By Mariya Taher
I was sitting in my office, reading a blog post submitted to Sahiyo by a woman doing research on Female Genital Cutting in India, when I received a phone call. I answered it, not thinking twice, not knowing that what I was to hear next would leave me dumbstruck.
The call was from a news reporter, who wanted my reactions to the latest news about the United States’ first legal case on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) — the Michigan case involving two doctors and six others brought up on federal charges of performing FGC on nine minor girls in the U.S. I hadn’t heard of the latest news yet. And then, the reporter dropped a bombshell.
It turns out, a U.S. District Judge has dismissed the FGC charges in the case and declared the federal legislation banning and criminalizing Female Genital Cutting in the U.S since 1997 as unconstitutional!
My immediate reaction was, “That’s crazy.” Then my mind shifted to what had happened to me on October 19th, at the inaugural screening of Sahiyo Stories, a collection of digital stories created by U.S. women who have undergone FGC or who have loved ones who have undergone it. After those videos were shown at the screening, a couple walked in, joined the audience, and began to counter the stories of the survivors. They stated that FGC was harmless, that the survivors sharing their stories must only be trying to get attention. I worry that because of what this U.S. District Judge has ruled, what happened at that screening of Sahiyo Stories, might become all too common when survivors share their FGC stories in the hope of preventing harm to future generations of girls.
As stated in the Detroit Free Press by Tresa Baldas
The U.S. District Judge concluded that “as despicable as this practice may be,” Congress did not have the authority to pass the 22-year-old federal law that criminalizes female genital mutilation, and that FGM is for the states to regulate. FGM is banned worldwide and has been outlawed in more than 30 countries, though the U.S. statute had never been tested before this case.
There is no doubt that the decision will be appealed by the government, but this response worries me because without the law, what can we point to, when parents and families are trying to do the right thing and not succumb to the community pressure they face in having their daughter undergo FGC? And at Sahiyo, we do hear from these parents. We hear from parents who tell us they have spared their daughters as well as parents who regret not doing more to protect their daughters, but felt pressured by the community, by members of their families, believing that they had to get it done. That social pressure is real and threatening and at Sahiyo we understand the fear of being ostracised from your family or your community for speaking against what others believe is a religious necessity.
This decision also concerns me because it will be used by proponents of FGC to further suggest that they are justified in pursuing FGC because FGC has been proven harmless. Even though, the fact remains, that this is not at all what the Judge has said in his decision to rule the FGC federal law unconstitutional. To the contrary, the decision made by the Judge clearly recognizes that FGC is a terrible crime.
What the Judge has stated is the following:
“As laudable as the prohibition of a particular type of abuse of girls may be … federalism concerns deprive Congress of the power to enact this statute,” Friedman wrote in his 28-page opinion, noting: “Congress overstepped its bounds by legislating to prohibit FGM … FGM is a ‘local criminal activity’ which, in keeping with long-standing tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress.”
The Judge has ruled that the issue of FGC falls under state law jurisdiction (intrastate) versus federal (interstate). In other words, the judge’s ruling opens up a jurisdiction question and NOT a question on whether FGC is harmful or not.
If “local criminal activity” must be regulated by the state, then it goes to show just how vital it will be for all states in the U.S. to pass laws banning FGC. Currently, only 27 states in the U.S. have such laws. Massachusetts, the state I live in, does not. (See petition ‘Ban FGM/C in MA’).
Even when laws are passed, I believe that it will be important to remember that FGC will most likely still continue just as other forms of gender-based violence such as domestic violence and sexual assault unfortunately continue despite the presence of laws against them. FGC also continues because as a social norm entrenched in the culture, this harmful practice has been touted as a religious or cultural practice that is needed to control women’s sexuality.
This reality points to the importance of education and community engagement to help create social change within communities and amongst groups where FGC might be happening.
To that end, Sahiyo will continue to organize and participate in community events to educate our friends, family and community about the harms of FGC and why it should be abandoned.
Learn more about FGC in the U.S.
If you would like to write about your views on the Judge’s ruling or the Michigan case in general, send a write-up to firstname.lastname@example.org