Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

FGM in Egypt: Stricter Laws against the ‘Social Norm’

Activists demonstrate against a lawmaker’s call for mandatory virginity tests for women seeking university admission. Photo AP

The Egyptian member of parliament Elhamy Agina has a record of controversial statements. In late September 2016, he said that girls should undergo virginity tests before being admitted to university. Earlier the same month, he had stirred controversy by claiming that women should undergo Feminine Genital Mutilation (FGM), the practice of removing a girl’s external genitals, to “reduce sexual appetite”. He argued that Egyptian men are weak, and hence cannot handle a woman with high sexual desire. These declarations came in response to a legislative amendment passed in August 2016 that poses stricter penalties on FGM practitioners.

Agina’s comment struck a sensitive chord. According to a UNICEF report from September 2016, 87% of women aged 15-49 in Egypt have undergone FGM, one of the highest percentages in the world. And he is not the only parliament member making a case for the practice. In July 2016, the doctor and MP Ahmed El-Tahawy said FGM was ‘a necessity’ from a medical and religious perspective. “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,” El-Tahawy said.

The recent amendments to Egypt’s FGM law have raised the possible prison sentence for performing FGM from two to a minimum of five and a maximum of seven years. They also have defined FGM as a felony rather than misdemeanor and widened the scope of criminal responsibility to the clinic or hospital where FGM is performed. When FGM leads to ”permanent deformity” or the death of the girl, the law states a prison term of 15 years for the practitioner.

In 2012, the then Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament attempted to reverse the first law criminalising FGM, passed in 2008. In January 2015, Egypt saw the first conviction of a doctor who had performed an operation of FGM after which the girl had died. He served three months in prison, despite having been sentenced to over two years.

In a combined statement, personal rights advocacy groups have welcomed the recent legislative amendments, but expressed concern about the prevalence of one article in the law, which “exempts offenders from punishment if they undertook the procedure as necessary to protect the self or another from grave harm.” According to the statement, it allows offenders to avoid persecution by claiming the operation was a medical necessity for the girl.

The rights groups also criticized the lack of clear enforcement mechanisms in the law, with the new amendments offering “no means to resolve the lack of reporting of [FGM]”. The prevalence of FGM in Egypt seems to be decreasing only slightly. A UNICEF survey from 2013 estimated the percentage of circumcised Egyptian women aged 15-29 at 91%. The same survey stated that only 35% of women in Egypt believe the practice should end. This last number, especially in the light of the public comments from MPs, shows the challenges in fighting the practice. For the majority of Egyptians, FGM is still the social norm.

Dalia Abd El-Hameed from the Egyptian Centre for Personal Rights underscores this social norm. “More than half of young women [under 30] is convinced that FGM should continue,” she told Fanack, citing a 2014 health ministry survey. Abd El-Hameed is critical of the new legislation, as it “does not reflect real political will.” With FGM remaining the social norm, hasher penalties are not the solution, she argued. “It unfair to imprison family members when there is no awareness raising.”

Instead, she advocates for a comprehensive approach, with a focus on education and awareness, to abandon the practice. For instance, Abd El-Hameed would like to see a “comprehensive sexuality program”, introduced in the school curricula, that would deal with issues such as gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and FGM.

All major studies on the practice in Egypt indicate that education and FGM have a strong inverse relation. In other words, when a woman is low educated, her likelihood of being circumcised is much higher. Besides, FGM is more common in rural areas than it is in cities. The World Health Organization found in 2008 that the FGM prevalence rate at private urban schools was just 9.2%, while in public rural schools it was 61.7%.

Another reason underscoring that stricter penalties are not a solution in itself, is that it is “extremely difficult to get the crime reported,” Abd El-Hameed said. The daughter is often too young, and the practice is done in consensus between the doctor and the parents, entirely in the private sphere, she said.

Abd El-Hameed describes the climate of non-reporting as “reflective of the failure of the government to change convictions”, and thinks only an “honest societal discussion” can change this. Besides, Abd El-Hameed is critical of existing awareness campaigns, which often focus on the religious aspect and medical risks. She denounces the “victimisation of women” in these campaigns, typically showing crying daughters, which then contributes to the stigma surrounding FGM and leads to discouraging women to talk openly about the matter. “Life does not end after FGM, especially as it is mostly medicalised. Women need to talk about their experiences. Some girls are traumatised, some less so.”

According to the United Nations Population Fund, 82% of female circumcisions are performed by trained medical personnel. An awareness campaign should address the root cause of FGM, which Abd El-Hameed describes as “the conviction that FGM protects the piety of girls”.

People in Egypt are often afraid that without FGM, girls would be inclined to have premarital sex, she explained. In Egypt, having premarital sex is a huge taboo, and in most social circles doubts about a girl’s virginity would ruin her chances to get married.

The health ministry survey supports her views, indicating that around 45% of women between 15-49 believe that FGM prevents adultery. However, also over half of the women think FGM is required by religion. For Abd El-Hameed, the biggest challenge to combat these phenomena is still the lack of political will. With parliament members openly supporting the practice, her frustration is understandable.

However, she remains hopeful: “Change is achievable if there is political will.” Thereby, she is seeing a strong grass root movement against FGM that could be able to mobilise youth. “We need a more democratic environment, with room for organization and activism against FGM,” she concludes.

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