Following two weeks of intensive debate, the House of Representatives, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, approved on Sunday a bill that will toughen up penalties on female genital mutilation (FGM) crimes.
Parliamentary Speaker Hanafi Gibali said the legislative amendments would be up for a final vote only after they were revised by the State Council in legislative and constitutional terms.
According to a report prepared by the House’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, “the practice of FGM is still one of the worst crimes in Egypt, and so it is high time that the laws be amended to impose harsher penalties on this crime.”
“FGM has never been an Islamic ritual,” the report said. “It is a mediaeval practice that has been adopted by some countries even though it doesn’t have any roots in religion or medicine.”
Ibrahim Al-Henidi, chair of the House’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said that although the law was amended five years ago to make it a criminal offence to perform FGM, the current penalties had proved not to be enough to put an end to the practice.
The new amendments thus imposed tougher penalties that would act as an even-stronger deterrent, he said.
Al-Henidi deplored the fact that the last seven years had seen many FGM operations and led to the deaths of several young girls, particularly in the countryside. As a result, Article 242 of the Penal Code 58/1937 would be amended to increase the maximum and minimum prison sentences imposed for FGM crimes.
The amendments, approved by the Senate, the upper house of parliament, on 21 March, are in line with Article 11 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution, which stipulates that the state shall protect women against all forms of violence and empower women to strike a balance between family duties and work requirements.
“Article 60 also states that the human body has a special dignity and any assault, by deformation or mutilation, against this body shall be considered a crime punishable by law,” Al-Henidi said, adding that “Article 80 indicates that the state shall take care of children, protect them from all forms of violence, bad treatment, and all sorts of sexual and commercial abuse.
“Let me also add that Law 12/1996 makes it obligatory for the state to take all the measures necessary to protect children from all forms of sexual and physical abuse,” he said.
The new FGM amendments state that “non-medical personnel involved in performing genital mutilation will face up to seven years in prison if the practice leads to a permanent disability, and up to 10 years in prison if the practice leads to death.”
The amendments also say that medical professionals such as doctors and nurses who perform FGM can face between 10 and 15 years in prison.
“If the procedure leads to a permanent disability, any medical professionals involved can face a minimum of 10 years in prison, and if the procedure leads to death, the penalty will be toughened to between 15 to 20 years in prison,” the amendments add.
Moreover, they also state that medical professionals convicted of performing FGM will be stripped of their licences for up to five years and have their clinics closed for the same period.
According to the same amendments, any other individuals found promoting, encouraging, or supporting FGM in any of the ways prescribed by Article 171 of the Penal Code will be jailed, even if the procedure takes place without harm.
Ali Gomaa, chair of the House’s Religious Affairs Committee and Egypt’s former grand mufti, said that “there is nothing in Islam that supports the practice of female genital mutilation.
“I do not know why some insist on performing this practice even though the Prophet Mohamed never ordered that his daughters be circumcised,” Gomaa said, adding that “FGM is a practice that should be strictly criminalised.”
Gomaa’s arguments were rejected by Ahmed Hamdi Abul-Kheir, an MP affiliated with the ultra-conservative Nour Party, who insisted that the Prophet Mohamed was a supporter of female circumcision and that he had asked Muslims to perform the practice.
“As a result, we oppose this bill which contradicts Islam,” Abul-Kheir said.
He cited Sheikh Gad Al-Haq, a former grand imam of Al-Azhar, as saying in 1994 that “khitan, or female circumcision, is an Islamic ritual.” He added that in his view circumcision was “a healthy practice that aims to control women’s sexuality” and one recommended by the Prophet Mohamed.
“Let me also say that there are eight forms of mutilation, but one form only is accepted by Islam, and it is the one which does not disfigure or cause physical and psychological harm to women,” Abul-Kheir said, also arguing that “criminalising the practice will not eradicate it, but will rather make things worse.”
In response, Gomaa said it was not sure that the Prophet Mohamed had ordered Muslims in any way to perform FGM. “Some mediaeval Muslim clerics did not prohibit mutilation, and they thought that it was a healthy and moral practice. But religious opinions should change, and we now live in a different age in which all doctors and scientists agree that mutilation is a very bad and harmful practice that should be penalised in every form,” Gomaa said.
He said he wondered “why some insist on tarnishing the image of Muslims in the world by claiming that FGM is recommended by Islam.”
Ayman Abul-Ela, deputy chair of the Human Rights Committee in the House, said that FGM was psychologically and physically harmful for women.
“People perform this practice as part of misguided religious and cultural beliefs, and it is high time to correct these beliefs because FGM is a horrendous crime that goes against human rights,” Abul-Ela said.
He indicated that “Cairo University research has shown that most genital mutilation operations in Egypt are practised by doctors in private clinics.
“After toughening the penalties against it, doctors should realise that they will lose their jobs if they take the risk of performing such a practice,” said Abul-Ela, also arguing that “mutilation is a predominantly African habit, with most Muslim countries prohibiting this crime as it does not have any roots in religion.”
Parliamentary Speaker Hanafi Gibali said that “Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s leading institution, has publicly condemned FGM. Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb sent me a message in which he declared the institution’s approval of the amendment and that FGM has no basis in Islam.”
Gibali added that “FGM is a dangerous tradition, and it is the product of a misinterpretation of Islam.”
According to data released by Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), the number of girls and mothers reporting actual or potential incidents of FGM reached 1,618 between June 2019 and December 2020.
In 2005, said the NCW, when the Child Helpline was first established, there were 240 reported incidents.
Maya Morsi, president of the NCW and co-chair of the National Committee for the Eradication of FGM, said the rise in the number of people reporting cases of FGM was a promising sign that the country’s efforts to raise awareness were starting to work.
“We are reaping the fruit of two years of extensive awareness-raising of the dangers of FGM, which have led to an increasing number of families and medical personnel coming forward and reporting it,” Morsi said.
She added that “parliament’s approval for toughening up the penalties on the perpetrators of this crime is another step forward that will finally lead to eradicating this practice.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Toughening up FGM penalties