Female genital mutilation (FGM) was long seen as an “over there” problem; it is now an “everywhere problem.” In a Skype conversation, London-based FGM survivor Hibo Wardere said the Detroit FGM trial has forced Americans to open their eyes to a brutal practice that happens within their own borders.
For Americans who have been focusing on necessary temporary travel bans as a way to curtail a clash of values between tribal culture and liberalism that champions the individual above the collective, the recent landmark FGM trial has opened eyes to see that some of these third-world practices are already comfortably practiced in the United States.
FGM is a ritualistic and violent cutting off of a girl’s clitoris. Riding under the false defense of a religious right, the heinous crime puts more than 500,000 girls in the United States at risk, often just as they’re entering puberty. The measure is in most cases initiated by a girl’s own mother, and is designed to curb an emerging woman’s sexuality.
Earlier this year, a 44-year-old American-born Muslim emergency room physician, Dr. Jumala Nagarwala, from the Detroit Bohra Muslim community, initiated the practice against two seven-year-old girls. Rather than in a back alley, she performed this on-site at a medical clinic owned by another Muslim doctor. In the office after hours, two trusting little girls were ushered in by their parents for a cut that has irreparably mutilated them and destroyed their ability to feel the most sensitive parts of themselves, even after they marry later in life.
American Muslims Stand Up to Oppose FGM
Guest hosted by Jason Vines, Detroit’s WJR radio station recentlya two-part series on FGM that brought the bright light of the public eye into a dark practice. Organized by the Safe Space for Muslim Dialogue, the segments championed the voices of four North American Muslims who came together to speak out against FGM. A reformer, an analyst, an asylum attorney, and a scholar unified their position in a “safe space” that shelters disruptive Muslim thinkers who challenge the status quo and are often viciously targeted for speaking up. Today, that status quo is Muslim communities that struggle to integrate with Western societies.
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and a U.S. Navy veteran, has been at the forefront of the battle. Writing for Gatestone Institute, the American Muslim physician urged the medical community, the legal community, and civil rights activists to stop defending this abuse of girls and women. Jasser denounces any moral equivalency between the misogynistic practice of FGM and male circumcision.
He has also challenged a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics, in which two American doctors have proposed a compromise for FGM that includes nicking the clitoral hood to satisfy cultural practices and prevent families from taking their daughters abroad for the practice. Jasser argued proponents of this compromise are “still accomplices in the primary intention of this procedure which is the de-sexualize women.”
With other Muslims vocal against FGM, Jasser calls for Americans to look at the response of major Muslim organizations in Detroit and elsewhere on this issue if those organizations believe they are working against oppression. Activists and thought leaders who have long been trying to stir up community awareness and response say the first line of defense against ritualistic and tribal practices is the American Muslim community itself.
How to End This Practice Without Destroying Families
Oz Sultan, founder of Our House NYC and a data and counterterrorism analyst who breaks down complex problems affecting Muslim American communities, also spoke with Vines. For Sultan, the community needs to address FGM with education. Rightly avoiding a broad stroke that paints all Muslim sects and cultures as a monolith, Sultan believes there’s a need to “separate cultural challenges inside the communities with the understanding of the religious understanding of who these communities are.”
“What is being done should have not have a place in civilized societies,” he adds, continuing by asking the question, “What do you do in these immigrant communities where this is something where it might have been practiced by a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother, inside of their cultural community overseas, and now coming over here? There has to be an education and process to basically diffuse that.” Recognizing the need for both education and legal responses, Sultan emphasizes the opportunity to intercede in a manner that protects young girls without disrupting the family unit.
Attorney and policy analyst Supna Zaidi points to a 1996 federal statute criminalizing FGM that supports immigrant women coming to the United States, an area where Zaidi has experience working on behalf of asylum seekers. In an interview with Vines, Zaidi added the statute speaks to women at risk, underscoring that, “FGM is illegal, not your fault, and you have access to U.S. agencies where they will help you and not criminalize you if you’re in a situation where this procedure is potentially making you or someone in your family a victim.”
More recently, Zaidi points to Maine legislation that supported community outreach and education, while Michigan passed a law going into effect in October that focuses on criminal penalties including putting failing parents in jail. For Zaidi, the fundamental question is how to address these issues in our communities.
“The real question of recognizing the harm that comes out of FGM is to ask the question of how do we address it in the communities?” she asks, urging lawmakers to consider the best way to educate and end the practice without destroying the family. “What is the best way to firstly educate and end, and not create a new window of further harm where we’re potentially permanently removing children from their parents, which can have a whole new slew of long-term negative effects on families?”
Religion and Culture Interact But Are Not the Same
The challenge of having a dialogue on the landmark Detroit FGM case is most salient when studying the parallels between religion and culture, and where they intersect. Developing a firm understanding of that distinction will enable lawmakers not well-versed in a 1,400-year-old faith (and even older culture) to understand the complexities in play today.
The academic dean of Critical Loyalty, an online college of Islamic sciences, Shaykh Uthman Khan speaks powerfully on FGM, segregating the practice between an “Islamic practice” and a “Muslim practice.” As an academic and Islamic scholar, Khan argues that dismissing the issue as being linked to faith is an amateur move.
Often a provocateur among religious traditionalists with bold challenges to patriarchy and advocacy of feminist values, Khan believes “Muslims need to stand up and recognize this is a Muslim practice done in the name of Islam. When something is culturally practiced in a society and then a religion is brought into it, then the association of culture and religion create a problem where those practicing it think the culture is the religion.”
Khan is a product of two worlds (east and west), and in this practice sees what he refers to as a paradox. As a child in the faith he was told to follow religion blindly, but was also raised in the West and exposed to critical thinking. For Khan, the religion of Islam empowers women with rights while an older culture that has survived through attachment to a religion urges taking away a woman’s right.
“It’s a theological mess,” he confides to Vines. Referencing a paper he’d written titled “Imam Who,” Khan believes imams are a first line of defense because Muslims have a habit of resorting to imams to address issues even beyond a religious framework. However, as outlined in his paper, imams are often failing communities because they’re foreign transplants who have little grasp of Western values, let alone training in counseling or social services paired with resistance to reaching outside the Muslim community to solicit aid. Advocating for theological inquiry, Khan shares a frustration that many Muslims are not able to prioritize agreement on practices that define what it means to be Muslim.
We Can Protect Little Girls Together
How Americans of all backgrounds discuss FGM will be critical to our ability to eradicate the practice, giving it no sanctuary under the pretense of a religious right and bringing the crime to justice with the full power of our laws while respecting the dignity of families. American laws are important and instrumental in underscoring American values, and more importantly universal human rights.
States like Michigan are to be applauded for taking all necessary measures to pass bills that protect little girls under the law and seeing their right to life and happiness as a greater call to action than protecting the culture FGM rides to our shores on. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is also to be recognized for launching a pilot program on FGM outreach at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. In many cases, young girls from ethnic communities will be taken on a summer holiday overseas to have FGM performed on foreign soil.
Americans need to put partisan politics to the side and come together to eradicate a cruel act of sexual violence and child abuse against little girls. Between government organizations, elected leaders, and the American people, we need to do the right thing to protect society’s most vulnerable—children.