On December 20 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution against the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). On December 22 the national referendum in Egypt voted in a new constitution. What do the resolution and constitution bode for the body politic and female bodies in Egypt?
UN Women called the resolution a “significant milestone” in the global drive to end FGM which has been perniciously imposed on young girls as a local custom and religious prescription. The result of sustained international effort with key input from Egypt, the resolution provides another tool for national governments possessing the political will to eradicate FGM and its assault on the rights of women to bodily health and personal integrity.
The new Egyptian constitution, borrowing from and extending the 1971 Constitution provisions, stipulates that laws must be grounded in the shariaa allocating power to the state and its various branches to determine what this means. With tafsir (interpretation of the Qur’an) in the hands of the government, hermeneutics becomes politics.
With Islamists now holding major political power how will women fare? In the National Assembly (now dissolved) Islamists called for the re-institution of FGM which is currently criminalised — along with eliminating a minimum marriage age, extending men’s custody over children, and limiting women’s abilities to enact divorce. Such a ‘package’ speaks to the strengthening of men’s power and control over women and children with religioon invoked to achieve this end.
Going back millennia in Egypt and other Nilotic lands FGM is a cultural practice that entails cutting the genitalia of young girls in order to mute or extinguish female sexual desire. It is done to preserve sexual purity of females which is tied to the honor of men and the family (men’s own behavior is exempt from linkage with honor). While not called for by any religion people have used religion to buttress the perpetuation of FGM imposed on Muslim and Christian girls alike.
FGM is not an Islamic prescription—it is not mentioned in the Qur’an or in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Yet Islam has been wantonly used to sustain FGM’s gruesome assault on girls’ bodily integrity and well-being. This boggles the minds of those who see Islam as a religion affirming the moral and bodily integrity of all human beings and not one that endorses the infliction of corporeal mutilation and suffering.
Serious efforts to stop FGM go back to the middle of the 20th century when it was prohibited by the Nasser government in 1959. At the time of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994 national and international energies converged to intensify the FGM eradication campaign. In the run-up to the conference, veteran social reformers Aziza Hussain and Marie Assad established a Task Force which served as a vocal point for groups working in various professional and associational contexts. The highly networked Task Force supported activists reaching out to rural areas coordinating with local efforts to eliminate FGM.
Intense public exposure elicited contradictory responses from Islamic religious scholars on FGM. The Sheikh of al-Azhar at the time, Gad al-Haq, declared that female circumcision (as he and other religious scholars called FGM) was a religious requirement. The Mufti, Muhammad al-Tantawi, issued a fatwa stating that female circumcision was not Islamic. Islamist lawyer Salim Al-‘Awwa wrote in Al-Sha’b that female circumcision was neither required nor praiseworthy. Shaikh Farid al-Wasil (who became Mufti in 1996) wrote in al-Akhbar: “There is no retreat from the previous fatwas on female circumcision issued by Dar al-Fatah which confirmed there are no religious texts within the domain of Islamic shariah which command or prevent female circumcision.”
In the tumultuous political context in the wake of the ICPD the ban against performing FGM in hospitals was lifted. When the ban was re-instated in 1996, Shaikh Yusif al-Badri, a member of the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, and gynecologist Munir Fawzi, filed suits against the new ban. They claiming the ban violated the 1971 Constitution declaring the shariah to be the source of all law in Egypt. They cited the authority of the former Shaikh al-Azhar Gad al-Haq and backed it up with al-Badri’s readings of Islamic jurisprudence. Reviewing the case the State Council declared in 1997 that the ban did not violate the constitution. Keeping up the pro-FGM offensive Dr. Abu ‘Umaiyra, a former dean of the College of Usul al-Fiqh at al-Azhar, published an article in 1998 he defiantly titled: “Female circumcision is Legislated by God despite its Prohibition by the Courts.”
The ongoing efforts of civil society led by NGOs working at the national and local levels were re-enforced by the support of the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM, est. 1989) which was stepped up around 2001 after Moushira Khattab became secretary-general. The practice of FGM was put increasingly on the run. At the local level when people grasped more fully grave health risks and understood that religion, neither Islam nor Christianity, condoned FGM which was a harsh social practice they began to stop it and enthusiastically joined the campaign against it. They turned FGM which had been seen as a badge of honor into an act of disgrace. Uprooting a deep-seated habit requires continual vigilance and encouragement.
Now with the ascendancy of Islamists to power FGM is finding renewed support. People heard Islamist parliamentarians from the floor of the National Assembly last year calling for a return of FGM. In the run-up to the final round of the presidential elections last spring some members of the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party went around villages offering reduced-rate FGM operations. They were spotted, for example, in Minya Province in the village of Abu Aziz. When their FGM services drew public attention they abruptly vanished fully aware that that performing FGM was a criminal act and denied any involvement in peddling the practice.
What is the fate of FGM between the new UN resolution and the new Egyptian Constitution? The global jubilation attending the Resolution is tempered locally by the voting in of the new Constitution and the political context in which it was drafted and approved. With the new UN declaration will there be another round of discrediting international instruments as “against Islam”? Will articles of the Constitution be mobilised in an effort to enable—to make lawful—the practice of FGM which respected religious figures, including the present Mufti Ali Goma; previous Mufti Farid al-Wasil (recently appointed to the Shura Council); and Islamist lawyer, Salim al-‘Awa have declared beyond the bounds of Islam?
What exactly are the procedures and mechanisms for determining if an act, say the outlawing FGM, is in accordance with the shariah? According to article 4 of the Constitution al-Azhar must be consulted about compliance with shariah (although the scholar experts may differ producing another problem). If religious scholars uphold the previous pronouncement that FGM is not Islamic and an Islamist dominant parliament votes for allowing FGM then what? Is the shariaa which is open to various readings, to be a freely sought moral guide and inspiration or merely reduced to a political imposition?
Margot Badran is a historian and Senior Fellow at the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University and a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars.