Nafissatou of Guinea knows what the real war on women looks and feels like. When she was a child, she was awakened early in the morning when it wasn’t yet light out. The old women made her and other girls leave the village. “We lined up, and they took us one by one. When it was my turn, one woman, very old and heavy-set, grabbed me and blindfolded me. She made me lay down on the mat and someone grabbed one of my legs while another person grabbed the other. Then someone cut me. It was the most terrible pain, and I struggled hard, though I could not get away from the grasp of the old women. After cutting me, they used a sticky substance to glue me together so that I would heal closed. Afterward, we were told not to cry, but all I could do was cry.”
Nafissatou was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM)—a horrific practice that has affected more than 140 million women and girls worldwide. Most people think this only happens in distant lands, but no longer. It’s happening to girls right here in the United States, and it’s on the rise.
Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that at least 150,000 to 200,000 girls in the United States are at risk of being forced to undergo FGM. According to census data from 2000, the number of girls and women in the United States at risk increased by 35 percent from 1990 to 2000. Activists say those numbers continue to rise, and more current statistics need to be gathered. There is no 2010 data. In 2000, states with the highest number of affected girls included California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Minnesota, Texas, Georgia, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Anatomy of Torture
FGM is often done without anesthetic, using razors and knives, even blunt instruments. There are four types: The partial or total removal of the clitoris and the clitoral hood; the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the inner labia, with or without the removal of the outer labia; the removal of the external female genitalia and the sealing or narrowing of the vaginal opening using stitches or glue (this is called infibulation, and a small opening is left for urination and menstruation; when women are married, they undergo a second cutting as they’re reopened for sexual intercourse); and finally, any other procedures for nonmedical purposes such as piercing, scraping, and cauterizing.
Girls who are cut can have lifelong health problems as a result, including chronic infection (especially from accumulation of urine and menstrual blood), hemorrhage, severe pain during urination, menstruation, and sex. There can be complications during childbirth, and the risk of newborn deaths is increased. Some girls die due to hemorrhage or infection. They also suffer psychological trauma, including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Fanta, 27, from Guinea, says, “It is difficult to put into words just how terrifying and painful the whole experience was. For many months afterwards, I suffered recurring flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia. I still suffer some to this day. Every time I would try to sleep I would see the women coming towards me with a knife.”
With the increase of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to the United States, FGM is becoming more common, particularly through what is known as “vacation cutting.” This is when families living in the United States send their daughters back to their home countries, where they are cut and then returned to America.
President Obama made the practice of vacation cutting illegal in 2013 by signing the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act, but anti-FGM activists say the practice is still being done, and they want the government to do more.
Jaha Dukereh, who currently lives in Atlanta, was mutilated when she was child in Gambia. Now, she is raising awareness of it in America and pushing for more research to be done to find out exactly how many girls are being subjected to FGM. She says part of the difficulty in dealing with the problem in the United States is the lack of awareness and up-to-date research and statistics on the prevalence of FGM so it can be confronted and stopped.
“I hear from girls every day that were born here in the United States who have been through FGM,” Dukereh says. “These young women are your average American teenagers—some of them you know, some of them you went or go to school with. And there are many more girls in the United States that are at risk of being cut. The practice of FGM is illegal in the United States but girls are being taken to other countries, usually their parents’ country of origin where they are cut.”
Little Data, Few Prosecutions
Dukereh has been pushing for Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services to commission a report on the current statistics of women in the United States impacted by FGM and the girls at risk of being mutilated. Her efforts have paid off. At a summit on FGM in London, the Obama administration announced that it would conduct research on FGM and try to come up with a plan to deal with it. In remarks at the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Monday, President Obama brought up the subject of FGM, saying it’s a “tradition” that needs to go: “That’s a tradition that is barbaric and should be eliminated,” he said. “Violence towards women—I don’t care for that tradition.”
