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memri
November 7, 2003 No.
152

The Egyptian Controversy Over Circumcising Girls

By: B. Chernitsky*

In recent months, the Egyptian government has been waging a television and newspaper campaign denouncing the practice of circumcising girls, also known as female genital mutilation. [1] This campaign is the latest round in a long-standing dispute over the issue, and has taken the form of articles and public activities, such as the June 2003 Cairo conference organized by the Egyptian National Council for Childhood and Motherhood and attended by Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.

The practice involves the excision of the external genitalia, most often the clitoris. According to demographic surveys conducted in Egypt in 1995 and 2001, 97 percent of married women of childbearing age had been circumcised. 100-130 million girls have been circumcised in Africa – a figure that grows by another million each year worldwide.

Three main camps are embroiled in the controversy: reformists – government and social figures – who are opposed to the practice; Islamists who support it; and various religious figures, some from Egypt's religious establishment, who take no definitive stand on the issue. The following report highlights the three positions.

I. The Reformists – Against Circumcising Girls
First Lady Suzanne Mubarak: 'Women's Humanity Must No Longer be Forfeit'

The Cairo conference of June 21-23 2003 – organized by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood and attended by representatives of Egyptian and European non-governmental organizations and of the UN (including UNICEF) – focused primarily on the legal aspects of the battle against the practice of circumcising girls. Also participating were delegates from 28 Arab and African countries where the practice is common, as well as international experts. Participants said that circumcision is an indignity for women, results in illness and emotional trauma, and has no basis in Islamic religious texts.

In her keynote address, Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt's First Lady and head of the professional advisory committee to the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, labeled circumcising girls a human rights violation, saying, "Women's humanity must no longer be forfeit." [2]

Chief Justice Khalil: 'Circumcision - A Criminal Offense Sanctioned by the Authorities'

Khalil Mustafa Khalil, chief justice of the Misdemeanors Court in Cairo's Al-Maadi district, called circumcising girls "a criminal offense sanctioned by the authorities" and "criminal behavior that matches all legal descriptions of premeditated crimes of injury." Khalil claimed that circumcising girls also violates a legal ban on exposing or touching genitalia other than for medical purposes. [3]

Dr. Mumtaz Abd Al-Wahab, a mental-illness expert at Cairo University, defined circumcising girls as "a kind of violence against women" and listed a series of emotional repercussions of the practice. First, he said, circumcision is the source of many mental illnesses and complexes, which can lead to what he calls a "mental divorce" or "divorce [of silence]." Second, he added, circumcising girls mutilates the genitals and causes emotional distress for the girl, who believes the procedure is a punishment; she senses that she is a "bad girl" and her parents don't love her. Third, the girl develops a sense of inferiority when she discerns the difference between the genitalia of each gender. [4]

At the conference, Egyptian Medical Association head Dr. Hamdi Al-Sayyed explained the physical risks to women's health posed by circumcision. He said that those who perform the procedure usually lack surgical expertise and use inadequate methods to stop the bleeding. He added that poor medical practices could cause blood poisoning, tetanus, liver disease, AIDS, or even death, and that a circumcised woman might experience pain during sexual relations, causing a marital crisis. [5]

Former Al-Azhar Sheikh: 'Nothing Religious, Moral, or Medical Requires Circumcising Girls'

Former Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mahmoud Shaltout [6] addressed the legal and religious aspects of the issue in his book "Fatwas – Research on the Problems of the Modern Muslim in Private and Public Life." [7] Shaltout asserted that unlike male circumcision, circumcising girls has no religious or medical justification. He pointed to a general religious principle forbidding inflicting pain on a living creature except when the benefit outweighs the pain.

