Nawal El Saadawi
2007 / 2 / 26
1- Changing a social system into a divine law
Female and male genital mutilation (FGM and MGM) are not characteristic of any society or any religion, or any country, or race or colour, or ethnic group.
They constitute (like the oppression of women and poor classes) an integral part of the political, economic social, cultural and religious system, preponderant in most of the world, West and East, North and South, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, or other.
FGM and MGM are born of developments in history that made one class rule over another, and men dominate over women, in the state and in the family unit which together constitute the core of the patriarchal class relations.
But there are still many writers who close their eyes to these historical facts, for political-economic-colonial reasons. They depict FGM and MGM as stemming from Islam, or they reduce these crimes against women and poor men to religious, cultural and identity factors. For these thinkers, there is no link between sexual and class oppression; there is no link between global politics, national politics, and family politics; there is no link between the American military invasion of Iraq and oil domination and exploitation; there is no link between money and sex, no link between the material and spiritual, or between the body, the mind and the spirit.
These dichotomies are prevalent till today, are inherited from the slave system which arose some thousands years ago, they serve to veil the mind, to deceive women and men, by hiding material-physical exploitation under a false spiritual-religious happiness, or by changing the social system (made by ruling classes) into a divine law.
We need to study history and the divine books (the three monotheistic books) to understand why FGM and MGM arose in history, and to know that FGM is not mentioned in any of these books. MGM is mentioned in the “Old Testament” (but there is nothing about MGM in the Quran or New Testament).
In the Old Testament there is the following verse:
ÇáÅÕÍÇÍ 17 (Êßæíä) íÚÞÏ ÇáÅáå ãÚ ÇáäÈí ÇÈÑÇåíã ÚåÏÇ íÞæá Ýíå ¡ ÃÞíã ÚåÏì Èíäì æÈíä äÓáß ãä ÈÚÏß ... ÚåÏÇ ÃÈÏíÇ ... ÃÚØì áß æáäÓáß ãä ÈÚÏß ÃÑÖ ÛÑÈÊß ßá ÃÑÖ ßäÚÇä ãáßÇ ÃÈÏíÇ ... åÐÇ åæ ÚåÏì ÇáÐì ÊÍÝÙæå Èíäì æÈíäßã ... íÎÊä ãäßã ßá ÐßÑ ... ÝÊÎÊäæä Ýì áÍã ÛÑáÊßã ¡ Ýíßæä ÚáÇãÉ ÚåÏ Èíäì æÈíäßã ... Ýíßæä ÚåÏì Ýì áÍãßã ÃÈÏíÇ ... æÃãÇ ÇáÐßÑ ÇáÛáÝ ÇáÐì áÇ íÎÊä Ýì áÍã ÛÑáÊå ÝÊÞØÚ Êáß ÇáäÝÓ ãä ÔÚÈåÇ ¡ Åäå äßË ÚåÏì."
Holy Bible, Genesis 17 (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. 14)
17-8 : And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan , for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.
17-10 : This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee, every man child among you shall be circumcised.
17-13 : He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised, and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
17-14 : And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people, he hath broken my covenant.
As a medical doctor I have known the physical, mental, and social problems of both MGM and FGM. It is common sense that a child (male or female) should not be cut into by knife under any religious or cultural or identity slogans. Never in my life did I perform an operation for a female or male child. I felt it is a crime against a newly born child (8 days for the male child and 6 years for the female child).
FGM: this crime was done to me when I was 6 years old. I wrote about it in Arabic in my book under the title “The Naked Face of Women (1972)”, which was published in English in 1980 under the title: “The Hidden Face of Eve”. The publisher changed the title, I do not know why, may be to link it somehow with veiling of women, or with Islam, though I never linked FGM to Islam, or any religion or culture.
FGM is inherited from the slave system, or the class patriarchal system. It is part of the patriarchal package which include:
1- Cutting the sexual organs of the female child especially the “clitoris” to guarantee their virginity before marriage and their fedility after marriage.
