By Producer
NBC News
updated 10/21/2004 7:09:39 AM ET 2004-10-21T11:09:39

From the slums of Cairo to remote villages in rural Egypt, a quiet revolution is taking place. Reversing generations of tradition, growing numbers of parents have decided to spare their daughters the trauma of female genital mutilation (FGM), an ancient practice whereby part of a girl's external genitalia are cut off.

It is a campaign that is promoted by the government, with impetus from Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt's first lady and the technical advisor to the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM).

On talk shows, religious leaders blast the practice of mutilation as un-Islamic and un-Christian, an argument that is winning converts, while the television networks are running commercials at prime-time to discourage the brutal but time-honored tradition.

Many women are now saying they will never do to their daughters what their parents did to them. 

The practice is widespread in Egypt. According to a survey completed four years ago, 97 percent of all Egyptian women age 15-49 have been subjected to FGM.

Pioneer in the battle
In the rural areas, the most conservative in Egypt, sociologist Iman Abdul Zahur, a mother of two girls, is on the frontline.

"It is not my job, it is my duty," to battle the practice of mutilation, she said.

For the past year, Zahur has worked seven days a week traveling through eight villages in Minya, one of Egypt's poorest rural areas, where she holds forums with men, women and children in mosques, churches, schools and clubs to convince parents and children that FGM is not only harmful but needless. 

She approaches them with logic and the assumption that they love their daughters and, like parents the world over, will ultimately act in their children's best interest. 

But first Zahur gains the villagers' trust by tangibly improving their lives. She begins by helping women obtain their national identity card. The card empowers women to secure their full-fledged rights. She then involves them in vocational training that can help them become wage earners. 

Once she has won the villagers' confidence, Zahur and a team of professionals begins the job of winning over their minds during three-hour meetings on FGM. With a doctor, a priest, and a Muslim cleric in tow, Zahur sets out to dispel her audiences' most common arguments and fears against abandoning the practice of mutilation.

Both Muslim and Christian Egyptians insist the practice is mandated by their religions. "But the religious men tell them there is nothing in the Old and New Testaments or in the Quran about it. They prove to the people that it is not a religious duty," Zahur said.

Dispelling old myths
In a society where virginity is sacrosanct and most women aspire to marry and raise families, many worry that "uncircumcised" girls will be promiscuous or that men will be unwilling to marry them. 

But Zahur cites case studies and statistics. She reminds Egyptians of girls they know who are models of chastity but haven't undergone FGM. And she tells them that although at least 80 percent of women practicing prostitution have been "circumcised," it hasn't deterred them from going astray. Zahur emphasizes that it is a child's upbringing and mentality that determine her moral values. 

The physician warns villagers that they by subjecting their daughters to an illegal and unnecessary operation, they are endangering their health because of the complications that can arise from FGM, such as infection, hemorrhage, and in some cases, death. 

Men are told that sex will not be pleasant for their future wives if they are have part of their genitalia removed. The doctor also tries to dispel a common myth that a girl's sexual organs will grow abnormally if left uncut. Participants are made to understand that it is illegal for any physician or health-care provider to perform the procedure and that some doctors are serving prison sentences for doing so.

Zahur said that the forums succeed in convincing about 80 percent of people with some education, and only 60 percent of uneducated people. Not content with those results, Zahur spends the weekends knocking on doors, trying to convince the diehards. She brings in an authority figure that can sway them, a mayor or agricultural engineer.

Recent converts help change perceptions
Success brings its own rewards. New disciples have become outspoken advocates against the practice of mutilation to their neighbors and relatives.  

Miriam Kinz Abdel Masih attended the forums and has been convinced of the negative aspects of the practice. "It makes women frigid," she said in a telephone conversation from the village of Abu Qorqos al Balad. 

"It is very dangerous. I had it done to me and I don't want anyone to do it. There are problems now between me and my husband."

She said the campaign against FGM has succeeded in her village. "Everyone has decided against it," she said.  "Christians and Muslims, we work as with one hand."

Samaa Abdullah, a mother of a 3-year-old girl, said her daughter will be spared. "People used to do it, but they don't now because it is wrong for girls," she said. 

After only one year, two villages targeted by Zahur are ready to declare themselves FGM free.

They are part of the government's FGM Free Village Model Project, coordinated by Mona Amin. The project will soon be expanded from 60 villages to 120. 

The most successful approach is an integrated one, Amin said. "You can't talk to people about stopping one practice in their life when their life is a wreck,” she said.

“A community-based initiative focuses on other indicators like education, economy, empowering them to get a job, have a voice, improving her and her family's living conditions, getting the kids to school," she said.

Another project, aimed at getting adolescent girls back to school, has had tremendous success in turning them against FGM.

"We were trying to provide a space to grow and think, to create a network of friends. In that context, it is easier to be convinced that FGM is wrong," said Alyce Abdalla, research coordinator for the Population Council. 

Soap opera style ads get message across
In Cairo's crowded slums, the media gets the message out. On TV, commercials aired during prime time feature an adorable round-faced girl.

"The girl is Egyptian," trumpets the commercial as you see her look longingly through the school window and finally join the pupils.

Viewers see her parents spurn the idea of FGM, and of marrying her off at a young age to an old man. Defying the pitfalls of tradition, she finishes college, becomes a professional and marries. People love the "soap opera" quality of the commercial, Amid said.  

Egyptian TV management used to broadcast the commercials in off-hours until it was pressured by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood.

With President Hosni Mubarak's wife on board, 12 government ministries have weighed in and the organization has the clout to get things done. 

So far, reports from localized programs are promising although no widespread statistical survey has been done yet about the current scale of FGM's practice.

For campaigners, the push to overturn centuries of practice is going to take time.

"We must create a social environment that resents the practice and is conducive to abandoning it," Amin said.

Charlene Gubash is an NBC News producer based in Cairo.

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