Egypt’s state-appointed Grand Mufti, who last week declared female genital cutting as banned in Islam, defended his decision by likening the practice to an ancient custom once wrongly seen as necessary for good health.Genital cutting of girls, often referred to as female genital mutilation or circumcision, is banned in Egypt although the practice remains widespread as a rite of passage for girls and is often viewed as a way to protect their chastity or maintain cleanliness.
Mufti Ali Gomaa said supporters of female genital cutting, including clerics and doctors, have justified the operation on the grounds of religion and health.
But he described the reasons given to support the practice as “illusions”, saying it is not supported by the Quran or Islamic law and that it is only mentioned in certain sayings of the Prophet Mohammad that he described as religiously “weak”.
“So I say with the utmost degree of clarity and with the utmost degree of delineation that this custom is harmful and it is forbidden,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Gomaa said that modern medicine had found female genital cutting to be harmful and compared it to a practice, now extremely rare in Egypt, of making incisions on the temples to relieve blood pressure in the brain.
“This is what ancient medicine was like,” he said. “Now with the development of medicine … the environment has changed.”
“Now we’ve come to depend on and refer to pharmacology and chemistry.”
Last week the Egyptian government strengthened its ban on female cutting by eliminating a legal loophole allowing girls to undergo the procedure for health reasons. The decision came after an 11-year-old girl died while undergoing the procedure at a private medical clinic in the southern province of Minya.
The practice involves cutting off all or part of the clitoris and other female genitalia, sometimes by a doctor but also often by a relative or midwives. Side effects include haemorrhage, shock, and sexual dysfunction.
It is performed on both Muslim and Christian girls in Egypt and Sudan, but is extremely rare in the rest of the Arab world. It is also common in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
A 2005 UNICEF report said that 97 percent of Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been circumcised, but Gomaa was optimistic that the designation of the practice as forbidden and the spread of this message through media would help to curb the tradition.
“It’s just like what happened with the practice of smoking. The Islamic scholars didn’t see … that it was dangerous,” he said. “Now the sheikh of Al-Azhar said smoking is forbidden.”