CAIRO, Egypt – The death of a 12-year-old Egyptian girl at the hands of a doctor performing female circumcision in the country's south has sparked a public outcry and prompted health and religious authorities this week to ban the practice.
The girl, Badour Shaker, died earlier in June while being circumcised in an illegal clinic in the southern town of Maghagh. Her mother, Zeniab Abdel Ghani, told the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that she had paid $9 dollars to a female physician to perform the procedure.
The mother also told the paper that the doctor later tried to bribe her to withdraw a lawsuit accusing the physician of murder, in return for $3,000, but she refused.
A forensic investigation into the case showed the girl's death was caused by an anesthesia overdose during the procedure.
The case sparked widespread condemnation and was closely followed in Egyptian papers, which also reported that Shaker had passed out sweets to pupils in her class earlier on the day of her death, to celebrate her good grades.
It also evoked memories of a 1995 CNN television documentary depicting a barber circumcising a 10-year-old girl in a Cairo slum.
On Thursday, the Egyptian Health Ministry issued a decree on female circumcision, stating that it is "prohibited for any doctors, nurses, or any other person to carry out any cut of, flattening or modification of any natural part of the female reproductive system, either in government hospitals, non government or any other places."
It warned that violators of the ban would be punished, but did not specify the penalty. The ban is not as enforceable as a law, which requires passage in the national legislature.
Female genital mutilation, FGM, or as it is often called, female circumcision, usually involves the removal of the clitoris and other parts of female genitalia. Those who practice it believe it tames a girl's sexual desires and maintains her honor.
It is practiced by Muslims and Christians alike, deeply rooted in the Nile Valley region and parts of sub-Saharan African, and is also practiced in Yemen and Oman.
The ban by the health ministry marks a return to a 1950s government order on Egypt's hospitals and doctors against FGM.
Despite that order, the practice continued in Egypt, mostly carried out by barbers, midwives and amateurs. The order was reversed in 1995, shortly after the CNN film, with female circumcision being permitted by medical staff only, in a move to stem amateur practicing.
Although the documentary embarrassed Cairo internationally, it failed to propel the parliament to pass a new child bill penalizing circumcision.
A 2003 survey by the United Nation's children's agency, UNICEF, said that 97 percent of married women in Egypt have undergone genital mutilation.
But the Egyptian government considers the 97 percent inaccurate. A recent study among schoolgirls by Egypt's Ministry of Health and Population found that 50.3 percent of girls between the age of 10-18 years have been circumcised.
There are signs that Shaker death could move the parliament to pass a new bill banning female circumcision, especially after Egypt's First Lady Suzanne Mubarak asked a Cairo conference on violence against children to mark a moment of silence in Shaker's memory, just days after the girl's death.
Shaker was a victim of "the most vicious practice committed against women," Mubarak said at the time. "Badour's death is the beginning of the end for female circumcision in Egypt."
Shortly afterward, the country's supreme religious authorities stressed that Islam is against female circumcision.
"Its prohibited, prohibited, prohibited," Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa said on the privately owned al-Mahwar network Saturday.
While top clerics here insist that the practice has nothing to do with Islam, parents, especially in villages and Cairo slums, believe they are helping their daughters. They think circumcision is necessary for cleanliness and to protect a girl's virginity before marriage.
Opponents say that girls who undergo botched operations — along with doctors, amateurs without anesthesia often still perform the circumcision — can bleed to death, suffer from chronic urinary infections and have life-threatening complications in childbirth.
Al-Masry Al-Youm daily reported that the doctor in Shaker's case denied allegations of malpractice and said that the girl was in a "bad condition" to start with, and was immediately transferred to a regular hospital where she died. The doctor was never identified by name.
Egypt's renowned feminist activist, Nawal el-Saadawi, 76, who has published a biography on her own experience with circumcision, wrote of Shaker: "Badour, did you have to die for some light to shine in the dark minds? Did you have to pay with your dear life a price ... for doctors and clerics to learn that the right religion doesn't cut children's organs."