When I was faced with the topic of culture and rights, an experience in Egypt came to mind that concerned the culture of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). I cannot forget the moment when a 17-years-old friend said that she had been circumcised just two weeks previously. I was very shocked because she looked pleased to have had the operation, and her mother and other relatives celebrated it as well. At the same time, I recognised the big gap between the Western sensibilities that condemn this tradition, which can be termed ‘rights vs. culture’ (Cowan et al. 2001), and the reality what I saw in Egyptian society.
FGM/C became a worldwide public issue at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, with a video presentation on the practice in Egypt by a CNN reporter and harsh condemnation from the United Nations (Shannon 2012). However, a study shows that in 2000, 97 per cent of married women reported having undergone FGM/C, and in 2008, 50.3 per cent of school girls had been exposed to it (Tag-Eldin et al. 2008). Merry (2006, p.25) argues that, ‘Diminishing violence against women requires cultural transformation.’ Therefore, my aim in this blog is to answer the question: whose culture will be transformed by Egypt’s abolition of FGM/C? In other words, at whom should proponents of the anti-FGM/C movement direct their efforts? Now, have a look at this video.
Where are the problems? Who fears whom?
Several arguments for rights vs. culture in terms of the abolition of FGM/C have been put forward. At an international level, after the Cairo ICPD, many anti-FGM/C groups adopted human rights, women’s rights, and health and development approaches (Shannon 2012; El-Dawla 1999). At a national level, the Egyptian National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), with from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), launched a strategy to tackle FGM/C, and lobbying by a broad coalition of activists led to the passing of a law that criminalised the practice (Molleman and Franse 2009). Moreover, as the video shows, at local and grassroots levels, efforts have been made to eradicate FGM/C by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), religious leaders, and through media campaigns (BBC 2012).
Yet, there is much resistance to the rights vs. culture movement, which, let’s say, takes the position of rights for culture against ‘rights vs. culture’. Of the arguments for FGM/C, I would like to focus on the fact that mothers and grandmothers continue to subject their daughters and granddaughters to the practice in order that they should be marriageable. For them, FGM/C is necessary to show that a girl is pure and thus acceptable to a potential husband (BBC 2012; El Dawla 1999). Therefore, it could be said that the central concern or fear of such women is that FGM/C is inevitable if a girl is to be married; and they perpetuate the practice because they must conform to men’s wishes in this regard.
In my opinion, this fear of women toward men is produced by a hegemonic patriarchy; and such a gendered structure must be considered in the delivery of anti-FGM/C movements. However, in reality, these movements have not looked at the patriarchal structure sufficiently. Why don’t anti-FGM/C groups take into account the gendered structure? Moreover, is there any room to discuss how much men and boys really value FGM/C?
Molleman and Franse (2009) argue that the engagement of men and boys in the battle against FGM/C is crucial. However, they also state the difficulty for males to talk about sexuality and the female body because of the barrier of religion. Moreover, it is not surprising that discussion between women and men about sexuality is very difficult in a strict gendered society. However, I believe that the voices of young men and boys could prove to be a breakthrough in resolving this stagnant situation.
Beyond the patriarchal hegemonic society
It is notable that men and boys talking about marriage and their sexual lives in the second video often claim that it does not matter to them whether their wives are circumcised or not. Moreover, we remember the story of the woman in the first video who said that sex with her husband was very painful because of her circumcision. Through these two videos, I have come to think that the voices of men and boys who are sympathetic to the anti-FGM/C can act as role models to their communities, and make positive changes for challenging the hegemonic patriarchy and practice of FGM/C.
In my opinion, the inherited Egyptian FGM/C culture derives primarily from the hegemonic patriarchal norm. Thus, the effort to eradicate the practice should not only focus on transforming the female culture and mindset, but also on understanding the patriarchal society, and transforming the male culture and mindset. To achieve this, the voices of young men and boys must be louder and spread wider.
BBC (2012) ‘Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt’. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bObvzSHRKT8 (Accessed 24 November 2014).
Cowan, J., Dembour, M., and Wilson, R. (2001) ‘Introduction’. In Cowan, J., Dembour, M., and Wilson, R. (2001) Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–26.
El-Dawla, A. S. (1999) ‘The Political and Legal Struggle over Female genital Mutilation in Egypt: Five Years Since the ICPD’. Reproductive Health Matters 7(13): 128–136.
Merry, S. E. (2006) Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. London: The University of Chicago Press.
Molleman, G., and Franse, L. (2009) ‘The struggle for abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in Egypt’. Global Health Promotion 16(57): 57–60 .
Shannon, K. J. (2012) ‘The Right to Bodily Integrity: Women’s Rights as Human Rights and the International Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation, 1970s–1990s’. In Iriye, A., Goedde, P., and Hitchcock W.I. (eds.) (2012) The Human Rights Revolution: An International History. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 285–310.
Tag-Eldin, M. A., Gadallah, M. A., Al-Tayeb, M. N., Abdel-Aty, M., Mansour, E., and Sallem, M. (2008) ‘Prevalence of female genital cutting among Egyptian girls’. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 86(4): 269–274.
Zakaria, A. and El Sayaad, M. (2014) ‘FGM in Egypt Short video ’. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTO6ltQo5mA (Accessed 24 November 2014).