As Egypt toughens female genital mutilation laws, will the reforms be enough to stop it?

As Egypt toughens female genital mutilation laws, will the reforms be enough to stop it?
Earlier this year, Egypt approved amendments to the 2016 law against FGM, toughening prison sentences against those undertaking the illegal procedure, but many argue this is still not enough.
7 min read
16 February, 2021
Egyptian doctors give FGM medical advice during an awareness campaign in Giza in February [Getty]

For the second time in six years, Egypt has toughened legal penalties against the perpetrators of female genital mutilation (FGM), almost a year after a 14-year-old teenager lost her life while undergoing the heinous procedure in southern Egypt.

On January 21, the Egyptian cabinet approved amendments to the law passed in 2016, toughening the prison sentences for undertaking FGM (female genital cutting or female circumcision) to up to 20 years in case of the victim's death. The law is expected to be referred to parliament for final approval soon.

The amended law sets a minimum of five years in prison for removing, modifying or mutilating a part of a female's genitals.

On the other hand, doctors, nurses or midwives carrying out the illegal practice will be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison if proven guilty of causing the victim a permanent deformity. This article is, however, viewed by legal and medical experts to be a loophole in the long-awaited legislation.

"Cutting part of a girl's genitalia is in itself a form of deformity because it's an irreversible act, causing permanent physical damage," Emad Soliman, a professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at Menofia University, told The New Arab.

While Abdel-Hameed Attia, the general coordinator of Doctors against FGM initiative, agrees with Soliman, he argues that other forms of perpetual harm can only be detected later in a female's life.

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"FGM usually causes problems to a women's sex life. But the question is how this can be proved with a victimised child in order for a perpetrator to be incriminated," Attia said.

Attia, also a professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at Cairo University, casts further doubt on the efficacy of the law.

"We need laws to be strictly imposed, in the first place, rather than just toughened. The penalties stipulated by the law for 2016 were enough. But the point is that no wrongdoers have yet been imprisoned, even though some had already been handed down prison sentences," he argued.

"At the same time, the new harsh amendments hold parents or other caregivers accountable, which may make other family members refrain from reporting such abuse; and doctors, in turn, will escape punishment," Attia added.

"No wonder that the reported cases are not in proportion with the actual number of procedures undertaken around the country," he reflected.

Read also: On International Day Against FGM, Egypt remains a top offender

The amendments include some positive sides, though.          

For the first time, the law stipulates that those promoting FGM will face imprisonment.

"I see this as a good sign that may deter fanatics from encouraging people to go for this act," lawyer Mahmdoud El-Adawy, an advocate of children's rights, told The New Arab.

I see this as a good sign that may deter fanatics from encouraging people to go for this act

Loopholes included?

An evasive phrase in the previous law about a medical justification for any form of cutting in a female's genitalia has been omitted, which was used before by doctors to justify their wrongdoing under the pretext that they carried it out for medical or cosmetic reasons.

However, Attia believes that the wording of the amended law still needs to be paraphrased by both legal experts and physicians.

"In my line of work, there are several medical cases of women where we find ourselves obligated to operate on this part of the body due to conditions such as cysts, abscesses and other similar medical problems," Attia argued.

"Doctors from now on may feel reluctant to operate on feminine genitals least they get accused of carrying out FGM," he added.  

Based on the amendments, doctors and nurses found guilty of undertaking FGM will be further banned from practicing medicine for five years.

"I believe a convicted doctor or nurse must lose [his or her] professional license for good, not getting out of prison to practice again," El-Adawy argued.

Why have it done?

FGM has been one of the problematic issues in the Egyptian society for ages. Even though it is an African tradition, it is believed to date back to the Pharaonic times.

Over the years, ultraconservative Muslim clerics and Salafists advocated the concept that FGM is a Sunnah (the sayings and teachings of Muslim Prophet Mohammed), in spite of neither being mentioned in the Holy Quran or Hadith.

Religious institutions in Egypt, whether Islamic or Christian ones, have long advised against the practice, affirming that it is prohibited by Islam and Christianity for causing irreparable damage to women.

Nevertheless, the practice is still rife across the country, especially in the conservative south and in rural areas.

Many Egyptian parents still put their daughters through this ordeal, mistakenly believing it is a way of preserving their chastity by curbing their libido. And at the time when husbands complain of intimate issues with their circumcised wives, they tend to have it done to their daughters.

"FGM does not affect a women's libido the way people may think. Rather, it affects her responses to her husband during intimacy and her ability to have orgasm in order to reach full satisfaction. Libido is mainly controlled by the brain, then supported by the genitals," Attia explained.

A 2016 survey by UNICEF indicated that 87% of Egyptian females aged from 15-49 have undergone the procedure

A 2016 survey by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) indicated that 87 percent of Egyptian females aged from 15-49 have undergone the procedure.

"My husband has always complained of our sex life, treating me as if I'm the reason for me being circumcised," a 37-year-old married woman from Sohag province in southern Egypt told The New Arab.

"I don't have daughters. Had I had any, I would have had them circumcised too. Where I was raised up, it's a must that a girl is circumcised. It has nothing to do with education; but with our customs and traditions as southern Egyptians," she said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject for her.

Another woman, a 23-year-old teacher, recalls the traumatic experience she underwent while being circumcised at the hands of a midwife in the countryside.

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"I was only 10 when my father came home accompanied by an elderly lady. They tied my legs and arms to the bed, ignoring my screams; and the old woman cut part of my clitoris with a razor. I can't forget the fear or the intolerable pain and bleeding I endured for days I couldn't count," she told The New Arab, declining to be named for the same reason.

"I'm not sure I can have a normal marital experience. What I'm sure of is that I lost faith in the people I should have trusted most, my parents," she, sadly, added.

In many cases, this habit does not have to do with social class or education.

"I often come across educated parents, who belong to the middle-class, asking me to circumcise their daughters and I convince them otherwise," Soliman said.

According to psychologist Hanan Marzouk, "this tradition has to do with people's collective unconscious."

"It's a deeply-rooted belief in the society that cannot change easily; but it will eventually," she told The New Arab.

"We are living in a society believing that intimacy is a taboo at the time when there is lack of sex education," she added.

We are living in a society believing that intimacy is a taboo at the time when there is lack of sex education

Gradual ban

FGM was first banned by the Egyptian Ministry of Health in 1996, but not outlawed until 11 years later. The laws enacted to ban or criminalise the practise usually followed the catastrophic death of a young victim, making news headlines.

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In 2007, the death of 11-year-old Bodour stirred the outcry of activists, leading the state to criminalise the act one year later. Had it been outlawed years earlier, many lives would have been saved.

"I don't think the solution to this problem will only be a legal one. The real challenge here is with awareness raising campaigns that has to be offered by people who are able to simplify matters for uneducated and simple citizens, especially those living in remote and rural areas or even for educated people, all relating a girl's virtue to genital cutting," El-Badawy said.

The first Egyptian doctor convicted of causing the demise of a 13-year-old girl during genital cutting back in 2015 was Raslan Fadl. He was handed down a two-year sentence for manslaughter and three months for undertaking a banned procedure.

Nevertheless, Fadl was released following only three months behind bars after reconciling with the victim's family by paying them 65000 Egyptian pounds (about 4100 USD) as a compensation.

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create a security or freedom of movement issue

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