The Double Bind: Fighting Against FGM as an American Muslim Survivor

Earlier this week, a Muslim American rights activist brought up the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to Representative Ilhan Omar at the inaugural convening of the Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy in DC.  

Ani Zonneveld, founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, asked a question regarding a recent case in Detroit involving the transport of girls from Minnesota and Illinois across state lines to Michigan for the purpose of being cut.  It was the first federal case in U.S. history and the district judge in Detroit ultimately ruled that the federal ban on FGM was unconstitutional.  As a result, American FGM survivors like me have been pushing to 1) restore the federal ban and 2) close the federal loophole by encouraging states without bans to criminalize FGM.

The question was timely given the recent news that plans to appeal to restore the federal ban had been dropped.  And it was relevant because the girls affected in this case happen to be Representative Omar’s constituents (they were transported from Minnesota).  Multiple versions of the video went viral, but unfortunately most versions cut out the context of the first part of Zonneveld’s question, which referenced the Detroit case. 

Also relevant is the fact that Alan Dershowitz, a consultant to the defense, called FGM a “benign religious ritual” in his argument. So it would have been powerful to have one of the first American Muslim women legislators set the record straight that FGM has no place in Islam, let alone in the United States.  As a congresswoman who self-identifies as Muslim, this was a unique opportunity for Omar to push for justice for these girls not only as an American and a Muslim, but as their elected representative. Indeed, Representative Omar admirably voted for anti-FGM legislation in her state.  The question would have offered her the chance to weigh in on the recent news of the appeal being dropped, which she and other representatives with constituents affected in the Detroit case have yet to do.

As a congresswoman who self-identifies as Muslim, this was a unique opportunity for Omar to push for justice for these girls not only as an American and a Muslim, but as their elected representative.

Instead, I believe she missed a critical opportunity to stand up for these girls.  She called the question itself “appalling and disgusting” and that this issue was a “waste of time” and wouldn’t have been asked to non-Muslim American lawmakers. I empathized with her broader point: that Muslims, particularly Muslim women of color, are often held to a double standard of being constantly asked to condemn things that have nothing to do with them. She is on the receiving end of a barrage of attacks. There is no question that we as a community are navigating an environment that is deeply polarizing with a rise in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment.  And I know firsthand what that looks like. Two years ago, my 70-year-old father was assaulted in a hate crime, told to go back to his country after living in Texas for over 40 years. It was the scariest moment of my life. I can relate to her fear, frustration, and exhaustion.

I empathized with her broader point: that Muslims, particularly Muslim women of color, are often held to a double standard of being constantly asked to condemn things that have nothing to do with them. She is on the receiving end of a barrage of attacks.

But the question about FGM was not a case of asking for an out-of-context condemnation.  This was different because the issue was timely, relevant, and directly related to her constituents.  And anti-FGM campaigners like me have been asking elected representatives of all backgrounds, Muslim and non, across party lines to weigh in.  My brother launched a campaign to engage Washington state representatives to ban FGM.  After Senator Harry Reid retired last year, we no longer have a legislative champion who has prioritized FGM as a frontline issue.  We are earnestly looking for one which is why the issue is brought up whenever possible.

The heated exchange at the conference is emblematic of a larger debate that the Muslim community, particularly among progressives, desperately needs to have.  How can we support activists working on sensitive issues, even ones like FGM that sometimes provide fodder for anti-Muslim groups, without silencing them? Shutting down questions like the one about FGM ends up having a chilling effect on activists like me who are under attack from all sides.

I’ve found myself often caught in this double bind.  On the one hand, I’m told by Muslim friends “now is not the time” — we are dealing with bigger, more pressing issues.  And on the other hand, the only folks interested in amplifying my story tend to be anti-immigrant groups that don’t align with my core values.  In reading the social commentary response, a common theme brought up was that it was inappropriate to bring up the issue of FGM because it was supposed to be a safe space for Muslims, implying the issue itself was somehow disruptive or irrelevant.  

I had a similar experience when I helped organize a panel in response to Virginia-based leader, Imam Shaker el Sayed, promoting FGM at a local mosque, calling it necessary to prevent the “hypersexuality” of young girls.  When there was a media uproar, he was put on administrative leave.  He apologized if people found the term “hypersexuality” offensive, but maintained that FGM (what he calls female circumcision) is part of prophetic tradition.  In an attempt to set the record straight, we invited panelists from a range of disciplines, including another religious leader, to debunk the myth that Islam sanctions FGM.  However, I was told prior to the panel, that I shouldn’t call out Imam Shaker by name of the mosque he preaches at because that might create “fitna” in the community.  

The constant tiptoeing around the issue makes the work hard.  We need more Muslim leaders to speak up and condemn FGM because breaking the culture of silence is the first step to ending this. FGM happens in other faith traditions, but the victims are in many Muslim-majority countries, and we as a community need to own up to this reality.  It doesn’t help to deflect and silence those of us who have the courage to speak up.  

FGM is not an issue that is comfortable for anyone to discuss, Muslim or non-Muslim.  When I mention I’m a survivor of FGM, most people cringe. I often see their faces morph with disgust.  This isn’t about a Muslim representative being singled out. It’s about everyone having the courage to condemn this and those with public platforms to ensure that the federal ban is restored and future generations of girls are protected.  

This isn’t about a Muslim representative being singled out. It’s about everyone having the courage to condemn this.

If we are going to grow as a community, we need to keep the lines of communication open.  In the case of FGM, we need to make every conversation first and foremost be about the welfare of our girls.  We need to center the nine survivors from the Detroit case and the 200 million women globally. In the moment when this question was asked, I wish Representative Omar could have said: “I’m horrified that girls in the United States, constituents of my state, went through this systematized form of child sexual assault. It is a travesty that the federal ban was recently overturned. These girls deserve justice. As their representative, I will do everything in my power to make sure the federal ban is restored.”

What I learned from the social media aftermath is that most folks have no idea what FGM is, that it’s happening here in the US with disturbingly high prevalence (an estimated 513,000 according to the Centers for Disease Control are at risk or have been cut), and that the federal law was just overturned.  I hope we can all use this as an opportunity to learn and be more courageous in bringing up issues that might lead to heated debate.  It’s important. That’s the beauty of our democracy. We can have this robust debate rooted in mutual respect. These spaces are fragile.  We self censor at our peril.

Maryum Saifee is a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation based in the United States.  She is writing in her personal capacity and her views are not necessarily reflective of her institutional affiliations.

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