NGOs and female circumcision in Egypt

An anthropological enquiry

  • Elsa Mescoli
Keywords: FGM, female circumcision, Egypt, NGOs, development, humanitarianism, anthropology


In 1994, during the International Conference on Population and Development convened by the United Nations in Cairo, a shocking video was shown, recorded by CNN and depicting the circumcision of a ten-year-old child living in the same city. Discourses around female circumcision were not new to Egypt or to the international community, but the video, a new episode in a recurrent scandal, enhanced the ‘war against bad government’ (Foucault 2003:38) – a war fought with ideological weapons produced by various forms of expert knowledge, among which were medical and feminist views. The assignment of value to the ‘integrity’ of the female body and to women’s freedom of choice, both designed according to Western canons, led to different actions to ‘save’ Egyptian women. In this context, development agencies fostered a widespread representation of the ‘victim’, the woman’s mutilated body. Such representation is functional to
establishing programmes that do not guarantee freedom of choice but rather require adherence to another female model, one that defines the ‘modern’ woman.
My article, based on ethnographic experience, highlights the complexity of these dynamics and the role played by humanitarianism within them. The female body becomes the arena in which local and international economic powers operate, disregarding a real understanding of the practice, its meanings and its eventual change.