Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 July 2007
Issue No. 852
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Girl's death leads to ban

A Ministry of Health ban on female circumcision has triggered mixed reactions, reports Mohamed El-Sayed

The death two weeks ago of a 12-year-old girl in the town of Maghagha, Minya, has sparked a nationwide outcry calling for a total ban on the deep-rooted tradition of female genital mutilation.

"The tradition of circumcision practised in Egypt in our era is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden," said the mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, days after the girl's death. "After debating the issue with medical experts, we have reached the conclusion that circumcision has appalling negative social and psychological effects."

The death preceded the convening of the third Regional Conference on Combating Violence against Children in Cairo at which Mrs Suzanne Mubarak called on participants to observe a minute of silence in remembrance of Bodour, the dead girl. "Her case will be the beginning of the end of circumcision," promised Mrs Mubarak.

Three days later, the Ministry of Health issued a decree prohibiting "doctors, nurses, or any other person carrying out any cut, flattening or modification of any natural part of the female reproductive system in government hospitals, non-governmental hospitals or any other place". It warned that violations would be punished, though no penalty was specified.

"A new law will be debated in the People's Assembly in its coming session to criminalise circumcision in any place and by anyone, be they doctors, nurses or others," Minister of Health Hatem El-Gabali stressed on Monday. Until that happens, the ban remains legally non- enforceable.

A day before the ministry banned the operation, the Doctors' Syndicate issued a statement warning members against conducting circumcision in clinics, hospitals or houses. "Any doctor who is shown to have practised such operations will be subject to legal questioning," the statement warned. If found guilty, they could be banned from practising medicine.

The fatwa issued by the mufti and the ban by the Ministry of Health were hailed by women rights groups. Some Al-Azhar scholars, though, have questioned Gomaa's edict. "There is controversy over the whole matter," said Talaat Afifi, dean of the Faculty of Preaching at Al-Azhar University. "Prohibiting circumcision constitutes the imposing of rules. Circumcision is mentioned in some sayings of the prophet so we can't say it's prohibited," he argued. "Also, it has been mentioned by jurisprudents in several books. The matter should have been carefully debated before issuing such an edict."

Other Al-Azhar scholars voiced conditional support of the ban. "Circumcision involves harmful effects on women's health when it is done in an improper manner," said Fawzi El-Sayed of the Faculty of Islamic and Arabic Studies at Al-Azhar. "Doctors, and others who conduct this operation, cut excessively and unwisely from women's genitalia, and this causes serious damage. Hence I support the total ban imposed by the Ministry of Health."

"Prohibition of circumcision arises from the fact that it's harmful, even if it is not explicitly either supported or prohibited religiously. The death of Bodour bears witness to the harmful effects of this habit, and anything that negatively affects health is clearly banned."

Women organisations welcomed the long awaited move. "We very much welcome the decision of the Ministry of Health, the Doctors' Syndicate statement and the mufti's religious edict," said Mushira Khattab, secretary-general of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood. She added that the council would launch a campaign to combat the phenomenon during the summer school vacation, the time when, traditionally, many circumcision operations are carried out.

Veteran feminist campaigner and writer Nawal El-Saadawi was upbeat on hearing news of the ban. "I have lived to see at last, the minister of health ban circumcision," wrote El-Saadawi in the daily Al-Masry Al-Yom, while recalling how four women held her down to circumcise her 60 years ago.

"What was really weird for me," she continued in her article, "was the religious edict issued by the mufti prohibiting circumcision after so many muftis have said in the past that it is irreligious to leave a female without being circumcised."

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