Last month, the parents of 4-year-old Amira Hassan did what they thought was their duty as good Muslims: They hired the family physician to snip off part of her genitals.
When she died a few hours later, apparently as a result of complications from anesthesia, Mahmoud Hassan and his wife, Atiyat, accepted it as God’s will. Now the only thing that puzzles them is why anyone thinks that the doctor, Ezzat Shehat, did anything wrong.
“He is a good doctor,” said Hassan, 27, a somber grocer with a neatly trimmed mustache. “They should let him return to work.” The Health Ministry has suspended Shehat pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
The death of the little girl - one of two who suffered the same fate at the hands of the same doctor on the same day - highlights the immense challenge faced by women’s health advocates and some government officials in Egypt as they begin to confront the widely practiced ritual known as female circumcision.
Having ignored the issue for decades, public health authorities in Egypt this year were stunned by a survey showing that 97 percent of married Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 had undergone the procedure. Among women with daughters, 87 percent reported that at least one daughter had been circumcised or would be.
“They were all surprised,” said Dara Carr, a researcher with Maryland-based Macro International Inc., which conducted the survey on behalf of the Egyptian government with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I think the Egyptians felt that this was a dying custom and that this was much, much higher than they had expected.”
Like other countries in Africa where female circumcision is commonplace, Egypt has come under international pressure to curb the practice. It has been linked to such health risks as bleeding, infection and complications relating to anesthesia - and, in later life, problems in childbirth and sexual relations. That pressure led, in July, to a decree by the health minister barring the operation.
But the decree has encountered stiff resistance from Islamic fundamentalists, including many within the medical establishment, who defend the practice as necessary to protect women from the consequences of excessive sexual desire.
Judging from a visit to this rural village, hemmed in by sugar-cane fields on the west bank of the Nile 320 miles south of Cairo, the ban has yet to touch the lives of ordinary Egyptians. Many people said they had never heard of it. Others said they would ignore it.
In the meantime, health workers say, girls as young as 3 continue to undergo surgery at the hands of poorly trained midwives, village barbers and, in many cases, doctors who work for the same ministry that is claiming to combat the practice.