In Egypt, the first doctor who was brought to trial on charges of female genital mutilation (FMG) was acquitted last week, dashing hopes that a historical verdict would discourage doctors from carrying out the heinous endemic procedure.
Raslan Fadl, who is a doctor from the village of Agga, is an Islamic preacher as well. He was recently acquitted of mutilating 12-year-old Sohair al Bataa’s genitals in June last year. Even though the young girl died during the procedure, Fadl was acquitted of manslaughter by a judge, who refused to give any reason for his decision. Sohair’s father, Mohammad al Bataa, was acquitted as well, despite health officials and police personnel testifying that he had confessed to taking his daughter to Fadl’s clinic for the procedure.
In fact, the decision was not even announced in the courtroom. Instead, the judge wrote his verdict in a court ledger, most possibly to avoid having to face any questions from the media. However, Fadl was ordered by the judge to pay 5,001 Egyptian pounds to the victim’s mother after both parties decided to reach an out-of-court settlement.
The case was pushed extensively by state officials and human rights activists, who hoped to send out a strong message to Egyptian doctors about female genital mutilation, which was nominally illegalized in 2008. Instead, the verdict that was delivered, said the lawyer who took up Sohair’s case, signaled towards the opposite direction.
“Of course there will be no stopping any doctor after this. Any doctor can do any FGM he wants now,” said Atef Aboelenein, lawyer for the Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness, who was the first to find out the verdict.
Fadl, who was interviewed at his clinic only hours after the verdict, admitted to removing a wart from Sohair’s pubic area but denied having carried out any form of mutilation. He said female genital mutilation was against his religious belief and he had in the past turned away several patients who had approached him for the procedure to be conducted.
“The incision was just 1cm wide,” Fadl said. “Do you know what 1cm looks like? Do you know how small that is? In every country in the world you would carry out this operation.”
According to Fadl, Sohair died from an allergic reaction to penicillin, which was given to her for the removal of her wart. He said his accusers were possibly on drugs for making false claims before urging them to come to him so he could teach them about human rights.
“They’re letting the Palestinians be slaughtered, and instead they’re going after me?” he said.
The lawyer who had pushed for Fadl’s trial, Reda al Danbouki, said the verdict was not in tandem with the evidence produced in court. Despite Fadl denying carrying out female genital mutilation, a report from Egypt’s forensic body pointed towards the fact that the genital area of the girl had in fact undergone a clear circumcision operation.
Suad Abu Dayyeh, regional representative for Equality Now, the group that campaigned for Sohair’s case, said, “It’s a very unjust verdict from the judge. It sends a very negative message. It was the first case in the country and we were hoping we could build on it.”
Fadl’s village, where female genital mutilation is a common practice, was in strong support of the accused. A young woman waiting to see Fadl at his clinic said she was happy for his acquittal because Sohair’s death wasn’t his fault to begin with.
According to UNICEF reports, approximately 91 percent of married women in Egypt, aged between 15 years and 49 years, have undergone female genital mutilation and only 72 percent of the procedures have been carried out by doctors. The reports also suggest that the practice is in decline – only 63 percent women were in support of the practice in 2008 as opposed to 82 percent women in 1995. However, in rural areas, where literacy figures are low, like in Sohair’s village Diyarb Bektaris, female genital mutilation is still a common practice among Christians and Muslims, who believe the procedure reduces women’s appetite for sex and adultery. Village residents have said doctors are easily agreeable to carrying out the procedure for approximately 200 Egyptian pounds, and the court can do little to make a difference.
“We circumcise all our children – they say it’s good for our girls,” Naga Shawky, a 40-year-old housewife, said. “The law won’t stop anything – the villagers will carry on. Our grandfathers did it and so shall we.”A 65-year-old farmer, Mostafa, said he did not even know the procedure had been banned.
“All the girls get circumcised. Is that not what’s supposed to happen?” he asked. “Our two daughters are circumcised. They’re married and when they have daughters we will have them circumcised as well. If you want to ban it properly, you’d have to ban doctors as well.”
Fadl said him being dragged to court in Sohair’s case has led his colleagues to carry out female genital mutilation in secrecy.
“A lot of people got scared, so now they’re doing it in their homes,” he said.
After the verdict, another doctor, Ahmed al Mashady, said clinics should continue to carry out the procedure, as it is the right thing for girls to undergo from a religious point of view.
“They will do whatever they want when they want without worrying about anything,” said Mashady. “They must keep doing this because it’s a protection for the girl. Religiously it’s a good thing.”
While many people use Islam to justify the practice of female genital mutilation, critics say it is a cultural practice and not a religious one. The procedure is not mentioned in the Koran and it is not practiced in most other countries, even those that have a predominantly Muslim population.
Sohair’s family was unavailable for comment but her lawyers and Equality Now said they would appeal the verdict and increase their efforts to have the practice banned.
“We will focus all our efforts on cases of FGM and underage marriage,” Aboelenein said.
However, the activists do believe it will take more than a few court cases to bring an end to the practice of female genital mutilation, as the practice is deeply ingrained in people’s minds. Equality Now’s Suad Abu Dayyeh insisted the organization carries out outreach programs that will enable campaigners to reach rural areas in Egypt so they can discuss the topic of female genital mutilation with the commoners, as the subject is one that has rarely ever been addressed.
“You need to go continuously into the communities. We need to find a way of really debating these issues with the villagers, the doctors and the midwives,” he said.
Photo Credits: Girls Globe