Despite FGM being illegal in the United States since 1996, only one person has been convicted. An Ethiopian immigrant living in Atlanta was found guilty in 2006 of cutting his 2-year-old daughter with scissors. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors said he cut his daughter in their apartment in 2001. The child’s mother claimed she didn’t discover it until more than a year later. During the trial, the father said he never circumcised his daughter or asked anyone else to do so. His attorney implied that the family of the girl’s mother, who had come to the United States from South Africa, may have been responsible.
A Foreign Import with Hushed-Up Religious Origins
FGM is most prevalent in 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East with the highest rates of cutting in Djibouti, Guinea, Mali, Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan. According to UNICEF, 91 percent of the women in Egypt have been subjected to FGM. This number is not decreasing due to “pressure from the religious sector of the society,” said Aida Noor al-Din, head of “Women and Development” in Alexandria.
“Religious people have destroyed all of our efforts [to eradicate the practice] through their religious discourses which define female ‘circumcision’ as a religious commandment that one is obliged to do,” al-Din told The Seventh Day, an Egyptian newspaper.
That might be how al-Din sees it, but media, scholars, and diplomats in the West bend over backwards to insist that FGM is not a religious obligation, especially one that is tied to Islam.
In its fact sheet on FGM, Equality Now calls FGM a cultural phenomenon and doesn’t mention religion once. It says, “FGM is a patriarchal cultural tradition carried out with the intent of subjugating women and controlling their bodies. The practice serves to further oppress women, reinforcing the perpetuation of their marginalization and inferior status in society.”
Equality Now, however, does not comment on the philosophy or belief system underlying these traditions or even the patriarchy that drives them. This reluctance to associate Islam with FGM is found throughout the media as well. USA Today says, “The practice crosses ethnic and cultural lines and is not tied to a particular religion.” Another article in Cosmopolitan states that FGM has “no ties to any religion.”
According to Sanctuary for Families, “The tradition is commonly understood as a manifestation of cultural beliefs relating to gender, sexuality, marriage, and family. In many communities, in fact, FGM is thought to be so normal that the concept of a woman who has not undergone mutilation is inconceivable. . . . Female genital mutilation is often carried out to reinforce traditional notions of femininity; for example, some practicing communities believe mutilation enhances female ‘docility and obedience,’ and mutilation is viewed to be essential to the initiation of girls into womanhood. Female genital mutilation is also performed to ‘cleanse’ or ‘purify’ girls and women of past actions that are socially unacceptable to their communities.
“Some communities also believe that female genital mutilation physically differentiates women from men. Among these families, the clitoris and the labia are considered ‘male-like’ body parts, and their removal is seen as marking a girl’s identity as female. If a woman does not go through FGM, her society may not consider her ‘fully female,’ and she may be ostracized because others in the community will say ‘she is like a man.’”
Sanctuary for Families makes a point to emphasize that FGM is not driven by the Islamic religion: “A persistent misconception about female genital mutilation is that the practice is required by religion, particularly Islam. However, FGM is not particular to any religious group, and is not prescribed by any faith. It is prevalent among communities of different religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Christians, Jews, and followers of traditional animist religions.
“Although in some countries members of one religious community may be more likely to practice female genital mutilation than others, in other countries, there is no significant difference in FGM prevalence between religious groups. A multi-country survey conducted by WHO reveals that the perceived link between female genital mutilation and religion may in fact be only a reformulation of the focus on women’s sexuality, as in many communities, FGM’s primary connection to religion is that it supports the religious expectation of sexual restraint in women. Moreover, female genital mutilation predates Islam and is not practiced by the majority of Muslims in the world.”
Jews, Christians, and Muslims Unite in Condemnation—Mostly
Many clerics have come out against FGM—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of the Islamic Cooperation has said, “This practice is a ritual that has survived over centuries and must be stopped as Islam does not support it.”
Pope Shenouda II of the Coptic Orthodox Church said, “There is not a single verse in the Bible or the Old or New Testaments, nor is there anything in Judaism or Christianity—not one single verse speaks of female circumcision.”
