(Bloomberg) — Reda al-Danbouki, a campaigner against female genital mutilation, was praising Egypt’s decision to charge a doctor with performing the illegal procedure when an acquaintance shocked him with a rebuke.
“You are encouraging moral corruption,” al-Danbouki recalled the man, a fellow lawyer in the Nile Delta province of Daqahliya, angrily telling him. “You’ve been duped.”
It was a reminder of how widely and sometimes passionately the practice is embraced in a country where more than 90 percent of women have had their clitorises partially or fully removed. The trial that’s expected to start this week, in the case of a teenager who died, will be the first in Egypt of anyone accused under a 2008 law of excising a girl’s genitals.
The case has the potential to revive the anti-cutting cause at a crucial time. The Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 unleashed a wave of political conservatism that emboldened advocates of genital cutting, and the upheavals since have overshadowed and sidelined the efforts of opponents.
“The crisis is still there,” said al-Danbouki, executive director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness in Belqas. “When we go out to talk about this, people react to us as if we’re preaching a new religion.”
Al-Danbouki was among the activists who lobbied Egypt’s general prosecutor to pursue the case after Suheir el-Batea died last June. The schoolgirl had allegedly undergone what many locals call tahara, which roughly translates as cleansing or purifying. It’s done in the belief that it protects a woman’s chastity and combats promiscuity by controlling female lust.
“She was the best of the best but God’s will is that she doesn’t live any longer,” said Suheir’s grandmother, after whom she was named, revealing missing teeth as she sat on a sofa in her house by a trash-strewn canal in the village of Diyarb Buqtaris. She described Suheir as usually spirited and cheerful, but filled with a sense of doom when she left home the day she died. Still, “we are not putting the blame on the doctor,” she said. “This is what God wanted.”
Raslan Fadl, the doctor, was accused of performing a genital mutilation, causing a death due to negligence and running a medical center that failed to meet health requirements. The girl’s father, el-Batea Mohamed, was charged with endangering a minor. A prosecution statement put her age at 14, though according to some people in her province she was 13. Mohamed’s lawyer said his client is innocent; Fadl’s lawyer couldn’t be reached for comment.
The defendants are the first to be brought up on female genital mutilation charges since FGM, as it’s known among activists, was made a crime six years ago, said Vivian Fouad of the Cairo-based National Population Council, one of the groups that urged the general prosecutor to act.
Parliament passed the criminalization measure after the deaths of two girls triggered appeals from human rights groups to the Mubarak regime. It’s known as Suzanne’s Law, after the former first lady. As head of the National Council for Children and Motherhood, she helped set up a 24-hour hotline staffed by religious, medical and psychological professionals. She denounced FGM as something that “keeps haunting young girls for the rest of their lives.”
For all the efforts under Mubarak, there were no prosecutions, in part because authorities were reluctant and people weren’t persuaded. Cases aren’t reported unless there’s a death, according to activists, and then sometimes the doctor and parents reach a settlement on their own.
“FGM is such a deeply rooted social norm, the top-down approach of Suzanne Mubarak was condescending to people,” said Germaine Haddad, a program officer at the United Nations Population Fund office in Cairo.
During the one-year reign of Mohamed Mursi, fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood and elected president in 2012, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court rejected a lawsuit by Islamists challenging an FGM prohibition. After Mubarak’s fall an attempt was made in the national legislature to repeal the law. Mursi was ousted by the army last July 3, one month after Suheir died.
A push for a provision banning FGM in the post-Mursi constitution failed. Instead, there’s a prohibition against gender-based violence. “Mentioning FGM specifically would have been better, but this is good too,” Haddad said.
Egypt has a long history with genital cutting. It predates Islam, the religion of the majority of the country’s 86 million people, and is practiced by some Christians.
“There are different versions of what happened, but it is believed that one pharaoh decided to cut his harem of women to control them. When others wanted their daughters to marry into this social group, they cut them,” said Julia Lalla-Maharajh, chief executive officer and founder of the London-based Orchid Project, which campaigns against FGM. “From there it spread.”
