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EGYPT: A battle over female circumcision

March 30, 2008 |  7:36 am

Islamists and conservative clerics are fighting proposed legislation in the Egyptian parliament that would criminalize female circumcision and raise the minimum age of when a girl can marry. The Islamists view the bill as an affront to Sharia law. 

The legislation drafted by the government-backed National Council for Motherhood and Childhood would impose a prison sentence of as long as two years and a maximum fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $1,000. The proposal would raise the minimum age of marriage from 16 to 18. The bill has been met with a storm of anger by a number of delegates from both the majority and the Islamist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Opponents say the new restrictions are an attempt by the government to impose a Western agenda on an Islamic society. Some clerics, in opposing the bill, state that Islamic Sharia law condones female circumcision and imposes no minimum age of marriage. "Religion does not prohibit or criminalize female circumcision," prominent Islamic scholar Mustafa al-Shaka said to the local press this week.

Islamic scholars have been divided over the religious validity of female circumcision. One camp holds that Islam opposes it, while the other argues that this procedure, in which parts of the female genitals are removed, is necessary to tame a woman's sexual desires and ensure decency.

The bill's architects hold that there is a national consensus on the criminalization of female circumcision. "Nobody can deny that the Egyptian society resents the negative health effects caused by [female] circumcision," said Moushira Khattab, secretary-general of the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood. "Thus, the punishment of those who conduct that practice is a must."    

Female circumcision remains a widespread practice in Egypt, despite having been illegal for years. About 70% of Egyptian girls are believed to be victims of the practice. Last summer, the death of a 12-year-old girl in Upper Egypt in a clinic where she was undergoing the procedure reignited calls to impose harsher penalties on practitioners of the surgery.

— Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

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