Breaking the Silence on FGM/C in Egypt: One Activist’s Story

February 5, 2016
An Egyptian woman seen from a motorized rickshaw walks on a street, near the home of a 13-year old girl who died undergoing the procedure of female genital mutilation committed near Cairo, Egypt.

One of the hardest parts about tackling female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is the silence surrounding this problem. In many places, FGM/C is considered taboo, a practice that is rarely discussed, especially in public or mixed company.

For this reason, FGM/C has become a hidden epidemic. At least 200 million women and girls are thought to be living with the consequences of FGM/C. In the 29 countries where the practice is most concentrated, girls who undergo FGM/C are typically cut before the age of 15.

In half of those countries where data are available, a majority of girls are cut before they turn five.  According to UNICEF, an estimated 30 million girls are at risk of being cut within the next decade, and more than three million girls are at risk annually just on the African continent alone.

That’s why it’s so important that we break through the silence on this issue and get people talking about it. Earlier this week, I traveled to Egypt, where I met with government officials and activists working to end gender-based violence, including FGM/C.

Nada Sabet is one of the people I met. She’s somewhat of an accidental activist -- she’s an artist and entrepreneur at heart, and until recently she didn’t even think about FGM/C as a major issue in Egypt. (According to a brand new report from UNICEF, the rate of FGM/C is 70 percent.)

But when she saw the research, she decided to act. Her performing arts company partnered with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to create a play that raises awareness and breaks the silence on FGM/C. They have performed nearly 200 times all over the country.

I sat down with Sabet to hear more about her work and how it’s making a difference on this issue in Egypt. Below are excerpts from our conversation. 

Ambassador Russell: Tell me about your project on FGM/C. How did it begin?

Nada Sabet: I am the co-founder and current manager of Noon Creative Enterprise, which does work with theater and the performing arts in general. We have two main focuses. One is using the performing arts as a tool for awareness, education, and development. The other is working with the performing arts as a sector.

One of our projects is the performance on FGM, which started in July or August 2014. UNFPA had been working on FGM for ages, and I guess they liked our work. We had an internal meeting where we performed [on other issues] -- right here in this room actually -- for sister organizations and other UNFPA projects. And they asked, “Can you do the same thing but on FGM?”

Russell: So this wasn’t your idea initially?

Sabet: No. And in fact, I was really not interested, to be very honest. I remember growing up, there were ads on FGM. And so I was like, there is still FGM? What is this?

UNFPA said we’ll send you some of the research and you decide. And I was looking at the statistics and I thought, “Oh my god, there is so much FGM.” So let’s give it a shot.

UNFPA wanted something totally different from the approach of a doctor or community person talking about FMG/C. And I was like, okay. The performance is going to be funny and it’s going to have a lot of slap stick.

Russell: It’s not something you typically think of as a funny subject.

Sabet: It’s not a funny subject, but I think humor is a very powerful tool for opening up safe spaces where audiences feel they can talk about intimate issues. It’s a nice way to get in. We don’t make fun of the topic but we make fun of things we say about the topic.

Russell: Tell me more about the performance itself.

Sabet: There are three actors -- men playing women and women playing men -- and they play 40 odd characters. We’ve preformed so far 182 times all over Egypt. We’ve done Upper Egypt, the Delta, the Suez Canal areas, and Alexandria. Our audiences are generally either families, so men and women of various ages, or young women and young mothers.

Then we started being asked to do schools, which we didn’t think worked so well because part of the performance is about marital relationships and how they’re affected. And so for children that are nine years old, it doesn’t make any sense.

So we started doing workshops -- music, theater, and dance workshops in schools. And it was a great success. Each time there were 75 boys and girls between the ages of nine and 12 who came up with a short skip, song, or dance piece using what they learned about FGM and how they feel about it.

Russell: And what’s the idea of talking to young people? Is it to start a conversation? They’re not really decision makers.

