Why Egyptian girls fear the summer
They’re what childhood memories are made of, glorious afternoons of unchecked freedom to frolic with friends in the sun, unshackled from the earthly obligations of a math class that never seemed further away. But for millions of schoolgirls in Egypt, this time of year represents something much darker: the start of the female genital mutilation (FGM) season. Mona Mohamed was 10 years old when she underwent what’s also known as a female circumcision on a hot summer day in her village in Upper Egypt.
“I was terrified,” she said. “They tied me down, my mother on one hand and my grandmother on the other.” As Mona thrashed around, pinned by her loved ones to the living room floor, a doctor injected her with anesthesia. Mona remembers being given a piece of bubble gum to chew on before she finally passed out. It wasn’t until she woke up that she realized she had been mutilated.
Stories like Mona’s are far from rare in Egypt, where “cutting” has been a brutal rite of passage for young girls since the time of the pharaohs. Of the more than 125 million girls and women alive today who have undergone the procedure, one in four live in Egypt. That’s more than any other country in the world, according to the U.N. Ninety-two percent of married Egyptian women aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to FGM, according to a government report released in May. That figure is down from 97% in 2000, but the practice is still the norm here.
Most girls are cut between the ages of nine and 12, and the operations usually take place during the summer school break so the girls can recover at home. U.N. officials say FGM has no medical benefits and can cause lifelong physical and emotional trauma for the women forced to undergo the procedure. “This is a gross human rights violation,” Jaime Nadal-Roig, the U.N. Population Fund representative in Cairo, told media. “It doesn’t add anything to the life of the girl, and there are no medical or religious grounds whatsoever.” The most common FGM procedure in Egypt is Type 1, the partial or full removal of the clitoris. It’s what Mona Mohamed — and her older sisters — endured years ago.
Compared to her sisters, Mona was lucky, given that her procedure was performed by a doctor. Her sisters were circumcised with a razor blade by a traditional (non-medical) midwife who put dust on their wounds to stop the bleeding.
Mona, now 47, recalls asking her mother why getting circumcised was so important. “Usually girls at your age get ‘excited,’ and this operation takes care of that,” her mother replied. FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2008, but the practice remains woven into the very fabric of Egyptian society, where many see cutting as a way to “purify” a girl and make her marriage material. “People used to have a party after a girl was circumcised, they’d celebrate and exchange gifts,” Nadal-Roig said. “So for them to turn from there and say, ‘look this is a crime or this is a sin or this is not allowed by religion’ means confronting a lot of beliefs and social norms.”