This Egyptian Girl Died After Undergoing FGM. Why Has No One Been Held to Account?
This week, Egypt's first female genital mutilation trial ended in a not guilty verdict. It's a major blow for women in a country which has one of the highest FGM rates in the world.
Dr Raslan Fadl's waiting room, nestled in the Nile Delta's sprawling flatlands, is a bustling place, busy with patients. Yet, just over a year ago, a child died here - in his recovery room.
The forensic report showed that 13-year old Sohair al-Bataa had suffered "shock trauma" after allegedly undergoing the female genital mutilation procedure (FGM), which is illegal in Egypt.
On Thursday, Dr Fadl walked free.
His landmark trial had brought hope to opponents of the barbaric practice. But when the verdict came, it was not even read out in a formal court. Squirrelled away from the judge to his clerk, the scrawled judgement came with no legal rationale or explanation whatsoever.
"This acquittal will encourage others to continue the crime of FGM," said Atef Aboelenien, a prosecuting lawyer. Sohair's father had admitted to taking his daughter for the procedure, which was outlawed in 2008 after the death of another young girl, aged 12, hit the headlines.
But six years on, FGM remains endemic here. Shockingly, Unicef figures reveal that more than 90 per cent of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 have faced the procedure - one of the highest rates in the world. It typically involves cutting off parts of the female genitalia.
As well as emotional trauma, side effects include excruciating pain, prolonged bleeding, infertility and infection. That's if you make it out of the surgery alive.
The decision to cut usually involves consultation between family members, as well as respected religious or professional figures within the community. Fadl, the doctor at the centre of Sohair's case, moonlighted as an imam at the local mosque.
In Egypt, three quarters of girls are cut by a medical professional, adding a veneer of acceptability to the practice. Parents are often proud that they have taken their daughter to a facility where the operation is performed with the assistance of modern medicine - many believe it will preserve her chastity.
But doctors are under few illusions regarding the legality of the procedure.
When the case was first brought against Fadl, he insisted that Sohair had only been treated for genital warts. “What circumcision?" he is reported to have asked. "There was no circumcision. It’s all made up by these dogs’ rights people [human rights activists].”
As well as being illegal, Egypt’s leading Muslim religious official says that FGM is religiously forbidden, too. But many locals in Sohair's village of Diyarb Bektaris believe the practice is prescribed by Islamic law. It has been encouraged by community religious officials from both Islam and Christianity, and was supported in certain circumstances by the Egypt's former rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2012, an official Brotherhood website answered a supporter's email on the matter, saying the procedure: "reduces sexual arousal to a rate that does not exceed the normal average" and adding that an uncircumcised woman faces "many problems because of her lack of satiation.”
Opponents of the practise say it is rooted in patriarchy, not religion, pointing to its relative insignificance within other countries across the Middle East. "The problem is cultural, not religious," Suad Abu-Dayyeh, the regional representative of NGO Equality Now, tells me.
Sohair's father, who accompanied her to the operation, was also acquitted of any role in her death. Her family were not present at Thursday's verdict - several members previously told the press that they supported the decision to have the young girl circumcised, despite the tragic outcome.
But campaigners against the practice say they are starting to observe a generational shift in attitudes towards FGM. 18-year old Shima' Gad Abbas, speaking on the phone from Aswan, explained that she had been able to persuade her mother that her young sister should not undergo the procedure, as she had.
"FGM happens to us when we are too young to understand or say no," said Ms Abbas. "It causes psychological trauma. My life was destroyed."
While 12-year old Sandy Samir, a participant in a state-led anti-FGM campaign, said she was one of only two girls in her class to remain uncircumcised. "God has created us perfectly, every organ made to do a job," she explained. "FGM is a crime - the distortion of a woman."
The campaign group that pushed Sohair's case to trial, described Thursday's verdict as "deeply frustrating".
"This shows that even though a law can be in place, justice can still be evasive," said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, the regional representative for Equality Now.
"Girls will continue to be failed as long as the law is not implemented properly - and we do not have any time to waste."
© 2014 The Telegraph