In this small Nile River farming village, Maha Mohammed has started to doubt whether she should circumcise her two daughters.
A year ago, she had few qualms about female genital mutilation, the practice of cutting a girl’s clitoris and sometimes other genitalia.
She herself was cut two decades ago, and she fears her daughters will not find husbands otherwise.
But Mohammed also has heard that circumcision can be medically risky and emotionally painful. And a strong-willed neighbour, another woman, has been dropping by her house regularly to persuade her to say no.
“I hear that girls suffer not just physically but psychologically,” the 31-year-old Mohammed said. “But I am afraid. I don’t want my daughters to have uncontrollable demands for sex.”
Such doubts are significant. With vigorous grassroots campaigns and the passage of tough laws against circumcision, Egypt seems to be making a dent in this deeply ingrained practice, thousands of years old.
The number of young girls circumcised is now steadily declining in a country where an estimated 96 per cent of married Egyptian women have had their genitals cut.
The most recent comprehensive study predicts about 63 per cent of Egyptian girls nine years old and under will be circumcised over the next decade.
The numbers are lower in urban areas like Cairo — about 40 per cent — but higher for rural areas in the south — about 78 per cent, the government’s 2005 demographic and health survey predicts.
The lower circumcision rate in urban areas is attributed to higher income and education levels and greater access to information.
But in the villages along the Nile, where the rate is highest, a grassroots effort is under way to bring information straight to people’s homes.
Thirty-five-year -old Fatma Mohammed Ali suffered intense complications after being circumcised at age 13, including severe pain during childbirth.
Now she regularly visits her neighbour — Mohammed — gently discouraging her from the practice and using her own family as an example.
It’s difficult to encourage village women to go public with their views on the subject, said Nevine Saad Fouad, the project manager for child protection with a group called the Better Life Association for Comprehensive Development in the nearby city of Minya.
But when village women do go public, the results are astonishing.
Of some 3,000 families targeted over the past few years in several nearby villages, more than half say they have abandoned the practice, nearly 800 are undecided and fewer than 500 say they will continue to circumcise their daughters.
Last year, the Ministry of Health prohibited licensed medical professionals from performing the procedure, and Egypt’s parliament voted in June to ban it as part of a law protecting children.
But activists stress that laws alone aren’t enough.
The pressure to uphold the tradition in this conservative, socially close-knit nation of 80 million people remains strong.
Many women fear potential husbands will reject daughters as impure or immoral. Medical rumours — including that circumcision is the only way to control a girl’s sexual desires — are rampant. Others believe that abandoning the practice is caving to western pressures to change their society.
Source: The Observer, Canada – 2 August 2008