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#4: Liberating Egypt from Female Genital Mutilation
Hank Pellissier   Dec 28, 2011   Ethical Technology  

“That woman in Cairo,” I wonder as I stare at the dramatic photo in Washington Post, “the one with the Egyptian flag and the black headscarf… does she have a clitoris?”

According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2011? We’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 12 articles published this year on our blog, based on how many total hits each one received - and we’re now down to the Top Four.

The following piece was first published here on February 25, 2011, and is the 4th most viewed of the year.

Cairo women

Perhaps my question is intrusive and impolite. Perhaps discussing clitorises is a more taboo topic than if I, for example, announced that I don’t have a foreskin, or that I do have a hemorrhoid.

I don’t know. What I do believe (mutating stanzas from 1963’s Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss) is this:

What’s the point of the Egyptian Revolution
If it doesn’t stop female genital mutilation?
If girls are chopped bloody, sexually-deducted,
Was the 18-day struggle at all productive?
Egypt gave itself a Mubarak-tomy
Now its time to end clitoridectomy
Let us condemn

Is female genital mutilation (FGM) a transhumanist issue? Yes. “Enhancement” is championed by technoprogressives as a basic human right; this suggests that the opposite “reductions” like FGM deserve condemnation as a violation of the same entitlement. The H+ desire to be “more than human” should be linked to a protest against non-consensual amputation. The Transhumanist Declaration also strives for the “alleviation of grave suffering.”

Do I believe male circumcision of infants is also a non-consensual “reduction” that transhumanists should oppose? Yes, I do. In San Francisco, where I live, there’s a proposal circulating that would ban the unnecessary, sensory-reducing procedure. The measure intends to make it “unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.” The law, if passed, would punish the new crime with up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, and it’s getting my vote.

However, female genital mutilation is not circumcision—it’s a far more dangerous and debilitating attack on the flesh. Abolishing FGM unfortunately was not an agenda item that any Egyptian revolutionary spokesperson mentioned, and it was generally ignored as a subject of discussion by international media until CBS reporter Lara Logan was assaulted in Tahrir Square on February 11 by a mob of up to 200 men.

The Sunday Times reported that “sensitive parts of her body were covered with red marks… from aggressive pinching.” She was also “stripped, punched and slapped.” Suddenly, misogynist horror in the land of the Pharaohs was in the spotlight, and why not? The attack on Logan, who was rescued by Egyptian women and policemen after 20 to 30 minutes of abuse, serves as a potent reminder that even with Mubarak gone, it’s often a nasty men’s world in the Nile nation.

“Rampant sexual harassment, public fondling and groping of women… is used as a way to keep women indoors,” writes Asra Nomani in the Huffington Post. A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights says 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign visiting females experience sexual harassment, and the Arab Human Development Report (2009) claims 35% of all Egyptian women have been physically attacked, a figure they suggest is grossly under-reported. The 2010 Global Gender Gap Index, a Swiss study that rates progress towards women’s equality, places Egypt in the international cellar: #125 out of 134 nations surveyed. Egypt’s rank is abysmal because it excludes women from good jobs, especially managerial positions, and only 2% of parliament is female.

Abuse of Egyptian females often occurs early in life, with female genital mutilation. Although it was banned in 2007 by the Ministry of Health following the death of 12-year-old Badour Shaker—who overdosed on anesthesia in an illegal clinic—its prevalence has only dropped from 97% to 91% in recent years, according to Nfissatou Diop, program coordinator of a joint project by UNICEF and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund).

The Grand Mufti of Egypt has said FGM is “prohibited,” the Al-Aabar Supreme Council of Islamic Research says it shouldn’t be practiced because it has no basis in Islamic law, and even the former first lady—Suzanne Mubarak—denounced it as “a flagrant example of continued physical and psychological violence.”

So…why does this barbarity persist?


