Egypt girl's death puts spotlight on genital mutilation

image captionSuhair al Bata'a died during a genital mutilation operation earlier this month

The death of a 13-year-old girl during a genital mutilation procedure has brought the issue back into the spotlight in Egypt. While some Egyptians are fighting for the practice to be eradicated, others justify it in the name of religion, as the BBC's Aleem Maqbool reports.

"We have been brought up according to certain morals. It shows good upbringing, a way of controlling a girl's sexual desire."

Sameya Mohammad Abdel-Razek, a grandmother from the Egyptian city of Giza is talking about female genital mutilation.

It has been condemned by international health organisations for years. It was made illegal in Egypt in 2008, and yet it is still very widely practised.

In some rural areas in Egypt, it is estimated that more than 75% of women have had the procedure, but it is common in urban areas too.

"I had the operation done for each of my three girls when they were 11 years old," Ms Abdel-Razek tells me. "I told each daughter this operation is extremely important, and that it is just like having their tonsils removed."

In fact, of course, the procedure means varying amounts of a girl's genitalia are cut away. In rural areas it is often done without anaesthetic.

In very extreme cases so much is removed that the wound fuses to leave only a small hole through which to urinate.

But Sameya said that each time one of her girls had the operation done, the family held a party to celebrate. She says she fully expects her granddaughter to have it, too.

Across north-east and west Africa where female genital mutilation is most prevalent, studies have documented cases where there have been severe complications.

Girls have even lost their lives because of the procedure.

This month, 13-year-old Suhair al Bata'a died during an operation in a village north of Cairo. Initial findings say she suffered an extreme loss of blood pressure.

'No political will'

Research has shown common psychological effects as well.

"There is a huge negative impact," says Dr Naglaa el-Adly, who is in charge of research at Egypt's National Council for Women.

"It is the humiliation of a girl's humanity," she says. "They face a type of terrorism as human beings. They are depressed and feel pain and the operation is introduced suddenly which is shocking."

Dr Adly explains that the procedure's origins in the region are ancient, but that now it is often rationalised as relating to religion, and to purity.

"When they tell the girl it is a religious practice she believes Islam is against her," she says. "So her perception of religion is changed."

Dr Adly fears there is currently no political will in Egypt to enforce the laws that ban female genital mutilation.

'Common sense'

On the contrary, there have been statements from the ruling Muslim Brotherhood defending the practice.

"It is left to the media to change attitudes," says Dr Adly. "And to the religious leaders, they need to tell people it's not related to Islam or Christianity."

However, religious leaders have given ambiguous messages.

While, in the past, some clerics in Egypt have stated that female genital mutilation has no religious basis, other clerics continue to openly advocate it.

"'Circumcision' is ordered by Allah, Sharia [Islamic religious law] from Allah. Orders from Allah must be realised," says Sheikh Yussef al-Badri, a cleric who has repeatedly petitioned the country's courts to make female genital mutilation legal again.

media captionSheikh Yussef al-Badri: "[Circumcision] makes a girl control her common sense about sex"

Sheikh Badri claimed Muslim countries in which the practice did not take place were imitating the West and were not pious, and insisted it was necessary for a harmonious society.

"This makes the girl control her common sense about sex because women quickly feel sex, before men."

Over the years, the type of justification for this medieval practice given by the likes of Sheikh Badri has filtered down to the large swathes of Egyptian society.

The grandmother we met in Giza, Sameya Mohammad Abdel-Razek, repeated many of the same arguments we had heard from the cleric.

She says she was not even aware genital mutilation was illegal in Egypt.

"These are human laws anyway," she told us. "They are not Sharia, God's laws."

Human rights campaigners in Egypt feel that the government is doing a poor job of defending many aspects of women's rights.

As a result, they fear eradicating female genital mutilation in Egypt has become all the more difficult.