Are fears of legalization of female genital mutilation in Egypt real?


Despite a 1996 ban on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt, the issue continues to be a divisive one, especially amid fears that the ban could be reversed under an Islamist government.

Many Egyptians find it difficult to accept the issue is a pressing one and deny the alarmingly high statistics, like one by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) which states that 91 percent of women are circumcised in the country.

Updated in January 2012, the UNICEF global databases are grounded on Demographic Health Surveys, Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys and other national surveys collected from 2002 and 2008.

With the toppling of the Egyptian regime and the Islamists escaping the grip of Hosni Mubarak’s iron fist, talk of reversing the 1996 ban based on religious grounds has resurfaced.

Amid the rising speculations that FGM would be legalized in Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party was accused in May of sending a large medical convoy into the village of Abu Aziz in the Minya governorate, south of Cairo which offered to perform the operation for as little as 30 Egyptian pounds ($4.90).

When asked about such reports, Muslim scholar and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Sheikh Gamal Qutb, told Al Arabiya: “Why bring up the topic of female genital mutilation at this time? There is absolutely no evidence that the Islamists support it. The fear about it being legalized again in Egypt is a result of unethical media practices where young reporters have nothing better to do than speak about this topic. If it is indeed carried out, it is done so for traditional reasons, not religious. It is irrelevant to the Muslim Brotherhood and has nothing to do with Islam whatsoever.”

However, other religious figures have publically endorsed the practice. Nasser al-Shaker, a member of the dissolved parliament and a member of the Salafi Nour Party, declared on Mehwar Satellite Television station last May that FGM was Sunnah, denoting a practice done during Prophet Mohammed’s, as reported by Egypt Independent.

This view often clashes with liberals, especially feminists, who, along with NGOs, have campaigned against FGM in Egypt.

The Egyptian feminist, writer and physician Nawal el-Saadawi was the first to shed light on the issue across the region. Circumcised at the age of six in the summer of 1937, she grew up to see her patients suffer serious health consequences when she became a practicing physician. Her writings on the subject led to her dismissal as Director of Public Health in the 1960s.

“Everything is possible depending on the ruling party. The government controls everything in the country; they own weapons, money, and media. When any new government comes to power, they definitely implement changes,” she told Al Arabiya.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM is recognized as a violation of human rights of women and children, as it is often carried out on minors, reflecting gender inequality that violates a person’s right to health, security, and physical integrity.

The 2009 research paper “The Identity Economics of Female Genital Mutilation” by Christopher J. Coyne and Rachel L. Mathers draws attention to the economic dimensions to the practice.

According to the authors, an attachment to the practice is reinforced by the common belief that circumcising a girl increases her chances of getting married young to a husband of higher wealth and social status ─ which links FGM directly to the family’s economics. In countries where the practice is prevalent, marriage is the only means to women’s financial and social security.

Although Western pressure on Egyptian lawmakers continues, and a ban has been in effect, the practice prevails.

“From a political/cultural perspective in Egypt, female circumcision has been seized upon as proof of the ideological chasm that now separates those people who fight for the cause of ‘traditional society’ from those who fight for the universal application of ‘human rights’,” said Dr. Richard Gauvain, an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University in Dubai.

“In my opinion, the fact that FGM has become the focal point for this particular discussion, between these two mutually irreconcilable parties, has arguably slowed down the eradication of the practice. Because ordinary people now know that the movement to stamp out FGM is primarily encouraged by Western ‘meddlers’, and ‘Western’ Middle Eastern feminists, they are less likely to be receptive to arguments for its abolition.”

Despite a host of evidence to prove the dangers of FGM, Saadawi believes people continue to commit female genital mutilation out of fear and ignorance. The attachment of the public to the ancient tradition is too strong for the U.N. statistics and medical opinions to penetrate.

She adds that governments play an important and active role in maintaining the ignorance and the fear of the people. It is not in the best interest of oppressive governments to educate and encourage the public.

The struggle against FGM worldwide seems to have achieved little progress, with an average of 140 million girls circumcised across the globe, 92 million of which are in Africa alone. As the example in Egypt illustrates, defenders of FGM get scrutinized internationally whereas those who fight it are ostracized in their own society.