Unkindest cut: 13-year-old’s death spotlights widespread FGM in Egypt

As a 13-year-old girl dies, Bel Trew reports on why female genital mutilation may be on the rise again in Egypt, where 91 per cent of women are circumcised

 Sohair El-Batea’s story is not uncommon in Egypt: a 13-year-old girl from a Nile Delta village was sent for an illegal circumcision by her parents to the local clinic. Something went wrong and she died en route to hospital.

The autopsy revealed Sohair, whose sisters had been cut by the same doctor, died from “shock trauma”. Staff at the hospital, who tried to revive the teenager, told her mother the doctor drugged Sohair without the supervision of an anaesthesiologist.

Sohair’s father, a farmer, defended his decision, telling local media that neighbours recommended the physician, someone with “a remedy for everything at low prices”. The family was allegedly told by the clinic to say nothing further.

Human rights groups feared that, as usual, nobody would be held accountable for Sohair’s death, and, sure enough, on Wednesday, the doctor responsible was released without charge.

Sohair’s is not the first death to make headlines. In 2010 another 13-year-old, Nermine El-Haddad, bled to death in a hospital, post-operation. Three years before that, two girls of a similar age died, leading parliament to criminalise the practice. One of their mothers told local media she paid just £5.50 for the operation.

Despite the practice being illegal, Egypt has among the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world. In the post Arab Spring upheaval, and with Islamist MPs pushing decriminalisation of the practice in Parliament, activists fear FGM may become more acceptable.

It is estimated that a staggering 91 per cent of women between the ages of 15-49 have been cut, according to the latest survey released in 2008, meaning a cross-section of society, from working-class rural communities to middle-class professionals, put their young daughters under the knife. “It occurs across class boundaries but is of course linked to lack of education and information,” explains Sally Zohney, a feminist working on the issue.

Female circumcision is practised in both Muslim and Christian communities, although Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church and Al-Azhar, the country’s leading Islamic authority, have condemned it. Al-Azhar refuted claims that FGM is sanctioned by Islam.

Cutting, which is rarely practised in other Arab countries, has its roots in African tradition. “There is a strong link between circumcising a girl and protecting her honour, her virginity,” explains Zohney. Many believe removing the clitoris will control women’s “desires” and therefore their behaviour. Although often initiated by female family members, many men will only marry girls who are cut, Zohney adds.

Egyptian women are typically circumcised between the ages of eight and 12. “They either remove a small piece or the whole clitoris,” explains Hussein Gohar, an Egyptian gynaecologist and vocal critic of the practice. Little attention is paid to hygiene and the operations are often done without anaesthetic.

In extreme cases, Gohar continues, the labia is removed “which leaves just a hole”.

“You run the risk of heavy bleeding, sometimes to death,” he adds. Other possible consequences include infection, cysts and scarring which can make sex excruciating and lead to “uncontrollable tearing” during childbirth.

The rite of passage is extremely traumatic, says Salma [not her real name], who was circumcised at the age of nine in a rundown Islamic Cairo district. “I woke up one morning to find three women dressed in black in my room. They sprayed something cold inside me, one held my arms, one my legs,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why they were restraining me — I tried to push them away. Then they cut me. They said nothing.”

Salma considers herself lucky: her cousin, who bled for days, couldn’t walk for a week.

Girls are not prepared for what happens, nor is the process explained to them. “I had problems with my husband, I am not interested in sex, it damaged my marriage. It’s like a bad dream you can never forget,” says Salma.

The United Nations children’s organisation Unicef reports that despite the ban on FGM, 72 per cent of operations are now performed by doctors. They can make a tidy sum on the side: prices start at £14, with some raking in as  much as £150.

“Hospitals can be blamed and spotted more easily because FGM is illegal,” says Zohney, who adds that private clinics are the preferred venue, where the quality of care and the level of discretion depend on the price.

Magda Naguib, from the Better Life Association, explains that doctors are recommended by word of mouth and compete for business. “Families visit them early in the morning and late at night because it’s criminalised,” says Naguib.

