Abigail R. Esman
As her aunt held her down, the child screamed and fought desperately to escape. But even as she struggled, the woman sliced at the child’s genitals with a razor, sending blood coursing down her legs. Years later, the girl recalled, “They tied my legs together the whole way down so I couldn’t open my legs. I was like that for three or four weeks.”
She was only 6 years old.
Two million women worldwide have endured similar torture through female genital mutilation (FGM), or are at risk of becoming victims. Yet last month, a Michigan judge ruled that laws preventing such torture and abuse of girls were unconstitutional, raising the risk of genital cutting for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable girls across America.
The decision, passed down in a case involving the prosecution of two doctors who performed the procedure in a suburban Detroit clinic, addressed a 1996 federal ban on FGM, which U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman claimed overstepped congressional power. The Federalism clause permits the federal government authority only over criminal cases involving interstate commerce, which Friedman argued was inapplicable in this case. Nor, he said, is there a “rational relationship” between federal equal rights treaties and a ban on FGM, as it only affects women.
Rather, the judge argued, the power to ban FGM, like other criminal law, lies with the states; and while Michigan does have such a statute in place, it was instated after the doctors and the mothers of nine girls had been arrested and charged. Friedman therefore dismissed those charges.
Women’s rights groups globally have reacted with shock and anger. The AHA Foundation, which had filed an amicus brief in the case, called the ruling “outrageous.” The decision “sets a precedent that cutting girls’ genitals is not a concern at the national level,” AHA senior director Amanda Parker said in a statement. Established by activist and former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself a victim of genital cutting, the AHA Foundation considers the fight against FGM a central effort in its mandate.
Female genital mutilation is a growing concern in the United States. According to Parker, the Centers for Disease Control have estimated that 513,000 girls and women in America have been or are at risk of being cut. “And the number of girls under 18 has quadrupled since 1997,” she noted in a recent interview. However, she cautioned that these numbers are only estimates, “because this is super underground.”
Yet FGM is on the rise even in countries where the procedure is banned. Thirty thousand girls are believed to be at risk in the Netherlands. In Belgium, 17,273 women had been circumcised and nearly 9,000 more were believed to be at risk in 2016, up from 6,250 circumcised women in 2007, when fewer than 2,000 were believed to be facing future mutilation.
Elsewhere, 3,000 girls are said to be at risk in Finland, where 10,000 women are believed to have undergone FGM. In the UK, “a case of female genital mutilation is either discovered or treated at a medical appointment….every hour,” the Independent reports.
In part, said Parker, this increase reflects the growth in immigration from parts of the world where FGM is commonplace. But anecdotal evidence suggests too that “families that move to new countries may cling more tightly to cultural tradition in order to hold on to their identity and practices that they might not cling to as tightly in their home countries.”
With the Michigan ruling, Parker and other women’s advocates have expressed fear of a significant increase in FGM in the United States as well – far more than would have been the case had the law been upheld. Already in 2017, an imam at a major mosque in suburban Washington, D.C. endorsed the practice and remains on the job, and a defense lawyer in the Michigan case described it as “far less invasive than male circumcision.”
Still, like others, Parker and the AHA hope prosecutors will appeal the ruling. “For us it is clear that FGM is an interstate commerce issue,” she said, noting that even in this case, some of the girls were trafficked across state lines, brought by their mothers from Minnesota to Detroit. Further, she added, “FGM is transactional by nature. It is a service requested by families for their girls and paid for, and the cutters earn their living that way.”
What’s more, Parker pointed out, so-called “brideprice” – the money grooms pay to a family for the daughter’s hand in marriage – “is linked to whether or not she has undergone FGM.” A girl who has had her clitoris removed or labia sewn together is more valuable than one who has not.
But until such an appeal can be made, and depending on whether it succeeds, Parker and other advocates fear for the future of more than 100,000 women and girls living in the 23 states that still do not have statutes prohibiting the practice. “As we’ve seen in other harmful practices,” said Parker, “if it’s outlawed in one place, parents who are looking to cut their girls will find a way; and so those 23 states will become destinations for girls to be trafficked across the borders. The fact that that’s what happened in the Michigan case shows just how cunning and committed these people are to cutting their little girls. And it will only get worse.”
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Follow her at @radicalstates.