Egypt: Government Efforts to Medicalize Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

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1 Mar 1995

On 29 October 1994, the Egyptian Minister of Health issued a decree which seeks to medicalize female genital mutilation (FGM) by designating a number of selected hospitals to perform the operation for a fee of LE10 (approximately US $3). The decree represents a turnaround on the part of the Health Minister, Ali Abdel Fatah, who publicly stated at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in September 1994, that the practice of FGM should be banned and that those who perform it should be punished. According to press reports, the government's intention to pass a law against FGM was initiated by the Minister of Population and Family Planning, Maher Mahran, to put an end to the "butchery that damages the health and lives of more than a half of all young girls."

Female genital mutilation takes different forms in different countries: the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora (excision), or in its most extreme form the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a very small vaginal opening (infibulation). In Egypt, an estimated 80%-90% of the female population is subjected to female genital mutilation, usually in the form of clitoridectomy or excision.

The declared reason for the recent decree is to limit the practice of FGM. However, it appears that the decree was issued as a result of pressure from sectors of the religious establishment. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar (a preeminent Islamic university in Cairo) has stated that female circumcision has a place in the jurisprudence of Islam. This view is strongly disputed by other Islamic scholars, including the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Mohammed Al Tantawi, who has issued a fatwa (religious judgement) which states that the Quran contains nothing on female circumcision. In addition, the Grand Mufti's fatwa states that as the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) are weak on this subject, one should defer to the opinion of doctors.

Women, and men, who come from cultures which practice FGM are increasingly giving voice to the devastating harm inflicted by FGM, and movements for its eradication are growing. A number of non-governmental organizations in Egypt are working to stop the practice of FGM. The Cairo Family Planning Association initiated the campaign in 1979 by organizing a ground-breaking seminar entitled "Bodily Mutilation of Young Females" which was held in Cairo. This effort has culminated in the formation of the Egyptian Society for the Prevention of Harmful Practices to Woman and Child.

Following the 1994 ICPD, during which the issue was highly publicized around the world by the Cable News Network (CNN) broadcast of the clitoridectomy of a young girl in Cairo, members of groups campaigning against FGM came under severe criticism. At a seminar held in Cairo in December 1994, Aida Seif al-Dawla from the New Woman Research Center, an Egyptian non-governmental organization, stated: "All this occurred knowing full well that female circumcision was not a religious matter, nor was it a measure for any morality. It was merely a political balance of power, at the expense of the whole issue of women...The decision to codify circumcision instead of criminalizing it, is a decision to codify the control of women, and codify violence against them, in addition to codifying their inferior status in society."

Although FGM is associated with Islam, there is no mandate in the Quran for FGM, as noted by Sheikh Mohammed Al Tantawi, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. Moreover, FGM in Egypt is a cultural practice among both Christians and Muslims, as it is in many other countries. FGM is prevalent in the band of African countries which stretches across the center of the continent. It is also found in some Asian countries and among immigrant populations in Western Europe and North America. As recently as the 1940's and 1950's, FGM was used by doctors in England and the United States to combat hysteria, lesbianism, masturbation and other perceived sexual deviance in girls and women. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed by the Egyptian Government in 1990, requires governments to take effective measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children. In 1982, the World Health Organization issued a formal statement expressing unequivocal opposition to the medicalization of FGM in any setting.

An estimated 100 million girls and women around the world have undergone female genital mutilation. At least 2 million girls every year, 6,000 every day, are at risk of suffering FGM. For those who survive the cutting, which is generally done without anaesthetic, lifelong health consequences may include chronic infection, severe pain during urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse, and childbirth, and psychological trauma. An extreme form of the many traditional practices used around the world to deny women independence and equality, FGM is defended by both men and women in the cultures where it is practiced as a rite of passage and a social prerequisite of marriage, and is used to control women's sexuality by safeguarding virginity and suppressing sexual desire.

What You Can Do: 

Support the efforts of women's organizations in Egypt to spread awareness and to work towards the complete eradication of female genital mutilation. Send letters and petitions appealing for the revocation of the Ministerial decree of 29 October 1994, which condones and medicalizes female genital mutilation in Egypt. Express concern over the harmful physical and psychological consequences of female genital mutilation on young girls in Egypt and note the statement made by the Grand Mufti of Egypt that one should defer to the opinion of doctors. Urge government authorities to honor the pledge made by the Minister of Health at the International Conference on Population and Development to ban female genital mutilation and to take legal action against those who perform it. Appeals should be addressed to the Egyptian Ambassador to your country, and to:

His Excellency Muhammed Hosni Mubarak
President of the Arab Republic of Egypt
'Abedine Palace
Cairo, Egypt
Telegrams: President Mubarak, Cairo, Egypt
Telexes: 93794 WAZRA UN

His Excellency Dr. Ali Abdel Fatah
Minister of Health
Ministry of Health
Magles El Shaab Street
Cairo, Egypt