First-ever federal charges of female genital mutilation seen as landmark

Women protesting in Madrid during the international day against female genital mutilation. Photo by Marcos del Mazo/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

As a child, Mariya Taher traveled most summers with her family to see relatives in India. When she was 7, her mother took her to Mumbai, up a set of stairs to a room filled with women. They were cheerful, laughing. She doesn't remember how she ended up on the floor, but she remembers her dress being pulled up, followed by a sharp, stabbing pain.

She remembers crying, her mother holding and comforting her, the cheerful women bringing her a soda to drink.

"Growing up, I thought it was something normal and I didn't think to question it," Taher said. As far as she knew, every woman in her family had been through it; what happened to her in India was later done to her younger sister in California.

"There was a celebration after it happened for me and a celebration after it happened for my sister," she said.

In cultures that practice female genital mutilation, it's viewed a rite of passage. But the practice, outlawed in the United States, is also used to exert control over women.

It wasn't until much later that she learned she had been subjected to female genital mutilation, the altering or injury of female genitalia for nonmedical purposes. In cultures that practice female genital mutilation, it's viewed a rite of passage, performed for a variety of reasons. But the practice, which is outlawed in the United States, is also used to curb promiscuity and sexual pleasure and to exert control over women.

It's a ritual practiced in at least 30 countries. In the deeply secretive Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shi'ite Muslim sect from India to which Taher's parents belong, girls traditionally undergo the procedure at 7. Taher's family trip wasn't planned with the intent to perform the procedure, but she happened to be the "right age," in the right place, she said.

Female genital mutilation has been illegal in the U.S. for 21 years, but just over half of U.S. states criminalize the practice. The Centers for Disease Control estimate 513,000 girls are at risk for female genital mutilation in the United States — 30,000 of them living in Virginia, which criminalized the practice earlier this year.

READ MORE: Virginia joins global movement to criminalize female circumcision

An investigation by the FBI is now highlighting the extent of female genital mutilation in the United States. In April, the agency opened its first-ever federal case against two Michigan doctors for performing the procedure on dozens of girls over more than a decade. Federal agents announced earlier this month that they are also investigating newly identified targets in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

In Michigan, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, a 44-year-old emergency room doctor, is charged with performing female genital mutilation on at least eight girls in the Burhani Medical Clinic, a facility run by Dr. Fakhruddin Attar.

Attar's wife, Farida, was also arrested, accused of holding at least two patients' hands during the procedure to "keep them from squirming and calm them," the Detroit Free Press said.

A federal prosecutor said in court last month that the three were responsible for cutting the genitals of nearly 100 girls over a 12-year period — and that estimate is conservative, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward said.

"Due to the secretive nature of this procedure, we are unlikely to ever know how many children were cut by Dr. Nagarwala," Woodward said.

Three more women — two local mothers and Tahera Shafiq, a woman who works locally in medical billing and was identified by at least one of the victims — face charges for participating in the conspiracy.

All six are charged with female genital mutilation, conspiracy and aiding and abetting the genital cuttings of two girls whose parents brought them to the Michigan clinic from Minnesota, a state considering harsher FGM laws. The doctors, who could face life in prison, are also charged with conspiring to transport a minor for sexual activity. Their trial is set for Oct. 10.

Michigan's Gov. Rick Snyder signed anti-female genital mutilation legislation on July 11, making the practice a felony with a prison sentence of up to 15 years. The law goes into effect in October and will apply to both doctors who carry out female genital mutilation and parents who allow it to undergo.

Activists view this as a landmark case that could finally bring widespread attention to FGM in the United States. Former FBI Director James Comey addressed the case at a hearing in May on national television, calling it "among the most important work we do, protecting kids especially, and it was done by great work that you don't hear about a lot all across the country by the FBI."

"Generation after generation it still happens, but [you're taught] you shouldn't talk about it."

Defense lawyers are expected to build a religious freedom case, arguing the doctors did not perform cutting, but a religious ritual of scraping genital membrane. The outcome could set a precedent for how the American court system rules on FGM cases in the future.

"Generation after generation it still happens, but [you're taught] you shouldn't talk about it," Taher said. "I started recognizing that it is a form of gender violence … that it was something that was happening without the person's consent. I started recognizing that it was a human rights violation as well. … I want it to end."

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Dr. Mohammed Arsiwala, president of Michigan Urgent Care, arrived in Michigan from India in the 1990s, settling in the same area Nagarwala and Attar practice medicine.

The mosque in that community, which, like Taher's parents and both doctors, follows the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam, was accused in court June of paying Agarwala to perform genital mutilation on girls in the community, allegations the mosque denies.

"Nobody wants to talk to you in the community, nobody talks about it openly," Arsiwala said; he only heard about the practice from a friend five years ago.

