Genital Mutilation Cases in US Make the Debate More Complex

In the first ever federal case of Female Genital Mutilation in the US, the defence lawyers argued that FGM is a religious right.


On June 13 this year came the shocking news of Indian American doctor Jumana Nagarwala being involved in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) of more than 100 Bohra Muslim girls in the United States. She was paid by a local mosque to do the procedures, and girls were as young as seven years old.

Female genital mutilation, or female ritual cutting, involves cutting or removing a part of the female genitalia. It is often done without anesthesia by medically untrained women. Despite restrictions, bans and protests, FGM is widely practised in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In Egypt more than 80 per cent of teenagers still undergo the procedure. The procedure is banned in countries like the US.

Nagarwala was arrested and has been in custody since then. She awaits her trial at a US District Court. Based on Nagarwala’s testimony, another Indian origin doctor Fakhruddin Attar and his wife Farida Attar have also been charged in the case. Fakhruddin Attar let Nagarwala use his Livonia, Michigan, clinic to perform the procedures, while Farida Attar held the girls down.

The arrests and the details that have emerged from these two cases have ignited a debate around FGM in America. The question of how these practices continue secretly and how much of it is culture consciousness. Also, are these cases fueling the already fragile anti-immigrant sentiment?

“In Bohra Indian Muslim culture, from which Dr. Attar comes, it is just a symbolic removal of a small piece of genital tissue. While in no way condoning this behavior, one should see it in perspective and realize a person, even if he is a physician, may exhibit ‘cognitive dissonance’ and may not envision he is breaking the law when he is following the edicts of his conscience,” writes Dr Surendra Kelwala, a practising Psychiatry doctor in Livonia, for Indian Abroad.

Dr Kelwal argues that these practices rooted in the culture once involved experts and a ‘scientific reasoning.’ Over time, they have become redundant and are merely symbolic. The law should thus take into consideration “the mindset of the transgressors whether they did it with a criminal intent or simply they were victims of their own upbringing and unable to oppose the strongly internalized moral codes of conduct instilled in them by their religion,” he says.

In 2015, The Atlantic magazine published an interview with anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan that discussed the nuances of the genital mutilation debate. While the interview received a lot of flak for ‘trying to justify’ the practice, Duncan’s views revealed that FGM is a complicated debate and to stop these practices one needs to understand the cultural and social aspects of it.

“Some people in Africa believe that bodies are androgynous and that all male and female bodies contain male and female parts. So a man’s foreskin is a female part. And for a female, the covering of the clitoris is a male part. The idea of becoming a wholly formed female includes being cut—having any part that is somewhat male-like removed from the body.”

In the countries where FGM is practised, studies have proved that the support for the practice is stronger among women than among men. The Michigan case reveals that the involvement of educated women and trained medical practitioners has ‘institutionalised’ the practice.

But many believe that the Michigan case has also added a new dimension to the debate on Genital Mutilation. In the first ever federal case of Female Genital Mutilation in tUS the defence lawyers have argued that FGM is a religious right. There are worries that it is stoking an anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I don’t want to be pro the practice, but I don’t want it to be exaggerated into something completely barbaric,” said Maryah Haidery, who comes from a Bohra family, speaking to the New York Times. Haidery believes that the Michigan doctor has been ‘vilified unjustly’.

And there are women belonging to the Bohra community, born and brought up in the US, for whom the Michigan case has come as a reason to speak up against the practice.

“This Michigan case made me think I want to speak out. To me it’s very much like a rape survivor. If you don’t say anything, then how are you going to expose it and bring awareness?,” says Nazia Mirza, 34, who was cut at the age of six in her hometown in Houston.

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