Rights groups and the government are celebrating a long-sought court ban against cutting women’s genitals, viewing it as a rare victory in their quest to better the lot of Egyptian women.
Critics called the ban an insult to their Islamic faith, and the real fight has only begun in a country where customs - many of which date back to Pharaonic times - die hard.
Implementing such a ban will face strong resistance from people who believe chastity is the cornerstone of family honor. To them, female circumcision - sometimes called “tahara,” or chastity and virtue - is the embodiment of that honor.
In Tunis, a sleepy village 125 miles southwest of Cairo and far from the heated debates and media attention of the capital, peasants were not even aware of the recent court ruling outlawing a practice that critics consider mutilation.
It is a phenomenon that is repeated over and over in the towns of rural Egypt, where female circumcision is most widely practiced.
“God forbid!” Sakina Ibrahim, a 60-year-old villager exclaimed in disbelief when she heard of the ban. “This ruling won’t work here, it won’t be obeyed,” she said.
“It’s an evil ruling,” interjected Abdel-Maguid Hagar, 36, who gathered along with two dozen people in the village square.
None had heard of the ruling and all were defiant.
“It will continue in secret,” declared Hamam Mahmoud Ali, 26.
He will disobey the ruling and circumcise his daughter as planned, he said. If doctors refuse, he will ask a midwife to do it - and neither the government nor anyone else will have to find out.
“They are not going to check if my daughter has been circumcised or not,” Ali said.
According to a 1995 government-sponsored study, 97 percent of married women in Egypt have undergone the ritual cutting. The practice became a particular focus of attention during the 1994 U.N. Population Conference in Cairo.
Many men and women believe circumcision ensures that their daughters will remain virgins by diminishing the pleasure of sex. As virgins they will be more marriageable, and as wives they will be less likely to cheat on their husbands, families believe.
But the practice has killed at least eight young girls in the past two years from bleeding, shock and infection.
The surgery ranges from clipping the clitoris to cutting away the external part of the female sex organs.
In the most severe form, known as infibulation, the wound is sewn closed, with only a match stick-sized hole left open.
Survivors endure a lifetime of after-effects - difficulty urinating and menstruating, painful intercourse, repeated infections and sometimes infertility. Women are cut or forced open on their wedding night, cut open more to give birth, then sewed up again.
“I don’t like sex because it’s painful,” said Shadia Mohran, one of three Cairo women who talked to a reporter about circumcision.
All three neighbors had their sex organs completely removed when they were young girls.
“It should be banned,” said Aida Ramadan, calling the practice violence against women. “I don’t like sex,” she added. “I find it repulsive - because of the pain.”
But the third, Nawal Abdo, said circumcision is needed to keep wives faithful.
“The devil can’t tempt them,” she said. “That’s why we cut them off.”
Health Minister Ismail Sallam acknowledges it will be difficult to keep an eye on every doctor and midwife who might perform circumcisions illegally.
But he already has started an educational program aimed at halting the practice - by going into villages and explaining to villagers the health dangers.
The government is also sending clergymen to train local sheiks in villages to discourage the practice. Their message: Despite prevalent beliefs otherwise, slam does not require female circumcision.
As a result of the Dec. 28 court ruling, doctors who violate the ban face six months in jail and loss of their license. Midwives and barbers - who traditionally perform circumcisions - could go to jail for two years.
Sallam expressed optimism Egypt can end the practice in three to four years.
“Once we take five or six cases to court, everybody will learn that we are serious,” he said in an interview.