June 14th; Egypt’s National Anti-FGM Day | How many more girls will lose their lives?

Sunday June 14, 2020 – By: Alexandra Kinias

Art by: Fatma Mahmoud Raslan

Imagine this; Your loving trusted father brings home a doctor to vaccinate you against Coronavirus. The doctor injects you with a magic potion, renowned scientists in the largest labs around the world have yet to discover. You doze off, and later wake up with excruciating pain in your genital. You also find your legs bound together. To your shock, you realize you and your two sisters were drugged and your genitals were cut off while you were asleep.

            This is not a scene from a sci-fi movie. The horrific incident happened in Sohag, Upper Egypt. The heartless father tricked his three daughters, ages 8, 9 and 11-years-old, to cut their genitals in the procedure known as FGM. When his former wife, the mother of the three girls, found out, she notified the authorities. The father and doctor were arrested on May 31, two weeks prior to the FGM national day in Egypt, celebrated on June 14th. Criminal charges were brought against the father and doctor. FGM became a felony by a presidential decree in 2016. 

            Dr. Maya Morsi, Head of Egypt’s National Council for Women, welcomed the swift action by the authorities. Following the arrest of the father and the doctor, Morsi assured in a statement announced on the NCW Facebook page, “the National Committee for the Elimination of FGM will not tolerate any violation against Egyptian girls and women, and will continue its efforts to protect them from any harm done to them, and to eliminate this heinous crime.”

            Regretfully, and despite criminalizing the procedure and the efforts to eradicate it, FGM is still widespread in Egypt. Thousands of girls have their genitals cut off annually. The cases reported are the ones that create controversy or with dramatic endings, like the case of the 12-year’s old who bled to death in January 2020. The parents and the doctor were also arrested, but no justice was brought to the girl yet. The law enforcers are still lenient with FGM criminals; parents and doctors.

            The World Health Organization defines FGM as any procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure is forced upon minors and is performed with or without using anesthesia. It is widely practiced and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It’s a manifestation of gender discrimination and violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. [1] 

            FGM not only has no health benefits for girls or women, but it also has harmful effects on their health. It can cause severe bleeding, and as it interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies [2], may also cause complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.

            The practice has no clear origin or date for when it started. It is practiced among both Muslim and Christian communities, which challenges the voices promoting it as an Islamic obligation. Not only Christians living in Muslim countries practice it, but also in African countries which are predominantly Christian. It was also practiced by the Ethiopian Jews known as Beta Israel of Ethiopia (aka Falashas) [3], but the practice ended among this community after immigration to Israel. [4] 

            According to a report published by the UNICEF in 2016, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries, half of those who have been cut live in three countries – Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia [5] 

            The practice is highly concentrated in “a swath of countries from the Atlantic coast to the Horn of Africa, in areas of the Middle East such as Iraq and Yemen and in some countries in Asia like Indonesia, with wide variations in prevalence. The practice is almost universal in Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti, with levels around 90 percent.” [6] FGM is practiced either as religious belief or social tradition, which both are deeply embedded in these societies, thus becomes harder to eliminate. 

            The first time FGM was openly discussed in Egypt was in 1994 after a film of 10-year-old Nagla Hamza who was mutilated at a ceremony in her family’s home in a Cairo slum [7] aired on CNN, on the eve of the United Nations International Population Conference held in Cairo. The horrific film and the haunting screams of the young girl sent shock waves across Egypt and around the world. Viewers watched for the first time how the graphic procedure. “The footage shows her [the girl] being held down on her back by two men while her legs are forced open; then one of the men cuts off her clitoris with a barber’s scissors. Strips of cloth are used to stop the bleeding. The footage shows her shrieking curses at her father.” [8]

            The film embarrassed the country hosting the conference, attended by delegations from around the world. Nonetheless, the film came as a wakeup call, despite the denial of government officials, including former President Mubarak. Mubarak denied FGM was practiced in Egypt. When the issue was raised in a meeting with representative Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-MD) and a group of US dignitaries attending the conference, Mubarak responded, [the procedure] “is illegal in Egypt and that it doesn’t happen.” [9] 

            Only, the first part of Mubarak statement was correct. FGM was banned in Egypt, but only in public hospitals. The UNICEF reports refute Mubarak’s allegations that it “doesn’t happen”. According to the UNICEF reports, Egypt has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world. Over ninety-one percent of girls in Egypt have undergone the procedure. 

