June 3, 2019
When did you first become aware of FGM?
I was really young – Maybe 6 or 7, or younger. Soon after I’d started primary school.
Did you grow up in Egypt?
Yes, I grew up in Egypt. I’ve lived in Egypt, Kuwait and the UK.
Did you hear about FGM at school?
No. Here is the problem actually…
Because at school I had not been taught anything about genitalia/sex education. If we ever did, the teacher would cover it very briefly.
So how did you find out about FGM?
It happened to someone that I knew (when I was about 6 years old). I didn’t see the operation, but I was there and I heard it – the screaming.
At that time there was male circumcision, which was done medically. I had been circumcised, so I thought it was kind of the same.
But I remember that I was circumcised in a medical practice. But the FGM happened at the house and it was done by someone who was not qualified – just the very very old ‘midwife’. The midwives in Egypt when I was younger had no education or qualifications/medical background at all. I don’t know about now – it’s probably changed. So, I think the same woman who was responsible to do the cutting.
In what ways do you think men can make a difference when it comes to ending FGM? (in creating awareness/changing mindsets/ending the practice)
In our countries men have the authority so they can say ‘don’t do it’. I think once the men know what’s wrong about FGM then they can apply that to their families, because they have the authority. Whilst the women just follow the men. Of course, this is a generalisation. There are some cases where the women are leading the families, but generally men. But when women lead the families, they insist to follow the old tradition. The big problem with that in our countries is the familiar idea that FGM will prevent girls from being promiscuous, which is wrong.
I read an article about a study which suggested that 60% of prostitutes have been cut. They did a random study of 100-200 women.
There is this idea that if a girl is not cut then she will be promiscuous, which is not true and this study shows that. FGM doesn’t make any difference (in a woman’s sexual activity) – it may even have the reverse effect. I’m not sure because I’m not from a psychological or medical background.
There is an idea in our country that Islam is ‘behind’ FGM. But I can say, the family that cut their girls when I was young were Christian. So, I don’t think it’s about religion. But the thing is, especially in Egypt, the religions (both of them) are mixed and both practice FGM because of tradition, not religion.
But I think that people didn’t bother to read or to search – maybe now because we have the internet – but in our times nobody would bother to read about FGM. People thought that it was in line with their religion, so they just followed.
Have you had any conversations with men about FGM? If yes, what have their thoughts been?
Maybe once or twice. Because normally I don’t like to be involved in talking about sex in general, especially with men. But I think once or twice I have had conversations where men are insisting that it is something we should do, otherwise the girls will not be polite. This was in Egypt. I haven’t had any conversations out FGM in the UK, because in my work these conversations wouldn’t come up. I have had a conversation similar to that, but it was not about FGM, it was about bringing up our kids. I think a Pakistani man was worried about his daughter. He said that he can’t grow her up according to good practice. But we didn’t go deeply into it – I know that he had some religious things that he felt he should do.
Do you think that men (and women) feel more comfortable talking about FGM in Egypt than the UK, because it is more commonplace?
The thing is, in Egypt there is a law, but no one follows it. Even if someone is caught, I believe that the government and the police will let them go.
I can say that there is something worse than FGM – if a girl has a relationship with a boy before/without marriage, that may lead her family to kill her. If you go to the police and tell them that the man/ family killed the girl, the police will be compassionate with the family and will just let them go. And this is fact. So, in Egypt everyone knows that police will just turn a blind eye. But in the UK people know that if they tell me about an incident, I will go to the police. So, they probably won’t say anything, because they know that it is really strict here.
In Egypt we have many laws, but we’re misapplying them. They are different for the rich and for the poor, men and women, etc. – so no one takes them seriously. You only follow the law if you are going to benefit from following it.
What reasons do you think are given for FGM?
Keeping a girl polite – I think this is the reason. Sex is the main subject in life in Egypt. I don’t mean that they are always thinking about sex, but it’s like the leading decision. Men do everything to prove their ‘menship’ and women to prove their dignity. So, it’s about that. In my time they didn’t say that it’s a health thing.
For me when I had circumcision I was scared of the harm. I remember that I screamed a lot, but they said it’s a healthy thing. But they didn’t say that for the girls.
For the girls I don’t think they said that FGM was to prevent them from being a bad girl, but they also didn’t mention any health thing. They just said you should do it, like everyone. And I think girls understood that. And it’s really ridiculous, because the girls were really very young, so if they think about that at that age, their brain will be damaged. And it’s not just about the psychological effects, it’s about thinking ‘oh my god, what does society think of me? I’m just a sex tool.’ Or something like that. ‘They do everything to protect the society/the community, even hurting me.’
In Egypt, if a girl has been harassed in the street, they blame the girl. They will say she shouldn’t walk in the street at the time, she shouldn’t wear the clothes – there’s always something she shouldn’t have done. There is nothing about the man, so this mentality is the driving force behind FGM.
