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Zero Tolerance For FGM Began With Agitators Like Nawal El-Saadawi

February 6, 2022

6 February is the annual International Day of Zero Tolerance for (or to) Female Genital Mutilation.  Introduced in 2003 by Stella Obasanjo, the First Lady of Nigeria, during a conference organized by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC). Then, in 2012, the UN General Assembly formally designated February 6th as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.

But the origins of the demand to #EndFGM came much earlier than that, with fighters such as Dame Eleanor Rathbone in her 1934 book entitled Child Marriage: The Indian Minotaur and Nawal El-Saadawi (seen here in a photograph by my friend and colleague Dr Tobe Levin) whose 1969 publication Women and Sex is one of many she wrote (55 books in all) concerning harmful traditional practices such as those earlier (and independently) addressed by Dame Eleanor.

We have already celebrated here the life and work to end FGM and child marriage in India of the British social researcher and politician Eleanor Rathbone (1872-1946), so now is the time to acknowledge also the huge contribution a generation later of Nawal El-Saadawi (1931-2021), the Egyptian public health physician, psychiatrist, author, and advocate of women’s rights, who died a year ago in March.

Nawal El-Saadawi

The significance of Nawal El-Saadawi’s life-long endeavours is such that she was the focus of a full page Obituary in The Economist (27 March 2021) – an honour bestowed on just one person in the world for every fortnightly edition.   

Dr El-Saadawi did not set out to be a physician – that was the price she paid for being an extraordinarily able student, despite her modest beginnings – but she did intend, as forcefully as she could, to be a thorn in the side of authority, and particularly of the patriarchy.

As The Economist tells us,

(El-Saadawi’s) campaign against the oppression of women in Egypt, from genital mutilation to routine marital thrashings, from puny inheritance rights to the wearing of the veil, hurled her against the authorities. …. “Women and Sex”, published in 1969, cost her her job in the ministry of health. Eight years later “The Hidden Face of Eve”, which spared no details of the cuttings she had seen as a doctor in the villages, shot that taboo into general conversation ….. In 1981 Anwar Sadat’s government jailed her for three months, and in the 1990s death threats sent her abroad.

Even so, never did Nawal El-Saawadi abandon her determination to expose and articulate the oppression of women in Egypt.  She knew from unspeakable personal experience the terror, as a six-year-old, of the cruel imposition of female genital mutilation.  She knew too, as a medical doctor, the plight of child brides pre-emptively deflowered devoid of any attempt at hygiene, pain relief or post-procedural care.

For many of us bringing into law a prohibition of FGM, as Nawal did in Egypt in 2008, would have been a huge achievement; but for her we learn it seemed largely window dressing.  Still today the majority of Egyptian women are cut, and the patriarchy (and capitalist system) which she so abhorred remains a fundamental force in societies the world over.

The internet changes everything

The enormous formative contributions to our cause made by women such as Eleanor Rathbone a century ago, and Nawal El-Saadawi a generation later, demonstrate clearly the challenges we face.  But with advantages such as the internet, awareness and progress are accelerating.  Even when your writer here began investigating FGM, it was a topic barely understood, let alone a publicly recognised crusade.

Consider this timeline (which I explore in much more detail in Chapter 6 of my book Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation):

1934 – Eleanor Rathbone publishes The Minotaur

1969 – Nawal El-Saadawi publishes Women and Sex

2003 – The IAC declares 6 February the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM

2012 – The UN General Assembly formally designates 6 February as the Day of Zero Tolerance

… and since then we have seen massively more focus on – and many more projects to address – the issue of FGM and many other aligned harmful practices.  Any search of the internet now returns huge multiples of the number of research papers and programme reports available even just a few years ago. The pace of action to end FGM is accelerating rapidly.

Economics underpins FGM

But whilst the oft-lauded objective to eradicate FGM by 2030 is admirable, it perhaps misses one vital point.  Politicians and policy-makers may, understandably, be more comfortable discussing durations – dates can always be extended – than dollars, which are finite.

I therefore continue to argue as strongly as I can that the basic question is not ‘How long will it take to #EndFGM?‘, but rather ‘How much must we invest in funding and other resources?‘ to eradicate FGM and Child Marriage, both of which arise at base from a coalescence of complex economic behaviours.  

Resources talk more loudly than resolutions, however well-intentioned.

Heed the pioneers

Mmes Rathbone and El-Saawadi insisted that the solutions to FGM, child marriage and other harmful practices can only be achieved via proper attention to underlying factors such as economics and politics. Their analysis is increasingly persuasive as we learn so much more about these cruel denials of human rights.

Our task now, as we mark another #ZeroTolerance Day, is to bring together the many threads and understandings of female genital mutilation around which these formidable women, humanitarians always undaunted, led the way.

Read more about Zero Tolerance for FGM Day,

Child Marriage   and the  Economics of FGM

Your Comments on this topic are welcome.  
Please post them in the Reply box which follows these announcements…..

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

18.04.12 FGM books together IMG_3336 (3).JPG

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.
FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.


There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email:

Details of NHS Specialist Services for FGM here.

More info and posts on FGM here.

Activists, service providers and researchers may like to join the LinkedIn group Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Information, reports and research, which has several hundred members from around the world.

Twitter accounts:          

@NoFGM_UK  @NoFGMBookUK   @FemaleMutlnBook  @FGMStatement   @NoFGM_USA @NoFGM_Kenya and @StopMGM.

Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity

Email contact: via Hilary


[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation,  The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]


This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM.  I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece.

Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so via these relevant dedicated threads.

Discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on these dedicated pages. Thanks.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 14, 2022 03:23

    I appreciate all the wonderful information you have provided here. I’m so glad to find out Eleanor Rathbone paved the way for others in her activism and showing how we cannot accept human rights abuses such as FGM and child marriage. We all have to do our part to end harmful practices, even if they are part of tradition or culture.

    Please do take a look at my book “Forced to Marry Him: A Lifetime of Tradition and the Will to Break It” which explains how I was pushed at age 14 into an arranged marriage which was really a forced marriage. This happened in the UK! It doesn’t just happen in India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc, but even places like the UK, Denmark, Australia, and the USA! No place is immune to human rights abuses. We all need to help end these atrocities. This is the link to the book.

    Thanks so much for writing about FGM and child marriage. Together, we are stronger when we share about these atrocities and spread awareness. You are doing incredible work!

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