According to Shaltout, male circumcision benefits the man's health, since the foreskin provides a fertile medium for secretions that can cause infection. Therefore, male circumcision is required by Islamic law, but this criterion is lacking for circumcising girls

Shaltout refutes the claim made by many physicians that circumcision affects women's sexual urges. A woman's sexual urges, he writes, is influenced only by her body build and the strength or weakness of her glands. Proof of this, he says, is the inappropriate sexual practices of some women who have been circumcised. In Shaltout's view, the entire issue is contingent upon the people, the environment, education, and the amount of supervision. He concludes, "Nothing, whether religious, moral, or medical, requires circumcising girls or commands its necessity…"

Egyptian Mother and Child Health Organization head Dr. Muhammad Fayyadh, an expert in women's diseasesand a campaigner against circumcising girls who has also written a book on the subject, [8] holds a similar view. In an article that appeared November 2, 2002 in the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousuf, he called on "the Egyptian Health Minister, the Physician's Association, the Supreme Court, Egyptian mothers, and the associations for women's [rights] in Egypt" to abolish the practice because it has no religious, moral, or medical basis. In his article, titled "In the Name of the Mothers of Egypt: Stop the Crime That is Carried Out to Cries of Joy and Calls of Jubilation!" Dr. Fayyadh wrote, " Medicine has moral values, the most prominent of which is that no surgery must be carried out unless it is of medical benefit, and does not cause physical damage." [9]

Possible Actions Against the Practice of Circumcising Girls

The Cairo conference also addressed methods for publicly opposing the practice of circumcising girls, and the main speaker on this topic was National Council for Childhood and Motherhood Secretary-General Moushira Khattab, who proposed two approaches. The first is to promote legislation that sets criteria for assessing the physical damage caused to the circumcised girl and deciding what compensation is due her, [10] and the second is to promote education to discourage the spread of the practice.

Halima Warzazi, a UN representative to the conference, said that education was the most effective weapon in the war against circumcising girls "because it answers the community's need to cling to its cultural tradition." [11]

In an interview with the French-language weekly Al-Ahram Hebdo, Moushira Khattab described how her organization used educational means to fight the practice of circumcising girls in Egypt's villages: "To change people's mentality, in every village we worked through the village leaders, such as the village head, the sheikh, [local] leading clerics, or anyone else the people would listen to and trust. Through these people, we hope to reach the families." [12]

II. The Islamists – Proponents of Circumcising Girls
'Circumcision is the Merit of Girls'

The religious basis and legitimacy for circumcising girls has always been the focal point of the debate over this practice. Most proponents support their position by pointing to two central – and, in their view, generally accepted – Islamic traditions. One is based on the Prophet Muhammad's dictum that "[circumcising girls] is the merit of girls" and the other recalling the Prophet's words to the circumciser Umm 'Atiyya, "Circumcise girls, but do not exaggerate [in circumcising] as [this way of performing the circumcision] is best liked by the husband and makes [the wife's] face radiant in the best possible way. " [13]

Physicians with Islamist viewpoints also support circumcising girls on the basis of this religious commentary. Many of these opinions were quoted by journalist Abd Al-Rahman Abu 'Auf in an article for the Egyptian Islamist weekly Al-Haqiqa. [14]

For example, Dr. Munir Muhammad Fawzy, a specialist in gynecology and obstetrics at 'Ein Shams University Medical School, cites the following traditions as backing for his support of the practice: "The Prophet [Muhammad] commanded women to perform circumcision using the expression, 'Perform circumcision for girls.'" This phrase, he says, includes a clear endorsement of circumcision under specific circumstances, while understanding the difficulty and complexity of the issue regarding girls: "Removing the entire organ that causes the woman pleasure clearly contradicts the pure Sunna [tradition of the Prophet], because this is likely to cause disease and emotional complications to girls, and thus prevent them from realizing their natural rights. Conversely, not performing the circumcision is likely [to] cause girls infections and sometimes even diseases." [15]

Dr. Ahmad Suleiman of Cairo University: 'Circumcising a Girl Brings Modesty, Honor, and Emotional Balance'

Similar views are expressed by experts on Islamic law, such as Dr. Muhammad Abu Leila, lecturer on Islamic research at Al-Azhar University, and Dr. Ahmed Yousuf Suleiman, lecturer on Islamic law at Cairo University.

