4 December 2012

Why we 'should' think about FGM even if we've never had to - stories from Egypt

Guest blog by Farhanah Mamoojee.

Girls like me are pretty lucky. We never had to worry about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In fact, the concept is perhaps so alien to us that we have never really had to even think about it. But just because we are lucky enough to have never had to think about it, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it.

My first encounter with the practice of FGM was when I was quite young, probably around the age of fourteen. I came across it in Jean Sassoon’s Princess Trilogy. The novels are part biographical, and follow the story of Princess Sultana, a Saudi Arabian princess, and the day-to-day restrictions in her life as a woman and the struggles of the women around her. In the novel, the subject of FGM appeared quite a lot, and at the time of reading it, I was probably too young to understand the full implication of this practice; what it really meant, and the terrible effects it had on the young girls who are unfortunate enough to have it practiced on them.

Last year, I came across FGM once more, again through a novel. In the penultimate year of my undergraduate degree, I took a module in Modern Arabic Literature and once I had familiarised myself with the course material, I noticed that every single female author we were studying tackled the subject in one-way or another. One of the novels that really shocked me, when it mentioned FGM, was one of Alifa Rifaat’s short stories in her collection titled Distant View of a Minaret. You might be thinking that it was a very graphic, drawn out description of the young girls experience, but in fact it was the total opposite. It was merely a few sentences in the middle of the story, and then the subject was not brought up again:

So I lifted my ‘galabia’and didn’t find anything there except for something lying there between two leaves, all hidden away inside, something like a sort of mulberry. Then early one day as I was about to go out…I found the women coming in and gathering around, and they took hold of me and forced my legs open and cut away the mulberry with a razor. They left me with a wound in my body and another wound deep inside me, a feeling that a wrong had been done to me, a wrong that could never be undone.”(Bahiyya’s Eyes, pp. 23)

The fact that the subject of FGM was so brief, and wasn’t brought up again, highlighted to me how normal it was for women like Rifaat, and I found this really problematic. The extract is so short but it encapsulates so many different feelings in this short space; feelings of betrayal and mistrust of the close women in her family and community and the constant sense of some injustice done to her at such a young age when she would have barely been able to understand what had happened to her.

Sometimes, when being faced with something so removed from your personal environment or day-to-day existence, it can be daunting or seem impossible to think of effective and useful ways to approach FGM and create a movement to abolish it. But when I came across people like Nawal El-Saadawi, I knew it was something that wasn’t impossible and really worth doing.

El Saadawi is another Egyptian feminist writer whose work I was lucky enough to come across in my Arabic Literature module. Her works such as Woman At Point Zero (1975), Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1960) and a non-fictional account of her arrest for feminist writing Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1984) really inspired me to channel El Saadawi’s passion for women’s justice. She is most famous for her activism against and once she had trained as a doctor, she went back to her home village in Egypt and tried to teach her community about the risks involved in this practice and also helped to treat young girls who faced health complications after they had been circumcised.

She is famously recorded to have said in reaction to 10 year old Badour Shaker dying at the hands of a doctor illegally performinfemale circumcision in 2007:

“Bedour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price … for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn’t cut children’s organs” in reaction to 10 year old Badour Shaker dying at the hands of a doctor illegally performing female circumcision in 2007.

If El Saadawi, who has been actively protesting against this for nearly 60 years and at 80 years of age has no intention of stopping, why should we stand aside and not try to do anything about it when figures show that in the UK, up to 3,000 British girls undergo FGM during the summer holidays or “cutting season” each year?

I’m just thankful that 28 Too Many already provides us an established platform to help educate people and raise awareness about FGM so we can all help to stop it.

Rifaat, A. Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories trans. Denys Johnson-Davies (Oxford, Heinemann, 1987).

“Egypt: “Nawal El Saadawi: ‘I am going to carry on this fight for ever’ http://www.wluml.org/fr/node/7985 (accessed 7th November 2012)