“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” It goes without saying that Ancient Egypt was a remarkable civilisation. It left a lasting impression on the world. Its contribution to history ranges from the arcane pyramids, hieroglyphs and mummification, to the more technologically valuable dams, makeup and paper. But one heirloom from the days of yore is a cultural anathema. It was a horrifying practice then, and it’s a horrifying practice now. I speak, of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Although it has not been possible to pin down its precise origins, contemporary source material certainly indicates its occurrence in the geography of Egypt in late antiquity. Whenever its origins, it is time that the practice was consigned to the history books once and for all. The procedure has no place in modern society and attempts to justify its continuation on historical, cultural or religious grounds are at best misguided and, at worst, malevolent.
The World Health Organisation estimates that some 3 million girls are subject to FGM in some form every year in Africa alone. It is currently practiced in 28 countries there as well as some in the Middle East and Asia. Between April 2015 and March 2016, there were 5,702 new cases of FGM recorded in England, the first period for which NHS staff were compelled to record incidences.
It is estimated that at any one time, 24,000 girls are at risk of undergoing the most severe form of FGM. In the UK, FGM and a whole host of related actions are illegal and carry considerable custodial sentences, and rightly so. But elsewhere in the world, it does not carry such punishments. In Somalia, the prevalence of FGM is thought to be as high as 98% and it is estimated to be in the high 90% in Sierra Leone and Guinea too.
The majority of the countries with the highest proportion of FGM prevalence are Islamic states. And there is a propensity to link the two practices, to assume that FGM and Islam are somehow related and that FGM is a proscription of the religion. Emphatically: it is not. The practice of FGM predates the religion of Islam by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. One of the most fundamental principles of Islam comes from the Prophet Muhammad, who said: “Do not harm yourself or others.”
Most Muslims around the world do not practice FGM. Its association with the faith brings dishonour, disrepute and undermines the tolerant and equal core of our religion. There is no reference to it in the Qur’an, nor any authentic reference in the Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad).
The social, physical, mental and religious impact of the horrifying practice of FGM cannot be overstated. We must stamp out its association with Islam, and halt its justification on religious grounds. It is an indefensible act, the cultural origins of which are ancient but unclear. It cannot and must not be respected or protected on the basis of tolerance or equality.