Report by David G. Littman, Representative of the Association for World Education (AWE) and the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) to the UN in Geneva:
A recent article on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (Sara Corbett, “A Cutting Tradition“, January 20, 2008) has prompted us to reproduce a statement that was delivered on behalf of the Association for World Education by David G. Littman on 19 March 2007 — at the 4th session of the new UN Human Rights Council (HRC). To this oral statement was attached AWE”s written statement to the 57th session (2005) of the Sub-Commission on Human Rights: E/CN.4/Sub.2/2005/NGO/27: Traditional or Customary Practices / Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and an appendix with the authentic Arabic text on FGM (according to the Shafi”i school of Sunni Law), with English translations from the widely used Nuh Ha Mim Keller edition, and its Certification from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
This NGO written statement (and appendix) were attached a 2nd time when a joint oral statement was delivered by me on September 13, 2007 (6th session HRC), on behalf of AWE, the Association of World Citizens and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The last sentence of our March 19 statement has been retained, although it is not about FGM — it deals with “underage” marriage in Iran (9 years), which is another abominable crime against women, inherited from medieval traditions — and holy writ — re-introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This form of sexual mutilation should also be declared “unacceptable” by the United Nations.
It is noteworthy that there has been no official reaction at UN bodies in relation to the irrefutable evidence contained in our oral and written statements (delivered in one form or another over the past 15 years) and confirmed in the appendix document widely circulated last year at the CHR.
According to UNICEF figures, FGM is traditionally practised in one form or another in 32 countries (roughly 16% of the Member States of the United Nations), of which 29 states (90%) are Members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
ASSOCIATION FOR WORLD EDUCATION
UN Human Rights Council: Representative David G. LITTMAN. Monday (5:50 p.m.) 19 March 2007
Fourth session (12 March–30 March 2007) President: Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba (Mexico)
Female genital mutilation and barbaric crimes against young girls worldwide
Thank you, Mr President,
We congratulate Mr Paulo Sergio Pinheiro for his World Report on Violence against Children.
The term “traditional or customary practices” is a shameful euphemism for a crime against female children. FGM has no religious or hygienic justification yet over three million female children and girls in over 32 countries, including more and more thousands in Europe from an immigrant population, are being brutally mutilated each year.
A worldwide goal of outlawing this ancient child torture by 2010, as announced on 6 February 2004 at the International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM, seems a pious hope — unless energetic steps are taken in many countries. Over the last 50 years about 10% of the world’s female population has been thus mutilated in childhood. Last month a UNICEF official spoke here of about 300 million victims still alive today. This sober realisation should prompt world leaders — both secular and spiritual, and UN bodies, to initiate positive measures against the practice.
Our attached written statement, E/CN.4/Sub.2/2005/NGO/27: Background on “Traditional or Customary Practices” / Female Genital Mutilation has some useful background documentation (http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G05/149/14/PDF/G0514914.pdf?OpenElement), and we are providing, as an appendix, the Arabic text of the section of Umdat al-Salik (e4.3).*
It is published in the widely-used Nuh Ha Mim Keller edition (p. 59), with its Certification from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. This is an authoritative source for the Shafi’i school of Sunni law, widely adhered to in Egypt — and in many Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — on the question of male circumcision and female excision. Keller’s misleading English translation should be compared with an exact one.
A Shafi’i fiqh ruling on female excision helps explain why the FGM figure in Egypt is reported by UNICEF at 97% despite 1997 State legislation. The figure for Sudan is “almost 90% of the female population in the north of Sudan” — to quote from the Special Rapporteur’s 2004 report. Her 2005 report: E/CN.4/Sub.2/2005/36 does not cover this specific question, which is a serious omission, despite the sensitivity of the subject. Only a fatwa from Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Sayyad Tantawi replacing the previous Al-Azhar fatwas of 1949, 1951 and 1981 will allow religious and State legislation to be in total harmony on this key matter in Egypt and in 28 other Muslim countries. It has been announced recently that such a fatwa is now in the Al-Azhar pipeline. Mr. Pineiro, do you believe that such a fatwa, if announced, will have an effect?.
We now turn to the issue of child marriage and would ask: what is considered “˜underage”
On taking office in 1997, Iranian President Mohammed Reza Khatami called for a global “Dialogue of Civilizations.” This was followed by Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi’s call at the Jubilee Commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for a “revision of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in a statement to the Commission (March 17, 1998).
The year 2000 saw a bill in the Iranian Parliament to end marriages for young girls of only 9 years old overthrown by the mullahs, claiming that it would be against Islamic teachings to make changes to the current law — as “Islamic scholars had put a lot of efforts into these laws” (Muhammad Ali Sheikh, quoted in Parliament — in “Iran Bill to End Marriage at 9. Guardian Consent Still Needed,” IHT, August 10, 2000). In 1994 Iran signed and then ratified the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its article 1 states: “A child means a person below the age of 18 unless, under existing law, majority may be attained earlier.” Iran is not the only State with such anachronistic legislation concerning female children.
The international community should cry out not in the wilderness but at this Council.
Mr. Pineiro, Mr. President, will this ever happen here? [No answers from Mr. Pinheiro.]
Written Statement by the AWE: E/CN.4/Sub.2/2005/NGO/27 (July 4, 2005):
“Traditional or Customary Practices”/ Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
1. ECOSOC first raised this grave matter of “traditional or customary practices” in
a request to the World Health Organisation (WHO), where it was rejected in 1959 on the
grounds that the “ritual operation in question are based on social and cultural
backgrounds, the study of which is outside the competence of the WHO.” Due to NGO
pressures — such as that by the late Edmund Kaiser, founder of Terre des Hommes, who
launched the first campaign against these “traditional practices” — WHO organised a
seminar in Khartoum in 1979 when the unambiguous term FGM was first coined. The
Inter-African Committee (IAC) came into existence at that time and subsequently many
useful studies were organised by WHO and UNESCO. By its resolution 1983/1, the
Sub-Commission “began the process of drawing world attention” to this then taboo
subject — which had rarely been treated seriously in public until then.
2. In 1996, WHO called “for the prevention and elimination of FGM and other
traditional practices harmful to health as soon as possible, preferably before the year
2000.” In September 1997, the organisation for African Unity (OAC), the Inter-African
Committee (IAC), and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) organised a
symposium at which a crucial declaration was adopted that referred to FGM as “a form
of violence against women,” and called on Governments to take effective action for its
elimination. In its resolution 1998/52, the CHR called upon States: “to condemn
violence against women and not invoke custom, tradition or practices in the name of
religion to avoid their obligations to eliminate such violence (9c); it also calling upon
States, “to eradicate traditional or customary practices, particularly female genital
mutilation that are harmful to or discriminate against women…”(11)
3. We first raised the question of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), as an NGO at
the CHR 12 years ago, following contacts with Edmund Kaiser (and in an appeal
published in the International Herald Tribune on 21 December 1993, and again on 28
August 1996). At that time, measures of a legal nature had been taken in the United
Kingdom, France, Sweden, and in Switzerland; and then by the United States, Canada
and Australia, who joined the growing list of Western countries determined to legislate
against FGM — since followed by most African countries.
4. The term “traditional or customary practices” is a shameful euphemism for a
crime against females. FGM has no religious or hygienic justification, yet over two
million female children and girls in more than 30 countries — including more and more
thousands in Europe from an immigrant population — are being brutally mutilated each
year. The goal of outlawing this ageless child torture by 2010 — as announced at the 6
February 2004 International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM — still seems a pious
hope. Over the last 50 years (as in past centuries), about 10% of the world’s female
population has already been thus mutilated in childhood, and this sober realisation
should prompt all world leaders — whether secular or spiritual — and UN bodies to
initiate positive education at an early age in schools, including in religious schools.
