It was a failure to denounce a crime against humanity. In July, Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values, asked Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota to make a statement concerning women and girls victimized by female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C). Instead of educating the audience and pledging to improve legal protections against it, Omar, a Somali-American Muslim woman, pointed out that she had spoken against the practice elsewhere and excoriated Zonneveld for making the request simply because of Omar’s religion—ignoring the fact that Zonneveld is herself a follower of Islam.
As a female Muslim physician, I find Omar’s response inexcusable. In May 2017 Omar, then a state lawmaker, did vote for more severe penalties for FGM/C, although she expressed serious reservations. That bill died in the state senate. Omar has also co-sponsored a resolution in Congress to condemn the practice. But the mutilations continue, as does the pressure to accept them as an act of cultural conformity. This political inaction leaves at-risk girls and women in America without recourse to justice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the number of such women—currently estimated as 513,000—has risen with increasing immigration.
The World Health Organization classifies FGM/C in four categories: clitoroidectomy, or excision of variable amounts of the clitoris and clitoral hood; excision consisting of partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia; infibulation, or excision and repositioning of the internal and/or external labia to narrow or block the vaginal opening, sometimes with suturing of the vulva, preventing penile penetration and restricting the passage of urine and menstrual blood; and all other forms of mutilation, including cauterization.
FGM/C affects more than 200 million women and girls globally, mostly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In eight nations the prevalence exceeds 80 percent. In Somalia, where FGM/C impacts girls between four and 11 years of age, it reaches 95 percent.
Sanitized as “female circumcision,” these procedures have no positive impacts on health. FGM/C devastates women and girls permanently. Not only can menstruation and sexual intercourse become painful and traumatic, but victims also are left with permanent genital deformity and may experience loss of libido, delayed menarche, chronic pelvic infections, urinary tract infections, fistulas that can cause urinary and fecal incontinence, and sepsis, which can sometimes be lethal. Members of tribal diaspora communities in the U.S. often return to sub-Saharan Africa to brutalize their daughters over the summer vacation season, known as the cutting season.
Muslim families are finding practitioners in the U.S. who are willing to perform the procedures. In the case of Jumana Nagarwala, a Muslim woman who was the first American physician to be federally charged for performing the procedure, two girls were confirmed to have undergone FGM/C procedures in Michigan, after being transported from Minnesota. In 2006 the first conviction for FGM/C in the U.S. was made when an Ethiopian immigrant was found guilty of performing the surgery on his daughter in the state of Georgia.
Data on FGM/C in the U.S. are lacking, but an anecdotal observation from the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis estimated that type III FGM/C is seen in 99 percent of Somali women. The American Medical Association has classified it as child abuse. And Minnesota law on FGM/C renders the practice a felony but fails to hold parents accountable for aiding and abetting the crime and for the endangerment of a child, although such charges can be brought under other state laws. During the Obama administration, the U.S. criminalized the transport of minors for FGM/C. Still, in much of the U.S., legislation needs to be augmented: Only 10 states have mandatory-reporting laws specifically for FGM/C. Only 35 make FGM/C a felony for practitioners, and several of those laws fail to address the role of guardians or the possibility of cultural defenses and “vacation cutting.”
The Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) is petitioning for FGM/C to be included in the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). The act has been reauthorized three times, and IWF rightly argues that FGM/C is violence against women (and girls) and must be part of more robust and comprehensive VAWA legislation.
Silence here is never an option.