A thirteen-year-old Egyptian girl’s tragic death during a botched genital mutilation operation in the Nile Delta governate of Daqahliya has brought the issue of female circumcision, as it is traditionally known, to the forefront. Despite the practice being illegal under the Child Law of 2008 and punishable by fines ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 Egyptian pounds and custodial sentences between three months and two years, female genital mutilation (FGM) is still widely practiced in Egypt.
Suhair El-Bata’a died in early June after she was taken by her parents to a doctor to have the procedure. An autopsy on her body confirmed that the cause of her death was a sharp drop in blood pressure resulting from shock trauma. Bata’a is not the first to have died from FGM in Egypt, and other girls who have shared her fate include Karima Rahim Masoud, aged thirteen, and Bedour Shaker, aged twelve, who both died in 2007, and Nermine El-Haddad who died aged thirteen in 2010.
The origins of FGM are not known exactly, but the practice is said to predate both Islam and Christianity. In Egypt, it is practiced by both Muslims and Christians despite the Egyptian Coptic Church and Al-Azhar, the country’s leading Islamic authority, condemning FGM and declaring that the practice has no basis in the teachings of either religion. It is mainly practiced in African countries and Yemen, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as some countries in Asia. The highest rates of occurrence are in Somalia, Djibouti, Guinea and Egypt.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Short-term effects of the procedure include urine retention, hemorrhaging and, in cases such as that of Bata’a, death. Long-term effects of FGM include cysts, bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility and complications during childbirth.
According to the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) in 2008, almost 63 percent of FGM procedures were carried out by dayas (traditional birth attendants); trained medical personnel carried out most of the remaining procedures. The fact that prosecution of those who carry out FGM is almost unheard of enables them to continue to mutilate girls and violate the law.
FGM, known as tahara (purification) in Egypt, affected 91 percent of women aged 15–49 in 2008 according to the EDHS of the same year. Although there is a lack of more recent statistics, women’s rights activists believe that there has been a rise in the number of operations carried out during former president Mohamed Mursi’s rule. Attempts to overturn the ban on FGM in Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, comments made by Azza El-Garf, one of the few female representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) describing FGM as “beautification plastic surgery” and “a personal choice,” and Mursi’s statement that it is “a private issue between mothers and daughters” have all led to the director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, Nehad Abul Komsan, to conclude that the rise in religious conservatism as a result of FJP rule, along with the portrayal of FGM as a religious obligation, has directly affected the increase in FGM operations taking place.
Abul Komsan provides three motivations for people who advocate FGM: adhering to culture and tradition, attempting to control the sexuality of women, and religion. It is ironic, therefore, that FGM is not endorsed in Islam. The former grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, confirmed this in his fatwa against FGM in November 2006, stating that it is a “deplorable, inherited custom, which is practiced in some societies and is copied by some Muslims in several countries.” He also asserted that there were no written grounds for FGM in the Qur’an or the authentic tradition of the Prophet.
Indeed, many advocates of FGM on the basis of religion cite a hadith (tradition of the Prophet) that appears in one of the six authentic books of traditions, Sunan Abu Dawud, and mentions female circumcision. They fail to note, however, that this specific tradition is recorded as ‘weak’—unauthentic, and therefore invalid. Other traditions that mention female circumcision allude to the fact that FGM was practiced before the advent of Islam, but was not instructed by the Prophet to be part of Islamic Law.
Bata’a’s death highlights the need to enforce the law in order to deter practitioners from carrying out these procedures. It also highlights the need to educate the Egyptian people and inform them that FGM is not a religious obligation as it is often portrayed, and in fact is a crime against women. Lastly, those who believe that FGM controls women’s sexuality need to realize that educating women to respect themselves and their bodies is far more effective, and that women are not objects to be controlled.