UNICEF claims that FGM’s primary raison d’etre is to “reduce the sexual desire of a female…[to] maintain a girl’s virginity prior to marriage and her fidelity thereafter.” Traditions insist that FGM makes girls “clean,” “beautiful,” and “pure,” because it removes the “ugly” and “dirty” genitalia. Superstitious propaganda also contends that men become impotent or sick if their penis contacts a clitoris, that a mother’s milk will be poisonous if she’s uncut, that her face will turn yellow and she’ll get vaginal cancer without FGM, and (perhaps most frighteningly) she’ll masturbate excessively or become a lesbian.

My sociological opinion is that FGM’s intent is to terrorize young females into lifelong submission to male authority.

Archeologists believe FGM’s origins probably lie in the pyramids’ shadows. Unraveled mummies were found with FGM, and a Greek papyrus from 163 B.C. notes that Egyptian girls were given the operation when they received their dowries.

Today, an estimated two million girls per year are excised. Here’s a list of high percentage nations, tabulated by Rosemarie Skaine in her book, Female Genital Mutilation: Legal, Cultural, and Medical Issues—Burkina Faso (71.6%), Chad (60%), Cote d’Ivoire (44.5%), Djibouti (90-98%), Eritrea (90%), Ethiopia (69.7-94.5%), Gambia (80-90%), Ghana (40%), Guinea (98.6%), Liberia (60%), Mali (92%), Mauritania (71%), Sierra Leone (90%), Somalia (95%), Sudan (91%), Togo (50%), Iraqi Kurdistan (72.7%), and Egypt (78-97%).

Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi—who had her clitoris excised when she was six—became a doctor who regularly observed the “terrible physical damage female genital mutilation could cause.” In 1972, when she was director general in the Egyptian Ministry of Health, she wrote a book, Women and Sex, that criticized FGM. She subsequently lost her job.

InfidelAyaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali/Dutch/American writer, is probably the most famous chronicler of her own genital mutilation experience. In her biography, Infidel, she describes her cutting, followed by infibulation:

Women held my legs apart. The man… picked up a pair of scissors… The scissors went down between my legs and the man snipped off my inner labia and clitoris, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat. A piercing pain shot up between my legs, indescribable, and I howled. Then came the sewing: the long, blunt needle clumsily pushing into my outer labia, my long and anguished protests…”

Many girls die during or after their excision, from infections. Other complications cause enormous, more or less lifelong pain… My once cheerful, playful little sister [Hawaya] changed… never the same afterwards. She became ill with a fever for several weeks… horrible nightmares… she just stared vacantly at nothing for hours…

Later, her sister dies young, after years of psychosis.

Hearing this stuff drives me, personally, crazy with rage and bewilderment. How can anyone who claims to love their children simultaneously subject their innocents to such ghastly abuse? To care for one’s children is to keep them from harm, not dissect their young bodies with filthy tools.

The civilized outcry against FGM is not 100% universal, due to “cultural relativism” infecting some circles of feminism. The Village Voice reports that in 2006, Patricia Clough, director of the Center for the Study of Women at CUNY, “declined to call female genital mutilation wrong.” Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf of Brown University has also defined FGM as “a site of identity formation.”

But generally, condemnation of FGM in the Western world is substantial, led by many European women’s groups, such as GAMS FRANCE, GAMS BELGIUM, END FGM, FGM- HILFE (Austria), Female Integrity (Sweden), FSAN (The Netherlands), FORWARD (UK), and others.

If FGM persists in Egypt after democracy (we hope) is installed, it will be an embarrassment in the pages of their progress. Ignoring FGM at this time would resemble the shame American people of conscience feel when they regard the year 1870, when black men were given the vote via the 15th Amendment, but women of all colors were denied—for another 50 years (the 19th Amendment).

