Articles on Shifting Sands
Female Circumcision: Where’s the harm?
A minor genital procedure, viewed objectively as less severe than routine male circumcision, is about to become the subject of a major trial in the USA . That’s because by law and according to the WHO it is considered female genital mutilation (FGM) which is illegal. Male circumcision by contrast is legal.
Three Detroit Doctors will soon stand trial charged with either conspiring to, aiding and abetting or performing FGM on two seven year old Minnesota girls in February 2017. Another female, Tahera Shafiq has recently been charged with conspiracy to commit FGM as well as aiding and abetting it, bringing the total to be tried to four.
FGM has been a federal crime in the USA since 1997, carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. The four people are the first to be charged under the twenty year old law.
An estimated 100 other girls are said to have been subjected to the procedure which entails a symbolic nick to the clitoral hood or its surgical removal. This is recognised as less severe than what boys routinely undergo when circumcised.
What are the charges?
Dr Jumana Nagarwala is charged by the FBI with performing FGM on the two girls. Dr Fakhruddin Attar is accused of allowing her to use his medical clinic to perform the procedure. His wife, Dr Farida Attar, is accused of holding the girl’s hands to calm them during the procedure. Recently, Tahera Shafiq, ‘a wife and mother’, has been charged with the same crimes: conspiracy to commit FGM and aiding and abetting FGM.
Dr Nagarwala and Dr Fakhruddin Attar also face one count of conspiracy to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. This charge carries a potential sentence of up to life in prison.
Tahera Shafiq, after making an appearance in Detroit’s District Court, was released on a $10,000 bond with an ankle monitor, under condition that she surrenders her passport, has no contact with victims, witnesses, co-defendants or members of the Dawoodi Bohra community. She is allowed to leave her house and go to work. The Attars were also released on bond with similar conditions.
Dr Nagarwala remains in custody, but her attorney plans to file an appeal for her to be released under similar conditions as her co-defendants. Dr. Nagarwala is also fighting to keep parental rights for her children aged 12 and six.
Who are the accused?
They are Dawoodi Bohras, an Islamic Shiite sect who originated in Gujarat, India but now have an estimated 1.2 million followers worldwide. About 12,000 members live in the US, and have been in the country since the 1950s. They describe themselves as a close knit, peaceful, well educated, technologically advanced, religious community where the women enjoy successful, professional careers.
They are believed to be part of the millions of Muslim women in South Asia, the Middle East and the African subcontinent, who perform what they term ‘khafz‘ when their girls are seven years old. The community considers it a cultural and religious practice and want the authorities to respect their religious freedom to perform it – much in the way that male circumcision is expected and accepted in Muslim and Jewish religions.
Dr Nagarwala does not deny that she performed a procedure on the girls, but says she didn’t cut them – she merely wiped away a mucous membrane and gave the gauze to the parents to bury, in keeping with Bohra tradition. She is not aware of anybody in her community who practices cutting.
The DB believe there are many misconceptions about khafz, not least that it is wrongly linked with FGM which is illegal, and strongly defend the practice. They say there is no clinical evidence to prove that WHO Type 4 or Type 1a is harmful and that the WHO and the US law are wrongly labelling khafz as FGM.
They suggest that common childhood experiences like ear piercing or tooth extraction can be far more traumatic. The witch-hunt they’ve endured since the Doctors were charged has been difficult, and unwelcome.
The Doctor’s defence lawyer agrees that khafz is not FGM, saying “We know there is female genital mutilation. No one is saying it doesn’t exist. But what we’re saying is this procedure does not qualify as FGM,” “And even if it did, it would be exempt because it would violate their First Amendment rights. They believe that if they do not engage in this, then they are not actively practicing their religion.”
Shafiq’s attorney said that no crime was committed. “There was no mutilation of any genitals, of any kind. There was no federal crime committed of any type. This is, quite honestly, ignorance of religion that has caused fear and an outright attack on this particular sect of Muslims.”
Secular society has an honourable tradition of protecting religious freedom provided that no harm is caused. Let us hope this principle will be upheld when the court cases are heard, probably in October 2017.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia.
She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still.
She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.