Watershed moment for Egypt’s FGM ban
Sohair el-Batea died after her father took her to a rural Egyptian doctor to have her genitals cut. The two men are the first to go on trial under Egypt’s FGM ban, which could be a turning point.
When Sohair el-Batea’s father took her to Dr. Raslan Fadl’s clinic in the Nile Delta village of Dierb Biqtaris to have her genitals cut, her family thought it would make her like most Egyptian girls. The vast majority of women in her community had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), the illegal procedure done in the name of promoting chastity.
But when news spread that an allergic reaction to penicillin killed el-Batea during the operation and her father confessed that the procedure was done at the family’s request, local activists and international rights groups began to campaign for justice. And when the country’s chief prosecutor agreed to take up the case, el-Batea became the center of a seminal trial and the first of its kind since Egypt banned the practice in 2008.
With a further court date on Thursday in the trial of the doctor who performed the FGM procedure and el-Batea’s father, activists hope a precedent for justice and accountability will finally be set. But in a country where the practice remains widely accepted and deeply entrenched, others say the trial and criminalization will do little to eradicate FGM.
Impunity for doctors and families
“It is a deep-rooted tradition in Egypt, a cultural tradition that has been going on for years and years, as it has in Africa,” said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East and North Africa consultant at Equality Now, the international women’s rights group that led, the push to bring el-Batea’s case to trial.
According to Egyptian government figures, 91 percent of women ages 15 to 49 have been subjected to the procedure. UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, estimates that one-fifth of the 125 million women worldwide who have undergone FGM are from Egypt. Only three countries – Somalia, Djibouti and Guinea – have a higher rate.
Following the death of a 12-year-old girl in 2008, Egypt passed a law banning the practice in all its forms. But doctors continued to practice FGM in private in both rural and urban areas, and little has been done to enforce the law. The death of al-Batea in June of 2013 brought FGM back into the spotlight.
While this time around many believe the doctor and father will be convicted, members of al-Batea’s community have said they will continue the practice and have supported the doctor and her father.
“People in Dierb Biqtaris practice this ugly habit and they think it’s an Islamic tradition that should be followed and practiced,” Reda Al Danbouki, a lawyer and local activist, told DW. “And for that they are sympathetic with the doctor and the father of Suhair and say that her death was [the will of God and no one can stop it].”
Although many in Egypt’s poor, rural communities continue to defend FGM, citing religious reasons for the practice, there is no basis in religion. In other Arab Muslim countries like Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the practice is nearly non-existent. Practiced by both Muslims and Christians in Egypt, it has been condemned by leading religious figures.
“I don’t think very many people are taking the law seriously; they think the law is just something that is there that they can ignore – and the alarmingly high numbers are proof of that,” said Mona Eltahawy, an activist, writer and author of a forthcoming book on the fight for gender equality in the Arab world. “I think it is something that Egypt uses to show the international community that the law is on the books.”
Still, other activists see the trial as an important opportunity for the government to send a clear message that the ban will be enforced.
“Sohair’s case is very, very important in terms of implementing the law in Egypt,” said Abu-Dayyeh, adding that it is the first time since the legislation was passed that anyone has been prosecuted for FGM. “We believe – and we hope – that the judge will sentence the father and the doctor under the FGM law.”
Apart from setting a precedent for accountability in a country where very few people speak about the practice, Abu-Dayyeh said the trial has received considerable coverage in local media.
“The Egyptian media was very much interested [in the trial], and were with us in some of the sessions in court,” she said.
Regardless of the impact of the trial and the criminalization of FGM, people like lawyer al-Dankoubi say more needs to be done to educate and raise awareness. While civil society groups have been working to do this, he says the state must do more to train preachers within the ministry of religious endowments to educate people about the dangers of FGM. In addition to enforcing the laws, he said punishments should be tougher.
And for Eltahawy, it is what she calls “society’s desire to control female sexuality” that needs to be addressed.
“What we need to confront in Egypt is our obsession with female virginity, because this is ultimately what FGM is about,” she said. “FGM is a way that families control their girls’ sex drives, and a way for society to control women’s sexuality, and unless the conversation about FGM is carried out within those parameters, we stand no chance of eradicating it.”
“You can have all the court cases you want and people will still do it, because they don’t believe women have the right to sexual pleasure,” she said.