CAIRO — Shortly after Sara gave birth to her daughter three years ago, her husband casually asked when they would circumcise the infant. For Sara, whose own clitoris had been removed with a pair of scissors when she was 7 years old, the question filled her with dread. She refused to go along and threatened her husband with divorce.
“I never want her to feel that pain,” she says, holding up a cell phone with an image of her daughter, now a toddler, playing in a garden. “Sometimes, I wake up at night screaming, just remembering.”
Genital mutilation, a practice stemming from perceived dangers of female sexuality, is often perpetuated by women themselves, passed down through generations by female family members and upheld by men who see the tradition as “normal.” But Sara is among a growing number of Egyptian women who suffered cutting as girls and are now refusing to subject their own daughters to the practice. (Sara asked that her real name and defining characteristics not be used. She says she fears potential backlash from her community and government for telling her story.)
Ninety-one percent of Egyptian women have had their genitals somehow injured in an attempt to curb sexuality and promote chastity and cleanliness, according to UNICEF’s annual report on female genital mutilation. But while 96 percent of Egyptian women aged 45 to 49 have been cut, 81 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have undergone the surgery, showing a slowly declining trend.
For many women, genital mutilation means having their clitoris removed. For others, it means cutting the vaginal lips away or sealing the vagina nearly shut. The tradition is carried out in more than two-dozen countries worldwide. On a map, the hot spots look like a band stretching across the African continent from Senegal to Somalia, excluding most North African countries except Egypt, which has one of the highest rates of cutting.
Genital mutilation is less prevalent among Egypt’s wealthier and urban communities, and mothers who had access to an education are less likely to have their daughters get the procedure. Roughly 54 percent of Egyptian women aged 45 to 49 who are aware of the practice think it should continue, compared to 34 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 who disagree, UNICEF reports.
The practice is usually performed by local women on girls ranging from infants to adolescents, often with a scalpel or blade. But in some cases, like with Sara, scissors are used. Most girls are given local anesthetic, around one-quarter have nothing to numb the pain, and a small percentage are given general anesthetic. The most common side effects of the surgery are intense pain and hemorrhaging, but other consequences can include urination issues, cysts, infections, infertility, childbirth complications and death.
Egypt’s relationship with the tradition has been politically and religiously heated. In 1959, the country’s government-run hospitals and its employees were banned from performing the procedure. But in 1994, the Ministry of Health once again permitted it in government hospitals in hopes of enforcing safer practices when families insisted on the surgery. One year later, the government reversed its decision again. In the years that followed, some conservative Islamist groups staunchly opposed the rulings to stop genital mutilation, though other religious bodies argued it had no basis in Islam. In 2008, the Egyptian parliament criminalized the practice.
This was a contentious issue leading up to the 2012 presidential election, as activists feared their hard work to end the tradition would be in vain if the elected president didn’t enforce measures against it. In an interview with Egyptian satellite channel CBC, then-candidate Mohammed Morsi suggested the choice should be left up to families. And in June of this year, a teenage girl died while undergoing the procedure illegally in a private clinic northeast of Cairo, causing a wave of anger among human rights groups and activists.
Putting politics aside, Sara says her decision to end the practice with her daughter was a matter of the heart.
When Sara was 7, she awoke one night in her small village near Alexandria to find a doctor and two male neighbors in her bedroom. She had known it was coming. Sara’s mother, whom she describes as a loving and sensitive woman, made her get the surgery so she wouldn’t be “hungry for sex” — a trait that some sectors of Egyptian society view as dishonorable for women who hope to get married. While Sara’s mother preached the importance of chastity before marriage, she never discussed the surgery that would mutilate her daughter’s sexual organs. Sara thinks she was simply too embarrassed to go into the details.
For weeks, the young girls of the village had whispered, wide-eyed and terrified, speculating about when the surgeries would take place. As Sara sat on her bed and rubbed her sleepy eyes, she was told it was her turn. Unlike most girls, who have the surgery performed by women, she was surrounded by the faces of men. Her parents were nowhere in sight: They didn’t want to see their daughter in pain, Sara says.
One of the neighbors placed Sara on his lap, and held onto her legs. She still remembers the feeling of his hands on her inner thighs. He told her not to be afraid, but she recalled the horror stories of other girls told in hushed tones. Then the doctor took a pair of scissors, applied local anesthetic, and cut off her clitoris.
The pain was almost unbearable, and she screamed and sobbed. Blood was everywhere.
Years later, after becoming a mother herself, Sara says she doesn’t blame her own mother for subjecting her to genital mutilation. In her way, she was seeking to protect Sara’s best interests and safeguard the dignity of the family. “But I have normal sexual feelings,” Sara says, with a hint of conviction. “God put them in every person.” After Sara was cut, her mother never brought it up.
When Sara was younger, she had big dreams. She dreamt of leaving her village and venturing outside of her tight-knit, conservative community. She wanted to move to Cairo, live in an apartment without her family, make her own money and create a life for herself outside of the role of wife and mother.
She managed to work hard and save enough money to put herself through school, and after getting a basic education, she moved to the big city. There, she found work as a beautician and began to build her clientele. Sara soon fell in love in a whirlwind romance and got married to a man who embraced her independence.
Before they got married, they would steal kisses when nobody looked. And she says that on the night of their wedding, the first time she was intimate with a man, losing her virginity was the best feeling in the world. “It was like sugar being stirred into hot tea,” she says, blushing.
Sara kept working even after she was married, and now with dozens of women seeking her services, she is an active contributor to her family’s income.
With a young daughter and now infant son, Sara and her husband juggle their two jobs and a small apartment they can barely afford, while trying to save enough money to send their children to good private schools. Their kids are dressed in old clothes that Sara’s clients have given as gifts. But throughout their hardships, Sara and her husband are a team.
She is grateful that her husband is more open-minded than many of the men back home in her village. Even so, after their daughter’s birth, he maintained that the surgery was essential for her to live a full and proper life. He was afraid she would have a hard time getting married down the road if she didn’t have the surgery — that she would be considered unfit and unclean. But after his wife’s threat of divorce, and after she conveyed to him her own harrowing experience of having been cut, he came around to her view: The surgery was a bad idea.
“I told him how much pain it caused me,” Sara says. “And he realized he didn’t want to put his daughter through that pain.”
While Sara says that most of the women in her village around her age have been cut, she’s optimistic the tradition is slowly becoming less and less accepted.
“The women are starting to talk now,” she says. “We hear bad stories. We talk about if it’s really safe or if it has any benefits.”
Cutting remains heavily ingrained in many parts of Egyptian culture, but Sara hopes the positive trend in her own village will spread across the entire country, leading to a new generation of Egyptian women. She can’t wait until her daughter grows up and starts asking questions about love and sexuality, she says.
Sara saved the napkin stained with blood from the night she lost her virginity. She’ll give it to her daughter once she’s old enough. Piousness is a tradition she will pass down to her daughter, but genital mutilation is a tradition that will end with Sara.