The tail of a salmon and the words of a girl are the slipperiest things on the planet.
“You only have to look at the TV series, and how badly the women behave. It’s because they haven’t been circumcised!”
Who: BLACD (The Better Life Association for Comprehensive Development).
What: Visit the villages to talk about genital mutilation, and have radically changed the situation. These days only one in ten girls undergoes genital mutilation; previously the figure was nine in ten.
The room slowly fills with more women, and with girls who silently slide down into a crouching position and listen wide-eyed. Not all the women in the village feel the same way about genital mutilation. But they talk about it, everywhere. The question is no longer taboo. It was different seven years ago, when Magda Nagiub Wahba called the first meeting.
“I had to ask my own relatives to come so there would be some people there.”
Magda works with BLACD, an organisation supported by Diakonia and Christian Aid, which has been fighting poverty in the small villages round Minya in the Nile delta since 1995. Seven years ago she tried to rouse public opinion against the age-old custom of female genital mutilation, FGM. Magda herself has undergone genital mutilation.
“And it turned out not to be as difficult to talk about FGM as I thought it would!”
We wander among the hospitable homes in the villages of Dawadya and Faragallah and listen to what the women think.
My husband wants it done too, and I can’t go against his wishes
“I don’t really want to have it done,” says Soha Saber, who is the mother of two daughters aged 14 and 12. “My daughters have been to meetings about FGM and they don’t want to have it done either. They say it can be dangerous.
But my mother wants it done, and my mother-in-law says that it’s an important preparation for adult life. My husband wants it done too, and I can’t go against his wishes.”
All she remembers from her own circumcision is a fear which passed quickly, and that she felt fine the following day. So surely it can’t be as bad as they say?
“They say you can die, but I don’t think that happens very often. I’ve only heard about one case.”
The plan is to find a doctor who can examine the girls. Then he can decide.
“It depends what their genitals look like. If it looks as though a penis could grow out of them … Well, then it will have to be done. That’s the way it is.”
Now I feel like a real woman. My genitals are complete.
Not far from Soha lives Martha Ayad, who has two daughters aged thirteen and eleven. She talks enthusiastically about her vision of a village where genital mutilation does not take place. Ever. She herself has not been circumcised, a fact which her husband did not know when they got married. He knew nothing at all about FGM at the time.
“I didn’t really know what it was,” he says, “but when we were engaged she told me she hadn’t been circumcised. My parents were in favour of FGM at that time, but they’ve actually changed their opinion. Our daughters certainly won’t have to have it done!”
In another house, a girl in soft pink trousers and sweater describes how she was circumcised last summer. She is 14 years old. In the room were a midwife she had never seen before, a neighbour and an aunt. Her mother held her down on the floor and she closed her eyes.
“I was frightened and they sprayed something which they said would take away the pain but I cried and screamed. My mother went into another room. Then she cooked chicken for me! Now I feel like a real woman. My genitals are complete.”
Magda has every reason to be proud of her work to provide information about FGM. Soon people were coming to the meetings voluntarily, to learn about genital mutilation, why it is dangerous, and that there is nothing to support it in religion, neither Islam nor Christianity. At the same time, they worked on the people in the village who held positions of authority: teachers, doctors, village elders, midwives and religious leaders.
“We could do that because people trusted us, we had helped them with their most important needs. I can’t go into a house with no running water and say to the woman: ‘You are committing an act of violence against your daughters.’”
Magda’s mother still thinks it is shameful that her daughter talks about these matters, but Magda says that there was already a desire for change. People do not want to hurt their children. After seven years of working with information, there are villages where only one girl in ten risks genital mutilation. It used to be nine in ten.
Magda’s mother still thinks it is shameful that her daughter talks about these matters
But the tradition has not been eradicated. It is true that FGM is now illegal, but that does not stop parents who want to carry on the tradition. There are always midwives and doctors willing to help, if the money is right. There is a strong belief that a girl must be circumcised to be a good wife and mother. For a father, a daughter’s circumcision is proof that he accepts responsibility for her virtue, ‘effa’.
Since FGM became illegal in 2008, it is only possible to talk about it in a roundabout way. Like when we talk to Tawadda Mohammad Ahmed, a 70-year-old midwife who has circumcised countless girls in 40 years.
“Don’t ask me,” she protests at first. “I don’t know anything about all that FGM stuff!”
There are always midwives and doctors willing to help, if the money is right.
Then she tells us about her work. She first learned to cut away the big bit in the middle. There were girls who had long bits, and they could grow longer. That could stop the man from penetrating her. A doctor had taught her that, and shown her how to cut. First the clitoris had to be rubbed until it became soft, then it was easy to cut. The inner labia were just as important. And if the inside of the genitals looked blue, that meant that more needed to be cut away.
“Lots of girls bled heavily, but then I put a pressure bandage on for an hour or so. But that was in the old days,” she reminisces.
“I’m an old woman now, I can’t cut as well as I used to. And I can go to prison if I do it! But I’ve lost my source of income …….”
In Howayda’s home, the big rug on the floor is soon full of women. Howayda is a cheerful, confident woman, who tells how she herself was forced to have two operations. Two weeks after the first one, the midwife saw that her genitals had begun to grow a bit bigger.
And as far as sex goes, I’m fine, I don’t want to enjoy it, that’s the whole point of being circumcised.
“This summer my oldest daughter will be circumcised, and my daughters aren’t afraid, they’re happy. Just look at the programmes on TV, and see how badly the women behave. They haven’t been circumcised! That’s why they’re drawn to men in that way.”
Then Howayda describes how her aunt died during the mutilation, but that at that time the only thing they had to stop the bleeding was soot; now there are injections and medicines. So why should anything happen to her daughters? They will be grateful!
“And as far as sex goes, I’m fine, I don’t want to enjoy it, that’s the whole point of being circumcised. A woman who enjoys sex is a bad woman!”
Maternal deaths: 43 deaths per l00,000 births.
Number of children/woman: 2.97 (estimate for 2011)
Abortion legislation: Abortion is not legal. It is only allowed if the mother’s life is at risk. Very restrictive application.
Law against rape within marriage: No
Violence against women in close relationships: Two women are raped every hour. Only 12 per cent of 2,500 incidents of sexual harassment were reported to the police.