The Female Genital Mutilation Scandal Tearing a Community Apart

A high-stakes criminal case is forcing a tight-knit Midwestern Muslim sect to reckon with its most dangerous practice.

The Minnesota kids were told they were going on a "special" girls trip. They would end up in a medical clinic where one seven-year-old said she was "pinched" in the "place she goes pee."

Medical examiners later discovered small lacerations and scar tissue on one girl's genitalia and an incision and torn labia on the other, according to court records. Child protection petitions were soon filed, although no charges have been brought against their parents.

But the doctor who allegedly cut the girls is now at the center of the first-ever criminal prosecution under a 20-year-old federal law banning female genital mutilation (FGM) in America. Several sets of parents in both Michigan and Minnesota could lose custody of their children after an FBI probe led to the arrest of Jumana Nagarwala, a Detroit-based ER physician, last month. She faces up to life in prison for allegedly cutting the genitalia of the two seven-year-old Minnesota girls in February, though she denies the charges and maintains she was simply scraping a membrane for ritual burial.

Unlike male circumcision, which is only dangerous in extreme cases, FGM is inherently damaging to female sex organs. The cultural practice, ostensibly carried out to discourage sexual temptation and promiscuity, affects 90 million women and girls over age ten worldwide and poses physical, psychological, and sexual dangers, according to the World Health Organization.

A bill that would charge parents who subject their children to the procedure with a felony passed a key committee in the Minnesota State House early this month, the most dramatic response yet from local authorities. Ten other states already have laws subjecting parents or guardians and the cutters themselves to prosecution.

"Minnesota needs to send a strong message that we won't stay silent and that the punishment will be harsh, including the potential loss of parental custody of these innocent victims," Mary Franson, the state legislator who authored the measure, said in a statement.

For its part, Michigan is reportedly moving to terminate Nagarwala's parental rights over her own two children, including her 11-year-old daughter who allegedly underwent FGM. Fakhruddin Attar, who is charged with lending his medical clinic to Nagarwala to perform FGM as part of conspiracy to commit the procedure, and his wife, Farida, who allegedly held the two Minnesota girls' hands as it was performed, could also lose their own parental rights. (The couple deny the charges.) More cases are pending following the investigation, in which girls thought to have undergone FGM were examined and questioned, along with some parents.

The accused are all Dawoodi Bohra, a small sect of Shia Islam led by a religious leader based in India. Following an FGM case against a Bohra doctor in Australia in 2015, the sect's leader seemingly doubled-down on the importance of the practice as a religious obligation. Leaders of communities in the US and other countries where FGM is illegal, however, issued letters advising members to follow area laws—not religious edicts—after Nagarwala's arrest last month.

The problem with enforcing FGM laws rests on the notion of deviance, according to Jacinta Muteshi-Strachan, who works on women's rights issues at the Population Council, a human rights group. "Where it is done, most others expect one to do it, and any family that did not would lose social status or even membership, and their daughter would not attain status as an adult or as a marriageable woman," she said in an email. "A law imposed from outside can lack legitimacy among people with such beliefs."

But beliefs in FGM seem to be changing.

Eighty percent of the Bohra women living in the US surveyed by the anti-FGM organization Sahiyo between 2015 and 2016 had undergone the procedure as kids. Eighty-two percent of them indicated that they are unlikely or extremely unlikely to continue khatna, the parochial name for the procedure, on their own daughters.

More than half a million US-based women and girls had either undergone or were at risk of FGM in 2012 based on the documented prevalence of the procedure in the countries of their ethnic origin, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control. Notably, that study did not include figures for India, where the Bohra community partly originates.

Mariya Taher co-founded the group Sahiyo to address the prevalence of FGM in the Bohra community—and to help eradicate the practice by bringing it out of the shadows. Although she underwent FGM herself as a seven-year-old in India, she didn't realize it until the subject came up over the course of her studies in college.

Regarding her own mother's decision to have her cut, Taher said in a phone interview, "I feel like it was done because she cared for me and believed it had to be done."

"It's important to recognize that this is so ingrained as a social norm that sometimes women carrying out [FGM] don't think they're doing anything wrong," Taher added.

While there was no federal law against FGM when she went through it, the 34-year-old advocate wonders if her mother would have felt empowered to stand up against the practice even if there had been. Instead, her mother brought an aunt along because she couldn't bear seeing her daughter in so much pain.

Taher very much wants to stop a practice she sees as brutal, but has "mixed feelings" about taking custody away from parents who subject their daughters to FGM, not least because of the caring family life she enjoyed despite being cut.

That's the argument Margaret Raben is making on behalf of the three families she's representing in child-protection service investigations in Michigan. "[M]y clients should not lose custody of their children because they are loving attentive parents and their children are thriving under their care," she said in an email. "If they let something be done to their daughters—a fact that has NOT been established yet—they did this out of a profound belief that it was required by their religion. You and I can disagree with them about that, but they did not act with malice or bad intent."

But intention is beside the point according to Shelby Quast, director of the women's rights organization Equality Now. The most severe forms of FGM can affect survivors "every time they urinate, every time they have a menstrual cycle, every time they have sex it can be excruciating, as well as during childbirth," she told me. "I think many times all of those side effects hadn't been connected as outcomes of female genital mutilation [among parents]."

Dealing with it as child abuse is essential, Quast adds, to ensure that "first responders and mandatory responders are being trained not only on how to recognize it and prevent it, but what to do when it has happened."

Zehra Patwa is an anti-FGM activist and member of the Bohra community who believes parents should pay a price for subjecting their children to FGM. Still, she cautions, loss of custody might be too harsh a penalty, suggesting instead education classes or community service.

After all, a lot of parents she's spoken to regretted having their daughters cut. And a series of high-profile cases with big prison sentences could spread fear and serve to bury the problem even deeper underground.

"If those parents came forward with who the cutters are, who their daughters were cut by, we could actually put a stop to this," Patwa said.