Female circumcision, a centuries-old custom defying religion - Feature

Cairo, Egypt - Twenty-two years ago, Fatma, a 34-year-old domestic servant living in Cairo, had her clitoris cut out according to a centuries-old custom. Seven years ago, she had the same operation performed on her daughter, Shaima, who was then 12. Now she is outraged to learn that the Egyptian government has banned the practice - and wonders how she will be able to have the same operation performed on her eight-year-old daughter Basma.

"How can they stop something that our ancestors have been practising for ages? Our mothers and grandmothers earned their respect and preserved their honour by undergoing tahara!" Fatma exclaimed.

The word "tahara" literally means "cleanliness," but is used to refer to circumcision in colloquial Egyptian.

And without the operation, Fatma fears that she may not find a man willing to marry Basma.

"This is our tradition and the custom of our village. Every girl has to have it," she says, echoing the view of millions of Egyptians who have their daughters undergo the clitoris-removing surgery, usually between the ages of 7 and 12.

A survey conducted by Egypt's Ministry of Health as recently as 2005 found that 96 per cent of all women interviewed have had the procedure.

They all believe that the removal of the clitoris helps prevent promiscuous behaviour in girls.

"The government is not abiding by the tenets of Islam," Fatma concludes.

Like millions of Egyptians, she is repeating without question the traditionalists' argument which ascribes to religious belief cultural traditions that are tolerated, but not mandated, by the Muslim faith.

Among the traditionalists was Sheikh Gad al-Haq, Egypt's grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, the country's highest religious authority, in the 1980s. He endorsed female circumcision, thus undermining a government campaign to ban it.

The custom of female circumcision predates Islam, but it was not eradicated by the early Muslims because they followed the fundamental tenet that what is not prohibited is allowed.

Though female circumcision is not prescribed by the Koran, one saying ascribed to the Prophet Mohammed allows it. Many clerics say, however, that this saying is not authentic.

Moreover, opponents of circumcision argue that in the very birthplace of Mohammed, the present-day ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, the practice is regarded as a pre-Islamic abomination.

In other countries adopting a strict version of the Islamic Sharia law, such as Afghanistan under the Taleban and Iran, female circumcision is virtually unknown.

But many of Egypt's Coptic Christians, who are as conservative and guided by traditions as their fellow Egyptian Muslims, practice female circumcision although it is not prescribed by their faith.

In recent years, the campaign against female genital mutilation has gathered strength in Egypt with the rise of an alliance between official political forces, non-governmental activists and official religious leaders, culminating in its criminalization.

In 2006, the current grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, the moderate Islamic scholar, Mohamed Sayyid Tantawi, spoke out against genital cutting at a conference on the subject.

"From a religious point of view, I don't find anything that says that circumcision is a must [for women]," Tantawi said, contradicting a ruling by his predecessor, Sheikh Gad al-Haq.

Another top Egyptian official Islamic scholar, Sheikh Ali Goma, told the conference no examples of the practice could be found in the life of the prophet Mohammed.

The scholars maintained that Islam forbids people to inflict harm on others and argued that this is exactly what those who circumcise their daughters are doing.

"The real challenge is to convince the thousands of non-official yet influential imams and preachers, who have a sway over people in villages and towns and are opposed to the ban on circumcision," says Gihan Mostapha, a social worker involved in the campaign against female circumcision.

To a sceptical public, like Fatma, campaigners will have to repeat the official religious discourse that the practice is not Islamic.

"In Egypt's patriarchal society, the challenge is to re-educate men that they cannot adopt parts of religion that suit them and serve their interests and ignore the parts that are favourable to women," Mostapha says.