Controversial fatwa opens door for female taboos in Egypt

Reproductive rights in Egypt have long been considered a taboo issue [Getty Images]
5 min read
Egypt - Cairo
05 October, 2021
A fatwa issued by a prominent Islamic scholar relating to hymen reconstruction has opened up a rare discussion in Egypt about women's reproductive rights, a topic typically shunned by the deeply conservative and patriarchal society.

A recent fatwa issued by a senior Egyptian Islamic scholar that permits limited instances of hymen repair may have opened the door for other women-related social issues, long considered a taboo in Egypt.

During a live broadcast on the official Facebook page of Dar Al-Ifta – the institution tasked with issuing religious fatwas [Islamic edicts] – Ahmed Mamdouh, head of the Islamic Sharia law research department argued in late August that hymen repair was "permissible and necessary,” for example, where a girl has been raped or deceived [by a man] and wished to repent and turn a new page."

He added that concealing the sin was required or else it was “closing all doors of mercy [that may lead sinners] to despair or encourage them to continue doing immoral deeds.”

Mamdouh’s comments came in response to an inquiry by a gynaecologist on whether the procedure is permissible in Islam. She said that she performed the surgery on survivors of rape and on girls tricked into having sexual intercourse with their lovers, fearing repercussions if their parents or possible suitors knew they were not virgins.

"Mamdouh’s fatwa has highlighted just how hypocritical Egyptian society can be. While a man can engage in pre-marital sex without being judged or he can just be simply reprimanded, a woman can be named licentious or even killed for doing the same"

A righteous fatwa?

Mamdouh’s rather controversial fatwa stirred up mixed reactions on social media. While some believe it was overdue, others thought it would encourage girls to engage in sex outside wedlock and lead to deception.

The fatwa is not new to Egyptians. In 2007, former Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa issued a similar edict that allowed the practice in almost all cases, arguing that “since God concealed a woman’s sin, she should not scandalise herself.”

“I believe these edicts are quite upright conforming to the reality we are surviving. This is practical, realistic thinking that applies to this era, even though I don’t agree with the concept of trickery,” counselling psychologist Dr Mervat El-Amary told The New Arab.

She further believes that “the society has pushed women towards going through an experience like hymen repair, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong.”

People are fooling themselves. Sex is one of the basic human needs. If it’s not met in a virtuous manner, it could be met in a roundabout way,” El-Amary argued.

“In developed countries, people are truthful about their needs and they are responsible for their acts,” she added.

Hymen reconstruction is commonly practised in Egypt in secret at private clinics and medical centres. Yet, surprisingly, some of these facilities promote their activities on social media. Ultimately, there is no clear law criminalising the practice.

When contacted by a female reporter with The New Arab personifying a client, a man named Karim representing a Cairo facility replied answering her seemingly anxious questions.

He identified the main doctor performing the surgery as Engy El-Saeid. According to Karim, a permanent hymen repair carried out under local anaesthesia costs 12,000 Egyptian pounds (about $760/£560), while a temporary one performed two days before the wedding night costs only 4,000 EGP (around $250/£186).

Karim added that “the practice may be illegal but carried out at a legal facility… while [El-Saeid] has no time to examine clients prior to the procedure, only performs it on-demand and follows up with them before their weddings.”      

A social schema 

In Egypt and other eastern and Arab countries, an intact hymen is a schema, often regarded as a girl’s proof of virginity and, hence, chastity, though, medically, it could be torn due to reasons other than engaging in sexual activity.

The subject is even found in local folklore. An Egyptian proverb compares a girl’s virtue (in this case the hymen) to a piece of a matchstick that can only be struck once, while songs in the countryside and southern Egypt are often performed during weddings that hint at deflowering the bride’s hymen and how virtuous she turned out to be.

Not only that, in some rural, southern and lower-middle-class communities in Egypt, the bride is often subjected to a demeaning, traumatising situation on her wedding night, when her hymen is unfolded in the presence of women from her family and her husband’s, either via a midwife’s or by the husband’s finger.

Afterwards, they put blood released from the hymen on a white handkerchief to show the wedding invitees and her father that she was a virgin.  

In case the bride’s hymen does not release blood, she may be killed by her father, another male guardian, the husband or widely scandalised and immediately divorced.

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A paradox

Mamdouh’s fatwa has highlighted how hypocritical  Egyptian society could be. While a man can engage in pre-marital sex without being judged or he can just be simply reprimanded, a woman can be named licentious or even killed for doing the same.

“It’s a contradictory society perceiving men with several relations as being masculine and women having relationships before marriage as being shameless… We lack the appreciation of the value of a woman in many communities, looking at her as a physical body rather than a human being with a soul and feelings,” El-Amary said.

“Both men and women don’t have a culture of responsibility, while many relations are based on fear. In our society, it’s honesty versus fear,” she argued.

“Men and women are not equal when it comes to rights and duties. Women are mostly the ones stigmatised when it comes to relationships because they bear children and lose their virginity as a result,” El-Amary concluded.

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital.