Egypt outlaws female circumcision

An estimated 96 percent of Egyptian women have undergone genital mutilation, but the tide may be starting to turn.

By Page Rockwell

Published June 29, 2007 6:00PM (EDT)

Good news! Egypt's health ministry has strengthened its ban on clitoridectomy and other types of female genital mutilation. Egypt originally outlawed FGM in 1959, but subsequent decrees wavered, outlawing certain types of genital cutting while permitting others. Most recently, a 1996 decree formally banned the practice but allowed hospitals to approve genital cutting operations for medical reasons (whatever those might be). This week, after a 12-year-old Egyptian girl died during an operation, health minister Hatem al-Gabali announced that any form of female genital mutilation "will be viewed as a violation of the law and all contraventions will be punished." For anyone with an eye out for potential backsliding, he added that the announcement constitutes a "permanent ban."

Of course, decrees alone are unlikely to turn the tide on this entrenched cultural tradition. (Commenting on education efforts in his own country last year, Ethiopia's prime minister observed, "If a whole community is involved in this practice, you cannot jail an entire community. You have to change the mindset, and that takes time.") The roots of the practice date back thousands of years, and an estimated 96 percent of Egyptian women have undergone genital cutting. Prevention campaigns have often been seen as paternalism parachuting in from the West -- and, indeed, educators haven't always been culturally sensitive with their tactics. Some Western activists have touted enhanced orgasms and empowerment as benefits of intact genitalia, for example, which may be a little radical for small communities whose goals run more to female chastity and marriageability. (For a good snapshot of the culture clash and growing pains associated with education and prevention efforts, flip back to this Mothers Who Think story from 1998, on FGM in Senegal.)

So it's encouraging to see Egypt's government continuing its slow push for change. Prominent religious figures have also been stepping up to the plate: State-appointed Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa has repeatedly declared that cutting is forbidden by Islam; Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, and Coptic Pope Shenouda, who leads Egypt's Christian community, have also spoken out against the practice.

Demography and Health Surveys data on attitudes and beliefs regarding FGM in Egypt offer some cause for hope: In 2000, 78 percent of women surveyed reported that their daughters had been cut -- a miserably high percentage, but down from 83 percent in 1995. Slightly more encouraging: 68 percent of women surveyed (PDF) in 2005 said they'd like to see the practice continued, down from 82 percent in '95. How to improve those numbers? There won't be a magic bullet on this one, but the DHS data implicitly suggest some areas to focus on -- the 2005 report notes, "The proportion of girls who are currently circumcised or expected to be circumcised in the future decreases with the mother's educational attainment and with wealth status."

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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