Last week in Detroit, Michigan, two Muslim doctors were locked up pending trial on charges related to the genital cutting of two young girls. Dr Jumana Nagarwala is alleged to have carried out this procedure in February on two 7-year-old Minnesota girls at the clinic of of Dr Fakruddin Attar in the township of Livonia in that state. Attar’s wife is charged with holding the girls’ hands during the illegal operations and then trying to cover up what happened. She was locked up as well.

The case is significant because, although female genital mutilation (FGM) is common among some immigrant groups in the United States and other Western countries, this is the first federal prosecution for a practice which has been a specific crime in US federal law since 1996. The accused doctors and family members belong to a small Indian-Muslim community, Dawoodi Bohra.

The outcome of the case will be anxiously awaited by groups such as Equality Now that want this sickening and harmful practice stamped out, but are up against both practical difficulties of tracking a hidden crime and the ideological barrier of multiculturalism.

The accused Detroit doctors deny the charges. According to The Detroit Free Press, Dr Nagarwala maintains that she did no “actual cutting but rather removed only a membrane from the girls’ genitalia and gave it to the parents for burial as part of a religious custom.” However, a follow-up examination showed that the girls’ genitals had been altered or removed, and the girls themselves are said to have told federal investigators they had been cut.

Defence lawyers nevertheless are arguing that, apart from being relatively harmless, the procedures used are excused by deeply held religious beliefs and long-standing custom. Nagarwala’s lawyer also suggested that her client was being persecuted for being a Muslim. The hearing judge, to her credit, would have none of that; she insisted that the focus remain on what was done to the girls, which, on the face of it, was “a serious crime”.

Serious bodily harm

And it is serious. FGM is mainly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15, usually without anaesthetic. The World Health Organisation classifies the practice into four major types: clitoridectomy (total or partial removal of the clitoris); excision (clitoridectomy plus removal of at least the inner labia); infibulation (narrowing the vaginal opening through reconstructing the labia, with or without clitoredectomy); other practices, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

Immediate complications can include severe pain, excessive bleeding (haemorrhage), shock, or death. Long-term consequences can include: urinary, vaginal and menstrual problems; pain during intercourse and other sexual problems; increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths; the need for later surgeries, such as deinfibulation; and psychological problems including depression and PSD.

“FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women,” says the WHO. “It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.”

Yet, although the estimated “at risk” population in the US has increased from 168,000 girls and women in 1990 to 513,000 in 2012, and although 24 states have enacted their own anti-FGM laws, there seems to have been only one successful prosecution of FGM so far. In 2006 Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian American living in Georgia, was convicted of excising his 2-year-old daughter’s clitoris with a pair of scissors. He was convicted under a state law of aggravated battery and cruelty to children. Another US precedent was set in 1996 when a young Togo woman was granted asylum to escape FGM. But that’s all, apparently.

Where are the feminists?

In Britain, where there must be a proportionally larger at risk population and where FGM was outlawed in 1985, there have been no convictions at all to date, although hospitals report an average of 15 cases a day discovered by midwives or maternity doctors. There has been one disastrous prosecution of a doctor that ended in his acquittal.

Why this total impotence of the law before a heinous practice that violates the right of minor girls to bodily integrity and attacks the — otherwise fiercely defended — right of a woman to autonomy over her own body?

One reason surely is that racial and other cultural minorities have become a sacred cow, including within the feminist movement. That, presumably, is why millions of people can turn out for a women’s march to protect free contraception and a liberal abortion regime, but not to protect minority girls from customary forms of grievous bodily harm – even with a Muslim co-chair.

In an article last month in the Australian journal Quadrant, Western Australian Law Commissioner Augusto Zimmerman accuses “cultural feminists” of betraying minority women by downplaying and excusing practices that include not only FGM but forced marriages and honour killings. For these feminists, says Dr Zimmerman,

“Any criticism  of cultural or religious practices – including female genital mutilation and forced marriage – is summarily dismissed as a form of ‘colonialist imperialism’, one which is disrespectful of the more deep-seated traditions of non-majoritarian ethnic and religious groups.”

Zimmerman notes that Germaine Greer — one of the grandmothers of 1970s feminism — has said that the genital mutilation of young girls “needs to be considered in context”. And US law professor Leti Volpp argues that attempts to outlaw such practices arises from a “racist ideology” which sees non-white women as “requiring liberation into the social mores and customs of the metropolitan West.” Volpp puts FGM and honour killings on the same level as domestic violence and other “patriarchal formations” in Western societies.

Not a custom but a crime

To be sure, there is a lot wrong with Western attitudes to women, but male-female violence is constantly condemned — and prosecuted – and is not a cultural norm, despite talk of “rape culture” and the like. Moreover possibly the worst kind of violence against women – the invasion of their bodies with surgical instruments or chemicals in order to kill their (female) unborn children – is usually done at the request of and with the consent of the woman.

It is also obvious that many Muslim women support FGM in some form, at least as a religious requirement, depending on which stream of Islam they belong to. But others publicly oppose it. The Muslim Council of Britain condemned the practice two years ago as “un-Islamic” and told its members that FGM risks bringing their religion into disrepute.

What is certain is that the cutting of girls’ genitals is not in the same cultural class as hijabs and burquas. Not showing your face in public, or being covered from head to toe in black, does nothing for a woman’s dignity and offends Western sensibilities, but is harmless and reversible. Genital cutting is neither, and this leaves Western governments with the responsibility to deter and punish it – effectively.

Routine examinations of little girls?

In the UK some are looking to France, where the routine medical examination of girls aged 0-5 years has resulted in about 40 trials, which have led to approximately 100 convictions. A UK parliamentary committee in recent a report, Female Genital Mutilation: Abuse Unchecked, says there is a strong case for such an approach in Britain.

However, the report notes that the French system has to some extent deferred the problem by encouraging parents to wait until their daughters are older. The report also expresses concern “that the examination itself could be unnecessarily traumatic for children,” but it agrees that “medical examinations can have a role as a last resort in particularly high-risk cases.”

The trauma and indignity to girls of being intimately examined is a major obstacle to the routine use of this method of detection. The Detroit prosecution was preceded by young Bohra girls being pulled out of school, questioned by Child Protection Services personnel and medically examined. That is not something to be repeated, but routine checks would have to be repeated to be really effective, and that seems repugnant.

So what is to be done?

The Abuse Unchecked report recommends, among other things, central co-ordination of official efforts, better border control to detect girls being transported to their “home” countries for FGM, the inclusion of FGM as a topic in compulsory Personal Sexual and Health Education (PSHE), enforcing mandatory reporting by health professionals and teachers, and better resourcing of groups that campaign within communities where FGM is practised.

However, it concludes that, “In the absence of successful prosecutions, FGM remains a national scandal that is continuing to result in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls.”

Somehow one feels that this would not be the case if it were not for the forces of multiculturalism, including the feminist version, muddying the waters both of “culture” and human rights – to the detriment of all women.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet