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In Egypt, the Complicated Politics of Circumcision

16 May 2012 3 Comments

Nadine Ibrahim

Nadine Ibrahim

“To refuse the surgery is not to prevent it happening elsewhere––to its full extent––where razors are blunt, and anesthetic a luxury. The psychologically destructive aspect of the procedure is never brought up.”


The two young girls––one six, one ten––flocked to my side, holding my hand, telling me enthusiastically that they are cousins. “I can tell! You look alike; you are both very pretty,” I told them, and they glanced at each other surprised before running back to their mothers. A few days prior, the mother of the youngest girl had come to our clinic for a fairly commonplace surgery. “Inhagi” breathe, I told her as I slowly emptied the numbing contents of the syringe into her arm. She began to slur her speech, and moments before she fell into an anesthetic slumber she squeezed my hand and mumbled “by the way, you are very beautiful.” “Just like your daughter,” I responded.

She was sweet and lighthearted, and while I waited for her to fully recover from her dizzy slumber after the operation I went out to the waiting room and sat with her young daughter. She sheepishly sat next to me, asking me shy questions and volunteering details about her life so fast she seemed out of breath. Two thick, curly, frizzy braids fell on her bony shoulders, her smile revealed four missing front teeth, and her big Egyptian eyes were lined with thick eyelashes. Her name is Dua’a*, she is six years old, she likes playing hide and seek with her cousins although sometimes they hit each other, and she really likes her school.  Her mother finally came out of the OR and she got up, tugging on her mother’s floor length traditional black abayya, and looked back at me. “Come visit me soon!” I called out to her.

Dua’a's mother was checking on the status of her operation and on some post-operative symptoms. I was glad to see that she brought Dua’a with her again, and Dua’a was more than glad to introduce me to her older cousin, Yasmeen. We reassured them that the surgery went smoothly and she should continue on her painkillers for another week, as needed. Usually at that point the appointment is over, but this is Egypt, and people love to linger. The doctor and the two women––Dua’a and Yasmeen’s mothers––began chatting happily with the Doctor, laughing and asking semi-serious questions about some undefined thing for their daughters: “it”. I smiled along, matching their mood, not knowing how the three of them somehow knew what they were all talking about. What “it” was was never mentioned.

Tahara. The Arabic word drifted past my ears unrecognized. The women were looking at me and smiling, I smiled back, I laughed back, only guessing what was going on. This isn’t new for me, I often don’t recognize the Arabic names for procedures or medicines, but I couldn’t understand why Yasmeen––no older than 10 years old––had begun to panic. Amongst a roomful of women lightheartedly smiling and laughing with the doctor, her fear was out of place.  Maybe she is afraid of needles, and she thinks she needs one, I thought. “Calm down, habibti, it’s okay”, I told her with a sad smile.

“When should we do it?” Yasmeen’s mother asked the Doctor.

“In the summertime,” he responded.

Dua’a was flashing her toothless smile and raising her hand in the air, yelling “Ana! Ana!” Me! Me!

Yasmeen backed up into the corner of the room, flailing her arms with a panicked look on her face, and yelling “I don’t want it! I don’t! No!”, but her hysteria went ignored by the adults in the room.

“In the summer?” they asked for verification before shaking our hands and leaving. Moments after they stepped over the clinic’s threshold, I turned to the Doctor and asked “what was that about?”, and he waved my question away in response. I asked again, and he just said “tahara”. A moment of silence gave away my lack of understanding, he said it again, in English this time: “circumcision”.

I felt my stomach turn. The image of Yasmeen panicking flashed through my mind, I remembered telling her to calm down. My fingers trembled. I had just tried to comfort a young girl being faced with FGM. I wanted them to come back, I wanted to stop this.

As recently as 2005, an Egyptian government health survey reported that 96% of women of reproductive age had undergone the procedure. Although recent studies suggest that the incidence of FGM is decreasing, the now-illegal practice of tahara, circumcision, is still virtually universal among women in many areas of Egypt. Girls, both in rural and urban areas, are usually cut between the ages of 9 and 12.

