Good news from Cairo

A group of Muslim scholars have declared female genital cutting to be incompatible with Islam. Millions of girls have their genitals cut in what is a long-standing cultural practice in some parts of Africa and the Middle East. I use the term “genital cutting” because I don’t think “female circumcision” accurately conveys what this procedure is; I’m tempted to use “female genital mutilation,” because I don’t think “cutting” quite gets the point across either, but some women who have had their genitals cut oppose the use of that term. So “cutting” it is. And we should all be clear on exactly what that means:

Fatima’s scream is as blood-curdling as it is heart-wrenching. The little girl, who looks to be about eight years old, screams in a panic, initially in fear and then because she is unable to bear the pain she is experiencing. She is lying on the floor of a dirty hut somewhere in the Ethiopian desert. Her body is contorted with pain as she screams, cries and finally lies there whimpering. Her new, green floral dress is soaked in blood.

Two men and her mother press the delicate child against the floor and pull apart her thin little legs. An old woman crouches in front of Fatima, holding a shiny razor blade and a thick, threaded darning needle. Today is the day Fatima will become a woman, a decent woman.

The purpose of the thick darning needle is to lift the lips of the vulva to facilitate cutting them off. The old woman moves the razor blade into position. First she slices off the small lips of the vulva and then the clitoris. There is blood everywhere. The girl arches her small, sweat-soaked body. The old woman repeatedly pours a milky liquid onto the wound to prevent infection. Then the grandmother comes into the hut, pokes at the wound and tells the old woman to make a deeper cut. The process starts all over again. Fatima’s screams become almost unbearable. If the sight of this girl under female circumcision is so difficult to bear, how can she possibly stand the pain?

Finally the deed is done. The wound is sewn shut with thorns, leaving only a tiny opening. A straw is inserted into the small opening to prevent it from closing. Then Fatima’s legs are tied together with a rope to allow the wound to heal. She will lie in bed, her legs tied together in this fashion, for several weeks.

The old woman completes her barbaric task with a slap on her subject’s behind. Fatima is now a woman.

Today, about 6,000 girls will have their genitals cut. That’s 2 million a year. Somewhere between 100 and 140 million women are “circumcised.”

Female genital cutting often results in infection, sterility, difficulty during childbirth, and death. The vast majority of women in Egypt have had their genitals cut; the fact that so many well-known Muslim scholars, academics and doctors declared that the practice is not sanctioned by Islam is a huge step in the right direction. And it should give us all something to be happy about today.


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17 comments for “Good news from Cairo

  1. December 8, 2006 at 3:51 pm

    God, that was the most difficult thing I’ve read in ages. I think I would have vomited if I hadn’t been so tensed up.

  2. Bitter Scribe
    December 8, 2006 at 4:53 pm

    In a New Yorker article this week about the Somali community in Lewiston, Maine, the author mentions casually, in parentheses:

    “[T]he traditional practice of female-genital mutilation, which is almost universal in Somalia, seems to have been abandoned in Maine.”

    To which I can only say: It goddamned well better be.

  3. TomCody
    December 8, 2006 at 5:52 pm

    I can’t even form words for that. Everytime I read about “cutting” I can’t understand who in their right (let’s face it, WRONG) mind decided that was the thing to do. And NOT when girl’s are older and can consent, but when they are small and have to be held down.

    And the debate with circumcision is just utterly pointless, circumcision, while totally unnecessary, removes SKIN, and I’d read somewhere that the equivielent between the two would mean the removal of up to a third of a man’s penis, instead of just foreskin.

  4. ballgame
    December 8, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    Any news that suggests there will be less cutting/mutilating/circumcising the genitals of children is excellent news.

  5. Molly
    December 8, 2006 at 7:50 pm

    If you’re interested, I highly recommend Moolaadé , which is a film by Ousmane Sembene about a woman who causes a huge conflict by sheltering some village girls from having their genitals cut. It’s extremely moving and intense. Not in English, but subtitled.

  6. evil fizz
    December 8, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    JIll, would you be so kind as to put that description behind the cut?

  7. Melanie
    December 9, 2006 at 7:07 am

    evil fizz, yes, the description is graphic. But why the hell shouldn’t we be shocked into doing something about it, rather than shuffle the horror of the cutting back under the carpet.

  8. Em
    December 9, 2006 at 7:26 am

    No one is asking to ignore it. A cut with a warning with be nice. Unless, of course, you enjoy thinking that people may be triggered by the passage.

  9. evil fizz
    December 9, 2006 at 7:29 am

    But why the hell shouldn’t we be shocked into doing something about it, rather than shuffle the horror of the cutting back under the carpet.

    Well, two reasons. One, for some of us, it’s a little NSFW. For others, graphic scenes of sexualized violence can be triggering.

    It’s not an unwillingness to hear about it, just the need to do so at a suitable time and place.

  10. December 9, 2006 at 7:58 am

    Leave the description above the fold.

    It needs to be there.

    It “NSFW” is the issue, it will still be the issue when the reader opens the expanded text.

  11. December 9, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    I didn’t read the description. I’ve read others, I’ve seen pictures, etc. I can’t read this stuff anymore.

    Especially since I have spoken to people – young Muslim women, no less, who passionately defend the practice. And then there are the men that defend it too. Qaradawi comes to mind. A young man I spoke to just the other day – “I don’t care if it’s against the law in Canada, my daughter will be cut, she will be a good woman.”

    They see that last bit of female autonomy in sexual pleasure, and they wish to cut it out. Literally.

    This practice is supported by a “weak” hadith that these people cling to. To hell with them, seriously. If officially declaring it un-Islamic doesn’t help, I don’t know what will.

  12. cry4turtles
    December 9, 2006 at 1:11 pm

    My initial reaction to this was blind rage. I silently screamed, “Each and every person responsible for this deserves a .38 slug between their eyes.”

    I had to sit back, take several deep breaths, and a sip of calming tea.

    Then inside my skull echoed the words, “Each and every person responsible for this deserves a .38 slug between their eyes.”

  13. December 9, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    Sorry if this was triggering for anyone. I’ll edit it now and put it below the cut.

  14. December 9, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    This is wonderful news. It’s good to see Muslim scholars responding in this manner (reminds me of Fauziya Kassindja’s father in Do They Hear You When You Cry?).

  15. Mnemosyne
    December 9, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    From what I’ve heard in the past, claiming that this practice is dictated by Islam has about as much validity as insisting that Santa Claus is integral to Christmas. So I’m glad to hear that scholars are coming out to deny that it’s “required” in some way.

  16. December 10, 2006 at 1:46 am

    This is good. The practice is still pretty common in Egypt (as well as a lot of other African countries) – I hope this will help the NGOs that are working with women in rural areas where it is most prevalent by giving them an argument that people will listen to.

  17. Frumious B
    December 11, 2006 at 11:48 am

    I heard a great quote from Kofi Annan on NPR this morning. I’m not sure of the context, but I think it’s applicable to FGC. I’m paraphrasing since I don’t recall the exact words, but it was something along the lines of:

    “Human rights are not a Western import, they are intrinsic.”

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