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I’m Margaret Hoover.
Welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
Women and girls are seizing control of their own lives like never before.
But what does Me Too and Time’s Up mean for the most vulnerable?
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Joining us is author and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ayaan was born in Somalia, raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya before she escaped an arranged marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands.
Before long, she found herself an outspoken member of the Dutch Parliament, particularly on issues of women’s rights.
Then things took a tragic turn.
Her production of a film about Islam led to the murder of the film’s director by radical Islamist extremists.
Serious threats towards her life exiled her to the United States.
But in America, Ayaan founded her own foundation and has worked at various think tanks, including the Hoover Institution, on whose board of overseers I sit.
Her focus is on protecting the rights of women and girls from honor violence, specifically against the practice of female genital mutilation.
Her criticisms mistakenly landed her on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of anti-Muslim extremists, which was removed from their website earlier this year.
Ayaan, thank you for joining me here on ‘Firing Line.’
And it’s truly a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about a new report that your foundation has released, the AHA Foundation, which stands for your initials, Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation.
And it is entitled ‘Why we hesitate to protect girls from female genital mutilation in the United States.’
Do we hesitate to protect girls from FGM in the United States?
Yes, we do hesitate to protect women and little girls from female genital mutilation.
I think we have to say what it is so that viewers understand that we are talking about the removal of the genitals, whole or part, of little girls.
And we hesitate to talk about it for a number of reasons.
I think talking about genitals, about sexuality, about ethnic minorities, about religious minorities, these are all issues in the United States of America that have become very thorny and have become politicized, and because of that, the rights of little girls are sacrificed in the altar of I don’t know what to call it — political correctness.
Let’s back up and talk about what it is.
You said it’s the removal in part or in whole of parts of the vagina of small girls.
And I think you’re right.
I think it is uncomfortable for women to discuss or for people to discuss because we’re talking about genitalia.
It’s not an easy topic to discuss, but you have unique moral authority to talk about this issue because you yourself were subjected to female genital mutilation when you were a young girl.
What happened to me as a little girl, as a 5-year-old, when I was being initiated into my own community, it was my grandmother who thought that my genitals had to be removed.
The language she used was not female genital mutilation.
The language she used was, ‘We’ve got to purify these little girls.’
It was my sister and me.
And she had it done.
We were pinned down.
There was no anesthesia.
The inner labia were scraped off in my case, and a large part of the clitoris was cut off, and then what was left was sewn together, and that, believe it or not, is one of the milder forms.
There is a form, a type, that’s called infibulation, where as much of the clitoris as possible is removed.
And as much of the labia as possible is removed.
And what’s left is either sewn together or it’s caused together, leaving two little holes for little girls to first urinate and then, when they get older, to menstruate.
And in order for the American public to understand, it’s extremely important that the American public understands because we live in the age of immigration.
We have to talk about some of these cultural rituals that are valuable or seen as valuable in countries where people are coming from so that we can prevent it here.
You talk about the reason that it’s done, to purify little girls, but, really, this is about patriarchy and power and sex.
It’s about patriarchy, it’s about power, it’s about sex.
It’s to diminish.
The intent is to control the libido of girls and women.
It’s all about virginity.
You want to ensure as a family that when your daughter is married off at a certain age that her husband can say, ‘Yes, she’s a virgin.
I’ve got my goods sealed.’
And so if we don’t talk about virginity, if we don’t talk about some of these cultural convictions around virginity, around modesty, around beliefs about the place of women, then I don’t think it’s going to be easy to eradicate this practice.
It’s happening inside the United States of America.
The Center for Disease Control is telling us we estimate 513,000 women in the United States are either at risk or have been subjected to female genital mutilation.
I know that that’s the tip of the iceberg, because we really aren’t looking.
We’re looking away.
It’s the kind of problem everybody wants to avoid, but it’s happening to little girls on our soil.
Well, I’m glad you mention that because at this time in American politics is an incredibly sensitive time.
This is a time of stigmatization of immigrants.
It’s this time of stigmatization of religions.
We are talking here about children.
We’re talking about 5-year-olds, 6-year-old little girls, 7-year-old little girls.
We’re not — These are not — It’s not a population that can come out like Me Too and Time’s Up and say, ‘This is something that happened to me.’
Never mind our contemporary, cultural…whatever we are in our confrontations or political climate or issues of stigmatization.
