On April 13, 2017, a Detroit emergency room doctor was arrested and charged with performing female genital cutting (FGC) on minor girls in the United States. This is believed to be the first time someone was brought up on charges under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGC. According to the U.S. Federal complaint, Jumana Nagarwala, M.D., 44, of Northville, Michigan performed FGC on 6 to 8-year-old girls out of a medical office in Livonia, Michigan. Some of these girls’ families reportedly traveled interstate to have the doctor perform FGC. At this time, the complaint is merely an allegation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
According to the federal complaint, phone call records and surveillance video show that in February 2017, two Minnesota girls and their parents came to Detroit for what the parents told them was a “special girls trip.” They stayed at a hotel in Farmington Hills and ended up visiting Nagarwala, thinking they were seeing the doctor because their “tummies hurt.” Instead, the girls underwent FGC. The complaint also indicates that other children, including children in Detroit, might have undergone FGC by Nagarwala between 2006 and 2007. To see the official press release, click here.
This particular case affects me personally. First, I am a survivor of female genital cutting myself. Second, if you are able to see the picture of Jumana Nagarwala, you will know right away that she is from the Dawoodi Bohra community, the same religious/ethnic community that I was raised in. I’ve written about this occurring in the Bohra community for Brown Girl Magazine before.
[Read Related: “Female Genital Cutting: A Continuing Tradition That Needs to End“]
Although I recognize the significance of the charges being brought up against her, I also am quite aware that FGC is a deeply-entrenched social and cultural norm for this community and all other communities practicing the ritual. A variety of reasons, often contradictory, are cited for following the practice: many say that FGC curbs a girl’s sexual desire and prevents promiscuity, while some claim that cutting the clitoral hood enhances sexual pleasure, and others claim it is done for hygiene or health.
A study conducted by Sahiyo, an organization that works to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end FGC, found that among this community, the most common reason cited for khatna is “religious purposes” or tradition: most people simply continue the practice without questioning because they believe it is a necessary cultural requirement.
[Read Related: “Sahiyo: An Organization Dedicated to Ending Female Genital Cutting in Asia and Beyond“]
Overcoming deeply-ingrained social norms like FGC is difficult, but not impossible. Laws are important to help reinforce that a particular practice is against human rights.
However, in bringing up these charges, I worry that this case will also increase islamophobic and xenophobic behaviors by some who read about this case.
Last year, after ABC News shared my story of undergoing FGC, conservative new sources picked it up as well and used it as fuel to justify the removal of Muslims and immigrants into the United States. To truly find sustainable change to end this form of violence, mindsets around this social norm must be changed as well.
First, it is important to recognize that FGC occurs to women and girls coming from all kinds of different backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, country. FGC does not just happen to girls in small villages in Africa or to women of color such as myself, as is often mistakenly believed. The US State Department recently came out with a video highlighting American Survivors of FGC to counter this misconception (See American Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Speak Out). In fact, up until the 1950s, clitoridectomy was performed by physicians in the US and in Europe to treat hysteria and mental illness.
It is also important to empower civil society activists and organizations working to end FGC around the globe. Today there is a lack of resources dedicated to preventing FGC in all parts of the world. Sahiyo is working to bring awareness to the fact that FGC occurs in several Asian communities, and has even launched a petition urging the UN to invest in more research and support to survivors from these backgrounds, particularly since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (Goal #5) call for an end to FGC by 2030.
It is heartbreaking that the girls in Minnesota and elsewhere have been subjected to FGC. However, I hope that this doctor’s indictment will lead to more awareness programs that can educate the general community to collectively let go of this ancient and unnecessary practice.
To read Sahiyo’s full statement on the incident, click here.
Mariya Taher is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University, MA. She received her Masters in Social Work from San Francisco State University and her BA from the University of California Santa Barbara, where she majored in Religious Studies and double minored in Global, Peace, and Security & Sociocultural Linguistics. Prior to attending Lesley University, she worked in the gender violence field for seven years. She has contributed articles to Solstice Literary Magazine, Global Voices, The Express Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, BayWoof, and the Imagining Equality Project put together by the Global Fund for Women and the International Museum of Women.