not condone this act. The government also shut down a clinic that performed this "circumcision," as many of the men of older generations called it, after the 13-year-old girl died from the complications of the surgery. It is a rare moment when the government, media, and religious advocates are all trying to promote the same message.

The statistics for the wide-spread acceptance of genital mutilation in Egypt is astounding. In 2005, a health survey showed that 96 percent of married, divorced, or widowed women have gone through the surgery. In the article, Slackman had obtained quotes from some men that are extremely against the eradication of this surgery. Their words expressed so much anger- which I can understand since it is their values that are being challenged. Yet I wish they could see that sometimes, people get their values wrong. One clear, go-to example is the slavery of African-Americans that existed in American society for so long.

An obstacle to stopping the surgeries permanently in Egyptian society, that Slackman very astutely raised in the article, was the fear that women who do not undergo the surgery will not be able to find a man to marry, and that because of the circumcision and their landing of a husband, their family's honor will be preserved. I feel that these two factors may prove to be the most challenging to widespread social change. It is easy to abhor the action, the cutting, that is performed, but it is hard to discount the belief that men and women have held for so long. What if the men decide that they don't want to marry a women who hasn't had her clitoris cut off? Then I'm afraid that the practice might be done secretly and worse, in unsanitary conditions.

It is fantastic, though, that they have been able to get the message out, since the first step to acknowledgment is knowledge. The first pop culture reference that came to my mind was an Angel episode where Bai Ling played a female in a species where when the females came of age, they had little spikes that jutted out from their backs. These spikes gave the females their emotions and their powers, and it frightened the males, so they always cut it off just as the females hit puberty. Also, as Buffy said in the fourth comic book of the Season Eight BtVS installment, it's not about the power, or the demons; it's about women. And I feel that the angered reactions of the patriarchal society of Egypt is not about traditions, but about losing their hold over the women.


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