Cairo court scraps govt ban on circumcising girls

News  Reuters. Tuesday, 24 June 1997.

Miral Fahmy

CAIRO, June 24 (Reuter) - An Egyptian court championed the radical Islamist cause against the government on Tuesday by declaring null and void a ministerial ban on the ancient and dangerous practice of female circumcision.

The verdict was a blow to human rights groups and other activists, who said it gave hospitals and doctors the green light to perpetuate the practice, often known as female genital mutilation for the severe form it takes.

Right-wing Islamist sheikh Youssef el-Badri, a former MP who took Health Minister Ibrahim Sallam to court last year for issuing the un-Islamic ban, beamed triumphantly at reporters after the verdict. The court had seen the light, he said.

I will prostrate myself before Allah, thanking him for inspiring the court to take this decision. This is a return to Islam, said Badri.

A veiled woman ululated and the mostly male crowd cheered.

Circumcision is Islamic; the court has said that the ban violated religious law. There's nothing which says circumcision is a crime but the Egyptians came along and said that Islam is a crime. This is a disaster.

But rights activists say the court ruling is the real disaster. It stems from a power struggle between opponents of female circumcision and doctors whose livelihood depends on performing the operations, they add.

I'm in shock. This is extremely painful, particularly after all the work we have done in trying to eradicate this procedure. But this ruling will not stop our campaign, said Maha Attiya, coordinator of the anti-circumcision campaign launched by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

Female circumcision, usually performed on pre-pubescent girls, involves cutting part or all of the clitoris and other genitalia. It sometimes involves sewing the vaginal opening or even the labia together and side-effects include haemorrhage, shock and sexual dysfunction.

Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, head of the prestigious al-Azhar Islamic institute, has said the practice is un-Islamic, but some clerics base their case for the the practice on an unauthenticated saying of the Prophet Mohammad, which appears to favour trimming the clitoris.

Women's rights activists estimate around 6,000 girls a day across the world are subjected to female circumcision. According to a government study performed earlier this year, 97 percent of 14,779 Egyptian women polled had been circumcised.

It's a way of controlling the bodies of women, said Dr Siham Abdel Salam of the non-governmental Egyptian Society for Population and Development. The human body as it is now is not adisease. It's how God created it.

It's our religion, said Badri. We pray, we do fasting, we do circumcision. For 14 centuries of Islam, our mothers and grandmothers have performed this operation. Those who arenot circumcised get AIDS easily.

Although the court threw out the ban, it did not rule out regulating female circumcision operations, saying that they must be made illegal by law and not just by decree.

But the verdict follows a series of other rulings which have helped gain ground for Islamists seeking to transform Egypt intotheir strict version of a Moslem state.

Last year, a Cairo court ruled that a happily married professor must divorce his wife because his writings proved he was an apostate. Professor Nasr Abu Zeid and his wife are living outside Egypt because under Islamic law apostasy is punishable by death.

Islamists also successfully banned an internationally acclaimed film they said chronicled the life of the prophet Joseph. The depiction of prophets is also taboo.

The government can appeal against the ruling, made by a junior administrative court in Cairo.

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