            With the airing of the controversial CNN footage, the Egyptian government could no longer pretend it “doesn’t happen.” The government mobilized the efforts to fight against FGM. For the first time in Egypt, Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi, said he would back a ban on female circumcision if recommended by doctors. [10] Concurrently, the Egyptian government with the assistance of national and international women organizations launched campaigns to raise awareness against FGM. But with the deeply rooted tradition practiced for centuries, raising awareness alone, with no laws to criminalize the procedure, was a wasted effort. Girls had no control over their bodies and the crime kept harvesting more innocent lives in silence. But the efforts of women organizations fighting for the cause brought international attention to the crime. 

            The death of 12-year-old Bodour Shaker in Maghagha, Minia was the first among many to send outrageous cries around the world. Her death created ripples in the stagnant society. Shaker lost her life on June 14, 2007 from an excessive doze of anesthesia while undergoing the procedure in a private clinic. With the help of anti-FGM organizations, rallies erupted in the streets of her town. Masses of people followed the hearse decorated with flowers and adorned with her photo on the car roof. [11] Hundreds of young girls dressed in white followed the hearse and carried posters of Shaker and banners denouncing FGM. [12] 

            People in the town of Maghagha rallied to bring justice to the girl, not to abolish the procedure. They rallied because the doctor who performed the procedure was free, but so were the parents who sent their daughters to their doomed fate. But despite the reason people took the streets, their voices resonated around the world. The news coverage of the rally and the photos from the funeral procession attracted international attention. Pressure from international organizations prompted Egypt to take action. After Bodour Shaker’s death, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, issued a fatwa stating FGM was forbidden in Islam, “The harmful tradition of circumcision practiced in Egypt in our era is forbidden,” he said. [13] A different stance from the first fatwa issued by his predecessor Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi in 1994. When the line between tradition and religion is blurred, women fall victims of oppression. And when traditions are cloaked with religious fatwas they become harder to challenge or change. 

            FGM is not mentioned in the Quran, not practiced in all Muslim countries, practiced by Christians in Egypt and in predominantly Christian African countries, but many religious scholars in Egypt promote it as an Islamic tradition. The conflict between religious scholars promoting FGM as a religious ritual and those who view it as irrelevant to religion, leave people confused and become prey to the influence of the ones they trust.

            FGM is another demonstration of the power men exerts to control women, their bodies and sexuality. The tradition, deeply embedded in the culture, is not only justified, but also expected. In some communities, it is a pre-requisite for girls’ marriages. Many refer to it as Tahara, purification. An uncut girl translates to promiscuity, thus unsuitable for marriage. Cutting the girls’ genitalia is believed to curb their sexual desire and thus preserve their chastity, protect their honor and their families’ and guarantee their marital fidelity. In these communities, women are viewed as sex objects and suitors won’t consider marrying a girl who is un-cut. Depriving a woman from her sexual needs is irrelevant as long as she satisfies men’s sexual pleasure. Unless men’s mentalities change, the efforts to eradicate this procedure fall on deaf ears. 

            Not only men are blamed for the perpetuation of FGM, but also a high percentage of women who had undergone the procedure view it as essential for girls. A study, conducted by the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population in 2003 and published by the World Health Organization, reported that 94 percent of married women had been exposed to FGM and 69 percent of those women plan to carry out FGM on their daughters. [14] 

            Within two weeks after the death of Bodour Shaker’s on June 14, 2007, Egypt passed a law to ban FGM and criminalize the procedure [15] and also declared June 14 as the National Anti-FGM Day in honor of the young girl. Two months after passing the law, 13-year-old Karima Rahim died from an excessive dose of anesthesia while undergoing the procedure. [16] 

            Banning and criminalizing the procedure didn’t stop it, but moved it underground. More parents sought doctors instead of midwives to perform it, and the cuts took place in clinics instead of homes. Performing the procedure is a lucrative business for both doctors and midwives, and as the risks increased after passing the new laws, the fees to perform it increased too. 

