As awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) grows in the United States, activists are increasingly trying to reframe the practice as a Human Rights issue. That was the message Maryum Saifee, Aissata Camara, Maryah Haidery, and Shelby Quast passionately imparted when they spoke to a packed room of Columbia students and community members last week.
According to the World Health Organization, FGM includes “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The practice, which takes many forms, is done to control women’s sexuality, has zero health benefits, and can lead to lifelong health issues, including increased risk during childbirth, trauma, and even death. While FGM is more common in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, it is also practiced in North America, Europe, Latin America and Oceania. The WHO estimates that over 200 million women around the world have been cut.
While FGM has been practiced for centuries, there has recently been a renewed interest in the issue in the United States. In 2017, a federal prosecutor in Michigan brought charges, using a 1996 law passed by congress banning FGM, against two doctors and a clinic manager for performing the practice on at least seven girls. After hearing the arguments, the judge ruled that the Federal law banning FGM was unconstitutional because congress did not have the power to make the law in the first place. The case will be brought to a higher court later this year.
Shelby Quast is America’s Director of Equality Now, an NGO that strives for gender equality, and has been involved in the case. She says that while she was disappointed with the judge’s ruling, “the case brought media attention. It’s not just happening ‘over there’, it’s here too. The case has allowed survivors to elevate their platform, and it’s not over yet.”
One of the main themes the activists spoke to was their effort to re-frame the issue. For too long FGM has been thought of as a cultural practice or a medical issue, and as a consequence many human rights groups have avoided taking up the cause. Maryum Saifee, a SIPA alumni, FGM survivor, and career diplomat with the US Foreign Service, urged those gathered to think about the issue more as a form of gender-based violence or as a part of the Me Too movement. “When people ask if we should prosecute the doctor or those involved” she said, “I think, ‘if this were incest, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.’”
Maryah Haidery is an activist, a survivor of FGM, and a member of the Sahiyo organization which seeks to end the practice among the Dawoodi Bohra community of Western India. She said some activists are reluctant to take up the issue because they are afraid it would offend Islamic religious leaders, who are, incorrectly, assumed to be the perpetrators of the practice. However, as she, pointed out, FGM is not condoned by the Qu’ran, and despite popular belief, there are numerous religious decrees by learned Imams denouncing the practice. “Human rights must apply to all humans,” she said, “not just those in the West.”
While the activists all spoke to the need for a wider conversation about FGM, they also warned against the inclusion of anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant messages in the struggle. “We don’t want a backlash against our community,” said Haidery. “That’s one reason I was reluctant to speak out at first. These are our mothers, they are not monsters.”
Part of the problem is that FGM is still thought of as something that only happens in Africa and Asia, but in fact over 500,000 women in the United States are thought to have undergone the practice or at risk of being cut. “It was treated as an African issue, but it is not just Africa, it is a global issue,” Aissata Camara, the co-founder and executive vice president of the There Is No Limit foundation and FGM survivor, pointed out. “FGM affects black women, brown women, white women, rich women, poor women, Muslim women, Christian women, immigrant women – everyone is affected.”
As an example, the speakers pointed to Rene Bergstrom, who was three years old when a Christian doctor in the American mid-west removed her clitoris. As she recently wrote in The Guardian, “I witnessed Christian religions declaring masturbation a sin, some Christian leaders and doctors recommending circumcision to prevent it, physicians carrying out the practice and our American culture first accepting this form of sexual abuse and then denying it ever occurred.” While reliable data is hard to come by, it is likely that some other white American women have also undergone the process.
Looking to the future, the speakers all highlighted the importance of good laws. “Laws can bring the issue to the fore and puts it under the spotlight where it becomes much harder to defend,” explain Quast. “But it’s also very important that the laws work for the communities involved instead of targeting them.” Haidery revealed that in her conversations with mothers in the Dawoodi Bohra community many say privately they don’t want their daughters to be cut, but it is instead communal pressure that leads them to go through with the process. “Having a law against it gives these women an out,” she says. “They can just say, ‘I wish I could have my daughter cut, but I don’t want to go to jail.’”
There is still much to be done when it comes to ending the practice of FGM. Towards the end of the conversation, the activists urged audience members to educate themselves on the issue and pursue creative solutions. Camara mentioned she was working with salon owners and make-up artists to come up with ways to bring the issue up with their clients. “Knowledge is power,” she says. “Educate yourself. Break the silence. Find your talent, and join in.”
By James Courtright, RightsViews Staff Writer