Stopping the Flood of Female Genital Mutilation: Egypt Brings Historic Case

For the first time in Egyptian history, an Egyptian physician, Dr. Raslan Fadl, will stand trial for the female genital mutilation of a thirteen-year-old girl—not only because he broke the 2008 Mubarak-era law against such practices but because the girl died.

Dr. Fadl claims she had an allergic reaction to the penicillin used for the procedure.

Her family will probably settle for compensation for her death, as they cannot accuse the physician of undertaking a procedure that they themselves asked him to perform.

Doctors have been seen as the solution to an intractable problem. African and Muslim feminist activists decided that since the practice had such widespread support, that a physician (ideally in a hospital, ideally using anesthesia, and ideally performing a minimal mutilation, not the more common maximal versions) would be safer than an illiterate peasant woman with her rusty razor blades and knives.

Alas, that was not the case this time.

According to UNICEF, 91% of married Egyptian women between 15-49 have been subjected to FGM.

I first learned about female genital mutilation (FGM) in 1976, when my esteemed feminist colleague, an American in exile from her native South Africa, Dr. Diana Russell, published her proceedings of a legendary International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women. One woman from Guinea testified about FGM.

What she said was horrifying. Using no anesthesia, women, including the victim’s female relatives, held down girls of twelve and “without any anesthesia or regard for hygiene” attacked their genitalia with “the neck of a broken bottle… when the clitoris had been ripped out, the women howled with joy.” This witness also said that in other countries, “this savage mutilation is not enough; it is also necessary to sew the woman up…leaving only a small space for the passage of blood and urine.”

Another witness, from France, testified more on the side effects and complications of this procedure: “Hemorrhage, tetanus, urinary infection and septic anemia are not infrequent results. The perineum (tissue) of those who survive hardens, and will tear in childbirth.” She explained that some women experience agony if their clitoral area is even gently touched. And those who give birth may develop fistulas (urinary and bowel incontinence) and may be rejected by their families because of their foul odor. This practice is pandemic all over the Arab Middle East and among Christians, Muslims, and animists in black Africa.

This issue remained under the radar until 1979-1980 when I worked at the United Nations. In 1979, Fran Hosken, an Austrian-American scholar, published the Hosken Report which exposed the barbaric custom. Some African and Muslim feminists who were connected to the UN immediately condemned Hosken as a “white imperialist” whose outrage and exposé might hurt their within-system work to have physicians at least minimize the danger and the trauma involved in this atrocity.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I also learned about FGM from my Egyptian colleague, Nawal El-Sadawii, a physician herself, as well as a leading feminist. She is also a novelist and a very good one.

El-Sadawii wrote about her own traumatic clitoridectomy when she was six years old. She was terrified, in physical agony, but she remembers that her own mother smiled during the procedure. When El-Sadawii heard similar stories from thousands of her female patients, she began a crusade against this atrocity.

El-Sadawii rose to become the director of Public Health in Egypt, but, in 1972 when she published her book Women and Sex (which discussed FGM), she was dismissed. El-Sadawii was subsequently jailed for three months for running a gynecological clinic under the “Law for the Protection of Values from Shame.”

In 1983, the American novelist and poet Alice Walker published a book and a movie, both titled Warrior Marks, about her campaign against FGM in Senegal, Gambia, and Burkina Faso.

In 2008, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (the very man whom America helped oust) criminalized FGM in the penal code.

In 2011, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that “this (FGM) is a private issue that he will not actively combat.”

In July 2013, General Abdel al-Sisi, the former head of the Egyptian Army and now the Deputy Prime Minister (running for the Presidency), overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood and designated it a terrorist organization. Al-Sisi remains an independent; to his credit, Salafists voiced a strong opposition to his candidacy.

Full circle back to the beginning of this piece. It is on al-Sisi’s watch that this unprecedented trial against a physician is now taking place in Egypt—based on a 2008 Mubarak-era law.

I hope that President Obama and his supporters are paying attention to this, among many other facts.

Just today, a group of scholars and experts wrote an Open Letter to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and other Senators protesting the Senate decision to block “the $650 million in military aid to Egypt that the Administration has agreed to release. Egypt is and continues to be America's strongest ally in the Arab world and has been a key partner on the war on terrorism… Egypt now is facing a war with an al-Qaeda affiliate in their very backyard and they need America's full political and military support as they face the same enemy that declared war against the United States so many years ago.”

Signatories include Robert C. MacFarlane (National Security Advisor to President Reagan), Donald Rumsfeld, Dr. Walid Phares, Katharine Gorka, and numerous retired military personnel and scholars.

No one in Egypt believes that the physician will be seriously punished. Few people believe such a trial will convince other physicians and non-medical personnel to stop performing such mutilations. Men whose own mothers and grandmothers endured FGM will not marry girls who are not genitally mutilated, and no daughter’s father wants to be responsible for her permanent upkeep – unless they can be persuaded otherwise.


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