Most Egyptian women – as many as 97 percent according to one survey – have been subjected to a horrific operation known euphemistically as “female circumcision”, and more correctly as female genital mutilation (FGM). In this procedure, typically carried out on girls aged between 7 and 10, the clitoris and sometimes all or part of the inner vaginal lips are cut off to prevent the victim from enjoying sex.
Egypt has the world’s highest prevalance of FGM, which is an African rather than an Islamic practice, performed by Copts as much as by Muslims. Nonetheless, spurious religious reasons are sometimes given to justify it, including two disputed hadiths (supposed quotations from Mohammed). In 1951, the Egyptian Fatwa Committee decreed that FGM was desirable because it curbs women’s sex drive, and in 1981 the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mosque and University said that it was the duty of parents to have their daughters genitally mutilated.
The good news is that things have changed since then. FGM is now illegal – the government banned it in 1996 and again in 2007. Former first lady Suzanne Mubarak has spoken out against it, and the Islamic religious authorities issued a fatwa declaring it haram (forbidden). FGM is now in decline, but it remains at high levels, and the law is hard to enforce, especially in rural communities. Worse, the rise of religious fundamentalist parties since the revolution means there is now less political pressure to enforce the ban on FGM, and one Salafist MP has already called for it to be re-legalized.