5. We wish to reiterate that the 2003 Cairo Consultation sponsored by the European
Union on the theme, “˜STOP FGM” which took place in the presence of Al-Azhar’s
Grand Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi and two Coptic spiritual leaders did not
remove religious justifications or responsibilities in this domain. UN Special
Rapporteur (UNSR) Halima Embarek Warzazi had already implied in her Report in
2003 that this “˜event” had removed all doubts as to any religious justification for FGM
— and this was reiterated in her 2004 Report, albeit in another context — under Â§67.
6. The FGM figure for Egypt was then, and remains today a deadly 97%, despite
the Government’s 1997 legislation, in which it is considered as a physical mutilation and therefore is punished under the Penal Law; the Council of State decided on 28
December 1997: “to ban the practice of excision, even when the consent of either child
or her parents is given.” In Sudan, a law against infibulation was enacted in 1946 by the
colonial power, but since this law was imposed by the British, it was never enforced.
According to the UNSR”s Report of 2004 (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2004/41, Â§24): “Almost 90%
of the female population in the north of the Sudan undergoes FGM which, in many
cases, is practised in its most extreme form, known as infibulation.”
7. This fact speaks volumes, especially as Egypt’s population has nearly
quadrupled since 1950, and FGM for northern Sudan is near 90% and the high
percentage in thirty other countries — most Islamic — is known to the experts. In her 2004 report, UNSR Warzazi correctly referred to FGM as reflecting male domination, and the importance of “strengthening the status of women in society from the earliest age” — however she noted in her conclusions that “harmful traditional practices cannot be
eliminated overnight with a wave of a magic wand,” and criticised the British
Government for introducing stringent legislation to punish severely anyone performing
FGM in the UK (“even outside the country”). The UNSR (Â§67) referred to a conference
on Islam and FGM at the Islamic University of Rotterdam, after which the university
released a statement asserting that there is no connection between FGM and Islam.
8. On this overall theme of “˜traditional practices,” we wish to draw general attention
to a pertinent analysis of “cultural relativism” in the final Commission Report of 2003
by former UN Special Rapporteur Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, who occupied that post
with distinction for nine years. Under section VII: Religious Extremism and Harmful
Traditional Practices, Â§ 61 & 62 (E/CN.4/2003/75), she provides a pertinent analysis,
which will be our Conclusion:
“In 1994, as well as today, the greatest challenge to women’s rights and the elimination
of discriminatory laws and harmful practices comes from the doctrine of cultural
relativism. While in the public sphere, where men dominate, the Internet and modern
forms of economic and social globalization are destroying citadels of cultural
exclusivism, in the area of women’s rights, especially in matters concerning the home
and the family, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is challenged as being a
cultural imposition from the outside. This is made worse by the policies adopted since
11 September 2001 by many groups and societies that feel threatened and under siege.”
“Cultural relativism is the belief that no universal legal or moral standard exists against
which human practices can be judged. It is argued that human rights discourse is not
universal but a product of the European enlightenment, and its particular cultural
development, and thus a cultural imposition of one part of the globe upon another.
Ironically, despite these claims, States sign international human rights instruments and
agree to abide by their principles. It could therefore be argued that States have
consented to be bound by certain universal principles. Human rights have become
universal in scope and application…” (Â§62)
9. The Association for World Education remains convinced that a dramatic change
might occur in Egypt, followed by other Muslim countries, if Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh
Sayyed Tantawi could be persuaded by a consensus of religious authorities, and the
Egyptian Government to issue a fatwa that would effectively clarify or replace the three
previous fatwas from Al-Azhar (1949, 1951, and especially that of 29 January 1981 by
the then senior Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh).* Although no religious backing was given
then for FGM, parents were advised not to avoid “parental responsibilities.” It is known
that most parents, a majority of whom are illiterate, would automatically choose an Al-
Azhar ruling or advice — rather than a secular law of the Egyptian Government.
10. This AWE request should be considered by the Special Rapporteur Halima
Embarek Warzazi and the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights, and formulated and
included in its resolution on Harmful traditional practices affecting the health of women
and the girl child.
* Gad-al-Haq: Khitan al banat, pp. 3119-3125, in Sami A. Aldeeb, Mutiler, in the
Institut Suisse de Droit ComparÃ©, 1993, p. 191.