“The stories of our bodies are kept in dark boxes in our memories. It is stigmatised by the Sheikh and the priest. The family punishes us for telling them.”
Thus, began the unraveling of the story of Lama Mohamed, an Egyptian writer born into a conservative Muslim family. “My mother used to tune in to a Quran radio station every day at 8 p.m. and listen to her favorite reciter. She would order us to stay quiet till the end of the reciting,” she wrote in her journal.
As a child, Lama loved playing games—games which “included innocent attempts to discover our little bodies.” But she got yelled at by her mother every time she played with the boys. “My mum implanted fear inside me…For a long period of my life, I felt that my private part is disgusting. I did not have anybody who could answer my childish questions about this part, how does it work and why is it private,” Lama wrote.
When Lama was around eight or nine years old, she learned to touch herself for self-pleasure. “My fingers discovered its first orgasm. I was afraid I would die when I touched that prohibited place. I did not understand the pleasure or what happened to me when I reached orgasm, why did I feel these feelings. Although I did not understand what this pleasure was, I touched myself again and again. My secret habit or my personal pleasure did not stop even when my younger sister told my mum about it and I was harshly punished,” she recalled.
When both Lama and her sister were approaching puberty, her mother and uncle decided that she and her cousins should undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It was around the same time the International conference on Population and Development was taking place in Cairo and sexual and reproductive health was one if the top agendas. Meanwhile, CNN news channel aired an FGM operation of a small girl, causing huge embarrassment to the government.
This angered the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Gad el Haq, considered the highest authority in Sunni Islamic thought in Egypt. He issued an Islamic ruling or fatwa stating that FGM was a ruling of Islam, and whoever stops or prevents it, was not a Muslim. “He destroyed all sincere attempts to end FGM and caused miseries to many girls,” Lama wrote.
“My mum promised me new clothes and delicious food after the operation. She said this operation is important and it will make me a beautiful woman. I refused, and said that I do not want to undergo this operation. She was so angry,” She recalled.
Lama would have had her genitals mutilated, had it not been for her father, an Islamic scholar, who intervened at last. “He said that the prophet did not mutilate his daughters. He [said] FGM is not Islamic,” she wrote.
Although Lama and her sister escaped mutilation, her cousins became victims of FGM like millions of Egyptian girls and women. Egypt has one of highest prevalence of female genital cutting in the world. According to a Unicef Health Issues survey in 2015, 87 percent of Egyptian women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM, with 61 percent cut between the age of 5 and 10.
In 2008, Egypt criminalised the practice. In 2016, Egypt’s parliament approved even more stringent penalties for FGM. Despite the criminalisation of FGM, religious interpretations that govern women’s bodies remain deeply ingrained in Egyptian society, allowing the brutal practice to persist.
Speaking of her experience growing up without any sexual education, she recalled, “Most of the girls reached puberty without any guidance at school. There is a general lack of access to services and information regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights.” She said they were given some sex education but only at the end of middle school; and that girls felt uncomfortable about asking questions because of “fear of the boys’ jokes.”
Many sheikhs, or Islamic scholars, and even doctors stigmatise women who assert their rights over their own bodies as not respecting the teachings of Islam. “They consider any sexual act outside the marriage institution as forbidden, leading to curses in the afterlife…Even within marriage, they prohibit oral sex and said it causes gum and mouth cancer,” Lama wrote.
Lama, who uses her writing to raise awareness on SRHR, disclosed that she was still a virgin. She also admits to watching porn but says she cannot shake off the psychological impact of her strict religious upbringing. “Every time I imagine myself in full sexual experience with partners, the verse of the chastity in Quran comes to mind—the description of the prophet of the torture of people who commit adultery, whose genitals will burn and form filthy rivers in hell,” she wrote.
“I hate that I do not own or control my body. I feel controlled by what the Sheikh or Imam says…I hate my hesitation and I hate my fear…I am waiting to fully exercise my rights,” she added.
Lama describes her journey as a “living hell” for women who assert their rights. Nonetheless, she considers telling her story as her own personal “revolution against patriarchs.”