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Advocacy for female genital mutilation commands less of a consensus; its acceptance and promotion stem more from social custom than from religious instruction. But its practice in the Middle East, once thought minimal, is, in reality, widespread and expanding and a matter of much concern. The UN Commission on Human Rights, the World Health Organization, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women report that female genital mutilation has affected the lives of millions of women in Africa and the Middle East.
A 2005 UNICEF report claims an overwhelming percent of Egyptian women have undergone genital mutilation. Other sources report 60 percent for both Yemeni and Kurdish Iraqi women. There is strong circumstantial evidence of its practice in Syria and Jordan. Whether religiously prescribed or not, among rural populations most of the perpetrators and victims of female genital mutilation believe it to be religiously mandated. There is also enough authoritative religious voice to validate that view.
Clerical and government opposition to female genital mutilation is growing in the Middle East. Witness the 2006 conference at al-Azhar university sponsored by 20 esteemed clerics with its president, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, concluding that the practice “must be considered as a criminal aggression against mankind.” Yet Professor Muhammad Shamaa of the university’s Islamic Research Academy said that “it would take a long time before such an ancient custom disappears,” and admitted about the conference: “We simply did not invite those who disagree with us.”
And many Islamic clerics and educators do disagree; among them, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who stated that “whoever finds it serving the interests of his daughters should do it, and I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world.” Egyptian Sheikh Mustafa al-Azhari believes that the attempt to end the practice is a Western conspiracy. Mufti Sa’id al-Hijawi of Jordan declared female circumcision to be a “noble trait accepted by Islam even though it is not a necessity.” Past rector of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Gad al-Haq noted that since the Prophet did not ban female circumcision, it was permissible. And Umdat al-Salik, e4.3, a much referred to manual of Shafi’i Islamic law, affirms that female circumcision is obligatory.
Honor killing – murder of a female who has allegedly committed an act that shamed her family – represents yet another form of violent discrimination against women. Male family members are judge and jury. The Islamist party in the Jordanian parliament condones it as part of Islam’s code. Egypt’s Ifta’ Council of al-Azhar University issued a fatwa stating that punishment for adultery should be left to the ruler. The mufti of Gaza, Sheikh Abd al-Karim Kahlut demands the death penalty. Jordanian minister of awqaf – an Islamic foundation – is more lenient arguing that “Shari’a is clear and she should be lashed eighty times. His colleague, Hamdi Murad, advises one hundred lashes for a first offence and death by stoning thereafter. In Saudi Arabia, tenth-grade textbooks teach that it is permissible to kill adulterers. Tarrad Fayiz, a Jordanian tribal leader explains its harshness: “A woman is like an olive tree. When its branch catches woodworm, it has to be chopped off so that society stays clean and pure.”
In Jordan, Syria, and Morocco, specific articles of their penal codes condone honor killing. Morocco’s Article 418 states that murder and beatings by a husband or by his accomplice are excusable if his wife is discovered in the act of adultery. Syria’s Article 548 protects the husband from penalty in cases where his wife or sister engages in adultery. In Jordan, Article 340 states that: “he who discovers one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them is exempted from any penalty.”
In 2007, 21 honor killings were reported in the West Bank and 25 in Gaza. Saed Taha, dean of Qalqilya’s College of Islamic Law, criticized these killings on the grounds that they were not administered according to Sharia law. Although articles 19, 22, and 23 of the 2003 revised Constitution of the State of Palestine specify that women shall have the same rights, liberties, and duties of men, article 7 specifies that Sharia law is the main source of all civil and religious matters.
Most Middle Eastern countries adopted the 2006 treaty concerning discrimination against women, sponsored by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW] but with provisos. In the case of Egypt, the proviso addresses the relationship between positive law and the Islamic Sharia: “The Egyptian legal system is based on a number of legislative levels, of which constitutional principles and precepts are foremost, followed by legal principles. The legislative authority is therefore bound to apply constitutional principles when enacting laws. Any violation by the legislative authorities of these principles would be considered as flouting the Constitution. In article 2, the Constitution states that the principles of the Islamic Shariah are the primary source of legislation. They are an obligation by which the legislative authorities are bound when issuing laws.” In substance, then, the proviso undermines the force of the treaty
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The referenced material offered here is obviously only the tip of the discrimination iceberg. As academics who have already been a signatory to a petition declaring concern for human rights abuses practiced in one country of the Middle East, please exercise this privilege to express your concern now about the widely practiced and condoned discrimination against women, gays and lesbians in the many countries of that same region. Please join us by affirming this call for support. You can sign on to this statement by replying to this email with a one-word reply: YES. Please do so as soon as possible.
University of Illinois,
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