CAIRO -- Reda al-Danbouki, a campaigner against female genital mutilation, was praising Egypt's decision to charge a doctor with performing the illegal procedure when an acquaintance shocked him with a rebuke.
" 'You are encouraging moral corruption,' " Mr. Danbouki recalled the man, a fellow lawyer in the Nile Delta province of Daqahliya, angrily telling him. " 'You've been duped.' "
It was a reminder of how widely and sometimes passionately the practice is embraced in a country where more than 90 percent of women have had their clitorises partially or fully removed. The trial that's expected to start this week, in the case of a teenager who died, will be the first in Egypt of anyone accused under a 2008 law of excising a girl's genitals.
The case has the potential to revive the anti-cutting cause at a crucial time. The Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 unleashed a wave of political conservatism that emboldened advocates of genital cutting, and the upheavals since have overshadowed and sidelined the efforts of opponents.
"The crisis is still there," said Mr. Danbouki, executive director of the Women's Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness in Belqas. "When we go out to talk about this, people react to us as if we're preaching a new religion."
Mr. Danbouki was among the activists who lobbied Egypt's general prosecutor to pursue the case after Suheir el-Batea died last June. The schoolgirl had allegedly undergone what many locals call tahara, which roughly translates as cleansing or purifying. It's done in the belief that it protects a woman's chastity and combats promiscuity by controlling female lust.
Raslan Fadl, the doctor, was accused of performing a genital mutilation, causing a death due to negligence and running a medical center that failed to meet health requirements. The girl's father, el-Batea Mohamed, was charged with endangering a minor. A prosecution statement put her age at 14, though according to some people in her province she was 13. Mr. Mohamed's lawyer said his client is innocent; Dr. Fadl's lawyer couldn't be reached for comment.
The defendants are the first to be brought up on female genital mutilation charges since FGM, as it's known among activists, was made a crime six years ago, said Vivian Fouad of the Cairo-based National Population Council, one of the groups that urged the general prosecutor to act.
Parliament passed the criminalization measure after the deaths of two girls triggered appeals from human rights groups to the Mubarak regime. For all the efforts under Mr. Mubarak, there were no prosecutions, in part because authorities were reluctant and people weren't persuaded. Cases aren't reported unless there's a death, according to activists, and then sometimes the doctor and parents reach a settlement on their own.
Egypt has a long history with genital cutting. It predates Islam, the religion of the majority of the country's 86 million people, and is practiced by some Christians.
World Health Organization data show that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 countries; it's most prevalent in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, Mali, Sierra Leone and Egypt, according to the UN. Egypt alone is responsible for about 25 percent of cases, said Jaime Nadal Roig, head of the UN Population Fund country office for Egypt.
According to the last major study of FGM in Egypt, the number of girls aged 15 to 17 who had undergone the procedure dropped to 74 percent in 2008 from 77 percent in 2005. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey in 2008 also found that 91 percent of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been cut.
Before the 2008 law was enacted, some of Egypt's top Islamic authorities, including the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, said FGM was forbidden because it has no religious basis in the Koran or authentic Hadiths, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, which form a pillar of Islamic law, and that science has shown it leads to health complications and harms children.
In and around Diyarb Buqtaris, Suheir's village, many people aren't shy about insisting genital cutting needs to exist. "A girl must undergo tahara," said Saneya Badreldine, 60, sitting atop the wooden cart from which she peddles vegetables. "We all underwent tahara and I did the same with all my daughters. This is the way things have always been. We don't want the girl when she grows up to ..." She let the words trail off. "I don't know how to talk about these things," she said. "It's embarrassing."
Listening in was Ms. Badreldine's 13-year-old granddaughter. The grandmother lowered her raspy voice and leaned in closer as she said: "I took her to a doctor and he said she doesn't need this operation." The girl herself should have no say in the matter, Ms. Badreldine said.
Shaimaa Mohamed, a 17-year-old walking to French class, said she had the procedure when she was 11 or 12. "It's a normal thing and is what sets us, Muslim girls, apart from the girls of the West," she said, clutching her school books to her chest. "I learned from my parents at home that this is what makes the girl pure."