EGYPT: Rare anti-female circumcision conference held

November 22 2006 at 01:56PM

By Nadia Abou El-Magd

Cairo, Egypt - Prominent Muslim scholars from around the world, including conservative religious leaders from Egypt and Africa, met on Wednesday to speak out against female genital mutilation at a rare high-level conference on the age-old practice.

The meeting was organised by a German human rights and held under the patronage of Dar Al-Iftaa, Egypt's main religious-edicts organisation. It was held at the conference centre of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Islamic institution in the world.

Al Azhar's grand sheik, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, attended as well as Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Goma'a, whose fatwas are considered binding religious edicts.

It is rare for such religious figures in Egypt to attend such a conference on an issue that remains sensitive and controversial here. An estimated 50 percent of schoolgirls in Egypt are thought to undergo the procedure, according to government statistics.

At the conference, Tantawi said circumcision, another name for the pratice, was not mentioned in the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, or in Islam's Sunna - which are sayings and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. Those are the two main religious texts followed by Sunni Islam.

"In Islam, circumcision is for men only," he told the conference. "From a religious point of view, I don't find anything that says that circumcision is a must (for women)."

Female genital mutilation usually involves removal of the clitoris. Those who practice it believe it lowers a girl's sexual desires and thus helps maintain her Honor. With age-old cultural roots, it is practiced today in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt and other parts of the Arab world such as Yemen and Oman.

Laws against the practice exist in many of the regions where it is practiced, but poor enforcement and publicity can hinder the laws, some human rights groups and women activists say.

They say laws aren't effective unless those practicing the tradition are first made aware of its physical and mental damage.

In Egypt, there is no law that specifically bans the practice, although it can be prosecuted under other laws related to assault and bodily harm.

Senior clerics from Africa and as far afield as Russia also were invited to the conference by the German human rights group, Target, founded in 2000. The group contends that practitioners in Africa and elsewhere often use the Qur’an to justify the practice.

Unicef says an estimated three million women and girls undergo female genital mutilation each year and that the age at which it is carried out is getting lower in some countries. A survey conducted in 2000 in Ethiopia indicated 80 percent of women between 15-49 years of age there had been circumcised.

In Egypt, a recent study of schoolgirls by the Ministry of Health and Population found 50 percent of girls ages 10-18 had been circumcised.

"Our mission today is not easy, because we're fighting against rumours and habits and traditions and ideas that have been established for long centuries," said Moushira Khattab, secretary general of Egypt's National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, which is headed by the wife of Egypt's president, Suzanne Mubarak.

Egypt is sensitive to outsiders intervening in controversial religious and cultural issues and the conference was expected to raise some dissent. - Sapa-AP

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