CAIRO: “They decide to take you to a doctor and cut off a part of you, and when you die they will be declared innocent,” Egyptian blogger Tahany Lasheen posted to her Twitter account Friday.
The post was typical of social media outrage sparked over the Thursday acquittal of a doctor charged in the death of Soheir al-Batea, a 13-year-old victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) who died from the surgery in June 2013.
Female genital mutilation, at times also called female circumcision, is according to UNICEF’s definition the “partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” In a 2013 report, UNICEF reported Egypt has more cases of FGM than any other country in the world, with 27.2 million women having undergone some form of FGM. In another report, the U.N. agency stated that 91 percent of married Egyptian women between the ages of 15-49 have undergone FGM.
Heavily practiced in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Nile River Basin countries, some academics believe the practice in Egypt may date as far back as the pharaohs. UNICEF reports that although there is a strongly held belief FGM is religiously mandated by Islam in Egypt, the practice is not mentioned in the Quran and predates Islam. Furthermore, FGM is uncommon in other Arab and Islamic countries outside Africa.
For its part, international rights group Amnesty International has called FGM a harmful practice and a human rights violation that threatens physical and mental wellbeing, constitutes cruel and inhumane treatment and in extreme cases—like of that of Batea—is a threat to the right to life.
As the world marked the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on Children’s Rights, the Aga Court of Misdemeanors in the Nile Delta governorate of Dakahlia Thursday acquitted the doctor who performed the surgery, along with Batea’s father, thus rejecting a lawsuit filed by the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, Youm7 reported.
The court’s verdict came despite the fact Egypt banned FGM in 2008, and many are concerned the decision will dash “hopes for a nationwide crackdown,” The Guardian reported following statements from Atef Aboelenein, a lawyer for the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, in which he said there would be no precedent now from stopping any doctor from performing FGM.
In March 2014, a government organization called the National People’s Council claimed it had pressured for the case to be opened by addressing Attorney General Hisham Barakat in December 2013.
The head of the council, Hala Youssef, described it at the time as “an important step towards justice in marginalized issues related to women and children and efforts to abolish FGM,” Al-Bedaiah news website reported on March 14.
The doctor was sentenced to pay 5,001 EGP ($700) to Sohair’s mother as a compensation fine after an out-of-court settlement was reached between the doctor and the parents, The Guardian reported Thursday.
“It is not about the law,” Dalia Abdel Hamid, a member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told The Cairo Post Friday. “The government must go beyond that if they want to achieve results.”
No intention to eliminate deeply ingrained practice
When asked about the gap between the existing law and the court verdict, Abdel Hamid said she had not yet examined the documents of the case, but said a change in public belief concerning FGM would be complicated, and that nobody has any real intention to eliminate the deeply ingrained practice.
“And that is the other perspective of the issue,” she added. “When parents found they were killing their children by performing operations at home, they decided to go to have doctors do it.”
Batea’s death received criticism from women and children’s rights activists, who condemned the fact she was subjected to an operation the entire world has been battling against.
Little attention was given to following up on the case in the Egyptian media in comparison with foreign outlets. The Guardian reporter Patrick Kingsely immediately covered the verdict from Aga, and conducted an interview with the doctor in question, Raslan Fadl.
Fadl, who did not wish to be held responsible, told The Guardian the girl did not die as a result of the surgery, but instead as a result of an allergic reaction to penicillin. Fadl said he performed an incision after the girl’s parents asked him to remove a wart in her pubic area, but it was “only” a centimeter cut, which he said he did not consider FGM.
Fadl said his accusers were “on drugs,” according to The Guardian, and asked “those human rights activists to come to me and I will teach them about human rights. They’re letting the Palestinians be slaughtered, and instead they’re going after me?”
Despite Fadl’s statements, activists severely condemned the verdict.
“It seems we pay attention only when female genital mutilation kills a girl. Otherwise, we quietly ignore it,” Egyptian journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy wrote in an article for The New York Times four days before the trial.
The 2008 Egyptian ban, which imposes sentences of up to two years in prison and fines of up to 5,000 EGP, has done little to curb the practice, Eltahawy added.
FGM is viewed as a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights by international treaties. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced a global campaign to end the practice within a decade.
“I doubt this will happen. A number of countries have banned FGM, including Egypt, in 1959 and again in 2008. It did not stop this practice,” American writer and professor in women’s studies Phyllis Chesler wrote to Middle East Forum on Nov. 19.
Additional reporting by Sherif el-Deeb and Osama el-Sayed.