Doctors often know little about the potential danger of FGM. Circumcision, Gohar explains, is barely discussed in the university medical syllabus. “Some professors in gynaecology even advocate FGM,” he adds. Physicians occasionally perform the procedure without the patient’s consent: Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights relates one story of a domestic helper who noticed her wounds were not healing after a difficult birth.

“Her doctor had circumcised her during delivery on the instructions of her husband,” Shahbender says.

Despite all this evidence, politicians last year discussed allowing doctors to perform FGM. “What Sohair’s case highlights is that it is not a safe procedure, even when it happens in a medical setting,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, a children’s rights researcher.

Other rights advocates fear campaigns against the practice will continue to face obstacles. Local media reported in 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood was offering subsidised female circumcision at mobile clinics for the equivalent of £3. Video footage of the clinics circulated on social media, though no one has confirmed the story and the group subsequently denied it.

Nevertheless the Brotherhood continues to make controversial statements. In March 2012 Azza El-Garf, one of the only female MPs from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), described FGM as “beautification surgery” that should be allowed.

During a televised debate last year President Mohamed Morsi was asked about the problem. “His response was basically to say it is a personal issue between mother and daughter,” explained Zohney.

None of the FJP parliamentarians in Daqahlia governorate, where Sohair died, would comment on her death. Some contacted by the Evening Standard hung up when FGM was mentioned.

“We have more pressing issues,” says Saad Aly Abdel-Holougy, Brotherhood MP in Daqahlia. He did add that the FJP is against female circumcision.

Motaparthy fears the law is not being enforced: “We’re seen little attempt to investigate these instances.” There are still 12 pending criminal cases from 2010 where parents and doctors were accused of carrying out FGM, and activists complain that police tasked with enforcing the law probably circumcise their own daughters.

The most prominent figure to criticise FGM before the Arab Spring was Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the deposed president. “When the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots speak of women’s rights legislation they call them Suzanne Mubarak laws intentionally, to give them a bad name,” explains Shahbender.

The association with Mubarak has become so acute that women’s rights activists chant “we are not Suzanne Mubarak’s dogs” during marches.

One year into President Morsi’s rule, activists say Egypt is backtracking on personal rights: groups complain that the newly adopted constitution does not prevent the abuse of children, and orders women to prioritise family life.

“Instead of gaining new laws for women’s rights, we are on the defensive to protect established legislation,” says Zohney, fearing that the number of girls subjected to this brutal practice will not diminish: “We can’t look forward.”

“We are fighting a dictatorship. We have to stop it now”

new statesman




There will be blood,” 22-year old Diaa Galal told me, amid acrid plumes of tear gas on 26 November, the night before thousands of protesters once again flocked to Tahrir Square in Cairo.

No one had seen it coming. On 22 November, just a day after brokering a truce between Gaza and Israel, the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, announced a constitutional declaration making his decisions immune to appeal, stripping the judiciary of powers and adding a stipulation that he can take any “necessary actions” to “protect the nation”.

Commentators described the Muslim Brotherhood president, whose supporters had helped oust Hosni Mubarak last year, as “a half-god”, a “pharaoh”; his decree was slammed as a “fascist coup”.

Street battles and protests erupted to the north in Port Said and Alexandria, down south in Assiut, to the west in Suez and in the capital. The stock market plunged almost 10 per cent, the $4.8bn IMF loan, which is in the last stages of negotiation, is on the line and the US has reportedly considered withdrawing aid.

Bloody battles between pro-and anti-Brotherhood crowds left a 15-year-old boy dead in the Nile Delta city of Damanhur, a one-time Brotherhood stronghold. Two teenage anti-government protesters were gunned down by police just off Tahrir Square and multiple offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have been stormed and torched.

Away from the streets, independent trade unions and the courts announced their rejection of the declaration. On Tahrir, a coalition of opposition forces has been staging an open-ended sit-in until Morsi backtracks: the square is a tent city once again.

“We are fighting a dictatorship. We have to stop it now,” says Mohamed Waked, a political writer and member of the National Front for Justice and Democracy, part of the coalition. He explains there are now no state institutions in place that can hold Morsi back.

“Hosni Mubarak never dreamed of these kinds of powers,” adds Hussein Gohar, the international secretary of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, standing by its tent on Tahrir Square.