All of that is cosmic to them.
I just want you to understand.
When you have a little girl in Minnesota or in Maine or in Michigan that’s being held down by her parents, mainly her mother, aunts, other females, and her clitoris is being cut, I don’t think that the first thing that she thinks is, ‘Oh, my goodness, let’s wait until there’s a better political climate.’
It’s, ‘Let’s stop this barbarity.’
There is a case of a doctor who is being prosecuted right now.
Her name is Dr. Jumana Nagarwala.
She’s in Michigan.
And potentially 100 young women have been subjected to female genital mutilation here in the United States.
And she has a degree from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland.
I don’t know if she’s born here, but she is raised here.
And so, this whole issue of people are educated.
If women are educated and so on and so forth, the practice will go away.
No. These things linger.
And they go from generation to generation.
They go from country to country, and here we are, in the United States, in Michigan, and, yes, this woman — it’s going to be one of the first — I think it’s — we hope it’s going to be the first successful prosecution.
So, I’d like to talk about how the AHA Foundation would like to tackle this problem, because you believe there’s a multi-pronged approach for doing this.
It involves educating communities.
It involves educating law enforcement.
And it also involves prosecuting perpetrators.
And it also involves, by the way, collecting data and reporting.
So, first, you talked about criminalizing and the law.
Is there a sweet spot between educating communities and punishing the people who instigate this procedure?
So, I believe that we have to start by understanding human nature, and I think what we know about human nature is what you have to work with carrots and sticks.
You have to reach out to the communities that do believe in this practice and educate them, really educate them on what this practice is, why it’s bad, and the fact that it doesn’t even accomplish what they seek, which is the maintenance of chastity.
Or modesty or virginity and all the rest of it.
So, that’s one.
Then we have to educate the community of experts — pediatricians, law enforcement, social workers.
Any of those, you know, people who protected these little children.
And then I think you do have to have the stick to say, ‘We are criminalizing this,’ and when you do that, you give a reason to the parents who come from some of these cultures so that within their own community they can say — and we’ve had this over and over again.
I had it in the Netherlands.
I had it in the U.K., in France, and now in the United States of America.
If they can say to their peers, ‘I’m sorry.
I’m not going to mutilate my child because I could go to prison or I could lose my child.’
So criminalization is very important, but criminalization is not enough if you don’t have in place a form of detection as well.
There have been a couple of bills that have worked their way through state legislatures.
In Minnesota, in Massachusetts, and in Maine most recently.
And in each of these cases, they have come up against pretty strong resistance.
And in the case of Minnesota, it seemed to me that, while it passed overwhelmingly and on a bipartisan measure in the lower house in Minnesota, by the time it got to the upper house, there seemed to be a real degree of controversy about the piece that you just said, about criminalization of the doctors and of the parents who instigate this procedure, that simply because people are coming from a different culture and they don’t know the values or the laws in the United States that there should be a de-emphasis on the criminalization.
Tell me why not.
I think if you — You have to begin the conversation with cutting the genitals of little children, of girls in the United States of America is, it’s seen as barbaric, and that’s a moral expression.
It’s a crime, like all forms of child abuse.
So I think once immigrants — It doesn’t matter if they came yesterday or 100 years ago.
Once they understand, ‘Goodness, this is a crime,’ then you get to the next bit, where you start, and I think you have to do this as a package.
So I don’t think — I disagree with people like Leyla Hussein, who say, ‘We just educate and educate and talk about it.’
Leyla Hussein, who is a Somali woman in the U.K. who works with an organization to help fight female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom.
But she doesn’t believe in criminalizing.
She’s wonderful, but she thinks it’s possible to eradicate this practice simply by ‘educating.’
Again, I want to point out that the doctor who’s performing female genital mutilation in Michigan is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, so education doesn’t just get you there.
In the state of Maine, there are some 12,000 Somali immigrants.
And you yourself were a Somali immigrant.
According to the U.N., some 95% of Somali girls have undergone this procedure.
And I wonder, how much of yourself do you see as you try to advocate and support and spare the Somali immigrants in this country?
Well, initially when I came to Europe and then later United States of America, my feeling was, ‘Oh, my God, these girls are so lucky.
They don’t have to undergo female genital mutilation on American soil because that won’t be allowed’ or in Europe because that won’t be allowed.
And then I realized, ‘Oh, my goodness, no, I was luckier.’
I actually got out and managed to then look back in.
