Court Backs Egypt's Ban On Mutilation
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
Published: December 29, 1997
In a judgment that women's rights groups say will resonate throughout the Islamic world, Egypt's highest court yesterday upheld a ban on the genital cutting of girls and women, a ritual widely practiced in Africa.
The decision by the supreme administrative court marks the culmination of several years of debate in Egypt between Government officials and some Islamic conservatives, who contend that the practice they call female circumcision is a cultural or religious issue, and not a matter for government or the courts.
Yesterday's ruling overturned a lower court decision challenging the ban that was imposed by the Egyptian Health Ministry in 1996. The ruling cannot be appealed. Violations carry a three-year jail sentence.
''Circumcision of girls is not an individual right under Sharia,'' the court said in its judgment, striking down the argument that Islamic law condones the practice. ''There is nothing in the Koran that authorizes it,'' the court said.
Asma Abdel Halim, a Sudanese lawyer based in New York who has been helping African women campaign against the practice, said that the Egyptian decision ''will give a tremendous boost to women, because they will now have a very strong weapon to use.''
''This decision from Egypt's highest court is really profound,'' Ms. Abdel Halim said in an interview yesterday. ''It is significant because Egypt has for a long time been the center of both Islamic scholarship and Islamic jurisprudence, and many people look up to Egypt.''
Ms. Abdel Halim said it was also important that in Egypt, as elsewhere where what women's groups call female genital mutilation is practiced, the battle is being waged by local women. The practice includes removing a girl's clitoris, and sometimes much of the outer genital area, to strip her of sexual feelings.
The ruling counters accusations that only outsiders -- ''neo-colonialists'' in the opinion of some who defend the practice -- are intent on ending it, she said.
In Gambia in November, a grass-roots organization called the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices succeeded in persuading the Government to lift censorship on the subject of genital mutilation, giving private groups freedom to campaign against it.
Jessica Neuwirth, an American lawyer who is president of Equality Now, an international women's human rights organization that helped the Gambian and Egyptian campaigns, among many others, said on Sunday that Egypt's female genital mutilation task force should get the credit for making the issue of genital mutilation public. The task force included Government officials and representatives of a range of private organizations like the Egyptian Society for Prevention of Harmful Practices to Woman and Child.
The cutting of a girl's clitoris and sometimes the outer lips of the vagina -- rough surgery often performed by traditional practitioners or family members wielding knives or razors -- can leave her severely damaged, prone to infections and, frequently, incontinent. Many girls bleed to death during or after the procedure.
In extreme cases, women's organizations say, girls' or women's mutilated vaginas are stitched shut, then unstitched before and restitched after intercourse with their husbands, an attempt to make them appear to be permanently virgins.
In Egypt, where the practice is very common among not only Muslims but also Coptic Christians, private and some Government clinics have been teaching medical staff members and patients about the dangers of genital cutting.
Today's court decision ended -- at least legally -- a controversy that began when Egypt tried to stop the practice in Government hospitals and heightened after Health Minister Ismail Sallam announced in July 1996 that genital mutilation would be banned across the board in Egypt. The ban followed a long campaign by Egyptian human rights organizations and women's groups.
In June of this year, Mr. Sallam's ban was overturned by a lower court in a case brought by proponents of genital excisions, who argued that it was an Islamic practice. The leader of the challenge was Sheik Yussef al-Badri. He argued in court that Islam had condoned the practice for 14 centuries.