Female circumcision led to the death of this Egyptian girl. Today, her doctor stands trial in landmark case.


Sohair al-Bata’a who died from female genital mutilation in Egypt. (Courtesy of the Guardian)

In June of last year, a father and daughter arrived at a doctor’s office two hours north of Cairo. The father left his daughter, a cherub-faced girl of 13, in the custody of a doctor and a nurse.

She was to be circumcised. And this would be the last time he would see her alive.

“The nurse took my daughter out of the operation room to a nearby room, along with three other girls whom the doctor was circumcising,” the father, a farmer, told the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. “I waited half an hour, hoping that my daughter would wake up, but, unfortunately, unlike the rest of the girls, she did not.”

The doctor, Raslan Fadl, who also circumcised another girl in the family, allegedly offered the family 20,000 Egyptian pounds — about $2,800 — to keep quiet about her death. But they wouldn’t. And a health inspector’s report appeared to confirm their suspicions: 13-year-old Suhair al-Bata’a had died of “a sharp drop in blood pressure resulting from shock trauma.”

“I want nothing but to hold the doctor accountable and to have justice for my daughter,” Suhair’s mother said at the time.

Today, nearly one year after her daughter’s death, that may finally happen. In what outside observers are calling a landmark case, the doctor will stand trial today on charges of violating a 2008 ban on female genital mutilation, an entrenched practice that removes the clitoris.

The courtroom drama underscores a broader cultural clash between modernity and tradition. In the West, female genital mutilation is considered abhorrent, and prominent leaders from Hillary Clinton to Angelina Jolie have condemned it. But in Egypt, the act isn’t universally dismissed.

Far from it. More than 90 percent of women in Egypt have undergone the procedure, according to a UNICEF report. Though it was banned after a 12-year-old girl died following the procedure, prominent political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood support female circumcision, and many local Christians and Muslims alike contend it has religious merit.

To some Egyptians, the procedure marks a girl’s womanhood and defines her femininity. It “is supported by both men and woman, usually without question, and anyone departing from the norm may face condemnation, harassment and social exclusion,” UNICEF found in 2010.

In al-Bata’a’s community, some locals say circumcision is “good for our girls” and have rallied around the embattled doctor. “Most people will tell you he is a very good man: don’t harm him,” Reda el-Danbouki, the founder of the Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness, an Egyptian human rights group, told the Guardian. “If you asked people about who is the best person to do this operation, they would still say: Dr. Raslan.”

Even though, in al-Bata’a’s case, he denies having done it. He claims the girl died of an allergic reaction to penicillin, which he says she took during a procedure to remove genital warts.

“What circumcision? There was no circumcision,” Fadl said, claiming the charges were invented by human rights activists, whom he called “dogs’ rights people.”

Indeed, the case against Fadl was started through the intervention of a human rights group. The girl’s family initially said female genital mutilation killed her. Days later they recanted, however, and the doctor, who had turned himself in to police, was released. Only through an international campaign spearheaded by Equality Now, an international human rights group, was the case reopened.

Equality Now denied that female circumcision was vital to Islam.

“It’s not an Islamic issue – it’s cultural,” said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, regional representative for Equality Now … “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.”

Al-bata’a’s father also faces charges for his alleged complicity in her death. The family is expected to waive manslaughter charges against him, but the state can pursue them.

“It’s very hard to arrest a doctor,” one local police chief said. “You have to catch them in the [illegal] act or it has to be reported by the father. And that’s difficult because the father will deny what happened.”

Complicating matters further: The family’s quest for justice has given way to resignation. Al-bata’a’s parents have disappeared. And her grandmother has turned against the trial proceedings.

“This is her destiny,” she told the Guardian. “What can we do? It’s what God ordered. Nothing will help now.”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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