And so I’m frustrated by the fact that you leave your country of origin in search of life, freedom, and your bodily integrity as a woman, and you think you’re protected by the law, and you come to realize no because the people who are supposed to protect you and the institutions that are supposed to protect you are culturally sensitive.
Do you think that laws are failing to pass in the United States in some of these states who have attempted legislation but it hasn’t gotten entirely across the finish line to a governor’s desk for a signature because of cultural sensitivity and because of political correctness, or is it sometimes because they’re ill-conceived laws that don’t strike the right balance between education and punitive elements?
So, in some places, there is a wrong balance.
In some places, there’s just, honestly, in the United States of America, to this day, there’s an unfamiliarity with the problem.
When I speak to doctors, they say, ‘It’s something that happens in Africa.
Does it happen in America?’
So there’s that part of it.
And then there’s the part where some of the, you know, members of the communities that value the tradition lobby the government, and they use all sorts of, you know, very effective lobbying ways to convince them to stay away from not only that but from honor violence or from child marriage, from honor killings, from forced marriages, that sort of thing.
Those are the issues that my foundation deals with.
One of the criticisms of having too strong of a punishment is that the parents of these girls will not take them to seek medical not just treatment but regular preventative medical care.
How do you handle that?
Well, you handle it the same way you handle sex abuse against children.
It’s a crime in the United States of America and the rest of the civilized world to sexually abuse little children.
And the government puts a lot of resources into making sure that as much as possible of that gets reported and gets prosecuted.
And it’s — you know, parents will not take their children to the pediatrician if they know that the pediatrician is going to look for female genital mutilation is a possibility, but we have to find a way around that, to obligate parents to take their children to the pediatrician.
Is one of the ways of doing that ensuring that it’s not the parents who are criminalized but perhaps punishing the doctor or punishing the adults that took them to be brutalized and to have the procedure?
There is a law, I think in Michigan, they’re very explicit about who can receive the punishment.
So, here’s another side to this whole thing.
I think it’s very important to punish the person who’s doing the actual cutting.
Not all of them are doctors, by the way.
But it’s the parent who’s taking the child to this ‘service provider,’ who’s paying for it, and sometimes we have something called vacation cutting.
If you cannot find people who will, you know, mutilate the genitals of your child, during the summer vacation, you buy a ticket and you go to a place where it can.
You go from the states that have criminalized it to the states where it’s not a crime and have it done there.
So I think you can’t take the parent — you can’t absolve the parent of responsibility.
They are responsible in our education.
So this is to go back to the carrot.
In the education manuals, we need to make the parents understand that it’s a crime and it’s a crime that is barbaric and it’s going to be severely punished.
And not only that, the carrot piece of it is, you don’t have to do it here in the United States.
Talk to the parents.
Why do you do it?
If you had talked to my grandmother and you said, before she had done it, ‘Why do you want to have the genitals of these children removed?’
She would say, ‘They’ll never find a husband.’
Talk about that why because then she would talk about how can he ensure that they are virgins.
You talk about that sort of thing.
So the process of education in some of these cultural dogmas have to be discussed, just like we talk about abstinence versus sexual education.
These debates — This is FGM.
It sounds very alien — female genital mutilation.
It’s so primitive that most Americans think, ‘Oh, my God, this is something — these human beings are from Mars or something.’
But the discussions around chastity, virginity, sex before marriage, teenage pregnancies, we’ve been having those for a long time.
So I think you can’t absolve these parents of responsibility.
You could maybe make their punishments less severe?
They have to be equally severe?
I have talked to women who were arguing with their girlfriends, ‘Why is your daughter not — How old is your daughter?’
‘And it’s not done yet?
Oh, my goodness, you haven’t purified your daughter?’
Because that’s what they call it.
And these women say, ‘I can’t.
I don’t want her to be taken away from me.
They say in this country they take your children away from you.
They say that they’ll put you in prison.
I don’t want to do that.’
So then you give them this choice between hey, this is what you risk if you want to adhere to this tradition, and you give them arguments within their own community to say — plus, sometimes, with some of the people who are more open-minded, the education actually seeps through.
You talk to some women who really had terrible experience with FGM, with female genital mutilation, and they will say, ‘Maybe I won’t do that to my daughter.’
In your view, should there be a statute of limitations?
Because if you have a statute of limitations — So, look at the Me Too.
