World Population Conference: Women pay terrible price for tradition: Conference Notebook

TO WALK up the four concrete staircases to Dr Aida Abdul-Mohsen's home in Cairo is a journey into darkness - one that begins with the neat pile of files in the corner of her sitting room. The moment she reads from them, you understand the anger in her voice and the tragedy which the hand-written notebooks contain.

'In some of the villages in upper Egypt, the midwives do the work,' she says. 'Almost all the young girls in these villages are circumcised in a terrible way. Sometimes their clitoris and their genitals are removed with scissors, occasionally with broken glass or bits of sharp tin. There is no anaesthesia. If doctors agree to perform it, they use surgical knives. It can lead to bleeding and death. We estimate that 30 per cent of the girls between seven and 12 who have complications are left to die - they are said to have suffered 'heart attacks', so that there will be no criminal charges.'

Dr Abdul-Mohsen sighs as she reads these horror stories but she has allies now in her battle against the evils of female circumcision, some of whom are debating these very horrors in the lecture rooms of the Cairo UN conference on population. On Monday, the president of the Cairo Family Planning Association, Aziza Hussein, is holding a seminar for delegates to seek help for her 'Society for the Prevention of Traditional Practices Harmful to Woman and Child' - a group of doctors, health workers and teachers who are entering the villages of Egypt in an attempt to end the cruelty visited upon the country's female children.

'It's a tradition - a terrible tradition - that predates religion, that is surrounded by taboo, passed on unquestioningly from family to family over the centuries because parents think circumcision will make a girl more chaste and will protect her virginity,' Ms Hussein said. 'The idea is that it will take away a girl's libido, stop her 'running after' men. But when she is circumcised, there is a terrible price to pay. If she cannot enjoy sex, then she cannot enjoy sex with her husband. And according to Islam, if she cannot enjoy sex with her husband, she is entitled to divorce. So Islam wants a woman to enjoy sex.'

If these arguments appear self-evident in the West, they do not always seem so in the Nile Valley. There is not a village or town south of Cairo - not a slum in the capital itself - that has not heard the shrieks of girls as midwives - occasionally village barbers - cut the children's genital organs with knives for a payment of pounds 2 using neither anaesthetic nor medical hygiene, as the parents watch approvingly.

As rural traditions go, it must be one of the most cruel in the world. There are no statistics but doctors guess that several million circumcisions are carried out on Egypt's young female population every year. That such butchery should be implemented in order to satisfy the moral demands of men has struck a powerful chord among thousands of women attending the conference.

'When I ask the mothers why they have this done to their daughters, they tell me it's tradition,' Ms Hussein says. 'Then they claim that it's to minimise the sexual appetite of their daughters. But when I go deeper, the mother says that if she doesn't circumcise her daughter, no man will marry her. But if we are protecting the virginity of women, then why don't we have to prove the virginity of the man? There is nothing in the Koran that speaks about circumcision. The Prophet had four daughters but none was circumcised. There is a weak hadith - a purported saying of the Prophet - that the cutting of a girl's genitals should not be too deep, but I believe this is a false hadith. The Prophet never said that. It's all a matter of education - so we have brought down the figures in Cairo.'

Dr Abdul-Mohsen is not so sure. 'I've just had two couples in my clinic in Cairo who want to get divorced,' she said. 'In both cases, the women said they could not enjoy sex with their husbands because they were circumcised. I was lecturing on the subject at the National Research Centre the other day when one of my female pupils collapsed. It turned out that my talk had re-awoken all her old pain. There is a terrible psychological effect on a woman that remains with her all her life. Some 70 per cent of menstruation problems in Egypt are caused by circumcision and many women become frigid when they marry; they cannot stand intimacy with their husbands. But you should understand what this means.'

And the doctor lifts another file. 'There are three types of circumcision. There is a slight cut, a cut that removes part of the girl's clitoris and the worst of all - the Pharaonic cut in which all the girl's genital organs are cut out, without anaesthetic. I keep telling people in the villages - 'the libido does not start from the genitals, it comes from the mind' - and slowly we are convincing people. Unfortunately, we find that an increasing number of registered doctors - 20 per cent in 1991 compared to 15 per cent in 1986 - are prepared to do circumcision; maybe they need the money.'

'We try to explain how terrible all this is,' Dr Abdul-Mohsen says. 'We tell mothers that later, during labour, their daughters will find that the elasticity of their organs has been lost and that this can place pressure upon the brain of a foetus and a child can be born handicapped. The truth is that we must make this atrocious practice as much a crime as abortion.'

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss