“She cried,” Sohair al-Bataa’s grandmother said, “She refused.” But her father was determined. He carted his 13-year-old daughter off to a local doctor who cut her genitals — but unlike the other girls who went under his knife, al-Bataa did not wake up.
An autopsy report deemed the cause of death to be a “sharp drop in blood pressure resulting from shock trauma.” But Raslan Fadl, who performed the procedure claimed that she died as a result of a penicillin allergy.
Both he and the girl’s father were cleared of all charges related to her death through a verdict found scrawled across a ledger on Thursday. No official announcement was made in court and no reason for the decision was given in this case, the first under a 2008 law that rendered female genital mutilation (FGM) illegal in Egypt.
“It’s a very unjust verdict from the judge. It sends a very negative message,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh of Equality Now, a women’s right organization. “It was the first case in the country and we were hoping we could build on it.”
Despite the acquittal, the doctor agreed to pay a an-out-of-court settlement of almost $700 to the girl’s mother, who brought the case. There’s been a significant drop not only in the percentage of Egyptian women who want their daughters to undergo the procedure, as well as in the number of incidences. While the overall percentage of married women who underwent FGM in Egypt is a staggering 95.5 percent, only about three-fourths between the ages of 15 and 17 have had their genitals cut or burned in accordance with the centuries-old tradition.
The trend in Egypt is mirrored around the world.
According to the U.N., there are more than 130 million victims of FGM around the world, but the chances that a teenage girl will undergo the procedure have decline by a third in the last 30 years.
But the decline has a lot less to do with legal deterrents and courtroom verdicts than slow shifts in cultural norms which are sometimes aided by grassroots activism. Increasingly, people around the world are beginning to see FGM as a form of sexual violence that’s vastly different from male circumcision.
“In the past there was ignorance,” a woman vending fruit in al-Bataa’s village told the BBC, “and people brought barbers to their homes to circumcise girls. Now we are more modern.
We hear every now and then that girls die because of this. I’m afraid of that. But we are not scared of the authorities.”
Even in the United Kingdom where FGM has been illegal since 1985, no case has ever made it to trial. That’s largely because victims are afraid to speak out against their own families, Efua Dorkenoo of Equality Now told Deutsche Welle.
“She’s even threatened that if we try to push it, she would change her story,” Dorkenoo said of a 17-year-old who had come to her after undergoing FGM. “[She said] she would deny it, and she even threatened to commit suicide if we pushed it further.”
Though horrified by what had happened to her, the girl did not want her mother to go to prison for perpetuating a cultural tradition that aims to curb women’s “lust” by extinguishing their sexual pleasure.
An estimated 66,000 women there have undergone FGM in the UK, and an additional 20,000 girls a year are at risk of having their genitals mutilated within its borders or on trips abroad.
Another issue is tracking the occurrence of FGM, especially because it’s a taboo topic even where it’s the norm. FGM was not thought to be a common practice in Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance, until an aid agency surveyed several villages and found that more than 70 percent of women and girls there had been mutilated.
Through advocacy and education, the German-Iraqi organization WADI not only initiated a law banning the practice, but claims to have completely eradicated FGM in six villages since 2010. Still, because of issues around propriety, there’s no way to check whether or not girls are actually being spared. And local midwives who used to perform FGM feel tricked. One has threatened to pick up the practice again, since it was formally a revenue stream.
“I thought they would pay me,” one Kurdish midwife said of Wadi, adding that the new law would not deter her from going back to performing FGM. “I am not afraid of the police.”
In Egypt, Sohair al-Batta’s doctor may not be deterred either. Especially because some members of her family seem to have forgiven him.
“We are not angry with the doctor,” al-Bataa’s grandfather told the BBC. “The doctor does not want to kill anyone. We are all sorry, and definitely we regret this.”