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memri
August 2, 1999 No.
42

Debate over Female Circumcision in Egypt

The Egyptian government has begun a legal campaign against the widespread custom of female circumcision. Egyptian Health Minister, Isma'il Salam decreed that such operations are forbidden in public hospitals and private clinics. Supporters of female circumcision appealed to the Egyptian court against the minister's decision. The court ruled in against the Health Minister, but a higher court overruled this verdict, after an appeal by the minister.[1]

The Religious Establishment

The minister's decision, did not end the decades-old debate over female circumcision in Egyptian society. Although, female circumcision is generally seen as a custom of popular origins, leading Egyptian Islamic rulers expressed their support for the operation.

In 1951, the Sheik of Al-Azhar, Mahmoud Shaltoot, and the Head of the Higher Islamic Courts in Egypt, Sheik Muhammad Salem co-published an article in the Al-Liwa Al-Islami weekly that discussed the phenomenon. The two religious authorities concluded that female circumcision is not a religious imperative, nor is it a religious duty, or [a deed] embedded in the sunna [the prophet's conduct]. However, they proclaimed, "it is a desirable and noble deed. Although it is optional, carrying out [the circumcision] is a good thing, even if avoiding it does not entail a penalty. The tradition is that circumcision is a noble deed to which women are entitled. It includes the removal of the protruding part of the clitoris so it would reach the level of the flesh. This is why it was named [in Egypt] 'reduction'. Regarding the removal of the clitoris in its entirety, in the manner used in the Jaheliyya [the pre-Islamic era] - the Shari'ah [Islamic Law] does not authorize that, and considers it a false innovation, because it causes the woman to lose her sensitivity, and may lead to abstaining from giving birth."

More than 40 years later, in 1994, the former Sheik of Al-Azhar, Jad Al-Haqq 'Ali Jad Al-Haqq ruled that circumcision is a duty for men and women alike. Sheik Muhammad Mutawali Al-Sha'arawi, on the other hand, adhered to the 1951 ruling, and stated that female circumcision is not a religious duty, but rather a noble deed [performed] on women.

Egyptian Under-Secretary for Social Affairs, Anwar Ahmad, sees the religious debate in a broader sense. He claims that one of the most important principles of the Shari'ah is that when it is proven by accurate research that a certain thing causes real damage or that it is morally corrupt - then there is a religious duty to prevent it. "Until it is proven that female circumcision either causes damage or that it is morally corrupt, people must act according to what they were accustomed to, in light of the Shari'ah."

A Dispute in the Medical Circles

Medical circles are divided on the issue of female circumcision. Dr. Ahmad Rashwan, Head of the Gynecology and Obstetrics Department at the Khartoum University in the Sudan, enumerates all the physical damages caused by the circumcision operation. "The sexual instinct" he adds, "is a woman's right and gift from Allah, and it should not be denied from her, by the extraction of a part of her body."

Dr. Ahmad 'Ukasha, a professor of psychiatry, refers to the celebrations that accompany the circumcision operation which is usually attended by the girl's family and relatives. Dr. 'Ukasha views this as humiliating, because the girl, he says, is crying in pain, while everybody around are singing and laughing. In many cases, the girl feels oppressed and starts hating herself and her gender. A long treatment is required to overcome the bad psychological consequences.

However, there are senior doctors in Egypt who do not share this opinion. Dr. Munir Muhammad Fauzi, the Head of the Gynecology Department at the Ein Shams University in Cairo was the one who appealed against the Minister of Health's prohibition on female circumcision. The Head of the Orthopedic Department at the hospital in the city of Embaba, claims that "circumcision is very beneficial for girls. It is only the protruding part of the clitoris that is being cut off. This operation both beautifies and purifies the woman. About the rumors of damage caused to girls by the circumcision - this happens only with girls who do not go to experts."

Dr. Majdi Mahfouz, a pediatrician and internist, adds: "female circumcision is mandatory both from the medical and the psychological sense. I perform this operation in my private clinic. Had I turned down the girls who come to my clinic, they would have it done by non-experts. The minister's decision would lead to that, because the phenomenon is widespread." "I will perform it on my daughters," Dr. Mahfouz concludes, "it protects women from the vices spread in our society."


[1] The information in this Special Dispatch was taken from a report from Cairo by Hazem Khaled in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, July 29, 1999.