We Need to Talk About Female Genital Mutilation in the United States
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the procedure of removing, injuring, or cutting any and all parts of the outer female genitalia for no medical purpose. Often justified as a culturally or religiously appropriate ritual, FGM is a serious human rights violation that continues to harm the health of thousands of young girls and women. Although the practice is common in countries in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, many people fail to recognize its occurrence in the United States. By regarding it as a foreign practice, such lack of awareness could further perpetuate its operation and increase the number of silent victims.
The Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 criminalized performing FGM on minors for non-medical purposes. Despite this, doctors have continued to target young, often times, underage girls through surreptitious ways. On April 2017, a Michigan physician was arrested on charges of performing FGM on nine girls (prosecution suggested that number may have been as high as 100) through the clinic of another Michigan doctor. This became the first federal FGM case which raised overriding questions on how the doctor was to be penalized, but more importantly, what can be done to prevent future victims. However, things took a turn for the worst on November 2018, when Judge Bernard Friedman overturned the 1996 law, essentially removing the ban of FGM in the United States. Stating that FGM was a “local criminal activity,” he declared that it be up to the individual states, rather than Congress, to address the issue, therefore making the 1996 law unconstitutional. With this decision, the Michigan doctors were essentially let go and dismissed from the FGM charges.
As I am writing these words, I am still appalled and completely dumbfounded by the horrific twist of events. It’s alarming to think about the countless victims who were injured even when the ban was implemented. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it’ll be for young girls with even less legal force or repercussions to protect them. This raises unsettling questions on the effectiveness of legislation on FGM -- how much can the law actually do to protect these young girls and is a federal ban really the answer to this problem?
Attempting to understand FGM’s presence in the United States goes beyond looking at broken law enforcement. The bigger picture lies in the communities within the United States that seek and advocate for its practice. One specific community is the Dawoodi Bohra, an Islam sect based in Mumbai, India. The Bohra clergy, also the community the two Michigan doctors came from, specifically practices FGC under the ritual called Khatna which is rationalized for its spiritual growth and cleanliness. Perhaps what is most shocking about this practice is the argument that Khatna promotes gender equality within their religion. Some Bohras maintain that as with male circumcision, females should also be circumcised to prevent gender bias and ultimately, and this decision to be cut should be determined by the parents.
The Dawoodi Bohra represents the religious position on FGM, but many other communities continue to regard it as a cultural rite. It’s truly disheartening when you realize that it is a parent, someone who’s responsible for caring for their child, that subjects young girls to this excruciating, traumatizing experience. Although law enforcement plays a role, ultimately, I believe that change needs to happen within communities. As quoted by U.N. data specialist Claudia Cappa, “Mothers will find a way to cut their daughters,” and perhaps the way to combat this is to continue challenging traditions, advocating for their change, and educating people on the harsh realities of this heinous malpractice.