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Egyptian MP's endorsement of FGM stirs controversy but unlikely to have effect

While female genital mutilation has been criminalised in Egypt since 2008 and awareness of the risks has increased, it is still alarmingly common throughout society

Sherif Tarek , Tuesday 12 Jul 2016
File Photo: A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM) i
File Photo: A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Upper Egypt- Minya (Photo: Reuters)
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Egyptian MP and doctor Ahmed El-Tahawy says female genital mutilation (FGM), from a medical and religious stand, is a necessity as long as it is performed in the right way, a statement that raises questions over longstanding efforts to fight the phenomenon in Egypt.

The controversial statements by El-Tahawy, who is a member of the Egyptian parliament's health committee, came while commenting on a potential draft resolution aimed at intensifying legal punishments against FGM, which has been criminalised in Egypt since 2008.

Speaking to Egyptian private website Parlmany on Monday, he said "as a doctor, [I can say that] when female circumcision is iniquitous it would cause serious psychological problem, especially during sexual intercourse."

"And when we leave the female without excision, contamination in that area takes place, as well as an undesired state of sexual arousal that could lead to big problems."

Many parents in Egypt would opt to subject their girls to FGM out of belief that, without it, they wouldn't be able to control their sexual urges upon puberty and thus be involved in relationships outside wedlock, which is illegal and carries social stigma.

The 2014 Demographic and Health Survey showed that the FGM rate in the reproductive age from 15 to 49 stands at 92 percent. More than 75 percent of cases are of girls aged from nine to 12 while 14 percent are aged 7 or younger, which indicates that the vast majority of Egyptian families circumcise their daughters.

While medical studies point out that FGM reduces women's sexual desire and causes other physical and psychological complications, El-Tahawy believes the issue should be dealt with primarily from a religious viewpoint.

"Any opinion can be debated and replied to except for that of Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him," he said on Tuesday, arguing that one of the prophet's sayings, which is a prime source of Islamic jurisprudence, dictates that female circumcision is essential.

"I call on the Senior Scholars Authority, Al Azhar's Grand Imam and everyone who is related to religion to decide on that case," he added in a phone interview with Dream TV.

Egypt has been seeking to reduce FGM rates in recent years.

Apart from awareness campaigns, the practice was made illegal eight years ago as a law imposes a prison term from three months to two years and fines ranging from EGP 1,000 to 5,000 on those found guilty.

The first FGM conviction was in January 2015 when a father and a doctor were convicted for the death of a 13-year-old girl who died during an FGM operation. Others were prosecuted in similar cases later on.

As Egypt's National Population Council is coming up with a draft resolution to increase sanctions against those who commit FGM, El-Tahawy hit the headline with his statements.

But do his comments bode ill for the battle against FGM?

"We've seen great enthusiasm from the health minister, the general prosecution and the justice ministry to fight FGM," Germaine Haddad, programme officer and gender focal point at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office in Egypt, told Ahram Online.

"The MP's statements do not reflect the official stance against FGM and will not hinder the battle against it."

The Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA), among other critics, slammed El-Tahawy's comments as untrue, reiterating a common stance that it is neither religiously nor medically dictated.

"It is a habit that has been common in Africa since the Pharaohs, but most Muslim countries do not know it," CEWLA said.

"The post-revolution parliaments came as a disappointment, as the well-being of girls and women is still up for meaningless debate from the 2012 Islamist parliament up until the one today."

"Former MP Aza El-Garf [who belonged to the then-ruling Muslim Brotherhood] released similar statements and here is the 2016 parliament saying the same thing through El-Tahawy," reads the non-governmental organisation's statement, which called on the House of Representatives to increase punishments for FGM.

The legal aspect plays a great role in curbing FGM, Haddad stressed, "because it increasingly creates a pre-emptive environment."

"There were times when people celebrated FGM in public. Now, because it's illegal, people would perform it at 6am while keeping a low profile. In time, more people will start asking why it's illegal and see the full picture."

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