Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Furor Abating over CNN Report on Female Circumcision

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Furor Abating over CNN Report on Female Circumcision

Article excerpt

Furor Abating Over CNN Report on Female Circumcision

Two years after the Atlanta-based Cable News Network (CNN) ran a controversial story on female circumcision in Egypt -- for which the TV network was much maligned-the Health Ministry has banned the practice in public hospitals and launched a major public relations campaign against it.

The ministry was scrambling to placate public revulsion at the deaths of two young girls -- ne named Sarah, 11, and the other Amina, 14 -- who underwent the operation last summer. Sarah died when a barber removed her clitoris and Amina died at the hands of a doctor. Both girls bled to death.

Debate, reports the Cairo-based Middle East Times, still rages about the wisdom of banning the practice from public hospitals while the vast majority of Egyptians still consider the operation necessary to make their daughters marriageable. Even some people opposed to female circumcision -- genital mutilation -- argue that at least public hospitals can ensure that it's done cleanly and safely.

Complicating the issue is that although female circumcision is not prescribed in Islamic law, the late Sheikh of Al-Azhar Islamic University, Gad Al-Haq, has said it is a religious duty. An estimated 3,600 girls are circumcised every day in Egypt, one of only a handful of countries, including neighboring Sudan, where it is widely practiced.

The Egyptian press has been covering the issue extensively since September 1994, when CNN ran its highly graphic circumcision story during the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The story centered around a 10-year-old girl, Naglaa, who underwent the operation without her prior knowledge, much less her consent, in front of a CNN camera.

Although the footage was wrenching, the story did not provoke an immediate reaction. But a few days later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was filmed by CNN saying he had not known the operation, which affects about 80 percent of Egyptian females, was still practiced in the country.

Shortly after the interview was aired, six people -- the girl's father, a man who had allegedly talked to the father about permitting the photo shoot, two men who performed the operation, an Egyptian woman working for CNN, and her aunt -- were arrested and detained by police. The government eventually decided not to press charges against the woman working for CNN under a law that makes it a criminal offense to tarnish the reputation of Egypt.

But the CNN stories aroused a firestorm of vituperation in the Egyptian press. The initial target was not female circumcision -- a horrific practice, by most lights -- but against the network for its handling of the story.

Egypt's Reputation Tarnished

Said Sonbol's normally unsensational daily column in the government paper al-Akhbar tore into the network for showing the mutilation in a "very inhumane way." According to Sonbol, the intent of the story was "to tarnish the reputation of Egypt in addition to distorting its image in the eyes of the world. …

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