08 June 2008

Forward Into The Past

A new Egyptian law on children's rights abolishes some common abuses. It:

  • Sets 18 as the minimum age for marriage for both men and women
  • Allows children to be registered under their mother's name
  • Forbids the practice of female genital mutilation
  • Forbids parents from harming their children

Predictably, Krazy Kultural Konservatives are up in arms over the bill. These are ideas imported from the West, shrieked the Muslim Brotherhood. They "are trying to transfer Western culture to the Islamic world" according to the Islamic Research Institute. "No to imported legislation" said a sign carried in a protest organized by a conservative member of Parliament.

Do we see a theme here?

What on earth is so objectionable about these measures? Some of them (at least) seem way overdue. Well, let's take them one by one.

Marriage at 18

None of the reports explain what exactly is involved here; presumably the point is to prohibit forced marriages when at least one of the partners is too young. This however goes against sharia, according to some:

...Islamic scholars ... say shariah encourages early marriages. Early marriages are also common in rural areas, and raising the marriage age could lead villagers to resort to urfi marriages (common-law marriages without a contract), with all its negative repercussions.

Mohamed Ra'fat Osman, of the Islamic Research Institute agrees: "Islam allows marriage at any suitable age, provided the person seeking marriage has the means and his circumstances enable him to form a family."

Another problem was pointed out by Hussein Ibrahim, a Brotherhood spokesman:

Why are they increasing the marriage age for girls when we have more than nine million unmarried youths? This is the problem that they should concentrate on solving, not adding to it.

He predicted that the law would cause misery and destroy the Egyptian family.

Children Registered Under Mother's Name

Under the previous law, "illegitimate"children--children whose father refused to recognize them for whatever reason--could not obtain a birth certificate, and so were denied health care, education, and other "benefits". Under the new law birth certificates can be issued in their mother's name, thus clearing this idiotic bureaucratic hurdle. Obviously no sane person could object to this. But wait a minute:

Mohamed Mukhtar al-Mahdi, chairman of the Sharia Associations, which runs many Egyptian mosques, said naming children after their mothers was unacceptable because it was in direct contravention of a Koranic verse.
The verse reads: "Call them by (the names of) their fathers: that is juster in the sight of God." It continues: "But if you do know not their father's names, then they are your brothers in faith." [Source]

Ismail El Deftar, a professor of Hadith at Al Azhar University, countered this claim by noting that that some of the Prophet’s companions--el Zubair Bin Safia, for example--were named after their mothers.

Another complaint is that allowing benefits to "illegitimate" children might encourage sex outside marriage. [source]

Female Genital Mutilation

This cultural practice--involving slicing off a girl's external sexual organs--is both ancient and widespread in Africa and the near East. It is still widely practiced today, despite the documented negative health and emotional effects on the victims, with Egypt as one of the worst offenders. It has been illegal there for some time, and the new law strengthens penalties for its commission. Still, there are supporters of the practice--and the law still has a medical necessity exception.

Of course you'd expect the religious types to be at the forefront of the defense of this atrocity, and you would not be disappointed. Saad al-Katatni, president (no less) of the Muslim Brotherhood, proclaims "Nothing in Islam forbids circumcision [Muslim-speak for female genital mutilation]." But by the same token there is nothing in Islam mandating female genital mutilation, according to Abdel Moaty Bayoumi of the Islamic Research Center, and now that the downside of the practice is known, it falls under the Islamic doctrine that whatever inflicts harm is haram--religiously prohibited. And according to the BBC both "[t]he Grand Mufti and the head of the Coptic Church said female circumcision had no basis either in the Koran or in the Bible." But

Nagy El Shahabi, head of the El Geil Party, said that female circumcision is a deeply-rooted tradition in Egypt’s villages. “People shouldn’t be punished for practicing their customs and traditions,” he said.
“If we apply the prison sentence, all people in Upper Egypt will end up in prison.”
In response, Council Speaker Safwat El Sherif said that if the society wants to develop it has to change its habits.
However Krazy Kultural Konservatives have an answer:

Those who supported the practice argued it was appropriate when female genitals protruded too much, adding that it was needed to preserve the woman's virtue.
Against such arguments there is no rational reply. (I would note that our own Kultural Konservatives oppose a vaccine against cervical cancer for similar reasons.)

Prohibition of Harm to Children

I'm not clear on what this actually prohibits, but it does apparently forbid corporal punishment--which could put them ahead of the United States in this respect. Of course religious nuts have a problem with this. If parents are forbidden to beat their children it will lead to the breakdown of the Egyptian family or some such nonsense. Abdullah Samak, described as "scholar and teacher", is opposed to any law that prohibits parents from beating their children. The law would give parents who harm their children up to six months in prison.

On the other hand:

Ismail El Deftar, a member of the Shoura Council and a professor of Hadith at Al Azhar University, refuted claims that the law contradicts with Islamic teachings. He said that shariah calls upon parents to raise their children wisely without inflicting harm or beating them.
Bayoumi agrees. He says that beating hurts children physically and emotionally. The Prophet Mohamed, he added, called for a kind of reprimand that does not inflict harm or cause psychological damage.
In agreement, Refaat El Saied said that some would say they will beat their children in spite of the law. “I tell them ‘beat them so they would become retarded as you.’”
[Thanks to Aardvarchaeology for this story.]

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