Mutilating bodies: the Muslim Brotherhood’s gift to Egyptian women

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood have offered to circumcise women for a nominal fee as part of their community services, a move that threatens to reverse decades of local struggle against the harmful practice argues Mariz Tadros

Voting in the Egyptian presidential election is underway and what better way to win over votes of the poor than through offering badly needed low cost services and free goods. The Muslim Brotherhood, who have a track record in community outreach through services and goods, have added a new service for Egyptians: circumcising girls for a nominal fee. The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision as it is popularly called, involves the removal of the clitoris and part of the labia minora under the pretext that this will protect a girl’s chastity. FGM, although practiced for thousands of years, has been on the decline in the past decade thanks to a socially sensitive and nationwide campaign to show that FGM is neither religiously prescribed, nor linked to a woman’s moral behaviour. Thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, the progress made in eliciting positive social change on curbing the practice now risks being reversed.  

In the village of Abou Aziz, Minya, a young person phoned the child rights hotline to report that female circumcision was going to be offered by the passing mobile health clinic. The governor of Minya investigated the matter and warned that since the child rights law criminalizes the practice of FGM, legal action would be taken against the Freedom and Justice party if their health clinic undertook such illegal activity. The Muslim Brotherhood’s response was to deny that their mobile health clinic had ever offered such a service and to claim that the Brothers are being vilified by a hostile press who are spreading rumours that have no basis in reality.

Magdy Helmy, a long time activist against FGM, said that the Ministry of Health’s department in Minya informed him that they had spoken to the villagers who denied that girls were being circumcised, and that the Freedom and Justice party leaders also denied ever providing such a service for the people. The matter was closed on the basis of lack of evidence. While a handful of newspapers and media outlets did express their outrage, by and large, there was a media blackout on the matter. Many concluded that since the villagers denied girls were being circumcised and the Brothers said that this was never one of their clinic’s services, then surely the news was inaccurate.

However, I have obtained the flyer that the Freedom and Justice party posted on the streets in the village of Abou Aziz. While the Freedom and Justice party denied that female circumcision was ever offered by the clinic, the information on  the flyers suggests otherwise.

Leaflet in Arabic advertising FGM services
Flyer promoting FGM services (amongst others).
[Image added 27/05/2012]

The flyer which has the party’s logo on it says “The Freedom and Justice party in Abou Aziz is honoured to organize the yearly health clinic which covers all specialisations for a nominal fee of LE 5 for a check up on Friday the 20/4/2012 at the Islamic Institute after Friday prayers”. This was followed by a list of specialists including surgery, gynaecology and obstetrics, dentistry, dermatology etc. At the bottom of the list is a note saying “We receive cases for circumcision for males and females for LE30 a case”. What is significant about this flyer is the reference to male and female circumcision as if the practices were similar, and the fact that these are treated as medical cases, “operations” to be performed by members of a medical team.

It is unclear whether the mobile health clinic did actually go ahead with circumcising the girls. Since the introduction of the law criminalizing the practice in 2008, the villagers have been circumcising their daughters secretly with the help of a nurse who visited once a year, in secret, and circumcised the girls in groups. Hence, it is unlikely that the villagers would readily admit to the clinic offering FGM as they have collectively been practising it illegally for a long time.  A resident of the Abou Aziz village -  who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals -  said that the flyer was posted everywhere in the village, but that immediately after the publicity the flyers disappeared.

In view of the political standing of the Muslim Brotherhood and their religious influence among many Egyptians, there is no denying that the impact of their promotion of FGM is deep and far reaching. Whether girls were circumcised or not on the 20th of April is not the point: what is at issue here is their propagation of a practice that has been proven to be detrimental to women's well being and bodily integrity. The Brotherhood’s strategy to undermine the national campaign to end FGM is three-pronged. Firstly, they contest the notion that the practice is not religiously prescribed. Many of the Brothers (and Salafis) argue that while it is not mandatory, it is nevertheless mukarama  (preferable, pleasing in the eyes of God).  They also quote hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet) which stipulates that FGM should involve “cutting, but only lightly”. Renowned Egyptian Islamist scholars such as Mohammed Emara and Mohammed Selim el Awa (the latter a presidential hopeful) have written and publicly endorsed the position that FGM is not an Islamic practice, and that there is nothing in Islamic jurisprudence to endorse it - most Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, do not practice FGM. However, among the Muslim Brotherhood rank and file there is no consensus on rejecting the practice. In 2006, when I asked former Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef what the current position of the Brotherhood was on the permissibility of female circumcision, he said the question was shallow and their position on FGM is inconsequential in the light of the grander, more pressing political matters afflicting Egypt today. Today Egypt is at a critical juncture in its history, more so than at any other time in the past forty years, and yet the issue is on the Muslim Brothers’ agenda and is promoted through mobile health clinics.

