Egyptian activists are concerned that the rise of Islamist politicians could undermine years of work to discourage female genital mutilation. The practice, and the movement against it, however, have far deeper roots in the country.
To its supporters, it is a sign of purity, community and religious devotion. To its opponents, it marks the physical manifestation of a woman’s degradation.
Female genital mutilation, FGM, is an ancient custom in Egypt, with references pre-dating both Islam and Christianity. The practice remains widespread, with estimates today suggesting as many as 90 percent of Egyptian women are affected.
Egypt criminalized all forms of FGM in 2008 and rights monitors say the number of girls undergoing the operation has dropped by about one third.
But Nehad Abud Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, said the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Salafist politicians threaten those gains.
“They come to say ‘we may have a law to make it [legal] in a certain condition, or to say it is good for protection. They are destroying years of efforts to protect girls and women in Egypt and, unfortunately, by using religion,” said Komsan.
Courts have rejected legal challenges to the current ban, but with the judiciary and the government of President Mohamed Morsi at odds, worries are growing. Adding to concerns are predictions that Salafists are poised to do well in parliamentary elections later this year.
Komsan says non-governmental work on the ground and respect for motivations are key to changing attitudes about FGM.
She divides people who support FGM into three groups: those who see it as social and cultural ceremony; those who believe it will help women control their sexuality; and those who believe it is mandated by religion.
She said offering alternatives is easiest in the first two groups. By substituting different, non-invasive rituals that celebrate either womanhood or community, the spirit of the occasion is preserved, without the damage to a woman or girl’s body.
Political activist and filmmaker Hala Galal described the efforts of one village that chose to reject FGM.
“Even the lady who was supposing to do this operation herself, by her hand, she also swear and she also stopped and now she is doing something like weddings. I mean she changed her career also,” said Galal.
As for those who think FGM will keep women from expressing their sexuality, Komsan argues that training the mind is a far more effective, and humane approach.
“They have to understand that protection is not by cutting a part of our body but by educating them, and ourselves, how to control our life and by sending our girls to school,” she said.
It is the third part, said Komsan, that is the hardest.
“I always joke and say FGM is a sign of unity between Muslims and the Christians in Egypt because most of them believe it is a part of their religions,” she said.
It is not, and even though both the head of the prestigious al-Azhar Institute and Christian leaders have spoken out against the practice, the link to religion remains.
Political activist Galal said there is yet another issue anti-FGM advocates face: the charge they are trying to impose western values on Egypt. “I tell people who accuse us of making this and serving the western agenda, I tell them. ‘What is the other agenda, to oppress women?’”
It is an uphill battle for anti-FGM activists, but one marked by both legal and grass-root successes so far. Their worry now is that in the current political climate, the road ahead may be even steeper.