Despite being legally banned, female genital mutilation in Egypt is on the rise, causing lifelong pains, health problems and even death for the women who undergo it. Islamists are pushing to legalize the procedure again.
Umm Mohamed lives in a part of Cairo where others dump their garbage. The 47-year-old Muslim woman has experienced many hardships in her life. Putting on a brave face, she says she is used to being daily surrounded by dirt and misery. But what really hurts, she admits, is the pain she personally had to endure 35 years ago.
When Mohamed was 12, nearly all parents from the quarter where she lived brought their daughters of the same age to a hair dresser. "We didn't know why," she says, "but we were all very excited, as each girl had just been given a new, white dress."
In celebration of the day, the girls' hands had been painted with henna. They were ever so proud. But then came the moment of shock: "Suddenly this man, who was really a stranger to us, started to undress us," she recalls. "Then he got out his razor blade." All the girls underwent the procedure which mutilated them for life - without narcotics and without even minimal hygene standards.
'How can my family do this to me?'
Mohamed bled for three days. When it didn't stop, her father went to the local baker for some ashes to cover up the wound. But the dirt only made everything worse. "I still remember asking myself how my family could do this to me," Mohamed says, tears clouding her eyes. Another girl from her neighbourhood, she adds, even died after the procedure.
And that girl was hardly alone. As the number of deaths rose, Egypt banned female genital mutilation (FGM) by law in 2008. Medical practitioners and midwives, who traditionally perform the procedure in the countryside, now do so at the risk of imprisonment. Issuing an Islamic legal opinion, a so-called fatwa, Egypt's Grand Mufti has also clarified that female genital mutilation is against the Islamic value system.
Female genital mutilation now for twice the money
But since the revolution, Umm Mohamed says she has seen a new increase in female genital mutilations.
During the Mubarak regime people used to fear punishment, but these days the medical practitioners in her quarter don't even bother to hide their actions any more: "During the day, they circumcise little boys, and the girls they do at night for twice the money," Mohamed says angrily. "Everybody knows this."
Mustering her courage as a simple woman, Mohamed went to the police station to make a report. "But the officers told me that they had other things to worry about," says the mother of three, who was able to save her own daughter the painful mutilation.
Umm Mohamed openly addresses what for most Egyptian woman is a taboo: Most victims live in chronic pain and have problems with their sexuality, and they also face serious health problems both during pregnancy and giving birth.
Omayma Idris, a Cairo-based gynaecologist, says that more than 90 percent of all married Egyptians today are thought to have undergone mutilation. After the prohibition, she says, one could see a decline, "but since the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are in power in Egypt, the numbers are on the rise again; they encourage families to do it again."
Not even the deeply religious Muslims in Saudi Arabia mutilate girls and women, she adds.
Islamists push for legalization
Salafists and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood - the political home of Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi - want to see female genital mutilation legalized again. Their push for legalization alerted the German advocacy group for women's rights, Terre des Femmes, which collected 12,000 signatures against the practice in Egypt.
The group presented the signatures together with a petition to the Egyptian ambassador in Berlin at the beginning of November.
In several places around the country, Islamists have already created precedents, according to Mervat Tallawy, president of the National Women's Council for Egypt. A few weeks ago, she learned about the Muslim Brotherhood using buses as mobile clinics in the rural Minia province.
"The mutilation of girls had been offered as a sort of health service, free of charge," Tallawy says. And the buses, she adds, had stickers with the logo of the "Party for Freedom and Justice" - the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following the incident, the National Women's Council contacted the local governor and the Ministry of Health in Cairo. But a spokesperson of the Muslim Brotherhood flatly denied all charges and, in turn, accused the villagers of misusing the logo.
Tallawy laughs bitterly laugh about that. Villagers, she says, lead very simple lives and many can barely read. She doesn't think they're capable of such forgery. But what she does believe to be more likely is that the Muslim Brotherhood is funding illegal mutilation procedures in the countryside.
"That's child abuse and a barbaric act," Tallawy says with disgust. "But as long as the Egyptian president doesn't explicitly condemn such actions, the fundamentalists are going to carry on and lead us back into the Middle Ages. I have no idea where their hatred for women comes from."
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