Egyptian fundamentalists ignoring female circumcision ban

Egyptian fundamentalists ignoring female circumcision ban

Copyright c 1998
Copyright c 1998 Agence France-Presse

ASYUT, Egypt (January 6, 1998 00:42 a.m. EST) - Egypt
ruled last month, after a long legal battle, that female
circumcision was illegal. But in fundamentalist strongholds
many say they will never abandon a practice which they say
"protects" their daughters' virtue.

Many families say circumcising their young girls is so
necessary to their traditional way of life that they will
ignore the court decision to punish doctors or others carrying
out the operation with up to three years in prison.

"Circumcision is necessary for a woman because it protects her
chastity and virginity," says Khaled al-Sharif, 45, a leading
member of the Abnob tribe in the Upper Egyptian provinces of Asyut,
Sohag, and Qena.

Osman Antar, the mayor of the village of Sabee, some 250 miles
south of Cairo, calls the court's ruling absurd.

"How can we leave our daughters uncircumcised?" he asks.
"The government can do what it wants and we, too, will do what we
want. We will all circumcise our daughters, no matter what the

According to official estimates, more than 90 percent of
Egyptian girls are circumcised, usually at the age of 5 or 6. More
than 70 percent of the operations are carried out at home in
unsanitary conditions, sometimes resulting in girls bleeding to

But many here dispute claims that there is any health risk
associated with the age-old operation, in which all or part of the
clitoris and sometimes the labia are removed, with the aim of
removing a woman's sexual desire.

"Circumcision has no negative effects as (the government) claims
and today, with the progress of medicine, the operation can be done
without any danger," Sharif says.

Egyptian health officials banned circumcision in July 1996 but
until late last year the ban languished in the court system under
attacks by Islamic fundamentalists who claimed the practice is
dictated by the Koran.

The country's highest administrative court, the State Council,
finally ruled on December 28 that female circumcision was illegal
-- throwing out a lower court ruling last summer which overturned
the health ministry's ban on the practice.

The State Council said "circumcision of girls is not an individual
right under Sharia (Islamic law) because there is nothing in the
Koran which authorizes it and nothing in the Sunna," the sayings
and traditions of the Prophet Mohammad.

But while the court ruled that "henceforth, it is illegal or
anyone to carry out circumcision operations, even if the girl or
her parents agree to it," the legal decision appears to carry
little weight in Upper Egypt.

For many in this region, Egypt's poorest, female circumcision is so
deeply rooted in tradition that it is unimaginable to abandon it.
The operation is practiced both by villagers who are Muslim
fundamentalists and their Christian neighbors.

Nadia Ibrahim, a woman living in the city of Sohag, 310 miles south
of Cairo, says she fears banning circumcision will lead to "an
explosion of illegitimate relationships, particularly today, when
girls marry late, at 25 years old at the earliest."

Even some intellectuals in the region oppose the government trying
to root out a practice so deeply embedded in popular culture.

"This is an arbitrary decision which it seems impossible to apply
because it goes against all the traditions of the people," says
Azza Abdel Aziz, a communications professor at the University of

Both supporters of circumcision and its critics agree on one
thing: banning the practice could just drive it underground.

Antar, the mayor of Sabee, says that by penalizing female
circumcision "the government will push people to have their girls
circumcised in secret, to run to the village  barber or midwife
instead of the doctor."

A local women's organization opposing female circumcision urges the
government to proceed with caution in using legal force to root it

Before trying to enforce the law, it will be necessary to sensitize
the population of Upper Egypt to the reasons for the ban," says the
president of Association of Arab Women in Asyut.

		By MAMDOUH AFIFI, Agence France-Presse

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