When social justice activist Mariya Taher was 7 years old, she was subjected to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in India while visiting family.
“My memory is kind of hazy… I just remember going into the room, and then I was on the ground and something cut me, and I don’t remember what it was. I just remember it was something sharp and then I started crying,” Taher told Church & State. “I remember my mom comforting me, and it was over, and the older women tried to comfort me, too, and they gave me a soda.”
FGM/C involves cutting, altering or removing a girl’s labia and/or clitoris, which human rights activists have condemned as gender violence and child abuse. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 200 million women and girls are survivors of the procedure, which the organization notes has no health benefits. Taher, who in 2015 co-founded Sahiyo, an organization that opposes FGM/C, said she never really thought much about the procedure or questioned it until she was in high school.
“I just thought it was normal and it was something that happened to everybody,” said Taher, who grew up in the Dawoodi Bohra community, an Indian Shiite Muslim sect. “My sister had it done a few years later. It was something that in the community I grew up in, it was expected to happen.”
Taher underwent “vacation cutting” – meaning it was done to her abroad. At the time, FGM/C was not yet illegal in the United States, but since 1996, the practice has been a federal crime. Yet in a case in the Detroit area, criminal defendants are arguing that they have a religious freedom right to engage in FGM/C.
The case, United States v. Nagarwala, deals with two physicians: Dr. Fakhruddin Attar allowed another physician, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, to use his Livonia clinic to conduct the procedure. The case also includes Attar’s wife, Farida Attar, who is accused of attending at least two FGM/C procedures, allegedly to calm the young survivors. Farida Arif and Fatema Dahodwala, two mothers who took their daughters to undergo the practice, were added to the list of defendants. The sixth defendant, Tahera Shafiq, another mother, is accused of conspiracy to commit and aid FGM/C.
The defense is arguing that for the Dawoodi Bohra community, FGM/C is a religious procedure and should not be considered a crime.
“Any mother who provided her child to Dr. Nagarwala or anyone else, for the purposes of this religious procedure, did so in absolute firm faith that this was required by their religion and that no permanent harm would come to their child,” Margaret Sind Raben, Dahodwala’s lawyer, argues.
The defendants could try to claim they are entitled to an exemption from the federal law outlawing FGM/C under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law enacted in 1993 that was designed to protect religious freedom, especially for religious minorities.
Dena Sher, AU’s assistant legislative director, explained that RFRA was never intended to trump laws that are designed to protect others.
“RFRA should never be interpreted in a way that allows some people to harm others,” Sher told Church & State. “Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, but claims that religion is an excuse to put these girls through this horrific experience are just wrong.”
The procedure clearly involves harm and has been labeled as barbarous in nations around the world. In the United States, it has been condemned by groups across the political spectrum. But because some zealots have in recent years pushed the definition of “religious freedom” to include acts that could involve harm or injury to others, a door has been opened, albeit in a small way, for a legal defense based on religious freedom.
During a hearing on June 7, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward noted that as many as 100 girls may have undergone the procedure at Nagarwala’s clinic.
“Due to the secretive nature of this procedure, we are unlikely to ever know how many children were cut by Dr. Nagarwala,” Woodward told the court.
Within the Dawoodi Bohra community, the debate over FGM/C and its ties to religion are not new, Taher said. There is, she said, a lot of argument over the question of whether it’s a religious requirement or not, even though the Quran does not require it in Islam.
She notes it’s important to remember that religious scholars from Christianity and many other religions debate FGM/C. Hence, despite this case’s emphasis on an Islamic sect, it’s not an exclusively Muslim issue.
“I think that it’s true that if you just look at Islam it’s not in the Quran at all and if you look at Christianity and Judaism, it’s not in the Bible or Torah – that is correct as well,” she said. “However, the Dawoodi Bohras community in specific have a few other religious books that they follow, particular to the sect. … So that’s what they claim is the religious basis of it, but I think regardless of whether this is religious-based or not ... people themselves really believe it’s a religious requirement.”
Religion, Taher added, “is one of the reasons why it continues,” but, she added, “it doesn’t mean that those are practices that should be accepted now or should have ever been accepted.”
As Taher explained, FGM/C has been conducted secretly within various religious communities in the U.S., even though it is not required by many religious texts. Renee Bergstrom, an FGM/C survivor, penned a December 2016 op-ed in The Guardian, a British newspaper, recalling how a Christian church clinic doctor removed her clitoris in 1947 when she was merely 3 years old to “cure” her from masturbation.
