Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, charged with performing genital mutilation on young girls in Detroit, will be in federal court for a pre-trial hearing Thursday.
Last week, the two owners of the medical clinic Dr. Nagarwala used to allegedly inflict the mutilations were also charged—the first three people to be prosecuted under a law that has been in place since 1996.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is well understood to be taking place within the United States as well as performed on American girls overseas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. are at risk of or have undergone FGM.
Although it rightly makes many squeamish, we must speak openly about what female genital mutilation is. Otherwise it will remain underground, and vulnerable girls will continue to be brutalized. FGM often involves the removal of the clitoris and one or both sets of labia. The vaginal opening is often then sewn shut, leaving only a small hole. It is generally performed without anesthetic on girls from infancy into their teens. Aside from the staggering pain during and after the procedure, long-term physical consequences include childbirth complications, risk of infection and cysts, and pain during intercourse, which can involve a forced opening of the scar tissue.
It may seem hard to understand why parents would inflict this particularly cruel and risky form of abuse on their daughters. The reasons are deeply held religious and cultural beliefs about female sexuality and modesty. By stripping sex of physical pleasure for a woman, it is thought her libido will be reduced, her virginity safeguarded, and her marital fidelity ensured. Families fear that their daughters will be un-marriageable within their community or bring shame to their family if they are not subjected to FGM.
In her arraignment at court last week, Nagarwala’s defense attorney cited religious motivation as her reason for allegedly performing the outlawed practice. Although many commendable Muslims decry FGM, Islam is often used to justify the practice. Nagarwala belongs to a small Indian Shia Muslim community, but according to the Population Reference Bureau, immigrant communities from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Somalia account for more than half of girls at risk of FGM in the United States.
It is one thing to respect other cultures and religions, and quite another to turn a blind eye to cultural practices that violate the human rights of women and girls.
This outdated, barbaric practice takes place behind closed doors, inside families, and within communities that know it is considered abhorrent and illegal in this country, so they hush it up. FBI evidence against Nagarwala says she performed FGM in a closed medical clinic, telling the girls and their parents to keep it secret. Referrals to her have been described as a medical “black market” for FGM.
The prosecution of Nagarwala is shining much-needed light on this underground human rights abuse. The case sends a strong message that inflicting genital mutilation on little girls is an intolerable form of child abuse and the perpetrators will go to jail.
It has taken four years for the FBI to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute this case. An ongoing challenge to prosecuting FGM is the lack of state legislation criminalizing the practice. Twenty-six states have yet to outlaw FGM, making the job of law enforcement and prosecutors so much harder. Families determined to cut their daughters can cross state lines to avoid harsher penalties. Two of the 7-year-old girls allegedly mutilated by Nagarwala in February were brought by their families from Minnesota, where a prosecution can lead to life imprisonment, to Michigan—a state with no specific FGM protections.
State laws are necessary and have proven useful reasons for families, feeling pressure from their communities, as to why they will not cut their daughters. Yet laws are insufficient for stamping out FGM. Frontline service workers—the police, teachers, child protection, social services, and health-care workers—are often uncomfortable broaching the subject, worried about appearing culturally insensitive. This is why my organization, the AHA Foundation, has developed training for professionals on how to recognize and respond to the warning signs of FGM, and how to broach the topic in a culturally respectful manner.
To end the practice of FGM it is important to address the deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that perpetuate the practice of FGM. Education and outreach programs in communities can make a difference. These programs teach women, girls, and, importantly, men, about the health risks and emotional trauma caused by the practice as well as the criminal penalties for inflicting FGM on a minor.
America’s first FGM prosecution has come at a crucial moment. We’re just weeks away from the summer break, a time notorious for U.S. girls being sent overseas to undergo genital mutilation. Even though it has been outlawed since 2013, “vacation cutting” persists due to the pervasive silence surrounding FGM. Devastatingly, many girls will return to America in the coming months painfully and irrevocably changed.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is founder of the AHA Foundation, which exists to protect women and girls from abuses of the sort described in this article. She is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.