The Purest Choice: the Egyptian mothers standing up to female genital mutilation

According to the World Health Organization, Female genital mutilation (FGM) “includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. Although often associated with the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, some evidence suggests that the practice originated in Ancient Egypt and then spread to the south of the continent. Exactly when it emerged is hard to say, but reference to it is made on papyrus dating back to the 2nd century BC, indicating that it already existed at the time of the Pharaohs.

Today, around 90 per cent of Egypt’s female population aged between 15 and 65 have undergone FGM, a practice that is referred to as “purification” in Arabic and that is deeply woven into the country’s social fabric. Although religious grounds are untiringly used to justify it, both within Christian and Muslim communities, there is no real mention of FGM in sacred texts. In 2008, the Egyptian government passed a law prohibiting the practice, but only three members of the medical profession have since been prosecuted – including one who is still known to be performing FGM today. The weight of tradition and the political instability in the country are hindering any real action, based on concrete initiatives, to tackle the problem.

The idea behind this photo report is to give a voice to the women who, in spite of social pressure, have decided to say “no”. The Purest Choice is a portrait series of women who have suffered FGM, each photographed next to their daughters, who they have refused to subject to genital cutting, giving new meaning to the idea of “purification”. Far from being passive victims, as they are all too often depicted, these survivors have managed to take their own traumatic experience and turn it into a source of positive change. By choosing not to perpetuate this practice, each of these women has become an activist in her own way.

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Irine and Moneka (Al-Barshra). Irine was 12 years old when she underwent FGM. She later lost two of her six children during childbirth. The repercussions of FGM go beyond the psychological trauma it creates. The victims are also prone to obstetric complications, such as tearing, recourse to episiotomy or post-partum haemorrhaging, and the death rate among newborns is higher.Photo: Chloe Sharrock

Uum Malek and Malek (Qalanfil). “It’s easy to forget what you ate that day, or what the weather was like. But forgetting the trauma, forgetting the pain, is impossible.” Uum Malek is conscious of the long-term effects of FGM on her mental health and on her life as a married woman. “This barbaric practice is the cause of so many divorces, I couldn’t inflict such suffering on my own daughter. She has since managed to convince five other women from her village not to subject their daughters to FGM.Photo: Chloe Sharrock

Marsa and Barbara-Anna (Al-Barsha). Marsa and her sister underwent FGM one day after coming home from school. Marsa subsequently suffered serious haemorrhaging and was bedridden for a week. Complications such as infection, viral infections, including HIV, or haemorrhages, fatal in some cases, are not uncommon in rural areas where the cutting is done with unsterilized knives or razor blades.Photo: Chloe Sharrock

Do’a and Baheda (Sandibis). Do’a decided to refuse to have her daughter cut after taking part in a workshop organised by a local NGO. In Egypt, where religion is strongly woven into the social fabric, religious leaders are very influential in the fight against female genital cutting.Photo: Chloe Sharrock

Doaa and Shahid (Ismailia). Doaa underwent FGM when she was ten years old during a big party organised by her family. Her awareness was first raised at university, when she managed to talk about it to other young women for the first time. She later married a man of Palestinian descent and learnt that it was not common practice in other Middle Eastern countries. Her decision not to subject her daughter to FGM was only supported by her husband’s family.Photo: Chloe Sharrock

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Fayza and Maha (Alexandria). Fayza, who was married off to an older man at the age of 14, first heard about FGM on her wedding night. It was her husband who pointed to the abnormality of the practice and the consequences it can have on a couple’s marital relations. For Fayza, the new generation is the first to be holding all the cards needed to fight against the practice, especially the freedom to speak out.Photo: Chloe Sharrock

Marina, Yoanna and Febroina (Mallawi). It is thanks to the fight led by the village priest that Marina decided she would not have FGM performed on her daughters. Around ten other women, including her sister, have also decided not to subject their daughters to genital cutting. Social pressure combined with religious arguments are the two main pillars in the fight against FGM.Photo: Chloe Sharrock

Maha and Maryam (Cairo). Maha’s experience of FGM felt like rape, and she developed a complex relationship with her body that has had a lasting impact on her life. When giving birth to Maryam, she refused to undress or to let the doctors touch her because of the trauma. She finally had to have an emergency caesarean. Maha has since learnt to love her body with the help of support workshops, and she now organises awareness raising campaigns among Syrian refugees in Egypt, to prevent the spread of the practice.Photo: Chloe SharrockThis story has been translated from French.

With additional reporting from Ariane Lavrilleux.

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