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.'

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