Offering a glimmer of hope in Egypt, Moushira Khattab staunchly opposes female circumcision and child labor. She was named Egypt’s Minister of State for Family and Population in March of this year.
In a country where sensitive issues are carefully avoided, Khattab, 65, does not hesitate to address thorny subjects, challenge age-old traditions, and press the state to take action. As evidence of this, when she was appointed Secretary General of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood in 1999, she launched a campaign against genital mutilation, ritual removal of the clitoris, in a country where 97% of women were circumcised as of 2005 according to statistics made official by the Egyptian Health Ministry.
The National Council has urged entire villages to publically denounce the practice. Doctors and religious leaders from about 40 villages have done so. Debate on the issue was revived after the death of a young girl while undergoing the procedure in July 2007. The Parliament finally decided to take action and criminalized female circumcision in June 2008. Practitioners risk up to two years in prison and a fine of about €750. Though genital mutilation was officially condemned in 1997, this recent development is major.
“Soon Egypt will be free of mutilation”
“The campaign facilitated criminalization of the practice. Now we have to encourage the society to make sure the law is enforced, explains Moushira Khattab before affirming that “soon Egypt will be free of female genital mutilation.” Beyond legislation, attitudes are changing. “It’s only very recently that Egyptians talk about female circumcision and raise the issue at all, even in fictional works. It was unimaginable even just three years before", asserts Claude Guibal, a correspondent for the French newspaper Libération in Cairo.
Moushira Khattab’s commitment has also been praised by non-profits. “She listens and has demonstrated real courage in addressing sensitive issues the way she has", testifies the director of the Association Egyptienne de Développement Global (AEDG, the Egyptian Global Development Association). Courage is the right word. She hasn’t just shown her daring and energy by raising taboo subjects, but she has the guts to break the silence of her social class. “Classes are extremely isolated from one another. The elite does not like to acknowledge poverty and closes its eyes to it", Claude Guibal charges.
Barah Mikaïl, a researcher specialized in the Middle East for the Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS, a French research center for international and strategic studies) seconds this observation: “The middle class, the working class, and the economic and political elite do not mix. As a result, leaders are really disconnected from reality.” Moushira Khattab doesn’t deny this phenomenon.
“I’m guided by respect for human rights”
This elegantly dressed and coiffed mother of two with two grandchildren doesn’t hesitate to explain that for many years she believed that female circumcision was not very common. Her perspective changed when she joined the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
After a diplomatic career, most notably in South Africa where she received the Order of Good Hope from Nelson Mandela, her new position is a revelation. “It has really helped me to approach issues in a different way. Enforcing human rights among the most needy is the only way to treat them as equals. You realize that giving a child a euro is not the solution.You realize that children have the right to enjoy good health, to be protected from all forms of violence, and to be heard. Now in everything I do, I’m guided by respect for human rights, and I won’t settle for anything less.”
Khattab gives reassurances that her position as Minister won’t alter her mission: “the Ministry will continue its efforts until no Egyptian girls are circumcised anymore.” Further, her position was created with her goals in mind while also upholding the prerogatives of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood.
A friend of Suzanne Mubarak
Moushira Khattab’s enthusiasm is not shared by the Director of the Egyptian Development Association. "There’s hope, but Egyptians are still cautious, and how the law will be enforced is still vague. It remains to be seen to what degree this change will determine the government’s willingness to act." If this were not the case, would Moushira Khattab be motivated to voice her opposition? No. A close friend of Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to whom she owes her position at the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, Khattab is no dissident.
Khattab describes her powerful friend in laudatory terms as “a woman of vision and courage”. She goes on, "I was lucky enough to work under her authority for several years....She is a pioneer in considering the despair resulting from human trafficking as a crime.” This proximity to power raises doubts. “If this woman wasn’t tractable, she wouldn’t have been appointed to these different positions. We can’t expect her to do any better than her predecessors,” concludes researcher Barah Mikaïl with skepticism.
Nonetheless, the objectives set by the Minister of State for Family and Population are ambitious. Reducing demographic growth, especially through family planning, and improving the quality of education to fight child labor are goals that still run counter to outdated practices. Hosni Mubarak still needs to give us some reasons not to give up hope.