This is an ethnographic work written by a Swedish anthropologist
who has lived in Cairo, Egypt for several years curating the cultural tropes
that are woven into the lives of her traditional Egyptian subjects. Malmström
sets the scene for her work by describing a 1994 incident wherein CNN broadcast
live the female genital cutting of a young girl in Egypt. A secret practice
made public, Malmström uses this event to springboard her commentary on how
female genital cutting is practiced, experienced, and viewed among Egyptians.
Female genital cutting is defined as the partial or total
removal of external female genitalia for non-medical (i.e. cultural) reasons.
This is largely a practice carried out in Africa and some parts of the Middle
East. Egypt has one of the highest global rates of female genital cutting, and
the cutting usually occurs at the age of 9 years. Many reasons are cited for
the cutting, and in Egypt it is done to decrease a woman’s sex drive as well as
to fit the standards of beauty (i.e. labia minora are considered unattractive).
It had usually been performed by a traditional practitioner, but more recently,
this human rights violation has been medicalized in Egypt and is often
performed by doctors in an operating room using anesthesia. Even though Egyptian
law and Muslim as well as Coptic Christian clerics have issued bans on female
genital cutting, the practice continues in secrecy.
Malmström starts her book by saying that female genital
cutting may actually be carried out in large part as Egyptian political protest
against the West. She uses excerpts from interviews with women of different
generations, social strata, and degree of devotion to Islam to describe their
different experiences and opinions on topics that center around womanhood and
the many components of womanhood in Egypt.
While the title suggests that Malmström will tackle female
genital cutting head-on throughout this
piece, she actually takes a more circuitous route. She spends several chapters
describing other woman-centric issues to familiarize the reader with Egyptian
culture. For instance, Malmström describes how sexuality is expected to be
expressed at different points in life: in girlhood, adolescence, and after
marriage. She focuses on how Egyptian women are expected to straddle many
expectations regarding sexuality depending on the context: sexually receptive
to the husband only, for instance, but not so much so that the husband struggles
to satisfy her.
One of the most telling quotes regarding the meaning of
“A woman should always be soft
towards a man...She should never accuse her husband of anything or argue with
him. A woman should be strong and never show her true feelings. A woman must be
beautiful. A woman will win through beauty, softness, and through cooking....A
woman should not show her sadness because of him [her husband], since she turns
ugly, loses her health and eventually, her husband. She should be even softer
towards him and give him everything in life” (p. 169).
Malmström delves into the centrality of cooking, pain, and
endurance of suffering in the lives of traditional women and how these items,
as well as being “cut” are seen as necessary to the satisfactory construction
of Egyptian female identity. This exploration of many parts of womanhood in
Egypt allows the reader to attempt to engage in a nuanced understanding of
female genital cutting in the context of a broader, textured Egyptian culture.
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