In a sign of hope for tens of millions of African women, Egyptian activists have begun to eradicate female circumcision, an ancient practice, also known as female genital mutilation, or FGM.
The operation, carried out by doctors, midwives, and even local barbers on the vast majority of women here, involves removing parts of a woman's genitalia.
The exact origin of FGM remains a matter of wide speculation, but in countries where it is prevalent, including Egypt, most men and women who condone it believe circumcision is the only way to guarantee a woman's chastity and marital fidelity.
FGM is thought by Western scholars to date back to the age of the Egyptian Pharaohs. An estimated 120 million African women have undergone the procedure, with 2 million additional year. The practice, affecting 22 nations, including Sudan, Ethiopia, plus Kenya, is particularly widespread in villages that run down the Nile River into the heart of Africa.
But for a practice perpetuated by force of ancient tradition, signs of change in Egypt are giving a boost to anti-FGM activists.
Whereas a US-funded survey four years ago showed that 8 out of 10 adult Egyptian women approved of the practice, a new US and Egypt-funded survey shows roughly 7 out of 10 Egyptian women support it.
In some of Egypt's governorates, where the practice was carried out on some 99 percent of young women just two years ago, activists, well-funded by the UN and other agencies, are finding new hope. Some Nile villages such as Beni Suef are approaching 75 percent eradication.
Organizers of Egypt's grass-roots campaigns give most of the credit not to international aid programs but to homegrown activists like Farha Moris.
One of the circumsized women in Beni Suef, Ms. Moris has helped to change opinion here. Moris did not speak of her own experience until recently, when she met Joann Salib, a modest but determined Coptic nun who heads a coalition of Christian and Islamic groups working against the practice.
Moris says she'd been ordered by family not to talk about her experience, but now she freely tells about the day relatives gathered to inform her that the time had come for her and two sisters to undergo the procedure with the local barber.
"I was sad and afraid, but my mother and father told me, 'You are the oldest of our three daughters, so you must be strong and set a good example,' " she recalls. "All three of us were forced to submit."
After Moris met Sister Salib, she began to understand she wasn't alone. And early last year, she had her first opportunity to save a relative from the barber's knife.
The barber arrived to her home, where her extended family of 25 live, to perform the operation on Moris's 11-year-old cousin, Reda.
"I told Reda, using sign language, that they were preparing to 'cut' her, but my uncle saw me and he told me not to interfere. Reda was shaking and she ran out into the cornfields. My uncle ran after her, leaving me alone with the barber in the house."
As Moris scolded the perplexed barber, neighbors began to gather around. "I looked outside at all the women gathered around our front door and screamed, 'Don't let him do this to your daughters!' "
Moris's uncle decided to postpone the operation for one day, but Moris managed to persuade her own father to intervene and prevent it.
Successes like these follow a key court decision in 1997 upholding a decree by the Minister of Health that outlawed FGM done without a prescription from a senior gynecologist.
With UN and US aid, Egypt's health ministry has begun extensive education campaigns, pushing to get anti-FGM voices into the mainstream media.
There are major impediments to ending FGM, however. Parliament has yet to consider passing a law banning it outright. Moreover, the Ministry's decree, which is rarely enforced, and the loophole, allowing the operation to be carried out with a simple signature, has been used by advocates of FGM to continue the practice.
"We believe that, for now, the public campaign against FGM is more important than the punishment," said Tarek M. Morssy, an Egyptian health official and the executive director of the UN-funded education program directed at eradicating the practice.
But the growing threat of prosecution for malpractice, including botched operations, has made some village barbers and midwives, who usually do the operations, cautious.
Prices, in turn, are going up from about $3 to $30 in some areas.
"We are all victims of this patriarchal culture," says Marie Assad, the coordinator of the task force and another leading activist.
"We are sacrificing our daughters to the River Nile in some pre-Islamic, animist rite of passage that has no place in our society," the coptic nun goes on to say.
Salib says true success will come only when the first generation of uncircumsized girls grow up and find husbands. "Even when we succeed to stop the barber, we face the difficulty of getting these girls married off in a society that still believes that an uncircumcised woman is not pure and is likely to cause marital difficulties," she said.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society