In what was considered by many to be a legal and at least superficial victory, on February 3, 2013, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court rejected a lawsuit challenging the illegality of female genital mutilation (FGM). The lawsuit was filed in 2008 to challenge a decision by the Ministry of Health in 2007 to criminalize the practice, claiming that the ban violated the principles of Sharia. FGM had been made illegal in the country in 1997, and in 2006, the head of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s most prominent Islamic institution, denounced the practice and distanced it from religious traditions (and again reiterated this position in 2008 and 2011).
Despite the solid legal stance against FGM in the country, the practice remains pervasive in Egyptian society and it is unclear to what degree the most recent court ruling will have an effect on the day-to-day lives of Egyptian women. In a country that has recently completed the drafting and ratification of its constitution and continues to undergo a transition period where rule of law and implementation of both national legal codes and international standards has largely been absent, the outlook is not a positive one.
About 91 percent of all women aged 15 to 49 have been circumcised in Egypt; while the numbers are showing a slight decrease among younger generations, the practice remains common. The procedure is often performed on young girls and considered by many to be a “rite of passage” into adulthood. Although there are multiple ways to carry out FGM, the procedure generally involves the removal of the clitoris, along with all or part of the labia minora. Although historically conducted by traditional birth attendants without anesthetic or appropriate medical care, more and more licensed doctors and nurses are carrying out the procedure. FGM has been regarded as a means to preserve the woman’s virginity before marriage for the sake of both culture and religion by decreasing her sexual desire. Although many in Egypt believe that the practice is based in religion, others unequivocally deny this. The side effects of FGM and poor after-care of the invasive procedure can range from minor infections to long-standing psychological issues, problems with menstruation and childbirth, extreme ailments, bleeding for days, and in some cases, death.
Prominent Egyptian author Nawal El Saadawi underwent the process herself in 1937 at the age of six when she was pinned down by four women and cut with a razor blade. "Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed,” she said. While she continues to advocate against the procedure, she also contends that the state has a large responsibility to curb FGM and combat the religious fundamentalism which often contributes to a society in which FGM is encouraged. FGM itself was not in the Egyptian public discourse until a UN-organized conference in 1994; even then, the topic was considered taboo. It finally took the FGM-related deaths of two young rural girls, Karima and Bedour, to create enough impetus behind legislation in 2007.
Even now, there are many who say that a man should not marry a girl unless she has been circumcised. Adding to the unfortunately widespread pro-FGM discourse, prominent Muslim Brotherhood MP Azza Al-Garfcontroversially upheld the practice in recent times and said: “It’s a personal decision and each woman can decide based on her needs. If she needs it she can go to a doctor.” There are growing fears that with the conservative grasp that groups like the Brotherhood and the Salafi political parties have on current discourse, the practice may continue unregulated; in fact, it has been alleged that the Brotherhood has employed buses to serve as mobile clinics to travel around some villages and offer FGM services free of charge.
In addition to being illegal in light of national legislation and recent court rulings, the ongoing and largely-unregulated practice of FGM violates a number of international legal standards and treaties which Egypt is a party to, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR), the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
On a general level, Article 12 of the ICESCR calls for the right of all citizens to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, both of which are directly challenged when the practice of FGM continues. Article 3 of the CEDAW bears on FGM as well, as it calls for states to enact all appropriate measures and legislation to ensure the development and advancement of women. A physically and psychologically debilitating procedure like FGM directly challenges the ability and right of women to participate in social life, government and public work, education, a complete and healthy marriage, all of which are guaranteed by CEDAW’s Articles 7 through 14, and affect the full integration of women into society. Finally, FGM also contradicts various principles within the CRC which protects the rights of anyone under the age of 18. Article 6 guarantees a minor’s right to life and imposes on the state the duty to ensure the maximum extent possible for survival and development. Most specific to FGM is Article 19, which protects children from physical or mental violence, injury, abuse, and maltreatment; Article 24 further lays out the health rights of a child. Furthermore, FGM, which often keeps children bed-ridden extensively and impedes their physical development, is bound to interfere with the child’s full pursuit of an education, of rest, and of leisure, all of which are also guaranteed by Articles 28, 29, and 31.
Ultimately, although FGM is entrenched in long-standing cultural and familial traditions that may take decades to weed out with a combination of awareness campaigns, on-the-ground activism, and a will among Egyptian families, the state has both a moral and international legal duty to ensure that its women and children are not subject to this practice. Whether it is empowering and educating law enforcement to arrest doctors, holding parents who force their daughters to undergo FGM as criminals under the law, or organizing social education campaigns across the country, there is no doubt that much can be done. The tense political state in the nation has left the issue of FGM uncontended with; in fact, the 12 criminal cases under which parents and/or doctors were being held for carrying out or enabling FGM in 2010 remain unresolved. Unless the state whole-heartedly takes on the goal of challenging the harrowingly high percentages of FGM nationwide in collaboration with already-existing and successful NGO’s and individual activism, Egypt will remain plagued with a society where almost half of its members continue to be subjugated and whose basic health and sexual rights are violated on a regular basis.