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Planting the seeds of changeBy Mariz Tadros
Going to see the first showing of a film on female genital mutilation last Monday, one did not know what to expect. Not many clues were given -- only that the film was directed by Viola Shafik, produced by Media House and funded by the Ford Foundation and UNICEF. The title, The Planting of Girls, gave nothing away. The last time a film on female genital mutilation (FGM, the removal of the clitoris and often part or whole of the labia minora to ensure a woman's premarital and extra-marital chastity) was screened there was a public uproar. The earlier film, produced by CNN in 1994, was condemned on all sides for its lack of cultural sensitivity and its sensationalist and Orientalist approach. Lawsuits were even filed against the news channel.
However, one was pleasantly surprised to see that The Planting of Girls was quite the opposite. Although it deals with FGM, the 37-minute film, unlike that made by CNN, does not have a scene with a screaming little girl being pinned down to the ground before being cut open. This film is not about how evil and ugly the practice of FGM is, and there are no villains in the story. Rather, the film examines why FGM is practiced, the reactions to it, and its significance -- all from women's perspectives and in women's voices.
Men, too, were interviewed, but as Viola Shafik pointed out, they were less forthcoming than women. From villages in Minya to the urban working class districts of Shubra and Bulaq Al-Dakrour in Cairo, the film takes its viewers into people's living rooms -- quite literally. Its subjects are shown drawing water at the pump, or standing in a group in a village square.
The film is structured in such a manner that the reasons given by individual women for circumcising their daughters are set against those cited by other women from the same community who are not circumcised and who can reply to their arguments. Several women expressed the belief that circumcision discourages immoral behaviour by eliminating arousal. As one woman put it, "a husband can travel or go to work and rest easy that his wife is behaving properly while he is away".
A young married woman who was not circumcised and a mother who refused to circumcise her daughters explained why they do not believe in circumcision, and asserted that a girl's chastity is not in the absence or presence of her clitoris but in her behaviour. Shots of their neighbours affirming that these women are respectable and not promiscuous served to present them as community role models.
The film shattered stereotypes and debunked myths in more than one respect. One widespread belief is that the practice is inherited from the Pharaohs. In fact, Dr Seham Abdel-Salam, a doctor from the FGM Taskforce interviewed in the film, pointed out that FGM was brought to Egypt by the Ethiopians in the eighth century BC. The Ethiopians threw the parts that had been excised into the Nile, which they worshipped, in the belief that it would reward women by making them fertile. Today, the film revealed, the exact same practice prevails. Nobody knows why, since it was never an Egyptian tradition anyway. In fact, "the further south we move, the greater the part of the woman's body that is removed," explained Abdel-Salam. In some of the northern parts of the country, such as Marsa Matrouh, girls are not circumcised, she revealed.
The medical perspective on FGM is presented through discussions of women's reproductive organs conducted by Abdel-Salam with a group of village women. The medical implications of FGM on a woman's psychological and physical well-being are explained through the words of a local doctor who "used to cut slightly" before realising how much harm he was causing.
The last part of the film addressed the impact of female genital mutilation on married women's sex lives. The 1995 Demographic Health Survey estimates that 96 per cent of women in Egypt are circumcised. Half of these do not reach orgasm. The impact of this fact on marital relationships was discussed from both the women's and the men's perspectives. The discussion also included an uncircumcised woman who described her relationship with her husband, explaining that she didn't feel like an object or a means of satisfying him. The language, of course, is sexually explicit.
Reactions from the viewers, mostly gender- and development-related, were mixed. Some criticised the fact that the film was "too natural" -- the streets were dirty, the settings rugged. Besides, they asked, should we be airing our dirty laundry (or is it environment?) in public? Others pointed to the fact that one of the girls in the film talked about the grand celebration held on the day she was circumcised. "Shouldn't she have been shown crying?" asked one of the spectators, who suggested that the film should have focused more on the pain and misery experienced by girls who have been circumcised.
"We wanted to show things exactly as they are; we did not want to change things to fit our viewpoint. Women were shown in their own settings, doing their everyday activities," replied Shafik. Abdel-Salam added: "Why do we have to turn it into a melodrama? The girl is laughing because there is nothing she can really do about it. It is done and she cannot undo it."
Some complained that sheikhs and priests should have been interviewed too, though others hailed the fact that the religious perspective was only presented from the women's viewpoint. "Sheikhs and priests have many channels to express their opinions and ideas, it is important to give women the space to speak," said one viewer.
A few viewers wondered why no illustrations were shown during the explanation of how a woman's reproductive organs function. A poster was initially used, explained Shafik, but was then edited out because of fears that it would be refused by the censor.
Some felt the film's educational message was not strong enough. But that is the very approach that the film-makers deliberately set out to avoid: playing the role of educator to the ignorant masses, asserted Shafik.
According to Abdel-Salam, furthermore, "grassroots experience shows that didactic tactics just don't work. There are two approaches," she suggested: "One is that you speak to the people via the experts on the subject -- traditionally, the doctor, the priest and the sheikh, who condemn the practice and tell people not to do it. We have tried that approach since the 1920s when education about FGM first began and, as 96 per cent of women in Egypt are circumcised, it is obvious that it is not working. In fact, it only perpetuates the practice further. The other approach is interactive: you get people to start thinking and analysing why they are doing it and why is it considered important. Rather than talking about women's sexual organs, we start by talking about the mind."
Since the last part is sexually explicit, will the film be appropriate for conservative communities, especially in Upper Egypt? "Sex is a taboo, and we must break the silence around it," asserted Abdel-Salam.
Father Mikhail Anis, from St Mina's Church in Port Said, was one of the viewers. Would he use the film to raise awareness about female circumcision among his parishioners? "People don't like to talk about these things in church. I once had a parishioner give a talk about the subject, but many people were embarrassed and just left," he said. "Still, it is possible to show the film, while pausing every now and then to discuss some of the points made in it." While Father Mikhail praised the film, he felt there should have been more emotion in it, that the women's sufferings and the impact of FGM on family life should have been more dramatised.
Shafik, however, explained that she tried to avoid an emotional approach to the issue, anxious that this could create a backlash. "I didn't want the message to be: look how repulsive this practice is. I didn't want to arouse people's emotions and get them into heated debates." Shafik said she was also aware of the possibility that some might turn it into an issue of West vs East, preservation of culture vs change -- "which is also why we avoided getting into religion too much".
The Planting of Girls is one of those films you must see more than once to grasp the multiple meanings, symbols, and messages it contains. Perhaps it was a little over-ambitious in trying to cover too many issues at once -- social, religious, psychological, historical and medical dimensions -- within a short period of time. One thing can be said, however: the film has succeeded in presenting a highly sensitive issue in a non-hysterical and non-patronising way -- possibly because it comes from grassroots peoples' perspectives, rather than the conference halls and lectures of high-brow elites.