International interventions such as the campaigns against female circumcision can pave the way for political Islamism in Egypt. Contrary to the common Western perception that the operation is on a par with meaningless torture, those who practise circumcision consider it to have moral value, says Maria Malmström in a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
In a Western context female circumcision entails the mutilation of healthy parts of the body – with patriarchal control over women’s bodies and sexuality as the underlying purpose.
– However, the perception of the people I interviewed differs widely from that prevailing in the West. With the exception of a number of younger women who were critical, they consider circumcision to be a necessary, commonplace and natural part of the life cycle, says Maria Malmström.
In her thesis in social anthropology she has studied how a female subject is ’brought into being’, maintained and changed through the interplay between global power structures and the individual experience of female circumcision. The study is based on interviews with women of various ages during a year of field work among the working class in Cairo.
A range of actors – including decision-makers, international organisations and activists – are working to abolish female circumcision within the framework of equality and human rights.
– However, the voices of those who are affected in practice are often overlooked. The process of implementing change must be based on a more profound understanding of what circumcision represents for the people involved.
A contemporary phenomenon
How is it possible for parents to justify mutilating their own children and thereby expose them to the pain and risk that can be involved?
– To understand the motivation behind circumcising children we first have to grasp why it is regarded as so important in practice - even though understanding does not necessarily entail acceptance. For many people it is not about mutilation but a significant act that is linked to values and female identity.
Observations by the historian Herodotus reveal that female circumcision was practised as early as 500 BCE.
– However, it is not simply a tradition that is handed down but also a contemporary phenomenon. Circumcision has a meaning – for both women and men – that is being actively negotiated in the present day.
Egypt is a good example of how views on female circumcision are in the process of changing as a result of Western campaigns, at the same time as they are leading to popular opposition, says Maria Malmström. They are perceived as infringing upon national identity.
This is a region in which the fear of terrorism has led to increased military interventions from the West. In conjunction with national neoliberal policies and secular modernisation processes, it has provoked a political response in Egypt feared by many people in the Western World.
– It is paradoxical that the ’globalisation of intimacy’, which is discussed in this thesis, is also resulting in Western interventions in combination with Egypt’s government policies paving the way for political Islamism in Egypt.