Egypt’s health ministry has announced a complete ban on female circumcision in response to the death last week of a 12-year old girl in a botched operation. The move follows a partial ban ten years ago which allowed the practice to continue in exceptional circumstances. The ban will be difficult to enforce as the practice is almost universal among Muslim and Coptic women in Egypt. However there there is no doctrinal basis for this practice in either Islam or Christianity and the new ban has been supported by Egypt's first lady, Susanne Mubarak as well as Islamic and Coptic religious leaders.
Dr. Ismail Salam, Egypt’s Minister of Health and Population, initially banned female circumcision in July 1996. The ban was in response to public outcry over a CNN television broadcast of the procedure performed on a nine year old girl by a barber. The government decision was upheld by a junior administrative court in Cairo. However Muslim fundamentalist Sheik Youssef Badri took the government to court a year later and got the decision overturned on the basis that the practice was “Islamic”. The government then appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court who ruled that female circumcision is not a personal right according to the rules of Sharia Law, and hence not Islamic. The ban was re-instated although could be overridden in “exceptional cases”.
Often performed without anaesthetic by amateurs with little medical knowledge, female circumcision can cause death or permanent health problems as well as severe pain. Its supporters see it as an integral part of their cultural and ethnic identity, and some perceive it as a religious obligation. But its critics say the practice is detrimental to women's health and well-being. Some go so far as to categorise it as a violation of human rights, child abuse and violence against women. Mutilated genitalia also reduce and can even eliminate a woman's pleasure during sex.
More properly known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), female circumcision is a social custom, not a religious practice. Muslim advocates of the practice quote the hadith (traditions associated the life and deeds of Mohammed) which reads “A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet said to her: Do not cut too severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband”. However many Muslims regard this hadith as having little credibility or authenticity and the practice is not mentioned in the Koran.
FGM is most widely practiced in Islamic Africa. Egypt is both the ancestral home of the practice and also has the highest official rate of FGM in Africa. According to a 2005 UNICEF survey an astonishing 97 per cent of Egyptian women aged 15 to 49 have suffered mutilation (however no data was available for Somalia where many believe the practice is just as widely spread).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as “the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other nontherapeutic reasons”. It estimates that somewhere between 100 to 140 million girls and women have been subjected to the operation. It also believes that about 3 million girls, the majority under 15 years of age, undergo the procedure every year.
WHO recognise four different types of FGM. Type 1 (clitoridectomy) is excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or the entire clitoris. Type II (excision) is excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora. Type III (infibulation) is excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora. Type IV (others) has a number of different methods including pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia; stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterisation of the clitoris; scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice or cutting of the vagina; and introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina.
FGM has been practiced in Africa for centuries usually as a rite of passage preparing young girls for womanhood and marriage. Greek papyrus from the pre-Christian era Greek papyrus mentions girls in Egypt undergoing circumcision. Agatharchides of Cnidus wrote about female circumcision as it occurred among tribes residing on the western coast of the Red Sea. Based on the geographical locations of FGM, scholars accept that it originated in Egypt in pharaonic times and spread outwards from there.
Islam arrived in Egypt in 639 barely seven years after Mohammed’s death. Egypt was then still nominally a part of Constantinople's empire. However its authorities had persecuted, flogged, tortured and executed Monophysite Christians, and the Monophysites saw the Arabs as liberators. By 646 the Muslims conquered all of Egypt, turning Egypt into a colony. Although FGM pre-dates Islam, its presence as an Egyptian tradition made it difficult to dislodge. Even with the latest ban, it remains a universal practice, with most circumcisions occurring at home, out of sight of authorities.
Statistical analysis suggests it will be difficult to eradicate. More that 80 per cent of Egyptian women support the continuation of circumcision. 74 per cent believe that husbands prefer circumcised women and 72 per cent believe circumcision is a religious tradition. Relatively few women recognise the negative consequences of circumcision, such as reduced sexual satisfaction (29 per cent, possible death (24 per cent), and higher risk of problems in childbirth (just 5 per cent). The real challenge remains to change attitudes not laws.