In the Evening Standard tonight, as I sat on the train on the way home from work, the photograph of a 13 year old girl, Suhair al-Bata positively shone out of the page. She is now dead at the age of 13 – having undergone female genital mutilation in Egypt. Maybe she will be the one who makes the difference, because this has got to stop.
At the Hay Festival we listened to two incredibly powerful young and beautiful women talk about women and men and sex in the Arab world – Joumana Haddad and Shereen El Feki talked to Joan Bakewell about sex and gender in the Middle East. Haddad examines the patriarchal system and machismo that continues to dominate in the Arab world. Sex is entwined in religion and tradition, politics and economics, gender and generations so her new book “Superman Is An Arab” is the perfect lens for examining the region’s complex social landscape.
They both agreed on the alarming modern day mismatch – educated women and prehistoric men. Women who Shereen describes as “weapons of mass creation”, educated, intelligent and powerful and yet they are still battling long established cultural traditions that remain a massive problem.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in Egypt and yet Shereen quotes that “80% of girls between 15 & 17 have been genitally mutilated in Egypt””
I cannot believe that statistic and confirm it with her as she signs the book I bought. She notes that it is not the men who play the significant role in the decision making process – it is the mother’s of these young girls that encourage this procedure – the circumcision of their daughters – because family is everything and very powerful. Joumana told us that women in the Lebanon were having operations to give them new hymens when they want to get married.
Today one of London’s longest serving campaigners against FGM called for a “czar” to be appointed to stamp out the devastating practice in Britain. Efua Dorkenoo, who set up anti FGM charity “Forward” in 1982 said ministers “must treat the issue as seriously as they do teen pregnancy and launch a national action plan”. To be honest, this should be treated more seriously than that – this is child abuse of the highest degree, as bad as back street abortionists, mutilating young girls who don’t have a voice.
In Shereen El Feki’s new book “Sex And The Citadel” (what a great title) she investigates what sexual experiences and values are in the Arab world and highlights major social issues – from cliterodectomy to adultery in a traditional context. “She has done a major service to those who care about feminism in this region, about human rights, about sexuality and about the human condition” says Naomi Wolf.
It is time to take a stand. This barbaric operation should not be happening to young girls anywhere in the world. We might not be able to stop it everywhere, but we should be protecting all the young girls that live in the UK.