The second strategy of the Brothers to contest the undesirability of FGM is to present it as a medical operation or procedure. By doing so, they encourage people to go to doctors - rather than midwives -  who will perform the “operation” under anaesthesia and in accordance with proper surgical procedures. The fact that FGM does not exist in any medical textbook as a procedure, and that conversely, medical research has shown its negative medical implications is, of course, kept out of the debate. One of the most effective resistance strategies to undermine efforts to stop the practice has been to medicalize it. Some people talk about taking their daughters to the doctor to check whether “they need it or not”, as if there is a physiological condition that would justify mutilating a woman’s reproductive organs. In many instances, the Brothers have combined the medical with the religious argument to make the case for female circumcision. In 1981, the late Sheikh Mohammed Khateeb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s former Mufti, issued a fatwa in which he said "When Islam arrived, it approved this operation for males and females." (italics mine). While el Khattib maked reference to a hadith to substantiate the circumcision of males, for females, he also assumed a medical position, "there have been diverse views on circumcision. Some (views) see female circumcision as a religious duty for males and females, some see it as a sunna, and some see it as a requirement for males and not females, and that for females it is a mukarama (preferable, pleasing in the sight of God). Some doctors believe that not circumcising females leads to sexual arousal and that this could lead to the committing unlawful acts. So circumcision is a duty for the protection of the honour of the believing woman and for the preservation of her chastity and purity…..".

The third strategy deployed by the Brothers to promote FGM is to push for its decriminalization, under the premise that it is a matter that should be left to the personal choice of the girls’ guardians. In parliament the Muslim Brotherhood had objected to the criminalization of the practice under the Child Law passed in 2008 which imposes a prison penalty for whoever circumcises a girl. Farid Ismail and other Muslim Brotherhood MPs expressed their opposition to the criminalization of female circumcision, arguing that it is permissible under the Shari‘a to circumcise one’s daughter and that “the decision is up to the guardian and the doctor who decides on the extent to which the girl needs this operation”. The Muslim Brotherhood MPs are in favour of “organizing” rather than  criminalizing circumcision. Leaving the decision as a matter of choice is also the  position that is currently being expressed by Muslim Brotherhood female MP, Azza Garaf.

A number of local human rights organizations have condemned the Brotherhood’s act of offering to perform FGM through their mobile health clinic and insist that if that were to be true they should be prosecuted. However, in the absence of a strong feminist movement - though many women’s NGOs are active - the collective contestation of the Muslim Brotherhood's position has been weak, not least because the national women’s machinery, the National Council for Women, is tainted by its association with the former First Lady, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, and its secretary General Mervat Tallawy, who was a former Minister of Social Affairs who endorsed a highly restrictive NGO Law.

Marie Assad, the co-ordinator of the now defunct FGM Taskforce, which comprised a coalition of development practitioners, physicians, activists and media personalities, is not fearful about the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood's propagation of the practice because she believes in Egyptian women’s agency. She says, "there is no reason to be afraid, the women have the knowledge about the practice and knowledge is power, and they will know how to protect themselves and decide what is good for them. There is no going back for them.”

On the ground, development practitioners interviewed in Fayoum and Minya argue that after more than15 years of awareness raising and sustained local grassroots efforts, there is now a new generation of girls who have grown up without being circumcised and have got married. This is significant in that it proves that women do not need to be circumcised to be chaste, and that their non-circumcision will not undermine their prospects of marrying and gaining social acceptance. Hence they predict that the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaigns to undermine women’s gains, whether through their policy on FGM or other matters - such as freedom of mobility and work, will not be so easy.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s propagation of FGM in the village of Abou Aziz - irrespective of whether the mobile clinic went ahead or not - is an issue that necessitates vigorous resistance. While it is true that FGM is a hyper-sensitive issue partly because Western feminists’ and policy-makers’ engagement with the issue in the 1980s and 1990s reeked of Orientalism and racism. It is also true that FGM cannot be privileged as a social justice issue when unemployment, deprivation, poverty, security, political repression are very acute. However, local activists have developed contextually sensitive approaches to eliciting social change and champion an agenda to preserve and protect women’s bodily integrity. The FGM issue is one tangible manifestation of the reconfiguration of power relations between men and women, state and society in Egypt .

While, on the one hand, women’s agency and their capacity for resistance must be acknowledged, the Islamists’ attempts at curbing women's rights cannot be underestimated. It is a great cause for concern because the conditions of choice that women are facing now are increasingly constrained by the power of the Islamists to use the religious card to make their case. With the increase in their power, will effectively seek to decriminalize FGM? Will the marriage age be lowered? Will they promote a discourse of restricting women’s mobility and work? Already the position of Azza Garraf, MP, who blames women for their exposure to sexual harassment, has infuriated many activists who have struggled to demand safe streets for all Egyptians. The diffuse impact this agenda has on the wider society is generating a competition between highly conservative actors over who can control women more tightly. Very recently, Bishop Bishoy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, said that he admired the attire of Muslim women and that Coptic women should dress more modestly like Muslim women - a statement that has infuriated Coptic activists who have argued that the comparison is intended to play into the Islamists’ agenda. We are witnessing the stalling of an incomplete process of progressive social change: while some villages have benefitted from the campaign against FGM, many others such as Abou Aziz have not, and now, emboldened by the Brothers, the trend may be reversed.

Sympathizers in Egypt and the west have long argued that once the Muslim Brotherhood assume power, they will play politics differently, and their positions on matters such as gender will become more “moderate” as their governance agenda shifts to addressing the economic and political crises. However, the evidence from the village of Abou Azziz tells a different story.

This article was first published in May 2012. It is republished here as part of 50.50's series 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence.