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Egypt's Villages Fight Female Genital Mutilation

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In 2005, the Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey found that over 95 per cent of Egyptian women had undergone some form of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This basically consists of the ablation of the clitoris, and sometimes, other genital parts as well. Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen are just some of the other African and Muslim nations where FGM is prevalent.

But the origins of this ancient practice are vociferously debated. Some scholars believe that FGM predates Islam and is, therefore, condemned as unIslamic; others cite the 'Sunnah' (a way of life based on the teachings of Prophet Mohammed) and endorse the tradition.

The debate mainly revolves around a 'hadith' (saying of the Prophet Mohammed) in which Mohammed is believed to have told a woman who used to perform circumcision in Medina: "Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband." Another 'hadith' cited by Muhammad Salim al-Awwa in his article 'Female Circumcision Neither a Sunna, Nor A Sign Of Respect', states that "Circumcision is a sunna for men and a sign of respect for women" (Hadith of Abu al-Malih, Abu Dawud)

However, many Muslim scholars doubt the veracity of this 'hadith' arguing that it is not supported by strong historical evidence. Dr Ahmed Talib, Dean of the Faculty of Sharia at Al-Azhar University, declared in 2005, "All practices of female circumcision and mutilation are crimes and have no relationship with Islam. Whether it involves the removal of the skin or the cutting of the flesh of the female genital organs... it is not an obligation in Islam." Even the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Jumaa, signed a text denouncing the practice, in 2006.

In Egypt, Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa has stated, "The traditional form of excision is a practice totally banned by Islam because of the compelling evidence of the extensive damage it causes to women's bodies and minds."

These intellectual and religious debates apart, the view that really predominates among most families from Egypt's lower and middle classes is that if a girl does not undergo FGM, she will be more prone to leading an "indecent" life and will have trouble "restraining" herself before and after marriage. The sacrosanct status accorded to virginity before marriage is one of the main reasons why families insist on performing FGM on their daughters. Another factor is the fear that if the in-laws or the groom happen to know that the future bride has not been circumcised, they may reject her and call off the wedding. Worse, they might literally send her back to her family on the wedding night. This would automatically lead to the woman being stigmatised by her community.

However, despite the widespread cultural prevalence of the practice of FGM, the initiatives of the Egyptian government and that of activists and NGOs have led to some degree of behavioural change.

The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), of which Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Moubarak is the technical advisor, promotes the 'Free FGM Villages' campaign, initiated in 2003. Concretely working in 60 villages across six Egyptian governorates, the project is set to expand to 120 of the nation's 40,000 villages with the aim to counteract the community and cultural pressures that lead to FGM.

The Magles el Sha'b, or the Egyptian parliament, has addressed the issue as well. The fact that such a sensitive and taboo subject has been tackled in public and in an official institution at that, is an achievement. The debates on FGM and other issues related with child rights in the parliament have been mainly raised and promoted by the First Lady.

In June 2008, the Egyptian parliament adopted a law imposing a sentence of a maximum of two years and a fine of a maximum of US$1,000 as penalty for performing FGM. Nevertheless, the debate among the members of parliament has been quite rancorous. Mohamed El-Omda, a member of a marginal opposition party, appeared before the parliament during the debate with his three daughters to protest against the ban. One of his young daughters held up a banner declaring: "Say no to any attempt to forbid what is divinely allowed. Say no to any attempt to allow what is divinely forbidden." El-Omda revealed that two of his daughters had already been circumcised.

In the summer of 2007, Egypt's health ministry announced a total ban on female circumcision in response to the death of a 12-year-old girl, who had been taken to a private clinic in Upper Egypt for the excision. This ban followed the partial ban of 1996, which allowed the practice to continue under exceptional circumstances for medical reasons. The partial ban had been approved in response to international outrage over a CNN television broadcast of a live FGM being performed on a nine-year-old girl by a barber.

This move, too, was met with opposition: Muslim fundamentalist Sheikh Youssef Badri took the government to court in 1997 and had the ban withdrawn since the practice was considered "Islamic". The government appealed and the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that female circumcision is not a personal right according to the rules of Sharia (Islamic) Law, and hence not Islamic. The ban was then re-instated but could still be overridden in "exceptional cases". The law, on the whole, has been quite ineffective.

In addition to the devastating psychological effects of FGM on girls, there are several physiological problems that may surface. The woman is vulnerable to infections and even haemorrhage during and as a consequence of this procedure. With the imposed ban, many resort to the services of quacks, thus leading to medical negligence, poor standards of hygiene and further risk of infection. According to a study led by the World Health Organization in 2006, all types of FGM posed an increased risk of death to the newborn and mothers delivering by caesarian. In fact, the risks of postpartum haemorrhage were higher for those who had undergone an FGM. It is also believed that 10 to 20 per cent of newborns in Africa die during delivery because of the mothers having had genital mutilation.

While the recent interventions to bring an end to the practice of FGM seem a mere drop in the ocean, they are - hopefully - what one protest banner against FGM declared: "The beginning of the end!"

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.

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