A doctor in Egypt is set to stand trial on Thursday in relation to the female genital mutilation (FGM) of a child who died of complications. It is the first attempt to prosecute over a procedure banned in Egypt since 2008.
Thirteen-year-old Soheir al-Batea, from the small northern village of Diyarb Buqtaris, succumbed to an allergic reaction to penicillin on June 6, 2013, allegedly after being cut by Dr. Raslan Fadl, according to forensic reports seen by Equality Now, an international rights NGO that has pushed for the prosecution.
The teenager’s death has formed what is being seen as a test case on the issue in a country where four in five young women reportedly undergo the procedure, despite the ban.
Some Egyptian women and feminists say they hope the prosecution of Raslan Fadl will start a precedent to enforce laws against the practice. But others say the share of girls who undergo the procedure behind closed doors at home — often in less sanitary conditions — may grow. At present, UNICEF estimates that around 70 percent of procedures are carried out surreptitiously at a medical clinic.
The trial comes despite there being no mention of FGM in the forensic report. According to Equality Now, Batea’s father’s original statement to the police on his daughter’s death confirmed that she had gone to the doctor for the procedure. But he later changed his testimony to match Fadl’s, which said she had been treated for genital warts, according to Suad Abu Dayyeh of the international NGO.
Fadl turned himself in to authorities after local court authority Daqahleya Governate pressed charges, but he has since told local media that he is confident of a ruling in his favor, arguing that he acted on the father’s request.
Thursday’s proceedings will be eagerly watched by those hoping for greater protection for young girls.
“The first ever prosecution for FGM in Egypt sends out a strong message that FGM will not be tolerated,” Dayyeh told Al Jazeera, “We are hopeful that justice will prevail.”
Noted Egyptian feminist and sociologist Sara Salem told Al Jazeera that despite the 2008 law banning FGM, “the expectation is still there” in poorer Egyptian families that for a woman to be marriageable, a more pressing concern the more financially desperate a family is, she must have undergone the procedure.
Furthermore, enforcing the ban on FGM in Egypt may serve to push the practice into private homes, exacerbating public health concerns, some have warned.
“There are a lot of people who will be doing it on a neighborhood basis instead of hospitals,” Salem said.
For women like Salem, changing the social perceptions of Egyptian society is a task, not for international NGOs, but for Egyptian women.
“This has always happened with FGM and Egypt: You have all these people saying your culture is backward. People [in Egypt] are pushed to become more conservative — to the extent that some feminists in Egypt don’t even want to talk about FGM,” Salem said.
Summer Nazif, a 19-year-old engineering student at Cairo University, said that FGM should end, but change can't come from the outside. “I’d like to tell Americans that our saviors come from where we come from. They experience what we experience. Our saviors are going to be from this region, not from the West.”
UNICEF estimates that 125 million women worldwide have undergone some form of FGM. Of those, one in five live in Egypt, according to UNICEF. Among women from 15 to 19 years of age in Egypt, 81 percent have reportedly gone through the procedure, although a real figure is impossible to obtain because of cultural taboos on discussing sexual violence.
The practice is not specific to Muslims, although it is prevalent in many Muslim-majority nations in Africa, as well as Yemen and Iraq. In Niger, 55 percent of Christian women had undergone the procedure, while two percent of Muslim women there have experienced some form of cutting.