Muslim scholars and academics from Germany, Africa and the Middle East spent two days discussing female genital mutilation. The goal of the conference was to declare this form of circumcision to be incompatible with the ethics of Islam as a global religion.
It was a German who organized and funded the conference. In 2000 Rüdiger Nehberg, 71, a man known for adventurous exploits that have included crossing the Atlantic in a pedal boat, founded Target, a human rights organization dedicated to fighting female genital mutilation. Since then Nehberg, accompanied by his life partner Annette Weber, has been traveling throughout Africa with his video camera, documenting the inhuman practice and attempting to win over political and religious leaders for his cause. Wherever he goes, Nehberg says: "This custom can only be brought to an end with the power of Islam." In organizing the conference, which was held at Cairo's Al-Azhar University under the patronage of Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Jumaa, Nehberg has come one step closer to his goal.
Many important Muslim scholars attended the event. The Egyptian minister for religious charities, Mahmoud Hamdi Saksuk, condemned the practice, as did the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi. Even the renowned and notorious Egyptian religious scholar and journalist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who enjoys great popularity in the Middle East as a result of his commentary on the Aljazeera television network, attended the Cairo conference.
Qaradawi did full justice to his reputation as a hardliner by initially criticizing the fact that the conference was paid for by a foreign institution, and not the practice of mutilation. He also complained that the title, "The Prohibition of Violation of the Female Body through Circumcision" was biased and presumptuous.
But after plenty of hemming and hawing, even Qaradawi managed to agree that the Koran states that it is forbidden to mutilate God's creation. "We are on the side of those who ban this practice," he said, but added that doctors ought to have the last word.
This wasn't enough for women's rights activists. Mushira Chattab, the Egyptian first lady's special ambassador and chairwoman of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, called upon the legal scholars at the meeting to take a clear position against female circumcision. Then she turned to Qaradawi and said: "You should not leave it up to doctors to condemn this practice."
Every doctor at the conference agreed that there is no medical justification for female genital mutilation. Heribert Kentenich, physician-in-chief of the women's clinic at the DRK Hospitals in Berlin expressed a "complete lack of understanding" for the fact that 75 percent of circumcisions are now performed by doctors in Egypt. "I find it almost more horrifying that doctors are enriching themselves by doing this," he added. The drop in the estimated incidents of female circumcision has dropped significantly -- some believe as much as from 97 percent to approximately 50 percent -- but it is impossible to obtain precise figures. Even at 50 percent, that would still represent roughly 400,000 girls a year. Kentenich believes that the "medicalization of female genital mutilation makes it seem more acceptable."
The direct consequences include hemorrhaging, as well as severe pain and anxiety that can lead to trauma. Besides, the practice can also cause infections in the urinary tract, the uterus, the fallopian tube and the ovaries. Other consequences such as tetanus infections, gangrene and blood poisoning can be fatal. Besides, women who are subjected to pharaonic mutilation experience increased pain during menstruation, when blood accumulates in the vagina because the opening is too small to permit normal flow. Mutilated women are also at greater risk for becoming infected with HIV.
Circumcised women can face complications during pregnancy, and both the mother and child are at greater risk of dying in childbirth.
There is no religious justification for this practice. All three major monotheistic world religions define man as a perfect creation of the Almighty, and condemn doing any harm to God's creation. In Sura 95, Verse 4, the Koran states: "We have created man in our most perfect image." Besides, in Islam men and women are meant to experience sexual fulfillment, and it is considered the husband's matrimonial duty to satisfy his wife -- a near impossible task when a woman is circumcised.
Although the conference's attendees were generally in agreement over these facts, men repeatedly insisted on defending circumcision as an established custom. "Our women have been circumcised for thousands of years, and they have never complained," said an agitated elderly man in the audience. The conference, he said, was a Western conspiracy, and showing pictures of circumcisions was a crime.