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Summary:

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 womanhood is,

“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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