“Since I was a child, that deep wound left in my body has never healed.”
So wrote Nawal El Saadawi in her memoir in reference to the traumatic procedure of female genital mutilation that she experienced at the age of 6 and that scarred her for life.
The Egyptian author, psychiatrist and activist, who died of natural causes in Cairo on March 21, chronicled the agonizing procedure she was subjected to in her 1977 book “The Hidden Face of Eve.” The book is both an autobiography (as Saadawi recounts her experiences growing up in a conservative rural community where religion plays a significant role in people’s lives) and a harrowing nonfiction account of the brutality faced by women in the broader Arab region.
While Saadawi’s revelation about female genital mutilation remains as shocking today as it was nearly half a century ago, many women in her native Egypt — where the harmful practice remains prevalent despite a 2008 law criminalizing it — can relate to her firsthand account of the brutal procedure.
The distressing episode awakened Saadawi’s sense of the injustice and violence suffered by women in Egypt’s patriarchal society, particularly in rural communities like the one she grew up in. This prompted her to speak out against all forms of oppression of women, including female genital mutilation, which she described as “a tool used to oppress women.”
Her relentless campaigning against the practice (which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia) ultimately led to the passing of the 2008 law banning female genital mutilation in Egypt. Although hailed by some rights advocates at the time of its issuance as “a milestone” in the fight against female genital mutilation, the law has failed to put an end to the centuries-old practice and has instead driven female genital mutilation underground, laments Amna Nosseir, a professor of Islamic thought and philosophy at Al-Azhar University and a former member of parliament.
Female genital mutilation “continues unabated in some parts of Egypt, especially in the conservative southern rural communities,” she told Al-Monitor.
She said health practitioners continue to perform female genital mutilation, albeit discreetly, for financial gain, persuading families that the procedure is necessary “for cosmetic reasons.” Parents are often only too willing to comply, allowing their daughters to undergo female genital mutilation out of conviction that it purifies girls, protects their chastity and helps to preserve the family honor. It also prepares them for marriage as some men in the southern rural villages still refuse to marry a girl who has not been cut.
About 92% of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone female genital mutilation, according to the 2014 National Demographic and Health Survey, the last comprehensive nationally representative household survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Population. Statistics from the Egypt Health Issues Survey 2015 (conducted on behalf of the ministry by a private research company) show a slightly lower prevalence, 87.2%, in the same cohort.
Moreover, Egypt has the highest rate of medicalized female genital mutilation worldwide, with nearly 80% of girls aged 1 to 14 found to have been cut by medical professionals, according to the 2015 survey.
Ironically, Saadawi’s death in late March coincided with parliament’s preliminary approval of amendments to Article 242 of the Penal Code (Law No. 58 of the year 1937) that would impose tougher penalties on violators.
Under the new amendments, jail terms of between five and 20 years would be recommended, depending on who performed the surgery and whether it caused the victim a permanent disability or death. Moreover, the proposed bill stipulates that medical staff that perform female genital mutilation will be banned from practicing their profession for a period of up to 5 years.
The bill, which was submitted by the government, has been referred to the State Council for review. It will then be put to a final vote in parliament before it is signed into law.
If the law passes, it will be the second time that Egypt has toughened penalties for female genital mutilation since the issuance of the anti-female genital mutilation law in 2008.
In late 2016, amendments were introduced that included an increase in prison terms of between three and 15 years (the maximum 15 year-sentence is for medics found guilty of causing the death of a victim during or after the procedure) from the previous jail terms of between three months and two years.
The 2016 amendments further stipulated that anyone accompanying girls to be cut (parents, siblings or relatives) would also be imprisoned for a period of between one and three years. The law was also altered to classify female genital mutilation as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
But the harsher penalties have not served as the deterrent for female genital mutilation lawmakers and rights advocates had hoped for. This is mainly due to the fact that most female genital mutilation cases go unreported because the procedure is often carried out with the mutual consent of parents and the medical practitioners performing the surgery.
In an interview broadcast on the privately owned ON TV in early February, Sabri Othman, director of the Child Helpline at the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, said that more than 80% of female genital mutilation procedures were carried out by health practitioners. He said the “increased medicalization” of female genital mutilation is not the only problem, lamenting that some ultra-conservative clerics continue to advocate for female genital mutilation “basing their argument on the misconception that the practice is rooted in Islam.”
Nosseir said there was a heated debate in parliament when the bill was introduced. “Some Salafi [ultra-conservative] lawmakers expressed their opposition to the amendments, arguing that physicians should decide whether or not to undertake the procedure as in some cases it may be necessary to protect adolescent girls before marriage. “
Members of the Salafi Nour Party based their argument on a weak hadith (or statement) falsely attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that allegedly gives the green light for the removal of a small part of the clitoris, Nosseir said. She insisted that contrary to popular belief, female genital mutilation is not an Islamic practice. “In fact, the practice predates Islam and was exported to Egypt from sub-Saharan Africa.” There is no mention of female genital mutilation in the Quran, she said.
Addressing the House of Representatives during a session discussing the amendment March 28, Ali Gomaa, the head of parliament’s Religious Committee and a former grand mufti, denounced female genital mutilation as “a crime,” referring to the World Health Organization’s condemnation of the practice as being “harmful to women.”
“Criminalization of FGM is in line with Sharia law,” he said, using the initials for female genital mutilation. “The Prophet Muhammad did not perform FGM on his daughters nor did he support FGM.”
“The Hadith related to FGM attributed to the Prophet Muhammad is weak and unreliable,” he further noted.
Maya Morsi, head of the National Council for Women, has described the new amendments as “a victory” for women and girls in Egypt and is confident that the tougher penalties will act as a deterrent to female genital mutilation.
But some women’s rights advocates such as Mozn Hassan, the founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies, do not share her optimism. “While the law criminalizing FGM is important, tougher penalties alone will not solve the problem as it is highly unlikely that parents who willingly take their daughters to undergo FGM will report the physician,” she told Al-Monitor.
She continued, “We need to revisit the issue and look at all those involved — conservative clerics, prosecutors and judges who often are reluctant to prosecute — and convict parents of girls that undergo FGM.”
Hassan suggested altering the curriculum of medical students to incorporate the harmful effects of female genital mutilation in their studies. “We also need to focus on more inclusive awareness-raising campaigns with appropriate messages targeting different sectors of the society,” she added.
“More importantly, we need the support of the Medical Syndicate, which, to date, has been reluctant to take punitive measures against doctors that perform FGM,” Hassan said.
If the proposed bill is signed into law, it may very well be a symbolic crowning of Saadawi’s lifelong efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation. But other steps such as those outlined by Hassan are needed to wipe out the practice; ending the impunity for the crime of female genital mutilation can be a good start. Until that happens, the list of girls dying from female genital mutilation-related causes will continue to grow and survivors of female genital mutilation will continue to suffer its harmful effects.