Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2008
Issue No. 901
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Children accorded greater rights

Muslim Brotherhood objections to outlawing female genital mutilation are ignored by the People's Assembly, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

On Saturday the People's Assembly finally approved a new child law designed to ensure better social, educational, and medical care for people below the age of 18. The law, which combines and updates existing legislation, was passed in the face of fierce attacks from Muslim Brotherhood MPs who accused the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood (NCMC), headed by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, of seeking to impose Western social values. So heated was the debate that the assembly had to amend two other laws, the penal code and the civil status law. "The amendment of these two was necessary to ensure that they are in line with the new child law which criminalises female genital mutilation [FGM] and outlaws the official documentation of marriage for those below the age of 18," said assembly speaker Fathi Sorour.

Muslim Brotherhood MPs did their best to block a vote on the law's most sensitive articles by repeatedly claiming they contravene Islamic Sharia and serve a Western agenda. Sayed Askar, a Brotherhood MP, argued that Islamic clerics have differing opinions on FGM and whether or not it is an Islamic tradition. "Why not leave it optional for parents to decide instead of criminalising it?" asked Askar, who went on to assert that outlawing FGM was tantamount to promoting vice.

Mohamed El-Omda, an independent MP with Islamist leanings, argued that FGM is an Islamic tradition. "This is a practice that has been performed for over 1,400 years and it is against the Sunna [traditions of Prophet Mohamed] to outlaw it," he railed. El-Omda accused the NCMC of exercising enormous pressure on the assembly to pass the law in one day. "The problem is that the NCMC obtained millions of dollars in donations from Western institutions to push their non-Islamic agenda on Egypt. Its members want to see this agenda enacted as soon as possible so they can claim more cash donations," he said. El-Omda, together with his mother and two daughters, led a demonstration in favour of FGM in front of the assembly.

Sorour surprised MPs by fiercely coming out against FGM. "It is a very old crime," he said, "and not an Islamic practice. Neither the Quran nor the Sunna mentions a word about it."

"In drafting the law the Ministry of Justice was keen to respect the teachings of Islam and Christianity, not to violate the constitution or go against public morals and traditions," said Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei. "I wonder how the partial or complete removal of a part of a human body can be allowed by God," he mused. Marei insisted that FGM is a crime against children "and a major objective of this law is to safeguard children against physical abuse".

The final text on FGM now states that, "under Article 61 of the penal code anyone found guilty of practising FGM will face a fine of between LE1,000 and LE5,000 and a prison sentence ranging from three months to two years."

Heated debate also raged over Article 7 of the new law which forbids marriage below the age of 18 and requires couples to undergo a medical examination before marriage. The change, said Sorour, entailed amending the civil status law to prohibit couples below the age of 18 from registering their marriage certificates with the courts. Predictably, Muslim Brotherhood MPs insisted that the ban would open the door to moral corruption and push young couples into urfi (common law) marriages or extra-marital sexual relationships. Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood lawyer MP, insisted that Islam allows marriage "when couples become sexually mature at the age of 15 and 16". In contrast Ibtessam Habib, an appointed MP and head of the Public Notary Authority, praised the amended article, arguing it would stem the tide of poor Egyptian families marrying very young girls off to men from the oil-rich Gulf. "This kind of marriage is abusive to women and their children," said Ibtessam.

Ahmed Ezz, chairman of the Budget Committee, said a poll conducted by the General Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics had shown that 73 per cent of Egyptian families approved the ban on marriage below the age of 18. Responding to Brotherhood attacks, Marei said that with or without the amendment of Article 7, urfi marriage had always been an option for young couples, arguing that the majority of couples who resort to the arrangement do so because of lack of money. Raising the legal marriage age to 18 will help women, especially in rural Egypt, complete their education, he said. "Most women who marry at a very early age drop out of education and end up being illiterate."

Marei also argued that requiring couples to undergo a medical examination as a compulsory pre-condition for documenting marriage was necessary to prevent hereditary diseases. "Please remember this is a law aimed at safeguarding children against different forms of abuse," said Marei. The final text of Article 7 states that, "couples below the age of 18 cannot have their marriage papers documented. The state will take charge of conducting medical examination for couples who want to marry to ensure they are free from diseases detrimental to their health or the health of their children."

The assembly also approved a controversial article allowing that children whose father's identity is in doubt to be named after their mother. Article 15 also allows women to give their children a false father's name without obliging them to disclose the identity of the real father.

"Now women will find it easy to have extra- marital sexual relationships and give birth to unlawful children without any fear of punishment," complained Askar. Minister Marei responded by pointing out that many of Prophet Mohamed's followers were named after their mothers and that the aim of the article was to guarantee that fatherless children have birth certificates and are recognised as citizens with full rights.

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