Forcible Death via Female Genital Cutting or FGM

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Female Genital Cutting or Female Circumcision involves the “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.”  This debate has reached center-stage in Egypt when recently a 13-year old girl died as a result of surgeries performed to “preserve chastity and honor.” 

The irony of the whole matter is that as the NY Times report points out, the outrage was not over the fact that this poor girl died, but the fact that the “government shut down the clinic,” which seems to have stirred up a national debate even in one of the most repressive societies in the world. They will not stop us,” shouted Saad Yehia, a tea shop owner along the main street. “We support circumcision!” he shouted over and over. Even if the state doesn’t like it, we will circumcise the girls,” shouted Fahmy Ezzeddin Shaweesh, an elder in the village?

Though Egypt’s Health Ministry ordered an end to the practice in 1996, it allowed exceptions in cases of emergency, a loophole critics describe as so wide that it effectively rendered the ban meaningless. But now the government is trying to force a comprehensive ban. Egypt’s grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, declared it haram, or prohibited by Islam; Egypt’s highest religious official, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, called it harmful; television advertisements have been shown on state channels to discourage it; and a national hot line was set up to answer the public’s questions about genital cutting.

But as the men in this village demonstrated, widespread social change in Egypt comes slowly. This country is conservative, religious and, for many, guided largely by traditions, even when those traditions do not adhere to the tenets of their faith, be it Christianity or Islam. For centuries Egyptian girls, usually between the ages of 7 and 13, have been taken to have the procedure done, sometimes by a doctor, sometimes by a barber or whoever else in the village would do it. As recently as 2005, a government health survey showed that 96 percent of the thousands of married, divorced or widowed women interviewed said they had undergone the procedure – a figure that astounds even many Egyptians. In the language of the survey, “The practice of female circumcision is virtually universal among women of reproductive age in Egypt.” Though the practice is common and increasingly contentious throughout sub-Saharan Africa, among Arab states the only other place where this practice is customary is in southern Yemen, experts here said. In Saudi Arabia, where women cannot drive, cannot vote, cannot hold most jobs, the practice is viewed as abhorrent, a reflection of pre-Islamic traditions.

Even the religious ministry, various other local agencies, and the wife of Egyptian President Suzzane Mubarak are attempting to produce change. But this change has been very slow, little too slow for the 13-year old girl who died cruelly during this unnecessary procedure. So, the question before us is how do we bring about change in a society that is deeply resistant to altering its cultural practices? How do we persuade people who take daughters to the local barber for this procedure to understand that it does not in anyway enhance a person’s dignity, virtue, or beauty? How do we make these stupid men who insist on this procedure prior to marriage understand that FGM will not enhance their manliness or keep their fragile egos intact and that they cannot rely on religion to justify these cruel acts? When should international human rights regimes step-in? What constructive role can the international norms and actors play? It is clear that we cannot go marching into other countries and engage in name-calling or simply ban these practices without sufficient ground-work or sustained implementation efforts.


Syria—Shame, Shame, No Honor in This

The story of 16-year old Zahra al-Azzo is simply mind boggling, outlandish, and unbelievable. This triple tragedy and the sheer brutality encountered by this girl in the name of religion and culture is simply beyond the pale of reason. No you know why Universal Human Rights matter; now you know why we cannot hide under the banner of state sovereignty and cultural relativism to continue on with our various vicious practices; now we realize the importance of supporting women’s education, gender equality, and local empowerment.

In the outskirts of Damascus on a “rainy Sunday morning in January and very cold; as he left, Fawaz turned back one last time to tuck the blanket more snugly around his 16-year-old wife. Zahra slept on without stirring, and her husband locked the door of their tiny apartment carefully behind him. Zahra was most likely still sleeping when her older brother, Fayyez, entered the apartment a short time later, using a stolen key and carrying a dagger. His sister lay on the carpeted floor, on the thin, foam mattress she shared with her husband, so Fayyez must have had to kneel next to Zahra as he raised the dagger and stabbed her five times in the head and back: brutal, tearing thrusts that shattered the base of her skull and nearly severed her spinal column. Leaving the door open, Fayyez walked downstairs and out to the local police station. There, he reportedly turned himself in, telling the officers on duty that he had killed his sister in order to remove the dishonor she had brought on the family by losing her virginity out of wedlock nearly 10 months earlier.” 

 “Zahra then only 15, was kidnapped in the spring of 2006 near her home in northern Syria, taken to Damascus by her abductor and raped; how the police who discovered her feared that her family, as commonly happens in Syria, would blame Zahra for the rape and kill her; how these authorities then placed Zahra in a prison for girls, believing it the only way to protect her from her relatives. And then in December, how a cousin of Zahra’s, 27-year-old Fawaz, agreed to marry her in order to secure her release and also, he hoped, restore her reputation in the eyes of her family; how, just a month after her wedding to Fawaz, Zahra’s 25-year-old brother, Fayyez, stabbed her as she slept.”

“In Syria and other Arab countries, many men are brought up to believe in an idea of personal honor that regards defending the chastity of their sisters, their daughters and other women in the family as a primary social obligation. Honor crimes tend to occur, activists say, when men feel pressed by their communities to demonstrate that they are sufficiently protective of their female relatives’ virtue. Pairs of lovers are sometimes killed together, but most frequently only the women are singled out for punishment. Sometimes women are killed for the mere suspicion of an affair, or on account of a false accusation, or because they were sexually abused, or because, like Zahra, they were raped.”

“In speaking with the police, Zahra’s brother used a colloquial expression, ghasalat al arr (washing away the shame), which means the killing of a woman or girl whose very life has come to be seen as an unbearable stain on the honor of her male relatives. Once this kind of familial sexual shame has been “washed,” the killing is traditionally forgotten as quickly as possible. Under Syrian law, an honor killing is not murder, and the man who commits it is not a murderer. As in many other Arab countries, even if the killer is convicted on the lesser charge of a “crime of honor,” he is usually set free within months.”

“It turned out that his uncle had given him the phone so that he could call and tell the family that he’d killed his sister. We learned later that they had a party that night to celebrate the cleansing of their honor. The whole village was invited.”

For more on this gruesome story, continue here “A Dishonorable Affair.”