As we know, it’s very important for the girl to preserve virginity before marriage. Is this also important for the boy/man?
In Egypt, in the older time. I’m not sure if it’s still there in villages but I think there are some villages doing this: the night of marriage, they call it the ‘intercourse night’, it used to be that someone, a woman, should go to the girl to check her with a white handkerchief. After this the girl’s dad or uncle, or whoever is the male leader in the family, will go out of the house with the cloth stained in blood, to show that the girl is 100% OK.
I think I have heard of some cases where it has been faked. It is men’s mentality. And I was affected directly because I lived there for such a long time. I still have some… (ways of thinking?)
It’s not like here (UK). Here it’s not about men and women, it’s about community. In Egypt it’s about men and women, and who’s leading. If both the man and the woman are highly educated, they are always thinking about who is leading, not how to help and cooperate with one another.
Do you think that if a boy was found to have had a relationship before marriage, he would be in trouble in the same way that a girl would?
In Egypt, no. They will find him many many excuses. And even the law, to prove that the boy raped a girl you need to have 2 witnesses. If the girl is able to prove it then they will get married in the police station, then once they get out the boy will divorce the girl. This is a law.
I have sisters and I have nieces, so I think the same as my female family. Yes, I’m here, but I’m not happy. Even with all of the progress that we have made, we are still behind.
In what ways do men in your community have the power to make decisions and stop FGM from happening?
First, I need to stand against what’s happening and speak to my circle of relatives. They should campaign against that. They should have lectures.
The most important thing I think is to try to connect it with religions. Religion is really important. I think that any campaign will succeed if it is linked with religion. If not, you will find it difficult. You need to find a proof, something solid. Saying at least that there is no justification for FGM in the Bible/Quran should be successful. But if you talk talk talk without any proof, I don’t think it will work. Or it will work, but not as well. You will be counting on the mentality of the people. Because for us as Arabic people, religion is really important – for Islam and Christianity. We’ve grown up with that idea that if you do something good, god will be happy with you, so god’s word is really important. So, saying that god didn’t mention FGM – people will listen.
Family tradition- if people don’t cut their girls, all of the village will be embarrassed. But how will they know if you do it or not? I think because it’s only one woman doing the cutting, she will tell everyone that a family have not cut their daughters and that the girls are not good.
But now it is not like that because the communities are bigger and there’s not that same ‘everyone knows everything about everyone’ attitude.
Do you think that there are particular tools which are helpful to have conversations? The hashtag, the app, hard copy e.g. booklet, etc.
For me, I prefer the internet, because it’s easier to look at it. I don’t have time to read a book. Even very tiny leaflets I don’t have time to read. But if you show me a video… I’m a visual learner so something visual would be better for me. But I’m not sure about other people.
Social media will be helpful, especially Facebook as it’s reaching everyone.
When people don’t have much time, they need something clear that gets the facts across quickly. Personally, I don’t like to watch something gory. Just tell me the facts, in graphs or something. But I’m only speaking for myself.
Who do you think is best placed to talk about FGM with men?
Men would listen to men the most, especially religious men. For me personally, I would listen to a woman – but if she was from a religious background, I’d be less likely to listen to her. Don’t ask me why. But I think most of the men would prefer men from religious backgrounds. In the mosque they say that the son is the god and they will worship the god – the son. So, I think most men would prefer someone from a religious background.
I am teaching a lot. I remember that I mentioned FGM in my lesson once – because I’m really interested in things like language and where words originated from. I think there were about 6 men, but of course I did not ask them what their opinion was on FGM because it was out of the main subject. But I did say that I’m against this practice.
I’m just thinking back to your family in Egypt – have you had conversations with them about FGM now that you’re older?
No. The thing is, it’s very sensitive to have conversations about that because in my time (maybe now it’s different) the conversations are much more open than before, and touch on things that you weren’t even allowed to think about. But for me it’s sensitive. I mentioned that I had not been taught about genitalia, marriage, all this stuff. The only information I have is from my own personal research, which most of them are bad things as a teenager. So, I think it’s really sensitive, therefore I have not had any conversations with my family.
I didn’t ask them, but I believe that the girls (my female family) who had FGM in their childhood have chosen not to cut their daughters. Not only because of what they suffered, and how cruel it was, but also their level of education. My family had very low education, but in the next generation in my family we are all highly educated and we all have good knowledge about FGM.
Times are different. In my time I think the Church which is really influential in our decisions, didn’t speak out against FGM. They were like, ‘if you want to do it, it’s up to you’. Whereas now I think the church is different. They know more and the priest and high priest are educated and they can prevent and tell people that FGM is harmful. I’m talking about the Christian people from my family – I’m not sure about other Christian people. But I think there are still some villages which have not yet seen any progress. They live in their own world.