The tail of a salmon and the words of a girl are the slipperiest things on the planet.
“The doctor cut into the girl’s genitals, but in the next moment everything had begun to look wrong, very wrong.”
Name: Badour Shaker
Killed: Aged 11
The girl does not protest, and asks no questions, but stands up immediately, puts down her comb and changes out of her pyjamas and into the new, crimson, floor-length abaya her mother hands her. Finally she ties a white scarf around her head.
Then Badour, for that is her real name, is ready. Only her mother Zeinab insists on saying Amel. That is because her three older daughters all have names that begin with A: Amani, Asmaa and Amany. When Zeinab’s fourth daughter was born on the 29th of July 1995, she wanted to give her an A-name too, but the father said no. The new-born was to be called Badour. He got his way, but he has been dead for a year now, and Zeinab still defies him every day by using the name she herself chose for her youngest daughter. “Amel! Come, Amel, it’s time for you this evening!”
It is nine o’clock in the evening. In the second of the two rooms, her older sister Asmaa is sitting with her fiancé. Badour asks her sister if the young man can go home early this evening, and her sister promises he will. She understands the reason without being told. It is a sensitive time when a newly circumcised girl comes home, as a woman; there must not be a man in the house.
“I’m hungry,” Badour says just as they are about to leave the house.
Zeinab hurriedly prepares a piece of bread, which the girl carries in her hand as they step out into the small dark street.
Hand in hand, mother and daughter hurry through the town towards the small clinic at the northern entrance to the town of Maghagha. It is a 30-minute walk.
Zeinab is not really clear as to why girls have to be circumcised but it has something to do with the risk that her daughter’s inner sexual organs will begin to grow uncontrollably.
Zeinab Abdel Ghani is only doing what her own mother did for her; what almost all women have been doing in Egypt for thousands of years. When a girl is between the ages of six and thirteen she must be circumcised. Boys are circumcised so they can produce children. Zeinab is not really clear as to why girls have to be circumcised but it has something to do with the risk that her daughter’s inner sexual organs will begin to grow uncontrollably. The danger is that she will develop a sexual appetite which is so strong that it will cause her husband unhappiness and shame.
Zeinab knows that the clitoris must be cut out, and also the inner labia, if they are too prominent. She has heard that a woman’s clitoris, if it is not cut away, can grow to the size of a man’s penis. What man would want to marry Badour then?
She does not feel any particular pleasure in taking her daughter to be circumcised; several times in the past few months, Zeinab has made an appointment which she has cancelled for one reason or another, she cannot remember why any longer, but it might have something to do with the fact that she herself remembers what it was like to be cut into. It is very painful.
But the following month her youngest daughter will turn 12, so the time is right, as is the season. Zeinab has waited until this particular date out of consideration for her daughter. Circumcision is better done in the summer, when washing is easier and the air is soft and warm. In winter the skin becomes harder, and heals more slowly. Zeinab has waited as long as possible, so that Badour will not need to have the operation done again, which sometimes happens. Zeinab has learned that in very young girls, that part sometimes grows back.
If it is to be done properly, Zeinab must take Badour to the healing waters of the Nile afterwards, and let the girl take that part of her body which has been removed with her, wrapped in the cloth of her dress, and throw it into the water. But the most important thing is that it is done in time. And now, at last, they are on their way.
The circumcision cannot be done openly, as it was in the days when she herself was a small girl.
They walk in silence. That Zeinab has chosen to go to the clinic late in the evening is not mere chance; she knows that for some reason – maybe just another strange idea on the part of the authorities – the circumcision cannot be done openly, as it was in the days when she herself was a small girl. Now she must be discreet. New regulations have been published stipulating when and how a midwife or doctor can make the necessary cut. The new rules apparently mean that operations such as these can only be done on one particular day a week, and then only if a doctor decides it is necessary. In the past you could go to any street barber as long as his knife was sharp enough. It is not that simple any longer, but it is not a big problem. Zeinab knows that if she goes to the clinic late in the evening, the female gynaecologist will do as she asks, without asking any questions.
Badour still does not ask anything as they walk on. Zeinab knows that the girl has a vague idea of what is about to happen, even though the word has never been mentioned inside the home; of course not. This is not something you talk about. But the girl has probably picked something up from the whispering at school, and among the women on the street.
This is not something you talk about.
The closer they come to their destination, the more anxious Zeinab becomes. The thing she is most afraid of is that she will have to hold her youngest daughter down and hear her terrified screams. So she is both happy and relieved when they bump into their neighbor Sharbat on the way. She is an older woman, whom Zeinab likes very much. They stop, and Zeinab asks Sharbat to help when her youngest daughter is circumcised. The older woman agrees and all three continue their walk towards the clinic.
They stop one last time on the way. Two of Badour’s school friends are on their way home and now, for the first time, Badour utters the word. She says:
“I’m going to be circumcised!”
