"It was all very simple," says Sabah, as she leans forward confidingly. "I was 12 and they picked me and my younger sister up from school and brought us up to the attic," where the old daya, the village midwife, was waiting. "She closed the door, took out the razor blade and then it started."
When it was over, the girls had to sit in hot water, then ash was scattered on their wounds. "We received a large chicken as a reward. The next day, we were on the street again, playing."
At this point, Sabah bursts into laughter - it's impossible to say whether it's out of sympathy for her past self, because she has repressed these memories, or simply because she is amused by the painfully contorted face of the person sitting across from her. Perhaps her hearty reaction is a sign of extraordinary resilience. Perhaps it's just the echo of an unfortunate mantra that has been accompanying genital mutilation for centuries: "Don't make a fuss, don't complain, it's for the best."
Sabah is now 50 years old. She describes what has been done to the women in her village near the desert city of Bani Suwaif for generations. What she describes is the rule, not the exception. She talks of her wedding at 15, a simple ritual without an imam, but overall quite an event: "The music, the party, we felt really grown up." That is, until a large, powerfully built woman came up to them, at which point she wanted to run away. But Sabah had no chance. The virginity inspector, who had been ordered by the family, deflowered the young bride with her fingers. The girl was instructed to preserve the sheet with the blood, then she was passed along to her 27-year-old husband.
Sabah is one of 20 women who have come to visit Sheikh Sayed Zayed in the Al-Deiri Mosque. The sounds of laughter and whining can be heard from the nursery school, and assistants serve the guests hot tea in small glasses.
The women gaze at the imam with serious, almost grim faces. Today, he wants to tell them something about female genital mutilation, FGM for short. The imam gets straight to the point: "Circumcision is a curse," he says. "We need to eradicate this practice because it is nothing more than a barbaric tradition." He says that Islam doesn't call for FGM, as religious extremists like to claim: "It is not an established practice. Muhammad never prescribed it," he says, adding that "it is not in the Koran and it is not cited as mandatory in the hadith."
In Egypt, female genital mutilation has existed for at least 2,500 years, which explains why it is often described as pharaonic. The origins of this appalling tradition are heavily disputed, "but these are only attempts to justify the bloody business," says the sheikh. "It stems from poverty, ignorance and stigma."
Egypt sought to curb female genital mutilation for decades using government campaigns and countrywide initiatives, but with little success. Back in the early 1920s, doctors in Cairo were already warning people about the practice, and it has been illegal in the country since 2008. Anyone who carries out FGM can be imprisoned for up to seven years. If a victim is severely injured or dies, the perpetrator can be sentenced to up to 15 years behind bars.
And yet FGM remains a sad and distressing reality in the land on the Nile. According to a UNICEF study, 87 percent of Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone the procedure. This makes Egypt the sixth worst-ranking country in the world in terms of the prevalence of this widely condemned practice. The danger is greatest for women in the countryside who are poor and uneducated.
"Which of you have had your daughters circumcised?" Sheikh Zayed asks the group. Many fingers shoot into the air. "And who has decided against it?" Two hands go up.
Sabah had two of her daughters circumcised by a doctor. "It went fast," she says. Then she watched a TV report about a child that died after the ordeal. "After that, I decided that I would never allow it again!" And so, the third daughter was spared.
"The stupid things that people say - that they become purer, more beautiful and get a better man - it's all just a myth," she says angrily. Instead, she has seen only suffering: girls who were secretly circumcised, although their mothers objected to it; marriages that ended in divorce because the woman was mutilated and had no sensation during sex; women who remained unmarried because they had not undergone the procedure. "How dumb and uneducated we were to do that," says Sabah.
She feels guilty about her older daughters. "Both of them have suffered serious psychological damage as a result - they're not happy with their lives," she admits. The youngest one is now married and determined never to allow her daughters to be mutilated. "Our generation is lost, but the new one might have a chance," says Sabah.
The concept of "purity" - the fixation on female genitalia and virginity - sometimes seems pathological. In September 2016, Elhamy Agina, a member of parliament in Egypt, urged the introduction of virginity tests for incoming university students. The same politician had previously argued that genital mutilation is advantageous because it reduces a woman's sexual desires.
These days, three out of four girls under the age of 14 are mutilated by trained medical personnel. "Because the parents believe it is now more hygienic and safe, FGM has spread even further," explains Imam Zayed. It is possible that this professionalization of the procedure has made deadly infections rarer. But the physical and psychological consequences of the procedure remain. "To be circumcised is like undergoing an amputation - the women are missing an important part of their bodies," says the imam.
"Circumcision causes problems - during menstruation, during pregnancy, during sex, don't downplay that!" warns Nermeen Mahmoud, a health expert from Egypt's National Council for Women (NCW), who has also joined for the meeting.
"We all want for our children to be better off, so we need to teach them about the facts of life and help them get an education," she says. Everyone nods approvingly. Still, more than one-quarter of all Egyptian women cannot read or write, which is yet another reason why many "women are still falling for the lies of charlatans," says Mahmoud.
In Egypt, it's primarily Type I and Type II of FGM that is practiced. In the first type, the clitoris is partly or entirely removed, and in the second the labia minora are also removed. The further one travels into the south of the country, the more extensive the mutilation. It is in this region that one also encounters Type III, the traumatic, potentially deadly infibulation, which essentially involves removing the vulva, leaving the female genitalia completely obliterated.
Mahmoud says that the "mild Sunna," a symbolic nicking of the clitoral hood, which is a less brutal, minimal variant of the mutilation, has become increasingly common. For critics, however, this is just a bad compromise that promotes rather than prevents FGM. The disregard for human dignity and the act of bodily harm remain.