2- Veiling of women, isolating them at home under the authority of their men, forcing them to work (at home or outside home) with no payment, to guarantee their economic dependence on their men, and therefore their submission to any type of oppression.
3- Severe punishment of women who do not obey their men. Obedience of the father and husband is inseparable from obedience to God. Punishment by death of a woman who betrays her husband but a man has the right to betray his wife (since God gave him the right to divorce and to practice polygamy).
4- Fatherhood should be known, therefore virginity and monogamy should be enforced on women by physical, mental, religious, moral, social, legal, political and economic means,
FGM is one of the means to diminish women’s sexual (and also social) ability and mobility, so that her husband will be sure of his fatherhood, sure that his children are his (and not another man’s), be sure that his children inherit his land and money and carry his name, and his father’s name. Patriarchy is based on the name of the father.
From my experience as a medical doctor and a psychiatrist I learned that FGM has nothing to do with the morality of women, it does not make them more monogamous or more faithful to their husbands. On the contrary cutting the clitoris increase women’s sexual desires, why ?
(1) Because the brain is the main site of sexual desires.
(2) Because circumcised women have difficulty in reaching sexual satisfaction with their husbands, and they look for this satisfaction outside marriage.
(3) Freedom and responsibility towards the self and others should not be separable.
- Free uncircumcised women can be more responsible towards their families if they combine freedom with responsibility.
- Circumcised women can be less responsible if they are oppressed or veiled (physically or mentally).
- Veiling of the mind is inseparable from veiling of the body, since the body and the mind are inseparable. Veiling of women became a divine code. If you criticize the veil in Egypt today you expose yourself to danger and harsh criticism (as happened to the minister of culture some weeks ago).
In Egypt some religious Islamic scholars believe that FGM is a divine order, or at least a Sunni order according to Hadith by Prophet Mohamed, but other Islamic scholars believe that FGM and the veil have nothing to do with Islam.
Most Islamic and Arab countries know nothing about FGM, such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Lybia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and others. [only Egypt , Sudan , Somalia and Yemen practice FGM].
Islam replaced communism (after the fall of the Berlin wall) as being the Devil, or the Enemy of the Neo-Colonial Imperialist American Empire. And FGM and the veil and oppression of women in general became linked to Islam only (the same as terrorism, backwardness, underdevelopment, dictatorship, barbarism, inability to modernize etc…).
Some people think that FGM is an ancient Egyptian or African tradition, but FGM is a universal slave tradition and is not related to a certain race or colour or country or continent.
FGM projects in Egypt
When I spoke and wrote against FGM in Egypt (half a century ago) I was accused of ignorance (by my colleagues in the medical profession) [FGM and MGM were done to all children in Egypt regardless of their religious background], and I lost my post in the Ministry of Health in 1972, and the magazine “Health” was closed down, and my book “Woman and Sex” was banned.
However things changed with the increasing awareness of the dangers of FGM, and since 2001 the Egyptian government is carrying out a national project (with 12 local NGOs and UNDP and other international funds, DAG, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, and USA) to fight against FGM, in 60 villages in Upper Egypt (Beni Suef, Menia, Assiut, Qena and Sohag). The project organized a series of training and follow up workshops at regional and local level to coordinate and network FGM initiatives and create a wider platform for political support. The project is based on cooperation between 12 ministries : Health, Education, Culture, Information, Media, Endowments, Social Affairs, Religious affairs (including the Egyptian Coptic Cathedral), Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Youth, as well as women NGOs, Human Rights organizations, and others.
There is a lot of government propaganda about the project, but as all other government projects it has a very limited impact on people; especially on the majority of men and women who live in poverty, and ignorance and who are brain-washed almost every day by religious political groups.
Some studies show that veiling of women and FGM are combined, and that they are on the rise in Egypt during the last three decades.
According to a recent demographic survey, FGM today reached 97% of the population in Egypt .
