The Politics of Female Circumcision in Egypt: Gender, Sexuality, and the Construction of Identity

Malmström, Maria

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Ethnography

Annotated by:
Saleh, Mona
  • Date of entry: Feb-24-2017
  • Last revised: Feb-24-2017


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. 


The strength of this book is in the extensive use of quotations from the Egyptian women whom the author interviewed. They provide exceptional, first-person insight into the Egyptian woman experience and how female genital cutting is part and parcel of that experience. This is very useful information, particularly when thinking about how efforts to dismantle the institution of female genital cutting should be focused. In order to put a halt on this human rights violation, it is paramount to understand the culture from which this practice grows.  

These narratives are presented side by side with Malmström’s apparent ambivalence on whether female genital cutting is a human rights violation or not. As an anthropologist, perhaps she is simply putting forth the experience of her subjects without wanting to inject herself into the equation. This argument falters when it becomes clear that Malmström inserts herself in this narrative quite often, such as when she describes her surprise that some veiled Muslim Egyptian women do indeed wear silky, transparent lingerie in the private company of their husbands. Her surprise that Egyptian women have what the West would consider “normal” experience is repeated several times throughout the book, which takes away from the immersive cultural experience she has set out to create. While Malmström characterizes most anti-female genital cutting campaigns as ones which make survivors of female genital cutting feel mutilated and disempowered, she does not suggest alternatives to how campaigns may be re-adjusted to fulfill their cause while being inclusive to survivors.  

Even with its pitfalls, this book offers first-hand accounts into the often private world of Muslim Egyptian women and their thoughts on womanhood, sexuality, and female genital cutting that is unparalleled by others in the field. For this reason, it is a worthy read for those interested in understanding how and why this practice continues to be propagated. 


I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, London

Page Count