The National Council for Women is launching a series of campaigns against the steadfast adherence to tradition of female circumcision. In the countryside, where FGM is more widespread than in the cities, activists go door-to-door and sex education is taught in schools. There are also TV broadcasts that, according to surveys, are particularly effective in raising people's awareness of the dangers of FGM.
There is a child protection hotline that neighbors or relatives can call to alert the authorities to an FGM procedure that has either taken place or is impending. Ideally, police officers will be dispatched to check on the situation. "This approach is rarely taken, however. For the most part only in cases of health complications, like bleeding, septic shock and infections," says Mahmoud, the NCW health expert. And, no, she says, there is no state taskforce that can remove severely at-risk children from their families.
Despite these efforts, FGM still enjoys a high degree of approval among the population. According to studies, if a mother has undergone FGM, there is a greater probability that her daughter will also fall victim to it. Although it was originally used to limit the sexual desires of women, and control and subjugate them, FGM has long since fallen under the control of women themselves. "It is a form of violence that is transmitted from one generation of women to another," says Mahmoud, "so it is in your power to end this cycle!"
Mahmoud heartily welcomes the involvement of Imam Zayed. Religious leaders, she says, have the closest contacts to families in the neighborhood and can talk about all kinds of issues with them. "They can really work to convince them because they are recognized authorities. Their word is law."
Zayed studied religious history and trained to become an Imam in Cairo at Al-Azhar University, the largest Sunni educational institution in Egypt. This arch-conservative, state-run institution is certainly no hotbed for women's rights activists. But when it comes to FGM, the university's board of governors released a fatwa stating that female genital mutilation is not rooted in Islamic law and should be avoided.
Imam Zayed believes judicial punishment is effective, as long as the perpetrators are reported and given commensurate prison sentences. In the past, however, he says that the Muslim Brotherhood has performed FGM in the countryside with complete disregard for the law, using shuttle buses while pretending to provide mobile health services. "God protect us from these extremists," he says.
He says that current laws are not being implemented. Hence, criminalizing FGM has achieved little, aside from raising the price of the procedure. "Before, a person paid 10 pounds, or about 50 cents, to the ritual circumsisers - now it's 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, up to 95 euros ($117)." He says the high price isn't scaring anyone away: "When something is forbidden, it just becomes more appealing."
Laila Abu-Akl, an official from the local division of the Justice Ministry, is extremely frustrated with this attitude: "It's insane that we still have not been able to eradicate FGM," she says to the group at Bani Suwaif. "The sexual drive is all in the mind and is not affected by an incision in the flesh." She says it's a well-known fact that FGM becomes less common in areas where there is better education. "Help us spread the word: Stop taking your daughters to be mutilated."
Zayed has brought in reinforcements for his educational campaign. His friend, Father Athanasius, an Orthodox priest from the Church of the Virgin Mary, has come. "FGM is a crime," he says. "It is an insult to a woman's body." He explains that some Christians also pursue this practice and tells the story of how he once threatened to expel the grandmother of a prospective victim from the parish - and succeeded in putting a halt to the procedure. "Today her granddaughter is a happily married, unmutilated woman."
In view of the current wave of anti-Christian and sectarian violence that has claimed hundreds of lives and resulted in the destruction of numerous churches throughout the country, this clear show of solidarity between an imam and a priest is truly remarkable. For the Copts of Bani Suwaif, though, gaining the support of the local imam is also a survival strategy because Christians represent only about 5 percent of the population there.
The Copts are threatened from all sides - by the Islamic State, militant Muslim Brothers, religious activists and sometimes even the authorities. Just last summer, Egyptian officials forcibly closed down a church in a village near Bani Suwaif; in October, an allegedly mentally ill man stabbed to death a Coptic priest from the city.
"There are many problems between Christians and Muslims in society, but not in our parish," emphasizes Athanasius. "The imam and I are supporting one another because we believe in the concept of love. Only about 1 percent of Muslims are extremists, but we want peace."
This highly volatile 1 percent, however, has now targeted the sheikh. "It's dangerous to say liberal things out here in the countryside," he says. He calls the Muslim Brotherhood an armed group of extremists who have little knowledge of Islam and merely use it for their own purposes. "They have called me an infidel, persecuted me and tried to kill me. They have protested in front of my house and called for my death."
Zayed is by no means a feminist. His struggle against FGM is academically and politically motivated. He favors the correct interpretation of the Islamic sacred texts and opposes religious extremism. Yet one has to wonder why he is risking his life for the campaign against FGM. "I have heard so many sermons that have nothing to do with the everyday lives of the faithful," he explains. "The people I met, they were poor, sick and unhappy. I felt their pain. Now, I am determined to give them a voice."
In addition to combating FGM, Zayed is striving to eradicate AIDS and illiteracy. He works with the World Health Organization and writes pamphlets and books. And there appears to be a glint of light at the end of the tunnel. Recent surveys show that the number of incidences of female genital mutilation could decline in the future.
How does the imam deal with setbacks and the population's deep-seated fear that they could lose touch with their traditions? "If I can save one in 50, I see it as a victory," he says. If one asks the women in the mosque, though, they simply laugh. Speaking for many of the other women there, Sabah says: "Everyone does it. It will never end."
Author: Annette Langer
Photos: Roger Anis
Editing: Benjamin Schulz, Patricia Dreyer
Graphic and Programming: Dawood Ohdah
Photo-Editing: Ireneus Schubial
Layout: Hanz Sayami
Fact-Checking: Almut Cieschinger, Mara Küpper
Copy Editing: Lena Ekelund
Additional Photos: AFP, Reuters Getty Images/Corbis
Translation: Thomas Rogers
This story is part of the project Expedition BeyondTomorrow.