The dogs may bark, but the caravan keeps going. That’s Sayeda Abdou Hamed’s mantra when times get rough in her fight to stop female genital mutilation (FGM). Hamed, a survivor of the procedure, is a member of Egypt’s FGM Task Force, a growing network that is fast becoming a movement. The task force, composed of about 80 activist groups, is united by a commitment to eliminate the practice of removing all or part of a girl’s genitalia so as to guarantee her chastity and marriageability. Though the task force helped to pass a law criminalizing the practice in 1996, the law is largely unenforced and the battle to change social attitudes continues.
The task force arose from the momentum of a 1994 United Nations population conference in Cairo. Before meetings began, CNN aired footage of a screaming Egyptian girl being held down and cut by a local barber–forcing a nation in denial to address the issue. Marie Assaad, one of the country’s veteran women’s rights activists, was brought in as coordinator of the task force, which was founded with the help of international human rights groups. “We wanted this to be a coalition of volunteers, activists, and professionals,” says Assaad. “FGM is a human rights issue that affects everyone.”
The group went through a change in attitude soon after Assaad, now 78, came on board. “At first, we didn’t listen to women,” she says. “We would give our lecture and go.” Now, the task force works closely with entire communities. Adds Hamed, “We had to be close to the people so they would trust and love us.” The task force has earned that trust by mobilizing everyone from grassroots activists to government officials countrywide. Volunteers train rural women on the social and cultural ills of FGM as well as impart leadership and even literacy skills. They meet regularly with conservatives to discuss how and why the practice is still flourishing. They also reach young people through meetings in local schools and villages. Their efforts have led to support from dozens of religious leaders who have joined them in denying that FGM is supported by Islam or Christianity. And throughout Egypt, where 97 percent of women who’ve been married have undergone FGM, a recent survey showed a 10 percent increase in the number of people opposing the practice.