A few minutes later, they came back. I hoped they were going to ask more questions, that I could have a chance to explain why this is unnecessary. “The bathroom!” Dua’a's mom said quickly before she half-jogged to our washroom. Dua’a and Yasmeen sat down on the long bench in our waiting room waiting for her to come back. Yasmeen seemed to have recovered from her panic. They were swinging their legs, laughing with each other, waving at me. I noticed their matching velvet track suits, mismatched pinks and reds and awkward English words on the front of their jackets. I thought about what I wish I could say to them. I wanted to whisper “don’t let them do it” into their ears, but the decision is made without consideration for their autonomy; tradition and honor are stronger forces than their protest. Defeated, I sat there, my stomach in a knot. A minute later, they left.

The Doctor said that he refuses to perform the operation because it is illegal, but if a family insists, he will remove part of the labia minora (classified as FGM/C Type IIa) to satisfy them without really hurting the young girl, but will never come close to the clitoris. Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) happens in several varying degrees of severity. In Egypt, it is common to excise the clitoral hood and part of the clitoris.

“Before it was illegal, families used to bring me their young boys and girls by the truck load”, the Doctor said. He laughed; I tried to hide my horror. “I never really circumcised the girls, only incised the labia minora, which is just a skin tag, they don’t know the difference,” he paused. “I don’t agree with it, but you can’t change their minds. They just want to see blood and khalas, that’s it.

Just a skin tag. It sounds cruel, but is it merciful? To refuse the surgery is not to prevent it happening elsewhere––to its full extent––where razors are blunt, and anesthetic a luxury. The psychologically destructive aspect of the procedure is never brought up.

I thought about Dua’a volunteering herself, flashing her pretty smile with missing baby teeth, about how the meaning of that image changed drastically in a matter of minutes. I frowned. She doesn’t even know what it is, the risks, what it means for the rest of her life as a woman.

Sayyed, the driver and my friend, has three beautiful daughters. “I’m not convinced with the whole thing, to be honest”, he said. “Don’t let your daughters do it”, I responded, trying to hide the pleading in my voice. “I can’t say anything to them”, he said, staring at the soccer game on TV. “It’s not up to me, it’s their choice.” ‘They’ are the women in the family. “This will never change, Nadine, not even in 100 years”, Sayyed added. “It’s ingrained in their minds”, the Doctor said.

Cheers emitted from the small TV across the room, grabbing their attention, a player almost scored an unlikely goal and the crowd went wild with disappointment. “No, if you don’t do it to your daughters, then they won’t do it to their daughters, and the process will follow. This can change,” I persisted, but neither of the men answered.

*names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved
To read more about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in general and in Egypt, visit:

Prevalence of female genital cutting among Egyptian girls; WHO Bulletin, 2008

Female Genital Mutilation; WHO Media Center, 2012

Female Circumcision; EDHS (Egypt Demographic and Health Survey), 2005


Nadine Ibrahim lives in Cairo, Egypt, where she works as a freelance public health journalist and assists at a local medical clinic. You can find this piece, and other writing, on her blog:

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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3 Comments to “In Egypt, the Complicated Politics of Circumcision”
  1. [...] more: In Egypt, the Complicated Politics of Circumcision | Peace X Peace May 17th, 2012 | Tags: female-circumcision, Ibrahim, llustrates-the-nuances, nadine-ibrahim, [...]

  2. pamela ghanem says:

    thank you for bringing that subject up Nadine.although i’m not from Egypt but this matter intrigues me.Is it an Islamic thing or a cultural thing?.i don’t think that female circumcision exists in other arab countries… i would like to learn more about this,and why it only happens in some african countries. Thank you so much for the article
    best of luck,

  3. Hi Pamela,

    Female circumcision, or FGM, is very much a cultural phenomenon. In Egypt especially, many argue that they do it out a religious sentiment – similar to male circumcision – but the practice pre-dates religion in the region. In other parts of Africa, those who practice it are not exclusively Muslim either. The origin is unknown, but some theorize that it may originate from very old, perhaps tribal, thinking and myths concerning sexuality. It persists in Egypt because it is a deeply entrenched cultural tradition. Unlike other traditions, this one is related to a woman’s honor (something that should be maintained at all costs), which makes it an especially persistent matter.

    The WHO has some fascinating and extensive materials on all aspects of FGM. I definitely recommend that you take a look at them, if you haven’t already. Thank you for reading!


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