While Egyptians and the rest of the world anxiously wait to know who would become Egypt’s first democratically elected president, women rights issues are taking a back seat.
A few months ago, a Salafist MP and a member of the second largest party in the new elected parliament, called for the renewal of female circumcision, claiming that prominent Egyptian scholars have declared the practice as part of “Sunna”, the practice of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
The debate gained more heat earlier in May when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the largest party in Parliament, was criticised for launching a charity medical campaign for the circumcision of girls in the governorate of Minya, southern Egypt. Egyptian activists along with doctors condemned the campaign and reached out to the National Council of Women calling for their activities to be stopped.
Female circumcision, or what is globally known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of women and girls rights.
In Egypt, FGM is illegal. Doctors, clinics and individuals who either incite or practice it can be criminalised. Despite the law, over 90 per cent of women have undergone genital mutilation. In an environment where religion, culture, tradition and honour prevail, laws become secondary and sometimes unbinding. The illegal practice of circumcision, or Khetan as is known in Arabic, is still widespread amongst girls between the ages of 9 and 12.
Young girls don’t usually know what it means to be circumcised, or what physical and psychological damage they may carry for the rest of their lives. But they know that this is something all ‘good girls’ must do. And so they wait for the inevitable dreaded day where their mothers, sisters, and village elders forcefully hold them down, as the midwife takes a blade to their clitoris.
The genesis of FGM is deeply rooted in history, dating back to the Pharaonic times. There are many debated cultural, religious, and economic reasons that create the exigency for men, women and even governments to mutilate a girl.
Many wrongly believe that circumcision is a practice that dates back to the Prophet’s times when men were away at war. Girls, as believed, were circumcised so they can bear men’s long absence. These beliefs manifest into practices of how young girls are “ought” to be raised and prepared for adulthood and marriage.
Circumcision is also perpetuated by ideals of female modesty and “cleanness”. It is also thought that a circumcised girl grows taller and more beautiful.
For as little as 20 Egyptian pounds (Dh12), a girl is cut, sometimes in unsanitary settings, to thwart her sexual activity as well as reduce her likelihood of seeking extra-marital affairs. FGM is also a livelihood for many midwives and doctors who fully understand the consequences and risks behind it.
There is a wide misconception that FGM is associated with Islam. In fact, there are Christians in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Europe who also practice FGM.
FGM is not religious, much less an Islamic practice, but one that has been often co-opted by FGM proponents exploiting unfounded religious passages and generational beliefs. The late Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, has repeatedly asserted that FGM is not an Islamic practice.
Islam, the religion of most of the countries where FGM prevails, protects women rights and condemns physical violence towards them. However, attempts to fight the practice are perceived as anti-Islamic, and an imposition of foreign ideologies. How is it then, if both religion and law prohibits one from inflicting this harm, could practicing FGM be committed, promoted, justified and celebrated?
Last January, the first conference on FGM in the Middle East revealed that the practice is carried in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Even in the GCC, the practice still exists, albeit it is declining in counties like the UAE and Qatar.
Indeed, there are countries that have enforced strict laws banning FGM, and others who experienced a decline in the practice without passing such laws. A report by Wafa Al Marzouqi, exploring the tradition and prevalence of FGM in the UAE, revealed that FGM is not illegal. However, the Ministry of Health prohibits it from being performed in state hospitals and clinics. This, however, does not prevent families from going to private clinics or resorting to midwives.
One thing is for sure, FGM has no health benefits. In fact, it causes more harm, both physically and psychologically. A young circumcised girl will likely experience shock and trauma, in addition to haemorrhages, infections and sores. In areas where health services are far or scarce, girls can bleed to death or die of infection. It can even cause cysts, infertility, complications during childbirth and urinary tract infections.
FGM is an inhumane practice, one that brutalises societies and reinforces medieval perceptions that women need to be physically mutilated to be considered purified or Tahra. It reflects deep-rooted inequalities between the sexes, and represents an extreme form of discrimination against women.
The resurrected debate over repealing the FGM law in Egypt and reinstating it as legitimate and legal sends powerful messages to the people and International community of the kind of nation it envisions itself to be and the future it holds for women.
Men and women together fought for Egypt’s freedom, and its future will only thrive if they work together towards protecting women’s freedoms from brutal practices like FGM.
Laws are not enough if they are not effective and enforced. To eliminate the practice, you need a comprehensive, grass root, nation-wide movement coupled with policies that ban the practice and punish those associated with it. Judicial, education and health systems along with local bodies, including community and religious leaders, circumcisers, media, mothers and fathers, must all play key roles in eliminating FGM. Only then can this practice be eradicated.
Asma Malik is a development specialist. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AsmaIMalik