In the first federal case on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in U.S. history, a district judge in Michigan recently ruled that the federal ban was unconstitutional. Nine girls were transported across state lines (from Minnesota and Illinois) to Michigan to be cut in a Detroit clinic, after-hours. They were tricked into believing they were going on a special “girls’ trip”; one was given Valium crushed into Tylenol to subdue the pain. The court overturned the federal FGM ban on a technicality, arguing that Congress exceeded its authority when it passed a law criminalizing FGM under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The doctors who cut the girls, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, still face charges of conspiracy and obstruction which could carry a hefty prison sentence.
The defense lawyers in the Detroit case have argued that FGM is benign — a “symbolic nick.” They allege it is a harmless ritual that should be protected on grounds of religious freedom. Yet, there is nothing benign about being pinned down at the age of 7, typically by a female relative, and sexually assaulted with a sharp object. Trust me, I know. As someone who went through what the Detroit girls experienced, I now live with the physical and psychological consequences of FGM every day. When my parents confronted my aunt — who performed FGM without their consent — she was unapologetic. She said she was performing her religious duty, and to this day, believes she has done nothing wrong. Two years ago, I shared my story as a survivor to support global efforts to bring about an end to FGM.
Overturning the federal ban on FGM matters. Communities who practice FGM now perceive there will be no federal consequences for their abusive actions. FGM affects 200 million women and girls worldwide, and according to the Center for Disease Control, over half a million girls in the U.S., every year. So far, only 27 states have legislation banning FGM. The World Health Organization defines FGM as all forms of excision to the female genitalia and recently concluded that it not only serves no medical purpose, it also causes physical and emotional harm. Proponents of FGM often draw a false equivalence to male circumcision, which involves the foreskin rather than the genitalia, to push for decriminalization.
Campaigning against FGM is an uphill battle. Within Muslim communities, it is all the more difficult because the issue of FGM has become politicized by hate groups to fuel anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agendas. FGM is falsely linked to Islam; there is no reference to FGM in the Quran. The prophetic tradition sometimes cited by proponents of FGM is weak and has been discredited by mainstream scholars. Unfortunately, when Muslim leaders (like the leader of the Bohra Muslim community in the Detroit case) spread misinformation and are not held accountable, the practice continues in full force. In 2017, for instance, an imam in a Virginia mosque, Dar al Hijrah, said FGM (what he called “circumcision”) was necessary to prevent hypersexuality in young girls. After public outcry, he was initially removed and then quietly reinstated.
When I have spoken up to engage religious leaders, lawyers, academics, public health practitioners, and even elected representatives within the Muslim community, my requests have often been met with quiet support but a reluctance to publicly address the issue, for fear of fueling Islamophobia. The first two Muslim congresswomen in the U.S., Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, admirably supported legislation to ban FGM in their states. However, they should be doing more to use their newfound public platforms to condemn FGM, particularly as the Detroit case affects their constituents directly.
How can Muslims and other faith-based groups bring about a sustainable end to FGM? First, we need a successful prosecution in Detroit to serve as a deterrent. Assuming the federal ban remains overturned, we need to push all 50 states to introduce legislation criminalizing FGM. Second, we need all religious leaders to speak out and discredit proponents of FGM in their communities. This can be done through strategic outreach (a model in the Muslim community is the Peaceful Families Project, which created a curriculum for imams nationwide around the issue of domestic violence). And third, we need to bolster survivors by campaigning alongside them. Groups like Equality Now, Sahiyo, Girl Generation, We Speak Out, There is No Limit Foundation, the Guardian’s Global Campaign to End FGM, and others, are doing game-changing work. I have seen first-hand how the power of my own testimonial has encouraged family members, colleagues, and friends to join the global movement to end FGM.
Every 11 seconds, a girl is at risk for undergoing FGM. Had the police walked into the room where I was being cut at age 7, I have no doubt they would have said that what I was going through was sexual violence. Whether it is in Detroit, Dar es Salaam, or Delhi, we need to protect girls from this form of systematized sexual assault.
Maryum Saifee is currently a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow based at the Human Rights Foundation. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of her organizational affiliations.. This piece was originally published on Medium and is reprinted with permission.