There is no law in Egypt that condemns FGM and considers it a crime. There is only a decree issued by the Ministry of Health, but it does not have the power of law.
FGM has been a deep rooted custom ever since the slave class patriarchal system and to eradicate it, there must be combined efforts to mobilize men, women, youth and children so that they become organized and constitute a political and social power, capable of changing the existing patriarchal-class values and laws. This needs real democracy. This needs freedom to organize and criticize. This needs a collective struggle against state dictatorship, against family dictatorship, and against false consciousness (created by governmental media and the educational system).
If the state itself is based on patriarchy, class and religion, how can it fight against FGM (or MGM) which is a product of patriarchy, class and religion ?
Half a century ago, most religious men and medical doctors in Egypt condemned contraception pills, and abortion. They defended FGM and MGM.
Today in Egypt , FGM is condemned by the government and by NGOs as well as many doctors and religious men and women. But MGM is not condemned. When I wrote to the Minister of Health (in 1999) about the dangers of MGM, I was attacked by government people, and by most medical doctors and religious men and women (both Muslims and Christians “Copts”).
We now have a backlash against the rights of women and the poor. The effect of globalization and American neo-colonialism is increasing in Egypt , causing more and more poverty (40% of Egyptians live under the poverty line) increasing rates of unemployment, deterioration of health services, education and media, and dominance of backward fundamentalist religious political groups.
A few days before I came to this conference, on 28 January 2007 , I was interrogated in court, by the general prosecutor. A trial has been filed against me and my daughter (Dr. Mona Helmy who is a writer and a poet) accusing us of apostosy. Why ? Because she wrote an article in a weekly (Rosel Youssef 21 April 2006) demanding that the name of the mother should be respected and not ignored, and said that she will include both her mother’s and her father’s name when she signs her articles and books.
My crime is my writings, and my struggle against the patriarchal language in religion and politics , when I say that God is not male nor female, that God is a symbol of justice, freedom and love, as my peasant grandmother said to me more than 65 years ago.
FGM: is part of the violence against women by global, national, and family politics.
International and national politics should treat women s rights globally and locally, in an equal manner, regardless of different cultural and religious beliefs.
There are about 150 million women worldwide who undergo FGM.
We should reject the medicalization of FGM. It is a crime and should not be done either by safe or unsafe methods, in a mild form or in a semi-mild form. Any cutting of a part of the female or male child is a crime (unless there is a disease and the operation is a method of medical treatment).
Religious and cultural inhuman practices such as FGM & MGM disappear with increasing awareness and health knowledge. But they are revived with the revival of religious-political backward movements.
The practice of veiling women was limited in Europe to traditional Jewish and Islamic groups. Today it is increasingly common among Islamic migrant communities in Holland , France , UK , Belgium and other countries in Europe . Sometimes it is accompanied by FGM. Both veiling and FGM are considered by the political and religious leaders of these communities as part of the Islamic identity, under the guise of so-called “cultural relativism”.
This is part of the deception and brain washing of women. It is happening in Egypt and many other countries.
The deception of cultural relativism has been going on for three decades. Deception is a form of violence against the mind; Mutilation of the mind is not a less crime than FGM or MGM, it is even more dangerous. It is used to mutilate the body and the soul, to justify violence against women and the poor. In some backward opinions women s rights are considered a direct attack against God’s law moral values, and sacred tradition.
Traditions (sacred or not) reflect systems of power in the state and in the family. They change with time and place. They are not fixed or immutable or eternal. They are selectively picked up by political groups to preserve the patriarchal capitalist structures globally and locally.
When women fight for their human rights under any capitalist-patriarchal system. They are labeled traitors to their religion, their country, their culture, their authentic identity, their morality, their chastity, etc…
But we have to go on fighting, we should not be intimidated, we should organize globally and locally.
Global struggle is the solution and freedom has a high price, but the price of slavery is greater, so it is better to pay the price and be free, than to pay and be a slave.
Nawal El Saadawi
( Cairo , Egypt )