In February, federal investigators uncovered a Michigan-based network of doctors and others who practice female genital mutilation (FGM) on girls as young as six at medical clinics in the state. FGM is the cutting of a girl’s genitalia with the aim to “purify” her and repress her sexuality. All defendants in the case are members of the Dawoodi Bohra, a religious Muslim group. One of the girls who underwent the procedure was reportedly told that she was going on a “special girls’ trip” to “get the germs out.”
While the victim in this case may find justice in the courtroom, their lives and bodies have been irrevocably changed. Survivors of FGM whom I spoke to for my documentary film Honor Diaries tell of the physical and emotional pain that remains long after the abuse. Sexual intercourse and childbirth become horribly painful and traumatic experiences. Women may have chronic urinary tract infections and are often plagued with depression and other invisible scars.
The World Health Organization estimates at least 200 million women today live with the consequences of FGM. In the United States, 507,000 women are at risk or have undergone the procedure. In the U.S., there is a federal statute against the practice and it is criminalized in several states. However, these laws have not prevented families from mutilating their girls or traveling overseas to undergo the process. All that might change.
The arrest and prosecution of the Michigan perpetrators is a groundbreaking moment for women’s rights activists in the United States and globally. I applaud the federal investigators and prosecutors who took a stand against gender-based violence. It is the first national prosecution of an FGM case and many important questions will be raised during the course of the investigation and trial.
Already, defendants attempted (and failed) to receive bond by using their religious freedom as a defense. Defendants asserted the practice should not be classified as FGM, but rather as a religious practice. U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Stafford denied bond stating that religion would not be used “as a shield” in the case. However, it is likely that as the case continues, religious freedom will be argued again.
I am concerned for the maelstrom which may ensue when the case goes to trial. At that moment, will women’s rights be asserted or will they be diluted in favor of political correctness? In the past, I’ve witnessed the disintegration of women’s rights in favor of political correctness: my film Honor Diaries was censored (in Michigan, actually) when certain groups deemed it “Islamophobic” for bringing up FGM, forced marriage and honor killings. Instead of focusing on the inherent misogyny of these practices, my film was vilified for having difficult conversations about cultural and religious practices.
The first federal FGM case will raise challenging questions. There is a simple metric we can use to evaluate competing claims: culture is no excuse for abuse. No religion or culture should be the impetus for hurting, mutilating or abusing anyone, and our children should be protected. For too long, FGM has been practiced under the radar in the United States. The arrest and prosecution of these individuals is a step in the right direction, but the true test will come at trial: will we allow our political correctness to coax us into complacency? Or will we use this moment to assert our loftiest convictions: that all people are equal and should be treated as such, regardless of their religion and culture? My hope for all women and girls is that we will stand for equality.
Paula Kweskin is an attorney specializing in human rights law. She is the producer of Honor Diaries and the founder/director of the Censored Women’s Film Festival, a response to the censorship she and other filmmakers have received for highlighting women’s rights.