Now, his local patients are asking him about it.

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"People are shocked that this kind of practice was happening in their neighborhood. When they find out about it, they want to know about it," Arsiwala said.

The Dawoodi Bohra community is heavily influenced by its leader, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, who has been quoted as saying, "The act has to happen! If it is a man, then it is right, it can be openly done, but if it is a woman then it must be done discreetly, but then the act has to be done."

"People who belong to this community are set in this mode that [the religious leader] has said to do it, so we'll do it," Arsiwala said. "It's a herd effect. When you have the deed coming in from the high priest, then they do it."

Arsiwala is working with the AHA Foundation, a nonprofit that works to defend women's rights, to create legislation against FGM in Michigan.

"Because this is a religious practice, it has to come from the head of the Dawoodi Bohra community," Arsiwala said. "He needs to come out and pass a decree saying this practice should be banned. But he continues to say it is our religious belief and our religious practice and he will continue to do that. As long as the religious leader presses forward these religious beliefs, it will not stop."

In India, Sunita Tiwari, a lawyer, filed a public interest litigation to the country's supreme court in May to ban FGM; a separate petition received 50,000 signatures. But a counter group, the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom, emerged to fight Tiwari and the petition.

"Yes, many of us may well be circumcised, as were our mothers and grandmothers before us," the founders wrote. "The constitution of India gives us this right to freedom of conscience and religion. Many great men and women have died for that right, so valuable and precious is it!"

That kind of support exists in many places where FGM is practiced. If the U.S. is going to tackle this issue, Arsiwala said, it also needs to work with communities abroad.

"The story needs to be told about the community and why they do it, it needs to go all the way to [Mumbai]," Arsiwala said about the Dawoodi Bohra sect. "If we ban this in the U.S. and don't put pressure on India and other countries, then they will take their children to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to get it done, and I'm concerned that the sanitary conditions for the procedures will be substandard."

Female genital mutilation is difficult for authorities to track when young girls travel in and out of the country.

He is referring to what's become known as "vacation cutting." FGM performed abroad and arranged for by family, often while visiting their countries of origin. (This is what happened to Taher).

Congress passed a provision to end vacation cutting in 2013, but female genital mutilation is difficult for authorities to track when young girls travel in and out of the country.

Shelby Quast, director of Equality Now America, said there are no statistics for the number of girls sent abroad to be cut; most of what they know comes from anecdotes from survivors or concern from girls fearing their families may send them away for vacation cutting.

"We need much better data in this county. We need to be collecting this and talking about this issue," Quast said. "We need protocol questions that doctors ask, making it a clear and mandatory part of protocol."

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Quast said the only way to combat FGM in the U.S. and abroad is through broader education in medical communities and schools, as well as wider discussions with communities and religious leaders.

In some places, that kind of conversation is starting to happen. On June 5, the board of directors at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Northern Virginia, which subscribes to a different sect than the Dawoodi Bohra, condemned comments from their leading Imam Shaker Elsayed on FGM.

Leaked video of Elsayed at a family life lecture showed him advising worshippers to cut "the tip of the sexually sensitive part of the girl so that she is not hypersexually active." He warned that, "in societies where circumcision of girls is completely prohibited, hypersexuality takes over the entire society and a woman is not satisfied with one person or two or three."

Elsayed was originally removed from his position, but issued a "Statement of Clarification," on his lecture, which he recanted two days later. Dar Al-Hijrah reinstated Elsayed later that month, making their stance on female genital mutilation even more muddled, confusing followers and adding to the secrecy of the procedure.

Religious leaders spoke against FGM at the End Violence Against Girls Summit on FGM in December 2016, stating that the procedure is not required within the religion.

"It's very powerful when it comes from experts within the religion or community, when they say, 'No, we are not advocating for this,'" Quast said.

There's also a lot of misinformation. The right-wing group, ACT for America, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist group, has claimed that honor killings and FGM in the nation indicates the rise of Sharia law across the U.S., staging protests against Muslims and Islam in the U.S.

"We know it's happening across states in the U.S. We know it's an issue not just in Muslim communities, but across all communities," Quast said.

Texas passed a law on June 9 of this year that criminalizes vacation cutting. Alaska, Maine and Massachusetts are tackling FGM-related legislation as well.

Taher, who co-founded an organization to end female genital mutilation in Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities worldwide, said she expects additional criminal cases to emerge.

"This is something that's been highlighted in the Dawoodi Bohra community, but [FGM] is something that's very global – it crosses city lines, race lines, educational backgrounds, religion lines," Taher said.

We need a bigger, broader discussion, Quast said. "It's yet another form of not protecting girls."

This article has been updated to clarify the petitions against FGM in India and to indicate Elsayed was reinstated to his position.

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