Egypt: A Pretty Bad Place to Be A Woman

Posted on September 10, 2012


When I was a girl of about 12 years old, there was an Egyptian diplomat who lived near us, and had a daughter of a similar age.  We were sometime friends and playmates, and she seemed to blend in with the other neighborhood girls.  She wore shorts, her English was good, we giggled over the same things.  Eventually we moved away and lost touch, but I still remember her.

Decades later, I learned that female genital mutilation is routinely practiced on Egyptian girls before they reach puberty.  More than 90% of girls in my friend’s generation underwent the procedure.  Despite a ban imposed in 2008, the rate has remained largely unchanged, or has dropped to a still-outrageous 70%, depending on who you ask.

Now when I think of my childhood friend, I suspect that she had already endured this horrible procedure even before we met.

It is not related to Islam, although some hardliners claim it is; there are Egyptian female mummies thousands of years old who also were genitally mutilated.  It is a deeply rooted tradition that assumes women are sexually promiscuous, reports Sue Lloyd-Roberts of the BBC.  The work is often carried out by midwives as mothers hold their daughters down for the procedure:

“It is important that she loses that part of her body that awakes sexual desire. If not, she may play with herself or ask a boy to touch this part for her, not specifically a stranger, but one of her cousins for instance, and she might enjoy it.  When she feels the pain of it she will be more careful about this part,” one woman told Ms. Roberts.

Ironic, isn’t it, that even as Egyptian culture has long held that the only way to keep a woman chaste was to cut off her clitoris and deny her all sexual pleasure, it also tolerates men who openly harass and grope women on the street?   How can an entire nation believe that their sexually deadened women are “the problem” in sexual promiscuity, and remain blind to the rambunctious, chimplike behavior of the men fondling them in full public view?

(Ahmed Abdelatif/ AP ) - In this Monday, Aug. 20, 2012 photo, an Egyptian youth, trailed by his friends, grabs a woman crossing the street with her friends in Cairo, Egypt. Several youth groups and activists have held protests and sit ins against sexual harassment, particularly during Muslims holidays which witness a surge of mobs of teenagers sexually harassing women in groups, in the streets.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Abdelatif/AP


A curtain of silence covers Egyptian women as surely as their headscarves and veils.  Discussion of sexual relations is taboo.  Genital mutilation has been outlawed, but a bride discovered on her wedding night not to have been traditionally mutilated brings shame upon the family.  Reporting the now-illegal act of genital mutilation accomplishes little or nothing.  As for being molested in the streets, discussion of harassment is taboo.  Reporting sexual assaults can hurt a girl’s chances of marriage, so victims often say nothing.  And yet,  it’s not taboo to slice a young girl’s privates to ribbons, nor to grope her (or worse) in the street.

There are some things about some cultures that I just can’t respect.  This is one of them.