Two weeks ago, the Egyptian parliament passed new legislation that toughens the legal penalty on those who practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on helpless minor girls.
This legislation is one of the early law proposals submitted by the Egyptian government to the new House of Representatives, as soon as it convened in January. However, the religious debate, that took place inside the parliament, prior to the issuing of this critical legislation has indirectly unveiled the growing threat of the far-right Islamists of the Salafist movement on women’s rights, and consequently on the well-being of the entire Egyptian society.
Unfortunately, FGM has been practiced in Egypt, for centuries, despite being one of the most serious violations of women’s rights and safety. FGM does not only leave girls with psychological and physical effects that stay with them for the rest of their lives but also some girls lost their lives during the procedure. According to a public health survey, published in 2014, by the Egyptian Ministry of Health; 92% of Egyptian women between 17 to 49 years old had been subject to FGM in their childhood.
Another important statistic published by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), in 2015, shows that 87% of the Egyptian women between 15 to 49 years old had been subject to FGM. The horrifying assault is usually practiced by parents, or older family members, on girls as little as 7 to 9 years old. The practice is widely spread in rural cities, where low levels of education and high levels of poverty are extensive.
For more than two decades, the successive Egyptian governments have been leading widespread campaigns, via public gatherings and local media outlets, to educate the people about the gravity of the FGM practice on the lives of the girls and their fertility and maternity health.
In 2008, the Egyptian state officially banned the practice of FGM at hospitals and private medical clinics. Later in the same year, a law banning the FGM practice and punishing doctors and medical staff, who practice it, was issued by the parliament.
Two years later, Al-Azhar Institution, the highest religious authority in the Muslim world, under the leadership of the Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, supported the efforts of the government in banning FGM, and issued a fatwa confirming that “FGM is a hateful habit that has nothing to do with Islam.”
Despite Al-Azhar’s clear position on the issue and despite the fact that FGM is practiced by both Muslim and Christian families, the extremist movement of the Salafists has been promoting, among their grassroots followers, that FGM is instructed by Prophet Muhammed to ensure girls chastity and prevent vice from spreading in the society. Ironically, there is not a single document in the Islamic heritage that could be used as proof that Prophet Muhammed subjected his own girls to an FGM surgery.
In the first parliament convened after the 2011 revolution, the Salafists, and other Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood group, dominated the vast majority of parliament seats. Removing the 2008 law banning the practice of FGM was one of the first projects, the Islamist-dominated parliament worked on, at that time. Even worse, they attempted to pass legislation that allows marrying girls at 12 years old.
Thank God, their parliament was dissolved by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, for political reasons, before they were able to transform their extremist ideology into state laws, that would have exposed millions of Egyptian girls to massive threats. Sadly, ten years later, this March, the same Salafists attempted to stop the current parliament from passing the legislation that toughens the punishment of those who practice FGM.
The new legislation recently passed by the parliament amends two articles in the Penal Code to fight against FGM. The amendments punish involved doctors and medical staff with prison sentences ranging from 7 to 20 years, in addition to removing their license to practice medicine. They, also, punish the person requesting FGM, who is usually one of the girl’s parents, with up to five years in prison. The law also criminalizes those who promote for FGM or encourage other people to practice it.
The renewed religious debate over the hateful practice of FGM highlights the fact that the extremist rhetoric of Salafists, and their religion-powered influence on grassroots citizens, is the real reason why chronic problems like FGM and minor girls’ marriage cannot be resolved, up till this day, and despite all the efforts exerted by the state and the parliament in this regard.
It is important for the state and supporting civil society organizations to put more effort on undermining the extremist rhetoric of the Salafists, which is widely spread among the grassroots citizens, to ensure that the FGM law and other similar laws will be successfully implemented. Otherwise, they will only remain as ink on paper, with no actual influence.