EGYPT: Stemming the Bloody Tide
With attention focused on political events in the Middle East – the Hamas-Israel ceasefire, post-Doha developments in Lebanon, and the Saudis deciding whether or not to increase oil output – one important piece of news got drowned out: on June 7 the Egyptian parliament
outlawed female genital mutilation (FGM). The BBC didn't even mention it.
I first came across the issue of FGM over a decade ago when I lived in Cairo and heard about studies that claimed over 70% of Egyptian women were circumcised in some way or other. I remember afterwards walking along the street and counting the women I passed: cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, not, not, not, cut, cut … By now I know that these studies were incorrect and that is not true that over 70% of Egyptian women have undergone FGM. The actual number is around 90%.
Over the past decade the Egyptian authorities have tightened the restrictions on FGM, first restricting the practice to doctors and nurses (in order to curb back-alley procedures), then also forbidding health service personnel to perform any type of FGM. But those were ministry instructions, not enforceable on private citizens. And as the practice is popular, only a law with severe punishments, like the one enacted now, will do … if it is accompanied by a health education campaign.
The Grand Mufti, Egypt's highest Islamic authority had already ruled FGM illegal and the only group protesting against the ban is the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming that "nothing in Islam forbids circumcision". This might technically be true, but last time I checked Egypt's MB wasn't campaigning against the prohibition of slavery, although according to traditional Islamic law it is not only not forbidden but explicitly allowed, whereas female circumcision isn't even mentioned in the Qur'an and the one often-cited hadith (tradition of the Prophet) about it had already been deemed "spurious" by Islamic scholars hundreds of years ago.
FGM is a good example how ancient (in this case pre-Islamic) traditions are absorbed into a new religious culture. Only one of the four Sunni legal schools, the Shafi'i, holds the so-called "Sunna circumcision", whereby the tip of the clitoral hood is "trimmed", to be obligatory. (The Shia all hold that it is wrong.) Interestingly, the extent of the Shafi'i school corresponds with the prevalence of FGM: Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast, Horn of Africa, Yemen, sub-Saharan West Africa, Kurdistan, the south-west coast of India (Kerala) and Indonesia. But of course FGM is prevalent throughout the Greater Nile Valley (including Christians and animists) and among non-Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, raising the question whether the Shafi'i school of Islamic law was adopted in part because of its stance on FGM or whether it adapted to a strong pro-FGM culture already in existence.
Kurdistan, touted as the "other" Iraq where women don't have to cover their heads and are ministers, is the only area in Iraq where FGM is common – both among Muslims and Yazidis, hinting at a pre-Islamic tradition. Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq might hold very traditionalist views when it comes to the role of women in society, and neither the Iran-inspired nor the Saudi/Taliban-inspired rules now gaining currency among Iraq's Arab population are anything to play down, but they don't cut their women.
In Saudi Arabia, despite its paternalism and oppression of women, FGM is alien to the interior's Wahhabi traditionalists who rule the country, yet is practised on the Red Sea coast – an area that is generally more liberal and whose inhabitants still scoff at having their lives regulated by uncouth barbarians from the interior.
Evidently, FGM is not linked to insularity or a lack of exposure to "modernity". Most likely having originated in the Nile valley and then spread to sub-Saharan Africa (and in the case of the Kurds also to some communities further the east), over time FGM was integrated into whatever new religion came along – including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism (in the case of the Ethiopian Jews).
But it remained part of local, popular culture; it did not become universal religious dogma. And to overcome it, FGM has to be treated as such. In Senegal and Ethiopia, where local women and community leaders were included in conceptualising and carrying out the programmes against it, campaigns have yielded success – quite spectacularly in some cases.
Similarly, the Egyptian parliament's decision to outlaw FGM, the practice of which now incurs a three months to two years in prison or a fine of 1,000-5,000 Egyptian pounds ($200-$1,000 – a lot of money in Egypt), needs to be accompanied by a public health campaign that takes the popular cultural attitudes seriously, that integrates community and religious leaders, and that is best organised not top-down but on the grassroots level. Criminalising the practice alone will not be enough.
But some attention and public recognition in the international media would have been nice.
AUTHOR: Matthias S. Klein
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