Some of these girls started to talk about their experiences years and years and years after these terrible experiences.
And here we’re talking about children who are 5 or 6 or 7 or 8.
So you see.
Maybe when they’re 25 or 28 or 35, that’s when they can come out and say, ‘Look, this is what happened,’ and you want that kind of Me Too.
I’m so glad you mentioned the Me Too movement because it seems like, to me, that the Me Too movement and the Time’s Up movement are empowering women to reclaim their stories, to reclaim their bodies, to assert agency when it comes to their own story.
And I wonder if there might not be a benefit to the movement that you are working on and to the issue that you’re working on in terms of protecting young girls and inspiring young girls to vocalize their stories.
Well, it is — if we focus only on sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, then obviously we’re not talking about children.
We’re not talking about the types of honor violence, child marriage, forced marriage, the issues that I deal with that are happening to women in America, some of them American citizens.
Can it help?
Can the Me Too movement help?
The Me Too movement is evolving.
It depends on where they go.
If the Me Too movement becomes — Look, I’m a victim of this type of abuse, and I’ve come out, and it helps if we all come out.
That can inspire women to come out, victims or survivors of FGM and honor violence.
They can come out and say, ‘Yeah, sure, we can do this.’
If the Me Too movement morphs into the political arm of a certain political party, then it doesn’t.
In my experience, there are women like me who have come out and told their stories or their experience with female genital mutilation, honor violence, forced marriage, and they’ve been vilified.
They’ve been shut up in so many different ways.
We are not taken seriously, so it doesn’t become a Me Too because the women on the inside who are watching are thinking, ‘I don’t want to live with bodyguards.
I don’t want to be threatened.
That’s not what I’m going to do.
I’m just going to quietly live my life.
I don’t want to lose the love of my parents.’
Remember, a lot of these things are in relationship to your own parents, the most intimate of relationship of all.
So the Me Too movement is inspirational, but it depends also where it goes.
There are going to be women who are watching you speak who didn’t know that female genital mutilation is happening in the United States, that are thinking about how the Me Too movement has emboldened women, ordinary women, across the country and given them the power and the courage to come forward and tell their stories and that there actually has been change.
Because of that.
And for ordinary women who see you for the first time and hear you talk about this and might have had an experience of FGM or might know about FGM in their community or in their states, is there something they can take away from this and is there any synergy or inspiration they might take from Me Too in the context of the very specific concerns and abuse that you’ve raised with FGM?
If you’re a lone voice coming out and saying, ‘This happened to me,’ you can be silenced easily.
If it’s just two of you, if it’s three of you, you can be silenced and dispersed.
When you come out in large numbers, as in the Me Too movement, there is power in numbers.
It’s that kind of unity because remember, with, you know, all kinds of assault and harassment in the workplace, it used to be dismissed as, you know, ‘Come on, you’ve got to put up with it.’
You were made to think about your career.
You were made to think about a series of things that you had to fear before you stood up to your abuser or abusers or change the culture or come out with your story or think that you would lead the way to come out and do it.
And it’s the same with female genital mutilation and the types of honor violence I’m talking about.
You have to think it’s children.
It’s your own intimate circle that’s doing it.
It’s your own father and mother.
‘Please, don’t give me away to the police.
Please don’t talk about it.
You will ruin our family.
I will curse you to hell.’
The pressure on the women who are suffering various forms of honor violence and female genital mutilation is so much higher.
It’s a life-and-death matter very often, so much more than what the victims of workplace harassment and assault were suffering.
But what they can do and what they have done in the way they inspire me is it’s not going to be with one or two women.
We have to come out in large numbers, but we also have to be heard.
And in order to be heard, those who are listening have to shed this inhibition about cultural sensitivity, about whatever their feelings are to the administration of the day, that sort of thing.
So don’t keep on changing the subjects on us.
Think of that child who’s on the floor, pinned down, in Michigan, in Maine, in Minnesota, and in New York, who’s screaming, ‘Please don’t do this.’
And law enforcement is doing nothing about it because they don’t know.
Social workers, teachers, pediatricians, no one knows, and for those of us who come out, you all look away, and when I say ‘you all,’ that sounds a bit like the South, but I mean, I haven’t seen any institutional change.
So if you go about it that way, then I don’t think there’s going to be a Me Too movement of these women.
I’m incredibly grateful for your time and for taking the time to come on ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Thank you very much, Margaret.
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