EGYPT: Will FGM Fatwa Make a Difference?
Om Samar didn't believe the news. "Muslim scholars banning (female) circumcision? This must be a joke," she said.
Samar, a mother of four who works as a maid cleaning apartments and houses for a daily rate, was planning to circumcise her five-year-old daughter, Shaimaa, when she turns eight or nine.
But an international conference on female circumcision funded by the German government and sponsored by top Islamic scholars here last week brought tidings she didn't expect.
"Eliminating the Violation of Women's Bodies", as the conference was publicised in Arabic, was attended by some of Islam's most senior and influential scholars. Most of them spoke against the common practice.
The main message was that "female genital mutilation was never mandated in Islam ".
"I thought Islam told us to do so," said Samar, one of many Muslims who believe that the practice is Islamic. She is not the only one who has been mistaken about what the religion says about circumcision.
Anti-circumcision activists say many parents actually believe the practice prevents their daughters from being unfaithful to their future husbands and draw links between Islam's emphasis on chastity and their own cultural beliefs.
Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prestigious university, said at the conference that "circumcising girls is just a cultural tradition in some countries that has nothing to do with the teachings of Islam."
"During my studies and research in Islam, I didn't find anything that I can trust as beseeching female circumcision," said the scholar, whose fatwas, religious edicts and words are followed by millions of Muslims around the world for direction in their lives.
The conference was attended by other heavyweights, whose endorsement of the public denunciation of the practice was seen as a landmark. Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Goma'a, considered the most senior judge of Islamic law, was a patron of the conference. Others included Hamdi Mahmoud Zakzouk, minister of religious affairs in Egypt, Sultan Abdelkader Mohamed Humad of Djibouti and Sultan Ali Mirah Hanfary of Ethiopia.
Participants also came from countries where the practice is prevalent such as Somalia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Eritrea, Nigeria, Djibouti, Morocco, Turkey and even Russia.
German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who addressed the gathering, said the statement issued from al-Azhar University, one of the most renowned theological academies in the Islamic world, "cannot be estimated highly enough in its significance for religious policy and with regard to the positive consequences for the inviolability of young girls and women."
The general perception here among Muslims is that female circumcision is required under Islamic law. But the scholars argued that this does not explain why female genital mutilation, or FGM, is also so widespread among Egypt's Christian community.
It also fails to account for why the practice is nearly non-existent in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region.
The World Health Organisation puts the number of girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation at between 100 and 140 million. It says that each year, two million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM.
The procedure, which some experts say dates back 5,000 years, can cause massive and fatal bleeding. It can lead to chronic infections, sterility and serious complications in childbirth, doctors say.
Performed mainly in Africa but also in some Asian and Middle Eastern nations, FGM is often practiced without anesthetic on infants and girls by medically unqualified persons.
A 2004 report funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development found that the incidence of FGM in Egypt, for example, was as high as 97 percent, while it was 45 percent Cote d'Ivoire, 89 percent in Eritrea and 34 percent in Kenya.
In their statements, the Muslim scholars said "some Muslims were practicing female genital mutilation without any backing or evidence in the Quran or an authentic tradition of the Prophet (Mohammed)". The Quran and the Prophet's teachings and sayings are the two main sources for Islamic law.
Taking a rare proactive approach, the clerics collectively called upon international, educational and media institutions to "explain the damage and the negative effect of this practice on societies".
But while the clerics' call carries much weight, it is not clear if it will be sufficient to discourage parents from the practice. An official ban on circumcision enacted in 1996 remains ineffective in stopping it in this country.
"What will produce change is not just a fatwa or an opinion from clerics. What will change things is an alteration of the economic and social conditions that lead people to believe in the importance of circumcision," Ahmed Abdallah, a professor of psychology at Zagazig University, told IPS.
Abdallah appeared to fault the approach by the German human rights group that organised the conference because it assumed that religion was behind the practice.
"Fatwas will help but they will not do the whole thing," he added. "In this case, parents practicing circumcision didn't do it because they received a religious edict asking them to do it in the first place. When they stop it they will not do so because of a religious edict either."
For Om Samar, this seems to make sense.
"All women are circumcised and we do not see too many problems because of that," she said. "Nobody cares about my daughter like me. I will do what's best for her and I know what it is."