By Abigail Hauslohner
CAIRO, June 28 (Reuters) - Egypt strengthened its ban on female genital cutting on Thursday by eliminating a legal loophole allowing girls to undergo the procedure for health reasons, the health ministry said.
Genital cutting of girls, often referred to as female genital mutilation or circumcision, is banned in Egypt although the practice remains widespread as a rite of passage for girls and is often viewed as a way to protect their chastity.
The health ministry said in a statement it had now outlawed the practice entirely after an 11-year-old girl died while undergoing the procedure at a private medical clinic.
Budour Ahmed Shaker died last week in the southern province of Minya after she was given a heavy dose of anaesthetic, security sources said.
The health ministry’s step cancelled out a 1996 provision to the law which had permitted the operation "in situations of illness" should doctors advise it, the health ministry said.
Egypt’s state-appointed Grand Mufti, in the strongest statement yet on the issue by the government’s official arbiter of Islamic law, said on Sunday Islam forbade the "harmful tradition of circumcision" of girls.
The Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar mosque, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, has also described the practice as un-Islamic, but some other clerics have supported it.
Both Tantawi and Coptic Pope Shenouda, the leader of Egypt’s minority Christian community, have said that neither the Koran nor the Bible demand or mention female circumcision, which is usually performed on pre-pubescent girls.
The practice involves cutting off part or all of the clitoris and other female genitalia, sometimes by a doctor but also often by a relative or midwives. Side effects include haemorrhage, shock, and sexual dysfunction.
Female genital cutting is performed on both Muslim and Christian girls in Egypt and Sudan, but is rare elsewhere in the Arab world. It is also common in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
The Egyptian doctors’ syndicate has launched a probe into the girl’s death and warned doctors against performing the procedure either in homes or medical facilities, citing "detrimental health effects" on girls.
A major Egyptian daily newspaper said authorities had suspended the doctor who performed the operation from some work.
A 2005 UNICEF report found 97 percent of Egyptian women between ages 15 and 49 had been circumcised. Egypt’s campaign to end female cutting has included television programmes aimed at persuading parents to abandon the ancient practice.