In a major setback for women's and human rights groups, a court Tuesday overturned a government ban on health workers carrying out female circumcisions, an operation traditionally performed on girls in Egypt in the belief that it curbs their sexual desire.
The ruling had been sought by eight Islamic scholars and doctors who argued that the Health Ministry decree violated religious beliefs and interfered with physicians' prerogatives to perform medical duties.
Conservative Muslim clerics have been among the most vociferous defenders of female circumcision, arguing that it is rooted in Islamic beliefs. But the practice is not universally practiced among Muslims: While it occurs widely in North African countries such as Egypt and Sudan, it is viewed with abhorrence in Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Persian Gulf states.
Opponents, who call the procedure female genital mutilation, say the operation is cruel, harmful and sometimes deadly to the pre-pubescent girls who undergo it.
Cairo Administrative Court Judge Abdul Aziz Hamade overturned a 1996 decree that forbade doctors and other health-care workers to perform the operation, either in public hospitals or in private clinics.
In his ruling, Hamade said the ministry was wrong to bar an operation that parliament has never deemed illegal.
"I will prostrate myself before God, thanking him for inspiring the court," said Sheik Yusuf Badry, a conservative cleric who led the fight against the ban. "It is our religion. . . . For 14 centuries of Islam, our mothers and grandmothers have performed this operation."
Human rights activists, while discouraged, expressed hope that the ruling would ultimately be reversed and pledged to continue their campaign to educate parents against circumcision.
"It is a very bad decision. Now we have to wait for the appeals," said Mohammed Abdul Aal, a lawyer for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which had joined the government in court to support the ban.
The immediate impact was minimal. For practical purposes, the ban will remain in effect until a final verdict is reached in the higher courts. In addition, most girls undergo the operation at home at the hands of unlicensed midwives or barbers.
These practitioners use razor blades to cut off part or all of the labia and clitoris. In some cases, they also sew closed the vaginal opening until the child is old enough to be married.
Prosecutions of these unlicensed practitioners are rare, usually happening only if a circumcision results in death or serious injury from infection, shock or bleeding.
Egyptian newspapers routinely report one or two botched operations a week.
President Hosni Mubarak's government, conscious of the religious sensitivities of the country's Muslim majority and reluctant to give any ammunition to radical Islamist opponents, has discouraged female circumcision but has not made it a major public issue.
Nongovernmental organizations, however, have been given permission to carry out campaigns aimed at educating parents about the harm their daughters suffer from circumcision. Government supporters argue that the practice is dying out in Egypt anyway as the population becomes more educated.
Nevertheless, a recent survey of 14,779 women between 15 and 49 in urban and rural areas revealed that 97% had undergone the operation.
Many Egyptians support circumcision on grounds that it has always been done. Parents fear that their uncircumcised daughters will be considered loose, or they believe that circumcision aids cleanliness.
One gynecologist, Mounir Fawzi, was quoted by the English-language Al Ahram weekly as saying the procedure helps to keep women's sexual drives "to acceptable and reasonable levels." Badry argued that it protects the country from AIDS by reducing promiscuity.
Others view it as a fading relic of the past. "The higher you get in the socioeconomic scale, the less it occurs," said Mohammed Sabry, a prominent Cairo attorney. "Illumination and education . . . will lead to the disappearance of this tradition. But it will take some time."