“Female genital mutilation is mostly associated with African cultures, and non-Christian religions, but my FGM happened in white, midwest America,” Bergstrom wrote. “I remember the excruciating pain and feeling betrayed. I was told not to talk about it, but keeping the secret meant I was alone with my questions as I grew into puberty: what was missing? What would it be like to be ‘whole’?”
In a CNN interview published in May, Bergstrom said that she’s “disturbed” by the backlash against Muslims in response to the Detroit-area case since many Muslims oppose FGM/C and because the practice happens in other religions.
“This was done [to me] in white America by a fundamentalist Christian doctor who practiced his religion with a scalpel,” she said. “I am disturbed by the anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the United States. I didn’t want this to be another form of discrimination against Muslims.”
Another survivor of the practice, Rahel Musa Aron, underwent FGM/C as a child in the African nation of Eritrea. Aron, now a deacon at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Lansing, Mich., told CNN that she does not believe any faith justifies the practice and she did not subject her daughters to it.
“What I believe is, if [the clitoris] wasn’t necessary, God wouldn’t have put it there,” Aron said. “If it was not important, it would not have been there. It’s part of our body. It is there for a reason.”
Taher echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that regardless of religious claims in these cases, the procedure “is still a violation of human rights.”
“It’s still a violation of your bodily integrity in particular because it’s happening to children that are too young to consent,” Taher said. “The way it’s happening, the fact that it’s happening on children – none of that should be acceptable.”
Woodward’s point about the “secretive” nature of FGM/C rings true in many survivor stories like Bergstrom’s, Aron’s and Taher’s. Why the procedure continues to occur secretly in the U.S. is a topic of interest to Taher, who, while in graduate school, studied gender violence and sought to understand why FGM/C happened. She studied how gender roles affect certain types of violence, how hyper-masculinity can lead to violence and also how femininity and stereotypical gender roles or ideas are associated with control or sexual purity.
She then conducted what is known as an exploratory ethnographic study because there wasn’t much data or information about FGM/C happening in the United States, particularly within communities of other ethnic origins. Taher wanted to understand the various reasons people used to justify the procedure, how those reasons contributed to its practice, and why the Dawoodi Bohra, in particular, wanted it to continue (or if they even wanted it to continue).
Taher found that there were many different reasons people gave to explain why the practice continued. From justifying it as a religious requirement, to claiming it was for health and hygiene, to arguing that women are not supposed to be sexual – she heard all of those and more.
“I recognized that the more I learned about it, the more I accepted that this was a harmful practice that has just been justified in all these different ways and over time; it’s a term that I now recognize as being called a social norm,” she said.
Taher observed that, like the cycle of violence and victimhood associated with domestic violence over centuries, FGM/C has continued because it’s a learned behavior.
“There are connections between all the various forms of violence and this was something that you see, too,” Taher said. “[FGM/C] is generally women carried onto women, but you learned about it as a child and you continued it onto your own daughter whether you wanted to or your family members pressured you to, but you were taught this has to be done, and you were given justifications for it and told not to talk about it openly and told not to question it.”
Noting that FGM/C is “a unique form of gender violence,” Taher said that the Detroit case has brought more attention to this issue. That’s good because the discussion has been extended to other members of the community, many of whom, including men, were unaware of what was happening.
But there’s a downside, Taher said: Many women reached out to her to share their stories when she publicly shared hers, but she also fears that the case will encourage those who support the practice to be more secretive about carrying out FGM/C in the future.
“This is so much more prevalent than I think any of us ever recognized. Nobody was talking about it publicly before because it was considered a private matter, so it was hard to recognize the extent of it,” Taher said. “If you look at FGM/C as a social norm, it can only change if people are speaking out against it.”
So while United States v. Nagarwala reveals how some mothers, physicians and others perhaps genuinely believe or perceive FGM/C to be a religious ritual, activists and survivors are emphatic in their belief that religion should never be used as an excuse to inflict physical harm on girls and women.
Speaking out against it, Taher said, engenders more support systems and resources. She said it’s very hard for some women and survivors to oppose FGM/C because they fear being cut off from, or ostracized by, family or loved ones. It’s an obstacle that adds to the many challenges of combatting the issue, she said.
“I think that’s a challenge. We need a holistic approach. I think the law is important, but we need to recognize that it’s a complicated form of violence so we need to look at education, community outreach and think about how do we work together on this issue,” she said.
As the case goes to trial this fall, religious freedom claims will certainly be raised. But one expert says if the court relies on previous standards, the defendants will lose.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of Berkeley Law School and a leading expert on the First Amendment, told the Detroit Free Press recently, “I can’t imagine any court that would say that the parents’ right to practice their religion gives them the right to inflict this harm on their daughters.”