The Brotherhood faction vehemently disagrees. There is no other way of Morsi steering Egypt through the transition period than by giving the president these powers, Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and FJP, maintains. “Egypt is not a democracy, it is in a transition to a democratic state – so these measures must be taken.”

Morsi, for his part, called himself the “guarantor of the revolution” and said his actions were pushing stability. El-Haddad says the 22 November declaration was meant to pre-empt the dissolution of the constituent assembly – the committee tasked with drawing up a new constitution by Egypt’s courts –which remains peopled with Mubarak-era judges. This and the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, which also faces dissolution, were Egypt’s last two elected institutions, he told me, that “would create democracy”. Morsi’s declaration was intended to protect them.

However, the opposition, as Waked explains, sees the constituent assembly as corrupt and unrepresentative. Assembly members from al-Azhar (Egypt’s highest Islamic authority), the Coptic Church and a large proportion of the liberal and leftist forces have left the constitutiondrafting body. On 26 November, the last remaining non-Muslim Brotherhood female member, Manar el-Shorbagy, resigned. This leaves a Muslim Brotherhooddominated body to write the national charter, Waked notes – something the Islamists will protect at all costs.

El-Haddad flatly denies this accusation, saying Morsi has been “backstabbed” by the opposition, but concedes that there are no checks and balances on the president. “The people must trust him,” he insists. A tall order, the opposition says, for a country that lived through over 30 years of “temporary” emergency law.

The Brotherhood needs us more than we need them: Salafist Nour Party spokesman

After a dramatic month that nearly saw Egypt’s second-largest party in parliament crumble, Ahram Online interviews Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakkar on how he interprets events

Egypt’s Salafist Nour Party witnessed a dramatic split in the last month, as warring factions battled it out over the party presidency.Internecine squabbles culminated on 26 September, when the Supreme Committee withdrew confidence from their president Emad Abdel-Ghafour, who, in turn, attempted to sack the decision-making body.

Fearing the total collapse of the party and after 10-hour crisis talks, both sides finally came to an agreement on 6 October.

It was decided Ghafour would remain in his post and the internal polls – which Ghafour had tried to postpone in a bid to safeguard his own post – would take place as scheduled. Some commentators believe it just a patch-up job and think grievances remain.

Ahram Online talks to spokesman Nader Bakkar – whose own job was on the line last week – about the party’s future.

Ahram Online: What was behind the split?

Nader Bakkar: [On 27 August ] Dr Emad Abdel-Ghafour joined the presidential team, he became a president’s assistant. Personally, I have some problems with this. I learnt while working in various institutions and during my economic studies, that the principle of “conflict of interest” is one of the main concerns for those in top managerial positions.

In my point of view this had to be tackled. To be in a high executive position in the country’s hierarchy and at the same time a party president … is a conflict of interest.

Ghafour said that he received complaints from about nine governorates [concerning the internal party elections]. He was convinced that cheating was taking place. He was worried that the electoral process was not being followed properly and so said we should stop the party elections. This was the beginning of the conflict.

Dr Emad Abdel-Ghafour is a very respectable person: I do not want to make the matter personal.

Eighty per cent of our people agreed with Article 156 [of the Nour Party bylaws], which states the presidential position of the party should be up for election after the initial People’s Assembly polls in November 2011… it became an administrative conflict.

We [the Supreme Committee] said that, in accordance to our administrative laws, that he is not the one who can lodge this complaint. Logically he cannot stop the elections because his position itself is up for election.

So the settlement was a compromise: the Supreme Committee can have their elections while Abdel-Ghafour retains the presidency for the moment?

What happened is [former vice president] El-Sayid Mostafa Hussein Khalifa [then temporary party leader] agreed to step down, which is a good sign. It was his right, administratively and logically to remain president.

AO: Did the Salafist Call (Islamist preaching movement) stir up the debate?

NB: No. You are referring to some of their scholars’ and preachers’ speeches regarding the divisions. They were expressing their own personal opinions but were not involved. We asked them to help at the negotiation stage, following one of the recommendations put forward at our party conference last Monday…

AO: Did you lose many members because of the internal fighting?

