Calling All Religious (Not Just Muslim) Leaders

Let’s End Female Genital Mutilation

Jennifer, a member of the evangelical community in Kentucky, shared her testimonial as a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation(FGM) earlier this week.  Jennifer is a white, Christian, American – not the usual face of an issue that is often framed as a faraway cultural practice restricted to rural villages in sub-Saharan Africa.   

When I read Jennifer’s story about how her Christian mother subjected her to FGM to protect her purity and chastity, I had flashbacks to when I had been in the same position. I was visiting an aunt in India over the summer when I was seven years old.  She bribed me with a Toblerone chocolate bar to follow her down to her clinic.  Since she was a physician, I didn’t think to question her.  After she performed the cut, I was traumatized.  We went back to her living room and never discussed what happened.  It was only a decade later when I was sitting in an anthropology class in Texas that the memories I had blocked out came flooding to the foreground.  I later learned that she performed FGM without my parents’ consent.  

When the jarring memory jolt happened, I made a conscious decision to rebury my story.  Given that FGM is often used as fodder for groups with anti-Muslim and/or anti-immigrant agendas, I had always been reluctant to speak out.  As a Muslim-American survivor, I didn’t want to add another issue onto an already beleaguered community.  Somewhere along the way – and thanks to persistent encouragement from my father – I mustered up the strength to speak out.  I talked about the psychological impact and about my conflicted relationship with my faith tradition.  For a religion rooted in social justice, it seemed hypocritical to me for this systemic form of gender-based violence to be tolerated. 

FGM is not mentioned in the Quran or Bible, yet leaders across faith traditions often peddle patriarchal interpretations to justify cultural practices.  The worth of women and girls are rooted in concepts of purity and shame.  And while the drivers of FGM vary (it occurs among both secular and faith-based groups), the primary objective is the same: to control female sexuality.  According to the World Health Organization, FGM (in all its forms) serves no medical purposeand only causes harm.  This further debunks arguments that FGM is a way to cleanse or purify young girls.

While survivors like Jennifer and myself are sharing our stories to raise broader awareness that FGM is indeed happening in the United States, we shouldn’t be shouldering the burden on our own.  In fact, I would argue, some of the most powerful influencers in dispelling myths that FGM is a religious obligation are religious leaders themselves. If we look at Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment and Ecology in the leadup to the Paris climate negotiations or the fact that seven of the nine of refugee resettlement in the United States are faith-based groups, religious leaders are often on the frontlines solving complex global issues.  

We need to harness the creativity, compassion, and commitment to human rights of religious leaders across traditions to build a robust, interfaith movement to end FGM. This will not only mean amplifying statements against FGM on social and mainstream media, but streamlining anti-FGM messaging in mosques and churches.  If there are religious leaders who promote FGM (such as the Dar al Hijrah mosquein Falls Church, Virginia), they should be dismissed from their leadership position.  It is critical that religious leaders state unequivocally that FGM in all its formsis a form of child sexual assault and in no way, a protected religious freedom.  With the recent overturn of the federal banon FGM, they should lead the way in lobbying congressional representatives to ban FGM at the state level (see petitions for Kentuckyand Massachusetts).  Religious leaders have a powerful role to play if we are to indeed finally put an end to FGM, once and for all.

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.

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