The Girl is Egyptian

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, May 27, 2003 at 3:07PM :

The girl is Egyptian
22 - 28 May 2003
Al-Ahram Weekly Online

Fatemah Farag finds herself torn between women's rights and setting agendas

The script goes something like this: a young peasant girl in a quaint Egyptian village is her parent's only child. From their little mud house in the midst of green fields they choose to educate her and not to subject her to female genital mutilation (FGM) or an early marriage. The next sequence of shots shows the girl-turned-woman in a trendy trousers suit and perfect makeup working at a state-of-the-art children's library. She marries an equally trendy-looking guy, has a daughter, and her peasant parents are magically transformed into a middle-class couple. The final shot is of the granddaughter singing the praises of "the Egyptian girl" on stage. The explicit message is: "No to FGM. No to Early Marriage. Yes to Education." The implicit message is that if you follow the above guidelines you will be catapulted into a considerably higher social class and into an Egypt where the public gardens are green, schools have fancy facilities and a woman can sit in a field with her hair blowing in the wind and not be harassed.

The commercial is being shown ad infinitum on Egyptian television within the framework of the Year of the Girl Child, a year designated to promote the welfare of young girls in Egypt. FGM has been identified by the government as not only a major health issue but also a human rights issue; the overall physical and psychological effects of the procedure have now officially been accepted as negative. The explicit message of the advert is laudable. The baggage that comes with it, however, seems comic at best, deceitful at worst. The truth of the matter is that FGM and other forms of violence against girls and women are part of a larger system of which gender, and non-gender based brutality, are defining aspects.

Why target violence against women in these days of political turmoil, economic recession and human rights abuses that cut across the borders of sex, age, religion and race?

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of the World Population 2000 report offers a few clues. "At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are 'missing' from various populations, mostly in Asia, as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect; rape and other forms of sexual violence are increasing. Many rapes go unreported because of the stigma and trauma associated with them and the lack of sympathetic treatment from legal systems. Estimates of the proportion of rapes reported to authorities vary -- from less than three per cent in South Africa to about 16 per cent in the United States; two million girls between ages five and 15 are introduced into the commercial sex market each year; at least 130 million women have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation or cutting; another two million are at risk each year from this degrading and dangerous practice. So-called 'honour' killings take the lives of thousands of young women every year, mainly in Western Asia, North Africa and parts of South Asia. At least 1,000 women were murdered in Pakistan in 1999. In the United States, a woman is battered, usually by her intimate partner, every 15 seconds. Physical violence is nearly always accompanied by psychological abuse, which can be just as demeaning and degrading. Among 613 abused women in Japan, for instance, close to 60 per cent had suffered from physical, psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of their partners; only eight per cent had experienced physical abuse alone. Similarly, in Leon, Nicaragua, researchers found that of 188 women abused by their partners, only five had not been sexually assaulted," said the report.

Violence against women is an abrogation of human rights with dire consequences. Among these are the increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, persistent gynaecological problems and psychological conditions, including fear of sex and loss of pleasure. Yet across the globe, violence against women continues to be a pervasive, though under- recognised, fact of life. As the UNFPA report says, "Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way -- most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member; one woman in four has been abused during pregnancy."

Of the world's 1.3 billion people living under the poverty line, 70 per cent are women. The relationship between women's low economic and social status relative to men and violence against women cannot be ignored. All too often, however, violence is not seen as part of a broader pattern and acts of abuse are seen as the individual actions of a man against a woman. Despite this stereotype, many forms of violence are inherent to "the system". For instance, in police stations women are regularly subjected to harassment, the threat of rape and acts of rape and torture.

Economic policies can also be the agents of violence perpetrated against women. In a report issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy, she explained that "macro-policies of states and governments may also result in human rights violations and violence. Examples of such violence are preventable malnutrition, preventable diseases or complications during pregnancy and childbirth resulting in death... Encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI) in the area of labour-intensive manufacturing by deregulating the labour market removes protection for workers, thereby exposing them to health risks. As women often are 80 per cent of such workers, the argument that such a policy is gender neutral is frequently untenable."

She went on to point out that "structural adjustment programmes designed by the IMF or the World Bank call for cuts in government spending and for privatisation of state-owned enterprises and services. This may result in an increase in women's death rates by reducing their access to medical care, while failure to provide welfare and shelter facilities for women may prevent women from leaving violent situations and seeking help. In addition, economic and social policies which are side effects of promoting development, such as relocation for building infrastructure (e.g. dams), policies regarding reproduction and family planning, and housing policies frequently constitute or promote violence against women."

Another factor in the cycle of violence against women is culture. The UNFPA report stated: "Many cultures condone or at least tolerate a certain amount of violence against women. In parts of South Asia, Western Asia and Africa, for instance, men are seen as having a right to discipline their wives as they see fit. The right of a husband to beat or physically intimidate his wife is a deeply-held conviction in many societies. Even women often view a certain amount of physical abuse as justified under certain conditions. For instance, 80 per cent of women surveyed in rural Egypt said that beatings were common and often justified, particularly if the woman refused to have sex with her partner." (see related article right)

Of course, cultures in the developing world are not the only ones which are biased against women. Brutality against women in the United States is a clear reflection of a culture of violence that targets women as vulnerable punching bags. As Christina Saunders, human rights officer and assistant to the special rapporteur on violence against women, told attendants of the Arab Regional Conference on Violence Against Women held in Cairo last week (see box), "Another challenge for the future comes from the cultural relativism debate. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women provides that states should not use custom, tradition or religious consideration to justify violence against women. At the same time, the special rapporteur is concerned that in fighting cultural practices that are violent against women, many governments and groups cast an 'arrogant gaze' at cultural practices that they do not comprehend and at societies that they do not bother to understand. There are women who feel torn between fighting for women's rights and preserving the sense of belonging that all cultures give to their people. Strategies must therefore be sensitive to cultural realities..."

