Equality for women in Egypt is an open, far from resolved, issue. I am not talking about equal pay for equal work and I am not talking about corporate "glass ceilings." Nor am I am talking about abortion, child care, or property rights, or access to political positions of power.
The most pressing issue facing womanhood in Egypt today is far less about basic legal equality and much more significantly about human rights.
This issue is at the very core of what it means to have personal control over one's own bodily integrity and human sexuality.
The issue is female genital mutilation.
Let's first be sure we understand it:
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an ancient cultural practice that predates both Christianity and Islam. It is not a religious precept of any religion although there is a persistent belief in the minds of millions that it is. Predominantly seen in Moslem communities it is also practiced by small communities of Eastern orthodox Christians, such as the Coptic Christian church (although not widely). Some African cultures practice FGM as a physical rite of passage without any pretense that it is a religious mandate (such as the Maasai). Although predominantly practiced throughout Africa and the Middle East, it has also known up in places as disparate as Indonesia, China, and Chechnya. Because of the widespread dislocation and migration of the many peoples who practice FGM, it is now showing up throughout Europe and the United States.
FGM comes in three basic forms, from the most extreme to the still extreme. It has been referred to as female circumcision but that is a gross misnomer and imparts on this practice a suggestion that it is the equal of male circumcision.
It is not.
If male circumcision were its equal then male circumcision would be (in its most benign form) the reduction or modification of the male penis in order to reduce or eliminate full sexual pleasure. In its most extreme form it is more the equivalent of castration with the exception that reproduction is still possible for a woman because the womb and other organs of reproduction are left intact.
The goal with FGM is not sterility but the mutilation of the external genitalia in order to diminish or erase the sexual drive in women. Some cultures also believe that the modification of the external genitalia is desirable aesthetically or justified under the grossly mistaken belief that is it best for hygienic and health reasons.
Female genital mutilation is an ancient form of social control -- that is the bottom line. Whether it is done for quasi-religious/cultural reasons or purely cultural, the primary goal is to control female sexual behavior. FGM is a societal measure driven by a core belief that women cannot control their own sexual urges. Therefore, an "uncut" woman has the uncontrollable potential for disgracing her husband, family, and even 'the wider community. Traditionally, this myth has been embraced by the women themselves as much as by the patriarchal system that dominates their lives. The belief is so deeply embedded in the communities that practice FGM that those who refuse to submit themselves or their daughters to this ritual have been shunned, beaten, and sometimes physically forced to submit.
The fact that FGM has been harder to erase than small pox speaks to more than merely culture, social control, and the difficult task of public education. In a very real sense it also speaks to the economic realities of female subsistence. In societies that have no pathways to any type of security other than marriage, women have little choice but to acquiesce. Uncut girls are not marriageable goods. Therefore, in the harsh reality of some communities, it is irresponsible to not cut one's daughters. Failing to do so will condemn the girl to pariah-status and deny her any chance to participate as a respected member of that society. Very few women have been able to escape from these societies; the few who have, like Waris Dirie, are extraordinary exceptions.
Female genital mutilation in Egypt is endemic. As elsewhere, core assumptions about the value of women are at the very heart of the problem. Addressing a 2009 report on violent crimes against women, the Executive Director of The Land Center for Human Rights publicly admitted too many Egyptians still believe "women are fundamentally lacking.... They are not complete, because they are not men." This statement was made in March 2010.
Statistics compiled by UNICEF for the years 1997 to 2007 show that 96 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced some form of female genital mutilation (FGM). In order to address FGM, as well as the many other gender issues impacting women in Egypt, many governmental and non-governmental organizations such as the Land Center for Human Rights, the courts, and the Ministry of Health have worked together to put new laws into effect that will protect and empower women. One of the most prominent of these has been The National Council of Women (NCW) which is a governmental organization that was headed by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. The NCW works on women's social, political and economic empowerment in general and has successfully helped tackle two significant issues: raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years and criminalizing FGM. The Mubarak government, for all of its flaws and corruption, was in several ways far ahead of other countries in the region.
Here is a synopsis about the Mubarak government's attempt to eradicate FGM in Egypt:
The modern Egyptian Penal Code had provisions against "wounding" and "intentional infliction of harm leading to death," as well as a ministerial decree prohibiting FGM, but neither the law nor decree had any teeth.
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