Sabet: Knowing gives them power. Some of the scenes were basically young girls convincing their fathers why this was a bad idea. I think writing it, acting it, and performing it in front of an audience gives them the practice to do this because they have to go through quite a number of steps of thinking why they’re saying what they’re saying and how this could happen in a performance setting.

Russell: Who’s your ideal audience? If you were trying to change a community’s view, would you talk to families, young people, mothers?

Sabet: This performance was made for young mothers -- they’re decision makers with their children. And one of the scenes is a mother battling it out with her mother-in-law. Because that’s one of the things that came out in the research --these are some of the people who push for FGM/C to happen.

The performance doesn’t work so well when it’s an audience of mainly men, because there is no voice in the audience that says no, that’s not what it’s like. When there are men and women, we don’t have to play devil’s advocate when the men say that’s not what happens. We try not to have it be our opinion versus the audience. The point is not to argue. It’s to have a space where people can share. We’ve had women share stories like, “I didn’t circumcise my daughter and instead I took her out and told her to act really tired for two days and that was it.”

Russell: What’s the most effective way to show the downsides of FGM?

Sabet: I would say the most effective is not what we’re doing. At the end of this performance, a lot of women say, “Okay, we get it, we shouldn’t do this to our daughters, but we’re circumcised.” And that’s not a pretty place to leave an audience.

I have been trying to convince UNFPA to work on a performance as a sequel to this where we can really talk about coping skills. We talk about it for like three seconds at the very end. But that’s not the topic of the piece, so it’s done really quickly. It opens a door but we don’t go through it. So I would say that based on the feedback we’ve been getting, it would be nice to have a sequel that really delves into the matter.

Russell: Is there any argument that really doesn’t work? I assume you’re trying to talk to people about it in a way that recognizes that it’s been a tradition, but we now know more.

Sabet: We ridicule the doctor versus midwife idea, so it’s not really about that. Anyone who watches the play would agree that they don’t want to take their kids to either. We have a doctor who can’t see and a midwife who has just killed someone.

So we’re trying to move away from the doctor versus midwife, and from what religions might say. We’re a theater troupe; we’re not going to preach. But we focus on what are the functions of the parts that are removed and what happens when they’re removed, and how does that affect the rest of your life.

Russell: It’s pretty matter of fact.

Sabet: If there wasn’t a lot of humor, we wouldn’t be able to do this. And that’s kind of the little cycle we take audiences on. OK, it’s a tradition, there are lots of traditions. Is it worth it? Does the fact that it’s a tradition outweigh what happens?

Russell: People take some comfort in the notion that it’s doctors who do it? It makes it seem more OK. So you’re trying to say that’s not really true?

Sabet: There are lots of issues with doctors doing it, apart from the fact that it’s illegal for doctors to do it, and 90 or 87 percent of doctors do it. But there’s this idea that it’s cleaner, there’s anesthesia. But the truth is there is no medical procedure for FGM, so doctors improvise.

We had a performance with Doctors Without Borders, and three of the doctors got in an argument because doctors don’t agree on what it is and what is removed and why.

Russell: Were any of those doctors advocating for it? Or were they just disagreeing on what it was?

Sabet: They were disagreeing on what the procedure is and what the effects of the procedure are based on what is removed.

Russell: Has anyone from other countries tried to replicate this?

Sabet: No. but this is the third time I’ve been asked this question this week. We’ve talked about going to other countries, but I don’t know if it works. It’s in Arabic, it’s in colloquial Egyptian, although most Arabic countries would understand and get the humor because they watch a lot of Egyptian TV.

Russell: What do you think is the lesson for policymakers in the US who want to support communities in trying to eradicate this problem? Obviously it’s not for us to come in and say what anyone should or shouldn’t do, but how do you think we can best be supportive?

Sabet: Through USAID, you’ve done quite a lot of work on FGM. My bias is art, so I would say use more arts. 

About the Author: Catherine Russell serves as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.

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