UN Population Conference: Nile wives brave foes of birth control: Robert Fisk in Burtous finds an older fundamentalism very much at odds with the idea of family planning

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The Independent Online
A FEW, tatty posters from el- Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) still cling to the mud walls of Burtous in the Nile Delta. 'Remember that our prisoners are your brothers,' they plead, but there is little else to suggest unease. The old men sip coffee near the railway tracks, the mules clop past the meat market and the word 'Allah', painted beside the doorways, speaks of an older, more traditional fundamentalism.

Inside Hussein Ghazala's family planning clinic, the young mothers of Burtous play with their children in front of a large poster.

On the left, a cartoon Egyptian peasant with eight children in rags stands in misery, grey faced with debt and destitution. On the right, his well-dressed brother stands proudly beside his young wife and two children.

Not that anyone here would call him a hero. 'The condom is unfortunately not used here,' Mr Ghazala says uneasily. 'It's traditional - men don't like to participate in contraception in the village. They think that with a condom they will not enjoy sex so much.'

So it is the largely illiterate girls inside his clinic, most of them in bright patterned dresses, who are heroines. Sana'a Abdo, whose hair is braided under a black scarf, is only 21 but already the mother of two children, she tells us. 'My husband is a conscript in the army. He earns only 20 Egyptian pounds ( pounds 4) a month. After the two children - Ramadan and Amr - I decided to use a contraceptive, the inter-uterine device, and he agreed entirely. I will have no more children, God willing.' And she kisses her hand and blows the kiss upwards, towards the fly-specked ceiling and the heaven that lies beyond.

Beside her, Um Mohamed Abdul-Latif, plump under a massive black gown, married for 30 years with five children who 'thought' she was 45 years old - Egyptian population records were totted up annually half a century ago with no regard for exact dates - gave the same reason for controlling the size of her family. 'My husband is a government employee. He earns 80 Egyptian pounds a month. How could we live on this with more children? I heard of contraception from people whom the clinic sent into the villages and now I tell my neighbours to come here when I see how tired they are and when they ask me how how to limit their families.'

Into the clinic yesterday came a clutch of delegates from the Cairo UN conference on population, anxious to set eyes on the fruits of Egypt's family planning programme, clipboards in their hands, questions of the academic variety in most of their minds. Dr Grossman took notes on the incidence of female circumcision - 100 per cent in these villages, it seemed, including Sana'a Abdo, and her four daughters - while a haughty woman from Washington demanded an interpreter to ask about population statistics. Mr Ghazala smiled benevolently. All the village women, he said, were learning about contraception.

Or so it would seem. Egypt's birthrate has declined from 7.1 children per mother in 1960 to 5.3 in 1979 to 3.9 today. The cost of an interuterine device in Burtous was only 5 Egyptian pounds, Mr Ghazala said. But was there perhaps - the UN's delegates were safely out of earshot now - any Islamic opposition to this or to family planning in general?

'Absolutely not,' Mr Ghazala insisted. No objections at all? 'Well yes, a few objections from religious people.' From where? 'From outside the village.' From el- Gamaat el-Islamiya, perhaps, which is trying to overthrow the Egyptian government? 'Yes, from el-Gamaat.' Are there members in this village? 'There are a few young men here who have unfortunately been influenced by el-Gamaat.' Do they threaten him? 'I have received no threats - but villagers come to me and tell me what these young men say about us. So I know about their opposition. Excuse me, I have to talk to the others.'

And Mr Ghazala, having admitted this small, disturbing truth, retreated to the clinic. There are other little secrets. After much questioning, Sana'a Abdo admits that she has three - not two - children. The first, it turns out, was a girl called Hayam. Because she was a girl, it had not seemed worth mentioning. And Um Mohamed had only decided to use contraception after her fifth child turned out to be a boy.

And then there were the four unsmiling young men, one of them holding a Koran, who walked slowly down the pavement outside the clinic and stood at the gate, staring at the Westerners with their clipboards and cameras, muttering to each other. Innocent enough, you might say; foreigners rarely venture to Burtous. Where were these four from? 'From Egypt,' the man with the Koran replied. 'We are from all the villages of Egypt.' And suddenly, it was no longer difficult to guess who was objecting to Mr Ghazala's work.