            The death of 10-years-old Nermine Hadad in a health clinic in the rural village of Abu Nashaba, on July 2010, had gone unnoticed until an anonymous tip to a government telephone hotline reported her death. Investigations found that the phone call was made by the nurse who witnessed the procedure, and reported it after a dispute with the doctor who performed it. The family buried the girl in a field at the outskirt of the village without a permit from the local authorities. Her body was exhumed and the autopsy confirmed the crime.  The doctor was arrested on suspicion of performing an illegal surgery. [17] 

            In spite of the ban, thousands of girls undergo the procedure every year, especially during the summer vacations, and every once in a while, the news of another death reminds us that the procedure is alive and widely practiced. In December 2012, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the first-ever resolution against FGM, calling for intensified global efforts to eliminate the practice. [18] In June 2013, six months later, [19] 13-year-old Sohair Al Batei lost her life due to complications during the procedure. Her death changed the course for girls in Egypt. For the first time since the law banning FGM was issued in 2007, the doctor who performed Sohair’s procedure was convicted. 

            Dr. Raslan Fadl, the first doctor convicted for performing the procedure in Egypt also preached at the village mosque of Agga, where Sohair lived with her family. He was sentenced to two years and three months in jail for involuntary manslaughter, but later acquitted after he reconciled with her family. The DA had appealed the sentence, and the doctor could have walked away free had not 17-year-old Mayar Moussa die during another procedure, performed by another doctor in May 2016. Moussa’s death was received with harsh criticism for the failure of the government to enforce the law. As a result, Dr. Fadl was arrested in July 2016, three years after he committed the crime, and sentenced to three months in jail. [20] While several women groups received the verdict with anger, other NGOs hailed it as a milestone for women and girls in Egypt.

            Mayar Moussa, who accelerated Dr. Fadl’s arrest, lost her life in a private clinic in Suez on May 31, 2016, due to complications caused by the procedure. Her death was another wakeup call. As news agencies reported the death of the young girl, the U.N. called on Egypt to impose tougher actions.  Both Mayar and her twin sister were sent by their mother to undergo the procedure in the private clinic. Her twin sister survived. The hospital was shut down and both the doctor who performed the operation and Mayar’s mother were arrested. The FGM case was back in the news with requests by women NGOs for severe punishments and massive anti-FGM campaigns. 

            While amends to FGM laws were proposed in the parliament, the doctor who performed the operation, Mayar’s mother and the anesthesiologist received a one year suspended sentence. The operating room nurse received a 5-year sentence!

            In December 2016, a presidential decree by President Sisi brought into effect an amended law that toughens the penalties for FGM. According to the new law, anyone who performs the procedure would face up to 15 years in jail, and parents who subject their daughters to FGM could receive up to a 3-year prison sentence. The 2016 amendment moved the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. [21] 

            While these amendments were being deliberated, Egyptian parliament member (PM) Ilhamy Ageena, rejected the tougher penalties proposed, explaining that “half of the country’s men are ‘impotent’ and FGM was needed to reduce women sexual desire, to match Egypt’s ‘sexually weak men.’” [22] Ageena’s absurd and controversial statement brought him his moment of fame, but women activists and NGOs erupted in anger demanding his resignation.  He did not resign. 

            The conflict over FGM has been ongoing between the pro and anti-FGM Egyptian parliamentarians since the nineties. In the parliament and in the mosques, Islamists fought against proposed laws to ban the procedure. On top of the agenda of the Islamist parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi took office, was to repeal the law banning FGM. Luckily their parliament was dissolved before these laws passed.          

            Nonetheless, the efforts and progress by anti-FGM organizations to curb its widespread influence or raise awareness against this horrendous crime are undermined and continuously fought, even after the Dar al-Ifta, Egypt’s central authority for issuing religious rulings, confirmed on February 2019, that Islam did not order Muslims to cut the genitals of their daughters. 

