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Egypt’s child protection law sparks controversy

Islamist oppo­nents from the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood argue that the law impos­es for­eign val­ues on Egyp­tians.

By Liam Stack
The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor

Cairo, Egypt — Since June, Egyp­t’s gov­ern­ment and Islamist oppo­si­tion par­ties have been trad­ing barbs over a new law designed to pro­tect the rights of chil­dren. Reforms insti­tut­ed by the law touch on issues rang­ing from chil­dren’s legal sta­tus to per­son­al health issues.

The law was passed by par­lia­ment, which is dom­i­nat­ed by Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak’s rul­ing par­ty. But the mea­sure has spurred a debate over the com­pet­ing roles of reli­gion, tra­di­tion, and the state in the upbring­ing of chil­dren. The con­tro­ver­sy is mak­ing waves in a coun­try where 32 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is under the age of 15, accord­ing to a 2006 gov­ern­ment cen­sus.

The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, a banned yet tol­er­at­ed oppo­si­tion group that holds 20 per­cent of the seats in the low­er house, argues that the law vio­lates Islam­ic law and impos­es for­eign val­ues on Egyp­tians.

Saad El Katat­ny, the leader of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood bloc in par­lia­ment, says his move­ment is not opposed to the child law as a whole, rather “just those pro­vi­sions that run counter to the norms, cus­toms, and nature of the Egypt­ian peo­ple.”

Aspects of the law that he takes issue with include arti­cles that make it ille­gal to try chil­dren as adults, per­mit birth cer­tifi­cates for the chil­dren of unwed moth­ers, restrict cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, raise the mar­riage age to 18 years, and rein­force a stand­ing ban on female cir­cum­ci­sion.

“When you do things like this, for exam­ple lim­it­ing the age of mar­riage to 18, it does not reflect the norms of our soci­ety, it reflects inter­na­tion­al norms,” Mr. Katat­ny adds.

Sup­port­ers of the law accuse the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood of play­ing pol­i­tics with chil­dren’s rights and argue that chang­ing cul­tur­al atti­tudes that endan­ger young peo­ple is the exact inten­tion of the law.

“We want­ed the law to be strin­gent or extreme because we want it to chal­lenge some of the preva­lent norms and val­ues in our soci­ety, par­tic­u­lar­ly female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion (FGM) and the prac­tice of child mar­riage,” says Hany Helal, who directs the Egypt­ian Cen­ter for the Rights of the Child and helped the gov­ern­ment write the law.

“In our coun­try, a num­ber of forms of vio­lence against chil­dren have become the norm,” he adds.

One of the most con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects in the law is female cir­cum­ci­sion, which remains wide­spread despite a year-old ban that was enact­ed after a girl died dur­ing the pro­ce­dure in June 2007.

In Ara­bic, FGM is referred to as “purifi­ca­tion.” It is wide­ly seen as a rite of pas­sage that helps pro­tect girls from sex­u­al desire and sin.

“Purifi­ca­tion is a good thing, it’s a beau­ti­ful thing,” says Moubara­ka Aly Mohamed, an elder­ly woman. “I have three daugh­ters and we cir­cum­cised them all when they were 4 or 5 years old, so that they would­n’t get into trou­ble at school,” she says, adding that they will soon cir­cum­cise her 3‑year-old grand­daugh­ter. “It’s the only way. If they weren’t cir­cum­cised they would be com­mit­ting sin­ful acts that I would not approve of,” she says.

Egypt has one of the high­est FGM rates in the world. Accord­ing to a 2005 study con­duct­ed by UNICEF, 96 per­cent of women between the ages of 15 to 49 who had ever been mar­ried are cir­cum­cised. A recent study by the coun­try’s Min­istry of Health and Pop­u­la­tion also found that 50.3 per­cent of girls between the ages of 10 and 18 had been cir­cum­cised.

Katat­ny says that the Broth­er­hood is not in favor of female cir­cum­ci­sion, but oppos­es ban­ning it because it is a tra­di­tion that should remain an option for med­ical rea­sons and “beau­ti­fi­ca­tion” pur­pos­es.

For her part, Dr. Amna Nos­seir, a for­mer dean of Al Azhar Uni­ver­si­ty and a mem­ber of Egyp­t’s Supreme Coun­cil for Islam­ic Affairs, says the law’s Islamist oppo­nents are being “obnox­ious.” “Female cir­cum­ci­sion is in no way, shape, or form part of the Islam­ic reli­gion. It is an exam­ple of how reli­gious texts can be manip­u­lat­ed to sup­port local cus­toms or peo­ple’s own points of view,” she says.

Human rights activists sug­gest that the child law’s reli­gious oppo­nents are more con­cerned about embar­rass­ing the gov­ern­ment than pro­tect­ing chil­dren. “This is a law the gov­ern­ment want­ed. It was a big invest­ment for them,” says Clar­isa Ben­co­mo, a Cairo-based researcher in the chil­dren’s rights divi­sion of Human Rights Watch. “There is a lot in this law that makes Egypt look good inter­na­tion­al­ly, but it is also some­thing that makes it easy for the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood to put its fin­ger in the gov­ern­men­t’s eye.”

The oppo­si­tion back­lash com­bined with a legal sys­tem rife with over­worked and poor­ly trained lawyers have many wor­ried, how­ev­er, that efforts to imple­ment the mea­sure will remain com­pli­cat­ed.


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