World Health Organization data show that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 countries; it’s most prevalent in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, Mali, Sierra Leone and Egypt, according to the UN. Egypt alone is responsible for about 25 percent of cases, said Jaime Nadal Roig, head of the UN Population Fund country office for Egypt.
According to the last major study of FGM in Egypt, the number of girls aged 15 to 17 who had undergone the procedure dropped to 74 percent in 2008 from 77 percent in 2005. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey in 2008 also found that 91 percent of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been cut.
Before the 2008 law was enacted, some of Egypt’s top Islamic authorities, including the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, said FGM was forbidden because it has no religious basis in the Koran or authentic Hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, which form a pillar of Islamic law, and that science has shown it leads to health complications and harms children.
An emphasis under Mubarak on the physical harm had the unintended consequence of encouraging parents to send daughters to doctors instead of midwives, Nadal said.
“One of the main problems is the medicalization of this practice,” he said. “Those who are meant to prevent the cutting are actually the ones doing it.”
Advocates cite cultural traditions and religion, and some scholars say “it’s part of the law and necessary if certain circumstances apply,” said Richard Gauvain, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at American University in Dubai who writes about Salafi rituals in rural Egypt.
According to Haddad, religion may not play a role for many. “It’s a social norm that people look for reasons to maintain,” she said, and some “don’t even know why they do it.”
The debate has been going on in modern Egypt for generations. The feminist and physician Nawal el-Saadawi condemned the ritual in articles and essays in the 1960s, and was fired as the country’s director of public health after the publication of her book “Women and Sex.” She’d been cut in 1937, when she was six, and as a doctor saw how women suffered consequences including bleeding, cysts, infections, kidney damage and infertility.
FGM can entail the removal of part or all of the clitoris, and sometimes the inner labia; in extreme cases, the vagina is narrowed by cutting and repositioning the labia. Unlike with male circumcision, which is the removal of the foreskin from the penis, the intended effect is to dull or eliminate sexual pleasure. It’s believed to make girls more suitable for marriage.
The fight against FGM has been overshadowed by Egypt’s turbulent politics, the Population Council’s Fouad said. Women rallied alongside men to bring down Mubarak, though later Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the uprising, was plagued by sexual violence.
“You cannot talk about a society that enjoys political democracy while it oppresses women and girls,” Fouad said.
The aftermath of the uprising that ended Mubarak’s three decades of rule made the anti-FGM forces’ work more difficult. Protests left many “No to FGM” billboards in tatters. Concerns about safety have largely put on hold plans for anti-FGM educational events that before 2011 drew thousands in rural areas, Fouad said.
“During the past three years, Egyptians have been very preoccupied with political changes, political problems,” she said. “There has been a big drop in political and media attention to social issues in general, not just FGM.”
In and around Diyarb Buqtaris, Suheir’s village, many people aren’t shy about insisting genital cutting needs to exist. “A girl must undergo tahara,” said Saneya Badreldine, 60, sitting atop the wooden cart from which she peddles vegetables. “We all underwent tahara and I did the same with all my daughters. This is the way things have always been. We don’t want the girl when she grows up to. . .” She let the words trail off. “I don’t know how to talk about these things,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Listening in was Badreldine’s 13-year-old granddaughter. The grandmother lowered her raspy voice and leaned in closer as she said: “I took her to a doctor and he said she doesn’t need this operation.” The girl herself should have no say in the matter, Badreldine said.
Shaimaa Mohamed, a 17-year-old walking to French class, said she had the procedure when she was 11 or 12. “It’s a normal thing and is what sets us, Muslim girls, apart from the girls of the West,” she said, clutching her school books to her chest. “I learned from my parents at home that this is what makes the girl pure.”
Still mourning, Suheir’s grandmother said she had high hopes for the girl. “My heart is still broken,” she said, touching her chest. “I wish she had lived on and gotten married. She could have become a beautiful teacher or doctor.”