            We have certainly come a long way, but regretfully, the road to eradicate this horrendous crime is long and bumpy. FGM will continue to steal more innocent lives as there is no magical wand that will change people mentalities and beliefs overnight. But with every roadblock conquered, with every girl saved, with every criminal brought to justice, we are paying a tribute to the victims; They have not died in vain.

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Reference  

1- Female genital mutilation Fact Sheet, Updated February 2017,

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

2- Female genital mutilation Fact Sheet, Updated February 2017, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

3- Ethiopian Jewish Women, by Shalva Weil,

https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ethiopian-jewish-women

4- Newspaper Publishes Lie About Jews and Female Circumcision, by Tova Dvorin, 03/06/14, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/181326

5-  Press Release, New statistical report on female genital mutilation shows harmful practice is a global concern – UNICEF, February 5, 2016,

https://www.unicef.org/media/media_90033.html

6- At least 200 million girls and women alive today living in 30 countries have undergone FGM/Chttps://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/female-genital-mutilation-and-cutting/#

7- When Journalists Witness Atrocities, By Judy Mann, September 23, 1994,https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1994/09/23/when-journalists-witness-atrocities/18adacd7-49b1-408f-aaa2-ac730308c773/?utm_term=.854bfb2e2628

8- ibid 

9- ibid 

10- ibid 

11- Reuters, Egypt death sparks debate on female circumcision, August 20, 2007, Cynthia Johnston, 

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-circumcision-egypt-idUSL3016886220070820

12- Al Arabia English, Egypt investigates teenage girl’s death during circumcision operation, AFP, Cairo, Tuesday, 31 May 2016

https://english.alarabiya.net/en/2016/05/31/Egypt-investigates-teenage-girl-s-death-during-female-circumcision-operation-.html

13- Egypt mufti says female circumcision forbidden, June 24, 2007, Reuters,http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL24694871

14- Prevalence of female genital cutting among Egyptian girls, World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/4/07-042093/en/

15- Reuters: Egypt Death Sparks Debates on Female Circumcision, August 20,2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-circumcision-egypt-idUSL3016886220070820

16-  Second Egyptian girl dies during circumcision, Al Arabia News, Saturday, 11 August 2007, https://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2007/08/11/37733.html

17- Egypt renews crackdown on female mutilation, By Yolande Knell BBC News, Cairo, 1 September 2010, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-11143144

18- United Nations bans female genital mutilation, 20 December 2012, 

http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2012/12/united-nations-bans-female-genital-mutilation

 19- ibid 

20- First doctor convicted of FGM death in Egypt only spent three months in jail, Ruth Michaelson, Tuesday 2 August 2016, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/02/egyptian-doctor-convicted-of-fgm-death-serves-three-months-in-jail

21- CNN, Egypt toughens penalties for female genital mutilation, December 8, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/08/middleeast/egypt-law-fgm/index.html

22- Egyptian Streets: Egypt MP says Women Must Accept FGM due to country’s sexually weak men, September 3, 2016, https://egyptianstreets.com/2016/09/03/egypt-mp-says-women-must-accept-fgm-due-to-countrys-sexually-weak-men/

One comment

  1. No woman should be treated with such indignity and pain, inflicted most often by those who supposedly love her — her family. These are times in which great changes will be taking place and woman will need to understand they have a right to be empowered to live their lives as they choose, safely, with education and ability to overcome cultural traditions geared solely toward a patriarchal society. Many societies and cultures face such discrimination toward female children and women. And in some countries, the differences are far more subtle. At the very least, what men would even be on earth without women? None. And who’s to say women should have no pleasure or say in life of their own well-being? I wonder would it help to have a petition, which could be started here in the States, to be signed as well in Egypt and sent to your Parliament? If so, perhaps we could get that going if you think it would help. Women’s rights everywhere matter and we are coming into the time of honoring the Divine Feminine and this energy to be infiltrated worldwide, not simply isolated in one small area or another.
    Blessings to all. L. Hartwick

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