The first doctor to face trial for performing female genital mutilation (FGM) was handed a two-year jail sentence with hard labor for manslaughter, and another three months for performing an illegal practice.
The case, the first to be referred to criminal court after FGM was officially banned in 2008, was filed by the National Population Council (NPC) and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) following the death of a 13-year-old at the doctor’s clinic. The operation was performed at the request of her father, who was sentenced to three months in the same case.
The verdict is the first to herald a serious move from the theoretical ban on FGM to the practical prosecution of its perpetrators. “The verdict is a triumph for women,” said lawyer Reda al-Danbouki, head of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, and who represented the deceased.
Debate is ongoing, however, about how far such a step can eliminate a practice that has for decades been regularly observed in several parts of Egypt. “The victims of female genital mutilation are finally vindicated,” said the Egyptian Feminist Union, in reference to scores of young girls who die in the process.
“This is a historic verdict which proves that children are not the property of their parents and warns that supporting circumcision implies approving subsequent deformation and/or death and makes all parties involved accomplices in the crime.” The statement, however, said further procedures were required to curb and eventually eliminate the phenomenon.
“The penalty for practicing female genital mutilation should be intensified through modifying article 240 of the Penal Code. The Doctors’ Syndicate should also take a firm stance against any doctor who performs circumcision.” The statement referred to the challenge facing rights organizations, with surveys estimating the percentage of Egyptian women undergoing circumcision at 91 percent.
NPC rapporteur Atef al-Shitani hailed the verdict as historic, especially since the law has been in place for seven years. Shitani said FGM is not only prohibited by the law, but also by the constitution, though this is still not enough. “Articles 11, 18 and 80 of the Egyptian constitution state that women and children are to be protected from all sorts of violence and abuse, but work on the ground is the most effective.
“The NPC, for example, launched the National Program for Family Empowerment and the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation. This program raises awareness about the danger of the practice, alerts people across Egypt that it is illegal, and encourages families to report doctors who practice it.”
UNICEF representative in Egypt Philippe Duamelle said the verdict “is a precedent and sends out a strong signal that FGM, which still affects the lives of so many girls each year, is no longer to be tolerated.” However, he underlined the obstacles faced by any institution that campaigns against the practice.
Tradition or religion?
“I know how delicate it is to address cultural norms and traditions here, but with all due respect to cultural norms and traditions, those which have such dramatic negative impact on people have to be changed and abandoned. Now what is important is not just that the progress continues, but that progress accelerates,” Duamelle said. “This would happen by not only having a solid legal framework, but also in enforcing these laws.”
Journalist Deena Adel Eid said traditions constitute the main challenge to eliminating FGM. “Many in Egypt believe that FGM is rooted in religion, and that it is parents’ duty as Muslims to cut their daughters,” she wrote, adding that this was not changed by Al-Azhar’s statement dissociating the practice from Islamic law. “Many Christian families in Egypt also practice FGM, claiming they are continuing the practice for ‘moral’ reasons - FGM is viewed as a sign of a woman’s chastity.”
Vivian Fouad, a leading member in the NPC campaign, said even though FGM is linked more to morals than religion, figures trusted by the public play a major role in lending it legitimacy. “Part of it is myth. Many still wrongly believe that if they don’t circumcise girls, they will grow up to be sex-obsessed creatures - a belief that is perpetuated by respected community and religious leaders, who also circumcise their daughters.”
This “myth,” Eid added, takes precedence over the law. “Families who carry on the practice believe it’s essential for religious and moral reasons and value the time-honored tradition over the new law. Thus, cases of FGM largely go unreported.”
The statement issued by Al-Azhar against FGM was supported by a fatwa from Dar al-Iftaa, the body in charge of issuing religious edicts, which said FGM was “prohibited in Islam.”
However, many religious scholars disagree, including those from Al-Azhar. Professor Abdel Ghaffar Helal said while FGM is not obligatory in Islam, it is also not prohibited. “FGM is, in fact, recommended,” he said. “The real problem is not in circumcision as a practice, but in the fact that many of those who perform it are not qualified. That is why I call for prosecuting doctors who harm girls during circumcision.”
Hanaa Abu Shahba, professor of psychology at Al-Azhar, called FGM “a double-edged weapon,” acknowledging that it was traumatic for girls who undergo it, but adding that sometimes it is necessary. “If the girl’s genitals are oversized, she becomes like men in the way she wants to have sex all the time, which is very humiliating to her. A specialist has to be consulted about whether the girl needs to have part of her genitals removed.”
Ibtesam Morsi, professor of sociology at Al-Azhar, condemned the practice but objected to the methods used to fight it. “It is not wise to criminalize circumcision all of a sudden,” she said. “Instead, society should have been gradually prepared for abandoning the practice through the media outlets, schools, and awareness campaigns that acquaint people with the fatal risks involved in the process.”
Morsi said the law simply drove many to circumvent it rather than stop the practice altogether. “People are going back to taking their girls to midwives for circumcision after several doctors started refusing to perform the procedure for fear of persecution following the official ban.”
It is noteworthy that the verdict was passed after much lobbying by anti-FGM activists, since the prosecutor at the time of the girl’s death in June 2013 refused to refer the case to court, said Danbouki.
“The prosecutor himself saw female genital mutilation as a necessity. In fact, he sympathized with the doctor,” Danbouki explained. “It was only when he was replaced by another prosecutor that we were able to go ahead with the lawsuit. Even then, the father and the doctor were both acquitted until we appealed and finally a judge that