It is precisely this sensitivity that has coloured the fight against FGM in Egypt. Ever since 1994 when CNN broadcast footage of a young girl being circumcised in Cairo, FGM became an exceptionally controversial topic.

"Now the West's main issue has become that we Muslims circumcise our daughters... and in the meantime you see what's happening to the Arabs and Muslims... I believe this issue has been blown way out of proportion," said a physician to the research team that published a report last March commissioned by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) aimed at identifying attitudes about FGM. The report, entitled "Attitudes and values of Egyptian opinion leaders towards female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C): A quantitative investigation", includes interviews with 21 "highly respected opinion leaders" representing the fields of mass media, medicine, religion, politics and social and behavioural sciences.

The physician's statement represents the kind of antagonisms that hinder public debate about such sensitive topics. Dialogue about such issues is particularly difficult when criticism is seen as coming from outside of national borders.

This is not helped when the "facts" seem disputable. "The study findings suggest that opinion leaders' knowledge about the practice was somewhat limited. Many participants believed that FGM/C was limited to lower socio-economic groups or those living in rural areas and that it was mostly performed by traditional healers," notes the executive summary of the UNICEF report.

The report alleges that participants were unclear about the fact that 97 per cent of married women of reproductive age (15-49) in Egypt have been circumcised. This figure, however, is highly questionable. "I am not convinced this figure comes close to reality," argued Dr Mohamed Abul-Ghar, professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at Cairo University and a long-standing anti-FGM activist.

"The upper-middle class in Egypt does not circumcise. My clientele to a great extent comes from this class and almost none of my patients are circumcised. This class counts for at least five per cent of society. I am sure that most of the middle class in big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria also do not circumcise their girls -- especially in the past 30 to 40 years. And finally, many lower- income patients who are circumcised come to me and ask my opinion as to whether they should go ahead and do the same to their daughters. Most walk away convinced that they should not. This is the reality I see with my very own eyes," he added.

UNICEF itself has published statistics that indicate that the practice may not be as prevalent as once believed. "The Situation of Egyptian Children and Women", published by UNICEF last August, notes, "There is evidence, however, of a decline in the practice in recent years, presumably the result of efforts by the Ministry of Health and Population and NGOs to increase public recognition and discussion of FGM as a serious health and human rights issue. The proportion of mothers who indicated having had a daughter circumcised or indicated that they intended to have a daughter circumcised in the future decreased from 87 per cent in 1995 to 81 per cent in 2000. Attitudes towards FGM also appear to be changing -- in 2000, 75 per cent of women felt that FGM was a tradition that had to continue, down from 87 per cent in 1995."

This would explain the assertion made by a university professor quoted in the UNICEF study: "In the past, maybe decades back, the practice of FGM/C was widespread in Egypt, but I think that it has started to decline." A religious authority characterised the study that found that 97 per cent of married women of childbearing age in Egypt have been circumcised as "incorrect". "I can list for you now more than one thousand families who have not circumcised their daughters," he said.

Yet, several of the attitudes expressed in the UNICEF study demonstrated a lack of understanding of the procedure and its consequences. One of the religious authorities consulted said that "FGM/C does not pose a problem in real life... You FGM activists are making up those problems." A physician said that if performed by a skilled surgeon, the practice could be a "nice thing". Similarly, a media professional argued that the "abandonment of this practice would have very serious consequences... I believe that performing this procedure by a physician is necessary to curb women's sexual desire so it does not exceed the permissible limits... We need to control the pace of this society by stabilising women's sexual desire."

Abul-Ghar noted that the medicalisation of the practice makes it seem legitimate and impedes efforts to combat FGM. "There are no laws that govern the practice. [There are] only the regulations of the Ministry of Health. One way of curbing the practice is by taking severe action against medical personnel who undertake the procedure," said Abul-Ghar. Interviewees opposed to FGM cited economic empowerment, government intervention and awareness campaigns as important in the battle against FGM and all agreed that it was culturally appropriate to debate the issue publicly. The importance of support from the religious establishment was also cited as crucial.

A professor of social sciences said, "I am against criminalising it... I am for personal choice... There is a difference between awareness raising and criminalisation... Are cigarettes harmful or not... Its hazards are even more than those of FGM/C... [Smoking] causes cancer... Why don't you criminalise it, then?" The answer is the strength and financial capital driving the tobacco lobby. As for whether FGM is a "choice", little girls are not often asked about their opinion -- the choice is being made for them.

The UNICEF report concludes that there is a great need for "reliable studies that examine the health consequences of FGM/C that cannot be prevented by medicalisation... [and] a clear statement from Al-Azhar highlighting the long-term health consequences". Obviously there are no simple answers. But putting FGM and other forms of violence against women on the table offers the possibility that both women and men will be able to choose a different perception of body, self, gender relations and life. Only in these choices, made and enforced by the victims themselves, can we hope to break the vicious circle of violence.

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

-- Sadie
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