Evangelical Christians have been working particularly hard to put an end to FGM in Africa. Steve Clifford of the Evangelical Alliance UK said, “As evangelical Christians, we believe in the inherent dignity of every human being—whether male or female, and no matter where they are from. That’s why we have rallied our council members and leaders from across our member churches to lend their voice to ending this horrific, unjust practice. We hope and pray that through a clear, united voice we might be able to make FGM a thing of the past.”
Sheikh Tayeb Mustapha Cham, imam and founder of the Taiba Welfare Foundation agrees, but he admits that while he and others stand against the practice, it is “imams,” not Christian bishops or Jewish rabbis, who resist condemning FGM. “Before there were barriers when we talked, but now we can openly condemn [FGM]. Now it is only imams who are isolated from society who still support this practice.”
Leaders from all three of the historical monotheistic religions have stated that FGM is not to be found in their texts and that they stand in opposition to it. However, there is the glaring reality that FGM is found mostly in Muslim countries, and the Christian and Jewish participants are not Western Christianity or Orthodox Judaism (and, given this fact, the sweeping statement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that FGM is found among Muslims, Jews, and Christians is equivocal and misleading).
FGM is practiced not by Christians in general, but by Coptic Christians, and most of these are in Egypt—an area highly influenced by the Arab culture. And the Jewish sect that subjects girls to FGM is the Falashas or Beta Israel in Ethiopia. El-Damanhoury, who writes on the Jewish and Christian view on FGM, says this group practices an archaic form of Judaism. They do not speak or read Hebrew, and their holy text is written in Ge’ez, which is the clerical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean orthodox church. They don’t know the other religious scriptures of Judaism, such as the Talmud and the Mishnah.
Only Found In or Adjacent to Islamic Societies
According to Gerry Mackie in “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account,” “FGM is found only in or adjacent to Islamic groups. . . . This is curious, because FGM, beyond the mild sunna supposedly akin to male circumcision, is not found in most Islamic countries nor is it required by Islam. . . . FGM is pre-Islamic but was exaggerated by its intersection with the Islamic modesty code of family honor, female purity, virginity, chastity, fidelity, and seclusion.”
Not only does FGM “intersect” with Islamic modesty codes, but several hadith (sayings attributed to Mohammed) recommend FGM for the woman’s sake and praise it as noble. It is not commanded, but neither is it condemned.
Thomas von der Osten-Saken and Thomas Uwer wrote an article at the Middle East Quarterly in 2007, commenting on the inconsistencies between the theology of Islam regarding FGM and its religious practice. They say many clerics speak out against FGM and it is not found in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia (though they say this could be due to lack of access to information rather than it not being practiced). But, in the villages where girls are cut, the practice is believed to be religiously mandated. This is important because “religion is not only theology but also practice. And the practice is widespread through the Middle East.”
“Many diplomats, international organization workers, and Arabists argue that the problem is localized to North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa, but they are wrong,” von der Osten-Saken and Uwer write. “The problem is pervasive throughout the Levant, the Fertile Crescent, and the Arabian Peninsula, and among many immigrants to the West from these countries. Silence on the issue is less reflective of the absence of the problem than insufficient freedom for feminists and independent civil society to raise the issue.”
Religion Is Belief and Practice
The writers argue that FGM extends outside of Africa into Jordan, Gaza, Oman, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Aid workers who went into Kurdish areas built trust with local communities otherwise sealed against outsiders. Slowly, women began to speak out about FGM, and the workers discovered that the area practiced Sunna circumcision. “Midwives often perform the operation with unsterilized instruments or even broken glass and without anesthesia on girls 4 to 12 years old. . . . Many Kurdish girls die, and others suffer chronic pain, infection, and infertility. . . . Most of the women referred to the practice as both a tradition and a religious obligation.”
Western scholars might want to dismiss the religious roots of FGM, but what counts, von der Osten-Saken and Uwer argue, is that Islamic clerics in northern Iraq advise women to practice FGM. Many academics don’t want to criticize predominant Muslim and Arab cultures and avoid the argument that FGM is rooted in Arab or Muslim cultures “even though no one argues that FGM is exclusively an Arab or Muslim problem. Statistical data from African countries indicate no clear relationship between FGM and a specific religion. Still, this does not mean that the causes of FGM do not vary across regions and that religion has no influence.”
