The Verdict in Egypt's First Female Genital Mutilation Trial is a Shocking Setback in the Global Fight for Girls' Equality

A landmark not guilty verdict was not the result global human rights activists were hoping for in Egypt's first female genital mutilation trial. Patrick Kingsley for The Guardian reports from Egypt that on November 20th, Sohair al-Bata'a's father Mohamed al-Bata'a and doctor Raslan Fadl were acquitted of charges associated with her death in June 2013. Sohair died on Fadl's operating table the northern Egyptian town of Agga in what appeared to be a botched female genital mutilation (FGM) operation. This was the first case of its kind since FGM became illegal in Egypt in 2008. FGM has remained rampant and widely accepted, and human rights activists hoped that a guilty verdict would launch a nationwide crackdown on the practice.

Thirteen year-old Sohair's parents admitted that they had taken her to Dr Radl's office for the operation; everyone in their village did the same, Kingsley reports. However, Fadl has fiercely denied that Sohair was in his care for a "female circumcision," and has remained adamant that Sohair died of an allergic reaction to penicillin, which he claimed she was taking to treat genital warts. The case was initially dropped for this reason; it was unclear whether or not Sohair was, in fact, undergoing an FGM procedure. Following a campaign by local rights groups, international organization Equality Now, and Egypt's state-run National Population Council, the case was reopened when it became clear that it was an FGM procedure she was there for, as her parents had stated.

The procedure isn't unusual and didn't stop in 2008, it's just never been prosecuted before. A Unicef report on FGM in Egypt shows startling acceptance of and engagement with the practice. According to the report, 74 percent of Egyptian daughters aged 15-17 had undergone the procedure. The figures show a class divide in support for the procedure, with 72 percent of women supporting it who had no education and 44 percent of women with secondary or higher education in support of FGM. People living in Sohair's rural village and the villages surrounding talked to Patrick Kingsley about the practice.

Mostafa, a farmer:

All the girls get circumcised. Is that not what's supposed to happen? Our two daughters are circumcised. They're married and when they have daughters we will have them circumcised as well.

Naga, a 40 year-old housewife:

We circumcise all our children – they say it's good for our girls. The law won't stop anything – the villagers will carry on. Our grandfathers did it and so shall we.

Critics of FGM say that it's a cultural problem, not just a religious one. Although most villagers think FGM is prescribed by Islamic law, it isn't. FGM is not even mentioned in the Koran and in Egypt's case, it has been outlawed by the Grand Mufti, one of the most senior Islamic clerics in the country. FGM is also practiced by many Christian Egyptians. Equality Now's regional representative Suad Abu-Dayyeh told Kingsley:

It's not an Islamic issue – it's cultural. In Sudan and Egypt the practice is widespread. But in most of the other Arab countries – which are mostly Muslim countries – people don't think of it as a Muslim issue. In fact, there has been a fatwa that bans FGM.

One doctor spoke to Kingsley about the law, and how it could be morally justified. Dr Ahmed al-Mashady — who claims he's never carried out the procedure— told Kingsley that the law acted as a deterrent to doctors who would previously have spoken publicly about the procedure. Kingsley writes that al-Mashady said FGM was morally necessary to "cleanse women of a dirty body part."

If it gives the girl more dignity to remove [her clitoris]. If your nails are dirty, don't you cut them?

What good is a law that isn't enforced and prohibits a practice that remains widespread and deeply, culturally engrained? No good at all. Eradication of FGM requires strict upholding of the law. If girls like Sohair die on FGM operating tables, the doctor must face the full punishment dictated by law. In fact, doctors of girls that don't die while undergoing FGM should do the same. Public health campaigns must be targeted at rural Egyptians without formal education, and religious activist groups must clarify Islam's official position on FGM to rural Muslims. Without legal, public health, and culturally sensitive interventions, the practice is sure to continue.

Image: Getty Images (1)