Dr. Abu Leila notes that circumcising girls is not an innovation that deviates from religious law (Bid'a), but a custom passed down from generation to generation since the days of Abraham: "The Prophet [Muhammad] reaffirmed this custom, and we inherited it as Muslims thousands of years later. [The Prophet] set some humane and scientific conditions for performing it so that we do not harm the humanity of the wife and so that the husband will not become exhausted after having sexual relations with his wife." [16]

According to Dr. Suleiman, the fact that Muslims have been practicing this tradition for thousands of years eliminates any claims that it is detrimental to sexuality. He expressed his amazement over the argument that circumcision causes frigidity in women, saying that throughout the many generations that Muslims have practiced circumcising girls, they have been enjoying natural lives as married couples. Moreover, he says, "circumcising a girl brings modesty, honor, and emotional balance." [17]

Circumcising Girls Prevents AIDS and Prostitution

Intellectuals who favor circumcising girls say that failure to do so will lead to the spread of Western phenomena such as AIDS and prostitution. Some intellectuals accuse the West of having an ulterior motive in opposing circumcising girls: to spread immoral values throughout the Muslim world.

Islamic writer Dr. Ahmed Abd Al-Rahman shares this suspicion about the West's true motives in calling for a ban on the tradition: "Not circumcising girls opens the gate to the spread of depravity and prostitution, as happened in the West as a result of ignoring this normal, human demand. Do we want to be like the West? The commercials [against circumcising girls] broadcast on television these days are repulsive because they contradict Islamic law… Their purpose is to destroy the Muslim family and degrade Egyptian society."

Al-Rahman adds that the campaign against the custom is an abhorrent form of compliance with American pressure in the framework of the so-called "renewed religious discourse." In his view, it is destruction and not renewal: "With strange submission, we do what was forced upon us by the Beijing and Cairo conferences [for] the family and population. This is, without a doubt, blind surrender." [18]

The Attempt to Prevent Circumcising Girls is a Western Conspiracy

Dr. Muhammad Abu Leila spoke out against both the campaign and the West, which he says, by opposing circumcising both boys and girls, is promoting the spread of AIDS: "The media campaign we are witnessing today is nothing more than part of an entire conspiracy to destroy the framework of Islamic society. The ban on circumcising girls is preparation for a ban on circumcising boys. The West does not recognize circumcision at all, neither for girls nor for boys, and medical insurance today for infants in America does not cover circumcising a boy. The expense falls to the family if it decides to perform it, which leads to the spread of AIDS." [19]

Prominent Islamic preacher Sheikh Mustafa Al-Azhari echoes claims about Western involvement in the media campaign against circumcising girls: "This is a dubious campaign whose only aim is to spread promiscuity among the Muslims… The [Egyptian] media should not have collaborated in this crime, which is being planned by the U.S. and backed by the West…" [20]

Circumcising Girls Prevents Unnatural Sexual Pleasure

Among the proponents of circumcising girls are Islamists who rely on medical, rather than religious, support for their arguments. The practice, they say, is beneficial to women's health, since it facilitates washing the genitalia and contributes to normal sexual relations.

A surgical specialist at Al-Azhar University, Dr. Muhammad Rif'at Al-Bawwab, provides an example, saying that women can wash and clean the genital area more easily if part of their sexual organ has been removed. In addition, he says, the clitoris protrudes more than other parts of a woman's genitalia, and "this protrusion causes it to rub against clothing and other things, which diverts the attention of the adolescent girl toward unnatural pleasure that is likely to make her addicted to it in an abnormal and damaging way… After marriage, it is difficult to prevent this from happening to a woman who has become accustomed to it. [The only way to deal with this situation is] to conduct sexual relations in an abnormal way, in which her clitoris is rubbed forcefully, as she has become accustomed [thus leading to her moral degradation].

