Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)/Cutting remains widely practiced in Egypt. According to the 2015 Egyptian Health Issues Survey (EHIS), 87 percent of Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 years old have been cut. Reasons behind FGM vary: following customs and traditions, preserving a girl’s chastity, abiding by misinterpreted religious text or ensuring a girl’s marriageability. However, these rationales are ultimately driven by efforts to control women’s sexuality.
Though FGM reflects the highly patriarchal nature of practicing societies, it is traditionally seen as women’s business. This failure in analyzing FGM as an issue that involves both women and men is reflected in the policies, programs and campaigns focused on FGM. As we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM on February 6th, we must engage men in efforts to educate about the harmful effects of FGM and to encourage abandonment of the practice.
So why is bringing men to the table crucial for FGM abandonment? The EHIS reveals that 53 percent of women believe that men want FGM to continue. Similarly, 53 percent of women believe that FGM is preferred by husbands. Such numbers suggest that the beliefs held by women may be influenced by what they perceive that men want. In addition, the 2017 IMAGES MENA Egypt study found that more than 80 percent of women and 90 percent of men agree that men are involved in deciding whether a daughter is cut, with roughly two-thirds of all respondents reporting that male and female family members together have the final say in the matter. Whereas this study indicates that men may be playing a pivotal role in the decision-making around FGM, other studies suggest otherwise.
The FGM decision-making process is undeniably complex, as is how men’s engagement influences the practice. Contrary to the IMAGES study, many qualitative studies indicate that Egyptian men rarely discuss the matter with their spouses and that women are more often than not at the forefront of the perpetuation of the practice. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) shows that only 8 percent of ever-married women, who were recently exposed to information on FGM, received it from their husbands. With such limited family discussions around the topic, misperceptions and false expectations may arise.
Many young men seldom hear about FGM and are rarely targeted by interventions on FGM. In a soon-to-be-published study on Egypt by the Population Council, young men, who are aged between 18-25 years, stated that the topic is considered taboo and that parents do not discuss topics like FGM with their sons. Young men also tend to believe that this topic is usually discussed only between the mother and daughter. Yet, many of these young men in the interviews were proponents of the practice and some of them said that they would not marry an uncut woman or would divorce their wives if they found them uncut.
This brings us to the major question: how supportive are Egyptian men of FGM in general? Although 41 percent of men in the IMAGES study acknowledge FGM can have fatal side effects, the same survey shows that 70 percent of Egyptian men approve of FGM, which is higher than their female counterparts by 14 percent. For some men, these concerns and beliefs around the FGM side effects are overridden by their wish to abide by customs/traditions, meet religious requirements and ensure their wives/daughters’ fidelity. With the prevalence of such male support for the practice, it becomes vital to include them in the equation and to ensure that their concerns are addressed.
The lack of open dialogue between men and women and the limited involvement of men in abandonment activities allow for the practice to persist. It creates reluctance and hinders any debate or constructive discussions that may help unpack the complexity and cultural sensitivity of the topic within communities. Therefore, along with mass media, grassroots initiatives need to make room for men in their activities by developing appropriate targeting and participatory methods, regardless of whether these men have an influential or an ambivalent role in the FGM decision-making process.
Instead of delivering top-down lectures or information sessions at the local level that may seem irrelevant or unconvincing to many, FGM interventions need to create safe social spaces for parents to voice their nuanced opinions and reflect on established social and gender norms that may be harming them. These small community conversations will pave the way for the sharing of new ideas, voicing reservations, collectively creating new meaning around gender and sexuality, ultimately assisting men and women alike in their road to FGM abandonment.