Egyptian feminist Nawla Darwiche has stated that “all the men were very respectful during the revolution… sexual harassment didn’t occur during the revolt.” Let’s hope, and insist, that this cessation of abuse becomes a permanent feature in the new, ancient nation. The words “Egyptian Revolution” have a glorious sound, but not if we simultaneously hear the screams of girls.

Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.


Love the article, Hank.

I don’t think your question is intrusive and impolite, but it is rather disturbing that you would be wondering of a particular woman’s clitoris, instead of wondering whether this liberation IS the beginning of the end of centuries old archaic rituals that are horrific and unimaginable. It’s my opinion, from the women’s point of view, that the latter would create more openness to discussion.

Nevertheless, I’m hopeful that much like the revolution itself, those strong women, like Nawla Darwiche, and respectful men will ally against those who endorse FGM, with their new found democracy, in ways much like we do here.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that the number of incidents have not really decreased. This has never been a wide spread topic for men. And woman can’t fight back alone, due to the sheer terroristic nature of such violations.

I see you wrote this in February and finding it now is just a testament to how awesome and hopeful the internet can be. I hope many others stumble upon your article and think about the Egyptian revolution as an opportunity for many more men to liberate their voices regarding this topic.

Thank you, Hank, and all those readers who helped this article reach a milestone in 2011.

@ avangogh - thanks for your comments! 

I was very happy to hear of the huge march last week by Egyptian women - it surprised all observers with its size and enthusiasm. I am trying to find an Egyptian woman to be a blogger for IEET as well, because Egypt and its revolution is going to continue as an event of international importance.

thanks again.

Thank you, Hank Pellissier, for this great article.

I totally agree with you that “condemnation of FGM in the Western world is substantial” - but if you would dare to have a profound look at the true engagement of the European organisations you quote - you would have to admit that not only the “The civilized outcry against FGM is not 100% universal, due to “cultural relativism” - but even the so-called activists are supporting these crimes to persist in the West!

Do you know that for years, UNICEF has been trivialising FGM as “circumcision” or “cutting” and is continuously and deliberatly overriding the African consensus that the correct term is Female Genital Mutilation, FGM? Do you knwo that UNICEF has been forcing African organisations to give up the right term FGM - by threating them to deny funds if they would not? And do you know that millions of girls are being mutilated in UNICEF’s projects in Africa - because UNICEF refuses to protect them with simple measures such as conditioned development aid?

And Hank, do you know that in 2007, FSAN in the Netherlands was in the forefront of the fight against Ayan Hirsi Ali’s pioneering proposal to protect girls at risk in the Netherlands by regular medical check-ups?

And do you know that FORWARD UK refuses to interfere when FGM is perpetrated in UK? That even if they have concrete information about time and place, they are NOT informing the police or other authorities to save the girls?
Do you know that in 2009, the Somalian head of FORWARD Germany was engaged in a media-campaign against a court decision designed to protect a 10-year-old girl from being taken to Ethiopia and put at risk of FGM? Do you know that FORWARD was claiming, that there would be “no risk” for the girl - in a country with 90% of FGM victims?
Do you you know that there is NOT a single so-called “Anti-FGM-organisation” in Europe that - if lead by immigrant women/victims - would be willing to protect a girl by involving the authorities?
They would never blow the whistles on our fellow countrymen - at the cost of the girls: To them, patriotism comes first!

And much the worse, they are hindering amainly the implementation of effective prevention measures, such as medical check ups of girls at risk…

Are you aware of the fact that up to 80% of girls from the High-risk-groups continue to be mutilated in front of our doors - here in the West - without protection and with help of so-called “activists”?

YES - we should care about Egypt’s women and girls - as indeed, FGM is a transhuman issue.

But we first of all, we should start to fulfill our very own duties - and make sure that these crimes are prevented, stopped and prosecuted here in the Western countries - as in this field, they are NOT better than Egypt yet!

Thanks for the info—I am not a fan of UNICEF for a variety of reasons but this is really outrageous. Let me know if you are available for an interview

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