She sounds happy. Like all girls, she knows that the circumcision means she will probably be served duck at home that evening. She may even be given presents! That is why they are all happy. That is why the girls congratulate their friend.
“Good luck,” they say, and kiss Badour’s cheeks.
The year Badour underwent her genital mutilation was 2007, and people had begun to question the age-old custom of having young girls circumcised. A government study conducted in 1994 received a great deal of attention when it showed that 97 per cent of married women in Egypt had undergone FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).
The state made a half-hearted attempt to restrict the practice of FGM, but it was still possible for doctors to perform the operation if they judged it “necessary”. What was needed was first and foremost a law that made FGM a criminal offence. And it came, thanks to the fate of Badour.
At this time, her mother, Zeinab Abdel Ghani, is fifty-one years old. She has been a widow for one year, and she does not mourn her husband. She does not complain either; it would not be decent to tell anyone who would listen how he could behave, but the truth is that her husband was not good to her. No man has ever been good to Zeinab.
Zeinab grew up an orphan. It is true her mother was alive, but a fatherless child is no better than a child from the orphanage, and her step-father was no different from other men with step-children. Zeinab was not allowed to go to school. But when her friends came round in the afternoon she would ask them to show her what they had learned, and with their help she learned to read and write.
But the truth is that her husband was not good to her.
When Zeinab was 19 she was given away in marriage to a 42-year-old man who knew her mother’s brother. The wage her husband earned as a cleaner in the City Hall was not enough to support their growing family, and when their third daughter was born, Zeinab decided to get a job. Her husband refused to allow this. Zeinab could not understand his refusal. Of course, an Egyptian man who cares about his woman makes sure that she does not have to leave the home, but in many families there is no choice, the woman has to work.
How do you expect us to buy food and clothes otherwise, wondered Zeinab, who was happy that she had got a good job as a cleaner at a small clinic close to home, thanks to her ability to read and write. She would not have got the job if she had been illiterate.
Zeinab gave birth to her youngest daughter, Badour, between shifts at work, and then her son Mahmoud was born. By this time her husband was already ill with a disease in his gall bladder, and then he died, but it did not make any great difference to Zeinab, who was already supporting her children by herself.
They get by. Zeinab makes sweets, which she sells outside her own door to give her some extra money, and Badour usually helps her.
Nothing has been decided yet, but Zeinab is considering whether Badour might become a teacher.
The youngest girl is quiet. And of all Zeinab’s children, she is the cleverest. Her older sisters have also had an education, Zeinab made sure of that. They went through upper secondary school. But none of the children has done as well as Badour, who finished the spring term just a few weeks earlier with the highest grades in the whole school. Nothing has been decided yet, but Zeinab is considering whether Badour might become a teacher.
The clinic behind the bank at the northern entrance consists of three rooms. A male paediatrician works in one room, and his wife, a gynaecologist, in another. In a third room several girls are already waiting. Badour knows them and they start talking.
The 40-year-old gynaecologist has also circumcised Badour’s sisters. They were given a general anaesthetic for a few minutes during the actual operation, so Zeinab is not surprised that she must first collect a prescription down at the pharmacy. She is, however, not prepared for the fact that it is so expensive, 28 Egyptian pounds (5 USD). She does not have so much money with her. Zeinab quickly calculates that the circumcision will cost over 70 pounds (12 USD). She earns 275 (49 USD) a month.
She decides to call her oldest daughter and ask her to come quickly with more money. So it takes a little time before Zeinab arrives back at the clinic, now accompanied by her oldest daughter, but Badour is still chatting happily to her friends. When her turn comes, Badour stands up and walks quietly and calmly in to the doctor. Sharbat, the neighbour, goes with her and Zeinab is grateful that she will not have to witness her daughter’s suffering. The door closes. Fifteen minutes pass before Zeinab begins to wonder over the silence in the room. Why is it taking so long?
Fifteen minutes pass before Zeinab begins to wonder over the silence in the room. Why is it taking so long?
Even before the door to the waiting room opens, Zeinab knows that something is wrong. She has just overheard a telephone call from the other doctor’s room, in which the doctor’s husband is speaking agitatedly in another language, Zeinab thinks it is English.
Now her neighbour Sharbat comes out. She is crying, and Zeinab asks her what has happened.
“I don’t know,” Sharbat replies, and the next moment the woman doctor comes out carrying Badour in her arms. They all follow her out onto the street and before she knows what is happening, Zeinab is sitting in a horse-drawn cab. The doctor is sitting with the lifeless child in the cab ahead of her. They are on their way to the hospital.
The doctor is sitting with the lifeless child in the cab ahead of her. They are on their way to the hospital.
The journey takes half an hour. In that time the neighbour is able to tell Zeinab what she saw. She saw Badour being given an injection and then her lips turned a strange colour, and she asked the doctor: “Is the girl asleep?”
“We’ll wake her after it’s over,” the doctor had replied, and cut into the girl’s genitals, but in the next moment everything had begun to look wrong, very wrong. Blood was pouring out, the doctor tied something round the girl’s waist and Sharbat could not see that the child made any movement.
