New ban on female circumcision in Egypt
Jovan brought to my attention a Yahoo! news item reporting that Egypt has just banned all female circumcision (aka female genital mutilation or FGM). There is a decade’s history of the practice being banned in Egypt, yet it has persisted. In 1996, the Ministry of Health banned any state-affiliated medical personnel from involvement in female circumcision, according to the BMJ. Then, according to ReligiousTolerance.org, the ruling was challenged by a Muslim cleric, Sheikh Youssef Badri, who claimed it was permitted by Islam and that the state was overstepping its bounds in banning it. In 1997 a court overturned the ban, but then the government took the case to the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court which ruled that it was not an Islamic procedure and that citizens therefore did not have a right to practice it. The state banned the procedure, but allowed gynecologists to perform the surgery if they deemed it necessary for health reasons.
The extent to which this health exception is invoked is revealed by recent surveys that have shown that upwards of 90% of Egyptian women continue to be circumcised. Circumcision crosses religious boundaries, with both Egyptian Muslims and Christians circumcising their daughters at or before puberty. The minority of women who aren’t circumcised are typically members of the urban upper class.
The new ban removes the earlier ban’s exception and prohibits all members of the medical profession, both in public clinics and private practice, from performing circumcisions. It also criminalizes physicians who circumcise. The government ban was supported by the highest ranking clerics in the country, both Muslim and Christian: the Grand Mufti, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and the Coptic Pope Shenouda.
There is substantial debate over the topic — even the name used to speak of the practice is hotly disputed (“female circumcision” vs. “female genital mutilation” or FGM). Some argue that the government’s provision allowing circumcision to be performed by physicians for ‘health reasons’ was an attempt to ensure that it be done by medical professionals under hygienic circumstances, avoiding the high rates of infection often associated with circumcision by traditional medical practitioners. Others say that it only gave the veneer of a ban for the benefit of a critical international community but allowed the practice to continue. The procedure was taught in some of Egypt’s most prestigious teaching universities such as Qasr el-Aini medical school in Cairo.
The latest ban comes in the wake of the widely publicized death of a young girl (sources peg her age at 11 or 12) who died during the procedure (the news wire source all say she died from an incorrect dose of anasthesia). Some reports claim that the doctor who performed the procedure as well as the girl’s mother were arrested. This points to the complicated costs and benefits of bans. On the one hand, bans delegitimize the procedure in a way that allowing ‘health exceptions’ does not. On the other hand, families who are determined to have their daughters circumcised but cannot have it done by a clinician may turn to more dangerous sources (in Egypt, typically barbers and midwives). They may also be less likely to seek medical care in the wake of a botched circumcision or infection if they fear that family members will be arrested.
For more anthropological reading on female circumcision, see Ellen Gruenbaum (who points out that Western opposition to the procedure typically leads to local backlash) and Janice Boddy, whose Wombs and Alien Spirits is a classic symbolic anthropology reading of circumcision in Sudan and how it linked up with cultural aesthetics (of not only the body but also things like home decor — if you ever wanted to know why Sudanese villagers blow out ostrich eggs and hang them in their houses, read on!) Boddy also covered debate over the practice in a 1991 article in Medical Anthropology Quarterly.
On a personal note, I spent 3-1/2 years living in Egypt, studying Arabic and doing fieldwork, and I knew Cairene women from all different classes, and the only one who ever brought up the topic of circumcision with me was an upper-class young woman who was taking a sociology course at the American University in Cairo and who commented to me that in a class discussion on the subject, students were mortified to have to discuss it in a mixed (male and female) group, and most could not even bring themselves to say the word out loud in class. At least amongst my little cohort of female informants, it was a non-issue.