July/August 2017 Church & State - July/August 2016

Religious Freedom Cited In Mich. Mutilation Case

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Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been considered a federal crime in the United States for 21 years, but in a recent case in Detroit, the argument is being raised that parents have a religious freedom right to have their daughters undergo FGM and that doctors who comply should not be punished.

The case deals with two physicians. Dr. Fakhruddin Attar allowed another physician, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, to use his Livonia clinic to conduct the procedure, which critics have condemned as barbarous. A third defendant, Attar’s wife, Farida Attar, is accused of attending at least two FGM procedures, allegedly to calm the youngsters. 

Young girls who belong to Dawoodi Bohra, an Indian-Muslim sect, were subjected to the procedure. Mariya Taher, now an anti-FGM activist, underwent the procedure when she was 7 and asserts that FGM is more cultural than it is religious, despite the defense’s argument for religious exemption.

“They keep throwing that argument – that ‘we are not mutilating,’” Taher told the Detroit Free Press on May 20.

FGM is not a requirement in Islam, and the Quran doesn’t mention it. Common religious arguments for FGM predominantly revolve around controlling women’s sexuality. Critics of FGM say the procedure is designed to prevent premarital sex, masturbation or other forms of sexual behavior opposed by ultra-conservative fundamentalist groups. The procedure often prevents or lowers a woman’s sexual response by cutting away the clitoris. 

First Amendment expert and constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who thinks the defense has a “losing argument,” told the Free Press that “it is hard for me to imagine any court accepting the religious freedom defense given the harm that’s being dealt in this case.”


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