Culture -- sometimes it's the scariest thing on earth.
After reading today's New York Times story about the perfect storm of forces coming together to fight female circumcision in Egypt, I couldn't help thinking: You call this good news? For the past 50 years, there has been a small but vocal movement led by anthropologist Marie Assaad, now 84, to end the practice of carving up little girls' private parts. According to the U.S. State Department, the Egyptian Ministry first forbade the practice of female circumcision in 1959, making it punishable by a fine and imprisonment. Since then there have been more bans, more media campaigns, more protests -- not to mention countless girls who have died of botched procedures. And still, as was true decades ago, the practice is practically ubiquitous in Egypt: A 2005 survey found that over 95 percent of all Egyptian women reported being circumcised.
Now activists, government offices, official religious leaders and a few powerful women including Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of President Hosni Mubarak, are working together to curb the custom. Along with public protests, newspaper articles, television advertisements and the closure of a clinic where a 13-year-old girl recently died of the procedure, an anonymous hot line, staffed by some very brave women, is creating a safe place for people to air ambivalences and ask questions. The great hope? To reduce the practice of female circumcision in Egypt by 20 percent in the next two years. But as the New York Times' Michael Slackman says in a podcast accompanying his article, it may take an additional generation or two to eliminate the procedure altogether.
Not screaming into your pillow yet? Here's the thing that really gets me: The practice has no integral relationship with the tenets of Islam. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has produced a booklet explaining this. Ali Gomaa, Egypt's grand mufti, has declared it "haram," or prohibited by Islam, and Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Egypt's highest religious official, has decried it. The only other Arab country that practices genital cutting is Yemen -- a far poorer, less developed nation. So how can Egypt, with its close ties to the West, its nearly $2 billion in annual aid from the U.S. (more than $50 billion since 1979), allow such a bizarre and cruel practice to thrive across the whole of society -- urban and rural, rich and poor, educated and unschooled?
The only answer is the prevailing evil that culture can do to the human mind -- forcing people to go against their own best interests, the welfare of their children, the very tenets of their faith. I know it's not that simple: Many Egyptians don't know the practice is not required by their Islamic practice. Others continue to believe it must be in their daughter's best interest to ensure she's marriageable. And no doubt, many parents feel that they must do it to maintain their own status in the community. Still, the prevalence and intransigence of the practice remind me that sometimes not even the facts can make sense of the senseless.
There is one angle the Times didn't fully explore: At a moment that Egypt is coming under fire for its antidemocratic oppression of opposition parties, I wonder if Mrs. Mubarak's well-publicized campaign to excise genital cutting doesn't mask a political point as well.