Badour was lying quite still, with dark lips, and the doctor called her husband in the next room and said desperately that he had to help her.
As the horse-drawn cab approaches the hospital, Zeinab feels the certainty overwhelm her: her daughter is dead. When they reach the hospital, they are met by a group of doctors discussing loudly and frantically. The police arrive and, although Zeinab does not understand why, she is the one who has to go with them and suddenly she finds herself at the police station. Locked up.
They treat Zeinab kindly at the remand centre, but for the three days she is held there she is unable to swallow a single mouthful of the food they bring her. She is made to talk about her daughter over and over again. It appears the female doctor has disappeared somewhere in the region’s capital city, Minya. They say the doctor is in shock and that her husband is claiming that it is all Zeinab’s fault, that she went to the clinic with a child who was sick, a girl who was already unconscious.
The doctor is in shock and that her husband is claiming that it is all Zeinab’s fault
Zeinab is released when her uninfluenced testimony has been secured, and she buries her youngest daughter Badour the same day. She chooses not to see the body before it is bound and laid to eternal rest in a traditional stone grave.
A few days later, journalist Saeid Nafe hears about the colleague of a friend, whose daughter has died during genital mutilation surgery. He decides to go to the place where it happened, and is met by a frantic family who tell him they are being terrorised by the female doctor’s husband, who has offered them 15,000 pounds (2,700 USD) not to take part in a trial.
Zeinab refused the offer. They can never compensate me for my daughter, she said, and told the whole story to the journalist, who went home and wrote it down.
His article was published as a major feature in a daily newspaper, and was read by the delegates at a conference on girls’ health which was held in Cairo. One of the delegates was Nahed Hamza at the Al- Akhbar newspaper, who was passionate about these new problems. In her first twenty years in journalism, writing about violence against women had been unthinkable, as was writing about divorce and illegal abortion. But in 2000, a national council for women’s issues was established (the National Council for Women) and many things changed.
For some time, ordinary women had been seen on TV talking about genital mutilation, and Naheed felt a sense of shame; why had she not written about this earlier? This had to change!
Why had she not written about this earlier? This had to change!
Everyone at the conference was talking about Badour.
“The time was right,” says Nahed. “More and more people had had enough of genital mutilation, and then we heard her story. She became a symbol.”
Naheed was only one of many journalists who travelled the 300 kilometres south to Minya, to meet Zeinab, the courageous mother. And the news spread all over the world.
There was a trial. The autopsy showed that Badour died of an overdose of the anaesthetic Catoral. The doctors claimed that Badour must have been suffering from an allergy, but that could not be proved. The doctor was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for manslaughter, and was acquitted in the actual criminal case in a higher instance.
She was, however, ordered to pay compensation.
Several thousand clinics were closed. Genital mutilation declined.
By then the question of FGM had already been given a great deal of prominence and a new conference was arranged at Governor level. Several thousand clinics were closed. Genital mutilation declined, and the most recent study showed that 50 per cent of Egyptian girls aged 10-18 had undergone genital mutilation. In the following year, 2008, supported by the law on children’s rights, FGM was declared illegal. The crime carries sentences ranging from fines to up to five years’ imprisonment, depending on the extent of the girl’s injuries. Parents who have played a part in the genital mutilation are regarded as accomplices.
The question is, of course, whether people know that the law exists. And whether any funding is in place to make sure the law is followed.
“I have heard of some instances of prosecution for FGM,” says lawyer Azza Suleiman, who runs CEWLA (Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance office). “But the prosecutions have only been in cases where the girl has died. If she survives FGM, the problem is considered not to exist. And it is only the person wielding the knife who has been prosecuted, not the parents, as was intended.”
Azza has no faith in the system. She points out that judges who will apply the law need to be educated – even though they may not agree with it. Officially, there are no killings in the name of honour in Egypt, but time and again she comes across such cases which have, instead, been recorded as suicide.
“Generally speaking, I think the situation is worse for Egyptian women now. The state is weak. In the past, a woman was at least respected, but rising poverty means the streets are no longer safe for women. The education system is not as good as it used to be. Corruption is rife. To put it briefly, when the state is weak, religion becomes more powerful, and its representatives spread everywhere and start telling everyone what is right and wrong.”
Badour became a martyr.
Badour became a martyr, and there has been talk of introducing a special girls’ day in her name.
“Of course it’s a good thing there is a new law, but FGM is still going on. Almost as much as before,” says her mother Zeinab.
Badour lies, bound in white cloth, behind a small green door in a cemetery in Cairo. Zeinab goes there every Friday, and sits for a while outside the bars in front of the door of the grave. She usually takes some cakes and fruit for the priest. One of her older daughters lives nearby, so she can call in there too. Here, in the cemetery, she has just one thought:
“I am a mother and I took my child to be circumcised. I am responsible for her death.”
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.