ENEIBA, Egypt—Zaineb Tarek grew suspicious when relatives bundled her into a minivan and plied her with potato chips and sweets for a "special trip" to see the doctor. A feisty 7-year-old, she kicked and screamed when they pinned her to a table in the rural clinic near her village of Eneiba in southern Egypt.
Then she saw the razor. The doctor sliced down on her genitals, deftly removing part of her clitoris. She shrieked and flailed, furiously brushing aside her mother's attempts to calm her.
"I screamed at her, `You're not my mother! No mother would ever do that to her child!'" recalled Tarek, who's now a slender 12-year-old with a pink veil framing her face.
Tarek shared the searing memory at a recent women's gathering in Eneiba, a Nubian village along the Nile River in southern Egypt where the Egyptian government is campaigning to persuade residents to give up the practice of female genital mutilation.
It's a difficult mission. The practice is nearly universal in Egypt. A government survey released last year found that 96 percent of Egyptian women who've been married have undergone some sort of genital mutilation and that nearly 70 percent of schoolgirls expected to be cut by the time they turn 18.
Those numbers encompass women across Egypt, from illiterate villagers to urban Cairenes and across religious lines. Researchers found, for example, that nearly all Coptic Christian women undergo female genital mutilation, with church figures waging their own battles against it.
Although the practice persists in Sudan, Somalia and a handful of other African or Middle Eastern nations, Egypt has the highest rate of female genital mutilation in the Arab world, according to surveys by the government and human rights activists.
The reason is rooted in religion, tradition and politics dating to the time of the pharaohs. While the government of President Hosni Mubarak is trying to discourage the practice, the issue is so sensitive that the government hasn't outlawed it. The closest it's come is a 1996 order that forbids doctors from performing the procedure in public hospitals.
Last month, the villages of Eneiba and neighboring al Aqab issued a declaration against the ancient practice in a much-anticipated celebration. That achievement had taken government workers three years of intense lobbying, and even then there were holdouts.
Zaineb's best friend, Sara Hassan, 13, has helped in the campaign against the practice, also known as female circumcision, and underwent the procedure herself. But she's still not sure they're doing the right thing.
"I'm not fully convinced," she said. "I didn't suffer afterwards at all."
Egypt officially has been campaigning against the practice since the 1930s, without much success. So the government now is focusing on 120 villages with a program that combines education with incentives that include new schools, carpentry workshops and clinics.
"The aim of the program is to have villages speak up at a grassroots level," said Mona Amin, the government's coordinator of the campaign. "I'm not going to send policemen to pick up girls being circumcised. The focus needs to be children's rights. That gives you an emotional entry point."
While the practice is widespread, there seems to be no religious endorsement for it, and most religious organizations in Egypt, including the highly influential Muslim Brotherhood, have ruled that Islam doesn't require it.
There's no doubt, however, that female sexuality is at the heart of the debate. Proponents of the practice argue that uncut women are likely to become promiscuous and bring dishonor on their families.
"Circumcising helps the woman control her sex drive. It helps her control herself," said Yusuf al Badry, a prominent cleric who argues that in addition to nymphomania, uncut women risk infertility, tuberculosis and the growth of a penis-like organ.
In Egypt, parents typically arrange for their daughters to undergo the procedure before adolescence. Midwives, barbers and doctors use scissors, knives, tin-can tops, razor blades or other instruments to perform the operation, which most often involves a quick snipping of all or part of the clitoris.
In some rural areas near the border with Sudan, the most extreme version involves cutting off all the outer genitalia and sewing up the wound with thorns or catgut, leaving just a tiny outlet for blood and urine. The stitches are removed on a bride's wedding night.
Apart from the initial pain and bleeding, Egyptian doctors say, women often endure lasting psychological trauma and sometimes experience frigidity or painful intercourse that can wreck marriages.
"Somebody has to be brave enough to talk about sexuality, but nobody is, including me," said Iman Bibars, a longtime women's advocate whose Cairo-based organization spreads awareness of female genital mutilation among impoverished urban Egyptians. "You have to change society before you change the law."
At a recent workshop Bibars held in an abandoned cemetery where thousands of destitute Egyptians live, women shared their stories matter-of-factly.
"I was circumcised when I was 7 by the midwife and her husband," said Karima Ahmed, 30, a blush spreading across her face. "He held me and opened my legs while she circumcised me. I didn't understand anything and I started panicking when I saw the scissors in her hand."
Nabaweya Hamed, 31, a pretty, blue-eyed mother of two, recalled how her family tied her down and called on a midwife to cut her when she was 10. Hamed thrashed about so much, she said, that the midwife missed her mark. Hamed said sexual intercourse still aggravates the injury.
Despite her own painful experience, Hamed decided to cut her eldest daughter, even though her husband was against it.
"I wish I hadn't," Hamed admitted. "When we came back, she started bleeding and I had to call a doctor to come stitch her up. I won't do it to my younger daughter."
But the stigma against uncut women is so great that even parents who choose not to have their daughters undergo the procedure often say they have, in case divulging the truth draws scandal and limits marriage opportunities. Not only will the practice help protect virginity, the superstition goes, but it also keeps women faithful to their husbands.
"We married off my sister when she was 17. On the wedding night, her husband, who is very religious, discovered she wasn't circumcised and returned her the next morning. He said he wouldn't touch her unless she was circumcised," recounted Horeya Oweis, 50.
One major obstacle to ending female genital mutilation is an instinctive resistance to ideas seen as imported from abroad, particularly the United States, Amin said. She recalled that a graphic CNN report on the practice that aired in the 1990s hardened the attitudes of its supporters.
She said she didn't divulge to villagers that the United States and Canada provided about 30 percent of her budget, and foreign logos—even those of respected aid agencies—never appeared in Egyptian literature or TV ads against female genital mutilation.
By shifting the theme of the national campaign from women's rights to children's rights, Amin hopes to pitch the government's efforts as homegrown and not part of a Western-influenced feminist agenda. She said compassion rather than disdain or condescension was the key to deterring parents from what many saw as simply a rite of passage.
"We have to recognize that a father practices FGM because he loves his daughter and wants a good life for her," Amin said. "It's our job to say, `I know you're doing this because you love your daughter, but why don't you just stop and think about it?'"
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar reported from Eneiba and Aswan, Egypt; Allam reported from Cairo.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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