Even though the Qur’an does not require FGM, many women in northern Iraq—and presumably many women in Egypt as well—believe that the practice is rooted in religion. This fact is ignored by Western universities and international organizations.
“Some clerics condemn FGM as an archaic practice, some accept it, and still others believe it to be obligatory,” von der Osten-Saken and Uwer write. “It is the job of clerics to interpret religious literature; it is not the job of FGM researchers and activists. There is a certain tendency to confuse a liberal interpretation of Islam with the reality women face in many predominately Islamic regions. To counter FGM as a practice, it is necessary to accept that Islam is more than just a written text. It is not the book that cuts the clitoris, but its interpretations aid and abet the mutilation.”
Europe’s Genital Mutilation Spree
Europe has seen an increase in FGM even more than the United States because of the flood of immigrants there. The European Parliament estimates that 500,000 girls and women in the European Union are living with FGM, and every year another 180,000 girls in Europe are at risk. “House doctors” are flown to Britain from Africa and the Middle East into Muslim communities to carry out the mutilations in what have been dubbed as “FGM parties.”
Like in the United States, FGM is illegal in Britain, but no one in Britain has ever been prosecuted for performing it. Why? Isabelle Gillette-Faye of France, a “seasoned campaigner against FGM,” in an interview with the BBC said it’s because “in England, you are very respectful of your immigrants. It is very different in France. They have to integrate and they have to obey our laws. We simply will not tolerate this practice.” Because of the “intolerance” in France, many Muslim families ship their daughters to London to be cut.
Soeren Kern of the Gatestone Institute, an international policy think tank, writes that Britain’s dismal record at bringing perpetrators to justice is “due to political correctness and concerns over ‘cultural sensitivity.’ Although the mainstream media routinely take pains to avoid any insinuation that FGM has anything to do with Islam, doctrinally, historically, geographically and juridically, the practice is intrinsically linked to Islam. As a result, there is a reluctance to tackle FGM because doing so is perceived as attacking Islam.”
Jaha Dukureh says this kind of “cultural sensitivity” is also found in the United States where the Muslim population is growing. Law enforcement is “largely unaware how to handle FGM, considering it a cultural issue that is best left alone, and worrying they’ll be considered insensitive if they get involved.”
But with the increase of immigrants from countries where FGM is practiced and now with immigration reform and open borders being embraced by Democrats and Republicans, cultural sensitivity will need to give way to an honest look at FGM—who is doing it and why—if Americans are going to stop its spread. As Shelby Quast, senior policy adviser for Equality Now, says, “We need to get real about what’s going on.” That “realness” means not only being willing to “talk about vaginas”—which is what she means—but about the thinking and beliefs behind the practice of FGM.
More Muslim Immigrants Means More Mutilation
According to the Pew Forum, population projections in the United States show the number of Muslims more than doubling over the next 20 years, rising from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.1 million in 2030. This is caused in a large part by immigration and higher-than-average fertility among Muslims. “The Muslim share of the U.S. population (adults and children) is projected to grow from 0.8% in 2010 to 1.7% in 2030, making Muslims roughly as numerous as Jews or Episcopalians are in the United States today. Although several European countries will have substantially higher percentages of Muslims, the United States is projected to have a larger number of Muslims by 2030 than any European countries other than Russia and France.”
The New York Daily News reports that the face of religion is changing dramatically in America. The number of Muslims in the United States soared by 67 percent in the decade since the 9/11 attacks. Data from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census shows Islam is the fastest growing religion in America in the last 10 years. “In the Midwest and parts of the South, there are now more Muslims than Jews for the first time.”
Where Muslims are coming from has also changed. In the early 1990s, they came mostly from Asia and the Pacific or the Middle East-North Africa region. Now, a “higher percentage of Muslim immigrants have been coming from sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 16% of Muslim immigrants to the United States in 2012 were born in countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia. In 1992, only about 5% of new Muslim immigrants came from sub-Saharan Africa.”
Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), are pushing for immigration reform, so it will be easier for Muslims to come to America. A CAIR action alert called for community, labor, immigration, and human rights activists “to rally across the country and at the nation’s capital to demand that Congress pass commonsense immigration reform. . . . CAIR believes that all-inclusive immigration reform starts with a roadmap for citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented residents.”
It is only logical to assume that with the increase of Muslim immigrants there will be more incidents of FGM. Europe’s problems with FGM and immigration certainly give credence to this assumption. Given this looming issue, political correctness and “cultural sensitivity” won’t help save girls from suffering and even dying from FGM. Yet, we barely hear anything about FGM. Ask most people on the street if they’ve heard about the real war on women—female genital mutilation—and most wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. The only “war on women” they’ve heard about is the one being waged by the GOP and Christians who are purportedly trying to take away women’s birth control pills.
Ignoring Abuse of Women to Target Tiny Inconveniences
Isn’t it ironic that the media, scholars, and politicians who are so careful not to offend Muslims by exposing their practice of FGM (whether it’s motivated by actual religion, culture, or the “practice of religion”) are so quick to judge Christians and their views on reproductive health? Worse is the accusation that Christians are waging a “war on women” in the first place—a claim that comes across as ludicrous when compared to something like female genital mutilation.
Yet, after Hobby Lobby won its case not to pay for 4 out of 20 birth control pills because the four cause abortions, feminists let their opposition be known with headlines like “Hobby Lobby Opens a New Front in the ‘War on Women’” in which Karen Finney wrote, “It’s unacceptable that in 2014, the Supreme Court would legalize a form of discrimination against women.” Never mind that there is nothing discriminatory about not paying for four birth control pills that women can access themselves.
Certainly, this kind of horror and discrimination can’t be compared to having your clitoris scraped off. Yet, we don’t hear much more than a peep about FGM from feminists, while we hear a chorus of condemnation of conservatives and their views on birth control. Some on the Left even go so far as to say forcing other people to buy your birth control should trump religious freedom. Where’s the sensitivity in this? Why are Islamic extremists who sew women’s vaginas shut shown more sensitivity than the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged who believe that some birth control kills babies?
Yet, this is exactly what Elinor Smeal of the Feminist Majority does when saying “religious freedom does not mean using your power as an employer to impose your views on others” (for the record—no one’s views were “imposed” on anyone in the Hobby Lobby case). It’s exactly what we find from “tolerant” bloggers who write that “the GOP war on women” is driven by Christian theology “that denigrates women and holds them responsible for sin, particularly sexual sin.”
Tantrum Versus Torture
We have a real war on women going on in this country, and it’s being ignored by many because they’re too busy drumming up a false “war on women” in the name of equality and anti-discrimination regarding free birth control. They say they’re concerned about protecting women’s rights, especially when it comes to sexuality, and Sandra Fluke—along with her inability to pay $9 a month for birth control pills—is held up as a oppressed victim of the religious right.
But what of Kadiatou of Gambia, who is in her 20s and afraid to have sex because of the pain of her mutilation? Or Nafissatou, who has been so deeply affected by FGM that when she went to the hospital to give birth to her children, all she could think about was when she was cut? Every time she showers, she thinks about it. It’s a “sadness and emptiness” she feels every day because of what FGM took from her.
Does Fluke know this kind of pain? Does her inability to get birth control pills for free leave her with emotional and physical scars that will haunt her for the rest of her life—the kind of pain that comes from real discrimination, real oppression, real cruelty? The answer is obvious—and it should echo across this country like an alarm.
The United States needs to wake up to the real threats within our borders. It’s not the GOP or nuns standing for life or conservatives who don’t want to pay for other people’s birth control. The real war on women is being waged in silence, and it’s being met with hushed whispers if not deliberate ignorance as the cultural impact of mass immigration is ignored and political correctness makes it difficult to expose real dangers in our society.
If women in the United States really care about justice and freedom and if they really care about women, they will be consistent and speak out against FGM and its causes—an evil practice that truly hurts women and destroys their lives—no matter what religion is associated with it.