NB: If you are talking about leaders, no. Members, yes, but I think the number was very minor…  Dr Hesham Abdel-Nasser, one of the Supreme Committee members [did resign]. One of our administrative laws, which I don’t think he read carefully, states that if you resign in a public forum and fail to deny it in the following three days, it is considered a full resignation.

AO: Why are people saying the Brotherhood had a hand in the disputes?

NB: Expectations: people expected that the party that would benefit the most from this dispute would be the Brotherhood.

Many people believe there will be a political alliance between the Nour Party and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in new elections. Are you ready to follow their agenda?

We’ve never had a formal political alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But in the last elections, the Nour Party and the FJP had political programmes which fed into each other… the Islamists got 60 per cent of the seats…

We are now rivals.

AO: Some people believe the party disputes are more than administrative and reflect ideological and political differences related to the Brotherhood

NB: I respect your point of view but I don’t believe a political debate would have been able to create the level of crisis that we have seen within the Nour Party.

Again, many people speculate about the Nour issue: about whether the Brotherhood was involved. [For parliamentary elections] What I can say is it is very early to talk about a formal partnership.

But, we are thinking about the matter daily because of the [growing] alliance between the liberals and the left.

The Brotherhood needs a coalition with the Nour Party much than we need an alliance with them.

Any regime, and I think you can say that the Brotherhood is the regime, at the beginning… needs friends and supporters. They are handling a lot of issues.

The Nour Party, on the contrary, is focused on developing our organisation; making it more solid, more powerful, increasing our percentage [of seats in parliament] for the coming year.

The stress and the pressure is not on our shoulders; it is on the  Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) shoulders. We are more free.

AO: Do you think Salafist groups, like eliminated presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail’s new party, might challenge the Nour Party’s leadership? Some members left after you refused to back Abu-Ismail.

NB: Not at all. We welcome any new party to the political scene, whether it is a new Salafist group or the Constitution Party, because a real party will inspire us to work harder to convince our people, the Egyptian citizens, to vote for us…

Unfortunately until now the only common agenda between the liberal and leftist parties has been complete antagonism to the FJP and the Nour Party.

This attitude makes our job easier in the run-up to the elections. To date, the liberal and leftist parties have not submitted a … substitute programme for [Egypt].

I don’t think there is one [non-Islamist] electoral party that has offered a solid political and economic programme … their ideology is clearly not very acceptable to the Egyptian people.

AO: What does the Nour Party think of Morsi’s performance during his first 100 days?

NB: From the beginning I had concerns about the principle of the “100 days.” In my view it was not suitable for an unstable political climate like Egypt.

There were some points that he didn’t promise but he still achieved… like resolving the issue of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This is a very good sign in terms of Egypt putting its foot on the path to democracy.

Morsi still needs to address economic issues. … However he did excel in, for example, foreign relations and connections.

He built trust [internationally] in Egypt within a very short period. In the coming period he should concentrate more and more on these domestic issues and build on what he achieved abroad.

However, there is a very important thing to mention here: is this outstanding performance Morsi’s own personal performance? Or is it an institutional performance?

We should build a presidential institution that can perform [not just rely on the individual’s achievements].

AO: We have just had the anniversary of the Maspero massacre in which over 26 were killed as they protested the burning of a church. How is the Nour Party reassuring Christians they will retain their rights and see justice?

NB: I think that what the Christians are feeling is related to what the previous [Hosni Mubarak’s] regime tried to build regarding relations with Muslims, especially Salafists.

A year and a half has passed following the revolution, nothing has happened. Even if there are some disputes between Muslim and Christians, the Salafists are trying to resolve them.

This is very obvious in our response to the situation in Al-Amriya [where a Christian family was forced out from a village].

Some of the Christian MPs, such as Suzy Nashed, Magaret Azab … testify that the Nour Party played a role in the sorting the issue. We opposed the migration of Christians from Alexandria.

AO: What about the burning of churches in the last 18 months? Or the detention of two Coptic children for allegedly desecrating the Quran? 

NB: In regards to the Copt children, we have a massive problem with applying laws, which is not just Christian problem but a problem for all Egyptians. We are against any kind of discrimination based on religious matters.