Cairo, Egypt] In June 2007, 12-year-old Badour Shakour died as a result of a circumcision operation. The death sparked a battle within the country over the use of the controversial medical procedure.
Women’s and children’s rights groups were galvanized into action, pushing for more stringent penalties against those who carry out what is increasingly becoming known as female genital mutilation (FGM).
Shakour’s cause of death was an overdose of anesthetic, but her memory was the cause of an awakening that reached to the upper echelons of government.
In summer 2008, Egypt’s parliament passed a law that ostensibly bans the controversial procedure, not that it should have needed to legislate against FGM – it was already officially banned in the country during the mid-Nineties. But with doctors continuing to perform the procedure on girls as young as five, parliament felt it was necessary to intercede.
The new law stipulates a fine of 1,000–5,000 Egyptian pounds ($185–$900) and a prison term of anywhere between three months and two years if caught performing FGM.
A doctor could also lose his medical license. In the case of Shakour, the doctor who performed the procedure remains in prison after being convicted of manslaughter.
But despite the rising number of deaths and injuries that have resulted from FGM, including a young girl who was left struggling for her life in November after the procedure, many Egyptians are fighting against the ban.
A 2005 report by UNICEF contended that 97 percent of single Egyptian women between 15 and 49 have undergone some form of FGM, although other estimates put the number at 70 percent.
Member of Parliament Mohamed Al Omda, from a small opposition party, brought his three daughters to the floor of the People’s Assembly to protest the ban last year. One of his daughters carried a sign that read: "No to any attempt to forbid what is divinely allowed. No to any attempt to allow what is divinely forbidden." Two of his three daughters are circumcised.
Many conservative Muslims in the country maintain that the practice is condoned in Islam. The country’s Muslim Brotherhood has come under fire over many of their members’ denunciations of the parliamentary bill. The powerful Islamic group and many Islamic scholars argue that the ban is akin to "imposing Western ideals" on Egyptian society, which they maintain is based in Shari’a (Islamic law).
"Religion does not prohibit or criminalize female circumcision," prominent Islamic scholar Mustafa Al Shaka said to the local press shortly after the bill was passed.
The Brotherhood told The Media Line that they were currently reviewing FGM in terms of its legitimacy within Islam and did not want to comment. Despite this assertion, last summer, their MPs – who won one-fifth of the People’s Assembly as independents – were the most ardent opponents of the bill.
Progressive Islamic scholar Gamal Al Banna – brother of late Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna – says there is simply no precedent in Islam for this kind of practice. He argues that it was imported into society as a means of forcing women into the background of everyday life.
"It didn’t exist in Islamic history and those who argue it is Islamic or part of the Shari’a are wrong," the 87-year-old argued. "Religion does not subscribe to this kind of treatment that can cause death and other horrible results. It is un-Islamic."
Al Azhar, the Sunni Islamic world’s leading religious authority, agrees with Al Banna. In 2007, the Council of Islamic Research issued a statement saying that FGM and cutting are "harmful, have no basis in core Islamic law and should not be practiced."
But Egyptian society remains divided into opposing camps over the issue, says National Council for Motherhood and Childhood secretary-general Moushira Khattab. She believes that although the ban will remain permanent, it will take time to educate the population over the long-term effects of cutting a woman’s clitoris.
"Nobody is going to say no to something that has negative effects caused by the procedure and, in time, Egyptians will see this," she begins. "So the punishments that are being handed out against those who conduct this practice are vitally necessary."
UNICEF estimates that three million girls in Africa undergo FGM annually, including in Egypt. The practice is a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989.
The practice remains common in Egypt, especially among the rural communities outside the capital Cairo and Alexandria. According to a 2005 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey, the majority of FGM procedures have been performed by trained medical personnel.
Human rights groups and doctors in the country argue that the involvement of medical workers in the procedure is a major reason the procedure continues.
"We have to work slowly and cannot expect everything to change with one law. Egyptians are stubborn and if they believe this is part of their religion, then it is very difficult to convince them otherwise, even if they are trained doctors," said a female doctor at the country’s Doctor’s Syndicate, who asked not to be named, as the controversy continues inside its doors.
With children in danger, the doctor argues that Egyptians must move forward in order to limit these sorts of practices.
"We are struggling as a country, and until everyone is being educated, it is so difficult to achieve progress on anything, let alone FGM."
Like so many controversial issues facing Egypt today, the seemingly endless battle between secularism and Islam continues to put opposing sides on the defensive. Al Banna believes that issues such as FGM will not be resolved within society until there is space for open debate on all things, including religion.
"We need to be able to debate religion freely, or else we will not be able to have people making their own decisions; instead they will follow their local sheikh as if he were the only source for reason," he concludes.