"Therefore, the removal of the clitoris during circumcision greatly reduces [the chances] of this occurring. In this way, the woman remains unaware, and she finds enjoyment with her husband in the natural way, [only by] the male organ rubbing the woman's vagina and cervix, which are the source of her pleasure [and not via the clitoris]." [21]

III. The Religious Establishment – No Definitive Stand

Rather than openly object to the practice of circumcising girls, high-ranking clerics in Egypt's religious establishment leave the decision to physicians. This, according to Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Al-Tantawi, is because there is no authoritative religious text on which clerics can rely. [22]

This opinion is shared by Egyptian mufti Nassar Farid Wassal, who claims that circumcision is a social custom: "The Sunna neither requires nor forbids circumcision. Islam left [the decision] on the issue to [those who are] knowledgeable and reliable – that is, medical specialists." [23]

Holding a different view is Sheikh Yussef Al-Qaradhawi, one of Sunni Islam's most influential clerics and a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Qaradhawi favors partial circumcision for women as a moderate, just, and reasonable solution best suited to reality. Al-Qaradhawi favors leaving the decision to the girl's parents. In a Fatwa on this issue, he wrote, "Anyone who thinks that circumcision is the best way to protect his daughters should do it… I support this, particularly in the period in which we live. [However], anyone who does not [circumcise girls] is not thought to have sinned, because this is nothing more than merit for girls, as stated by religious scholars and by one of the Hadiths…" [24]

* B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), June 28, 2003; Al-Ahram Hebdo (Egypt), June 25 - July 1, 2003. For more information, see MEMRI report Debate over Female Circumcision in Egypt.

[2] Suzanne Mubarak also repudiated the religious, social, and medical legitimacy of circumcising girls. Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 23, 2003.

[3] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), June 28, 2003. It is not clear whether Khalil, who was quoted in the article, was present at the conference.

[4] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), June 28, 2003. It is not clear whether Al-Wahab, who was quoted in the article, was present at the conference.

[5] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), June 28, 2003.

[6] Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout was the sheikh of Al-Azhar from 1958 to 1963.

[7] M. Shaltout, Fatwas – Research on the Problems of the Modern Muslim in Private and Public Life. Al-Qahara, Dar Al-Sharouf, 2001, pp. 333-334.

[8] According to the article, i n 1998 Dr. Fayyadh published a book called "Amputation of Female Sex Organs: Circumcising Girls."

[9] Roz Al-Yousuf (Egypt), November 2, 2002.

[10] Akhar Sa'a (Egypt), June 28, 2003.

[11] Al-Ahram Hebdo (Egypt), June 25 - July 1, 2003.

[12] Al-Ahram Hebdo (Egypt), June 25 – July 1, 2003.

[13] Another version of this tradition is, "…Do not exaggerate in [performing the circumcision] because [performing the circumcision in this way] is liked by the wife and loved by the husband... Leave something protruding and do not go to extremes in cutting. That makes her face more radiant and is more pleasing to her husband." http://hadith.al-islam.com/Display/Display.asp?Doc=14&ID=23086

[14] Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), June 7, 2003.

[15] Dr. Abd Al-Rahman also mentioned the tradition recalling the Prophet Muhammad's words to Umm Atia, which are taken as proof that Islam sanctions circumcising girls. Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), June 7, 2003.

[16] Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), June 7, 2003.

[17] Likewise, Dr. Suleiman claimed that not circumcising women results in the spread of prostitution. Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), June 7, 2003.

[18] Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), June 7, 2003.

[19] Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), June 7, 2003.

[20] Al-Haqiqa (Egypt), June 7, 2003.

[21] Quoted in M.S. Al-Shinawi, Circumcising Girls: Between Religious Law and Medicine, Al-Haram: Dar Al-Qalam Lil-Turath, pp. 54-55.

[22] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), June 28, 2003.

[23] Quoted in M.S. Al-Shinawi, Circumcising Girls: Between Religious Law and Medicine, Al-Haram: Dar Al-Qalam Lil-Turath, p. 44.

[24] Y. Al-Qaradhawi, Modern Fatwas, Beirut: Al-Maktab Al-Islami, 2000, p. 468.