/ 14 December 2007

Islamic scholar opposes ban on female circumcision

In an act that has sparked outrage among Egyptian women’s rights activists, a controversial Islamic scholar filed a lawsuit against the minister of health protesting against a recent ban on female circumcision, a practice referred to by rights groups as female genital mutilation (FGM).

Egyptian Sheikh Youssif al-Badri claims the ministerial decree violates the Egyptian Constitution as well as Islamic principles.

Conservative Muslim and Christian Egyptian families have their daughters circumcised as a means to preserve their chastity. Recent studies revealed that about 90% of Egyptian women have been subjected to the practice.

In June, the Health Ministry banned doctors and nurses from carrying out the procedure. The announcement followed the death of an 11-year-old girl in Upper Egypt as a result of the procedure. Medics who carry out circumcisions may face imprisonment and being stripped of their medical licences.

While al-Badri argues that the practice is necessary in curbing women’s sexual inclinations, women’s rights activists and physicians disapprove of his view.

”Many of the circumcised women who seek our help were traumatised, having no ability to lead a normal sex life, which affects their relationships with their husbands,” said Nihad Abul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights.

She accused Muslim sheikhs in the Arab world of being distracted from the vital issues. ”No one of the sheikhs coming up with such arguments has ever considered in his agenda the deteriorating socio-economic conditions we are undergoing,” she noted. ”Instead they try to play the role of the Islam advocates.”

Egypt’s top Islamic and Christian authorities were quick to voice support for the ban, saying the practice had no basis either in the Qur’an or in the Bible.

”The Constitution is based on the Islamic sharia law, which does not stipulate FGM, giving a wife the right to enjoy sex with her husband,” Khalil Mustafa Khalil, who holds a master’s degree in FGM legislation, told the independent al-Badeel newspaper.

In the 1950s, the Egyptian government tried to stop midwives from performing the procedure, while allowing doctors to do so, in a bid to minimise the risk of families who insist on circumcising their daughters doing so in unsafe conditions.

Public outcry followed the 1994 CNN television broadcast of the procedure being performed on a nine-year-old girl by a barber.

The minister of health at the time decreed that female circumcisions should be performed only one day a week at government facilities, and by trained medical practitioners, only in the event that they failed to persuade the parents from going through with it.

According to the World Health Organisation, FGM comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.

A more minor form of the procedure is also undertaken in some parts of the Middle East and South Asia. — Sapa-dpa