"Do not cause harm or return harm"1
In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly designated February 6th as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and aggressively set a target to eradicate the practice worldwide by 2030. Female Genital Mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), also referred to as female circumcision (see resource list for more information about it and how it is performed), resurfaced in the news again this past December. The U.S. 116th Congress passed H.R. 6100, a revision to the 1996 statute criminalizing FGM/C.2 The new language aims to eliminate loopholes to allow the Department of Justice to prosecute future cases of FGM/C based on six circumstances where the ritual affects interstate commerce.3
The more vital legislation is in response to two decisions made in recent legal history. The original 1996 statute was deemed unconstitutional when the first case prosecuted under the law, United States v Nagarwala, was brought to trial in 2018. 4
Summarizing his ruling, Judge Friedman dismissed charges against the eight Muslim defendants, citing that the prosecution failed to show FGM/C fell under commercial or healthcare activities that could be regulated under federal law – since it is "a form of physical assault…" and " gender-based violence." He continued, "As despicable as this practice may be, it is essentially a criminal assault, just like the rape.." and " FGM is a crime that could be prosecuted under state law." Then, in 2019, the Department of Justice declined to appeal the ruling, leaving Congress and individual states to take action.5
Although it's often thought of as a third world problem, in 2012 it was estimated that over 513,000 girls have either been subjected to the ritual or were at risk in the U.S. 6 Although it crosses cultural and religious lines, it is predominately associated with immigrants practicing Islam in this country. The 2018 case spotlights the U.S. Muslim population as a whole since the defendants were Muslim and the cutting was referred to as a "religious procedure" in the media.7
The debate about its place in Islam is still ongoing, with opponents leading the majority view. The discourse between the sides stems from what evidence, or lack thereof, exists to connect FGM/C to authentic Islamic practice. Modern-day fatwahs are primarily based on ijtihad because of this lack of clear proof that FGM/C is definitively a Sunnah and the fact that there is insufficient documentation of the context of how and by whom it was practiced during the time of the Prophet (saw). (Arguments from opponents and proponents are located in the resource list). This article leaves the discussion of the permissibility of the practice to knowledgeable scholars.
The general strategy in the United States to eliminate the practice has focused on enacting state legislation including specific legal language to ensure prosecution8, incorporating education about the harm of FGM/C and stricter enforcement through mandatory reporting. And "to develop effective policies, programs, and interventions to prevent FGM/C from occurring in the United States, and to understand and provide needed services (especially obstetric and gynecologic services) to those who have undergone FGM/C… "7
As of December 2020, 39 states have passed legislation to protect girls from what the international community designates as a human rights violation. However, laws are not enough to meet the U.N.'s goal of eliminating the practice by 2030. Suppose the first case in U.S. history was prosecuted 21 years after the initial statute was passed. Does it show that the lack of enforcement leads to blatant disregard for the law? How has that influenced enforcement and self-regulation within our communities?
Unfortunately, many within the Muslim community are unaware or unwilling to recognize the significance of the topic. In addition to health complications, it is also a religious and political issue that needs to be addressed openly. In the early days of Islam, leaders and scholars did not shy away from discussing difficult or sensitive topics, and neither should we in modern Western Islamic societies. As uncomfortable as it may be, it's time to call our Muslim community leaders to action:
1. Imams, including those with significant social media following, commit to dedicating at least one khutbah/halaqah on the FGM/C each year.
2. Post educational posters about the risks and complications of the procedure in women's wudu areas.
3. Community leaders should share a list of articles, videos on FGM/C via community email campaigns or social media posts (see below for a list of resources).
4. Integrate the topic into Islamic education as early as in secondary school. It can be introduced delicately and tactfully through American civics/law classes, case studies in international politics, or examples of fatwahs based on ijtihad.
5. Regulate our communities by encouraging avenues for disclosure of FGM/C and insisting Islamic school educators be mandatory reporters.
Each of us can decide to take action. Surprisingly, raising awareness within our community about the practice's impact takes minimal investment – only a willingness to hold ourselves accountable for following the law.
Romy Sharieff is the founding contributor of the Bryan J Westfield Scholarship, former ambassador for Midwives For Haiti, worked for the UNHCR, and is currently a practicing midwife. She can be reached at [email protected]
1 - Hadith - Sunan Ibn Mājah 2340 - https://sunnah.com/ibnmajah/13/33
2 - Stop FGM Act of 2020, H.R. 6100, 116th Congress, (2020)
4 - United States v. Nagarwala, 438 F. Supp. 3d 821.
6 - Goldberg et al. (2012). Female genital mutilation/cutting in the United States: Updated estimates of women and girls at risk, 2012. https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/reports/fgmutilation.pdf
7 - Baldas (2018). Judge dismissed female genital mutilation charges in historic case. Detroit Free Press. https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2018/11/20/female-genital-mutilation-michigan/1991712002/
8 - healthMartinez, A. (2020). Female genital mutilation: The status of U.S. laws restricting the practice. American Constitution Society. https://www.acslaw.org/inbrief/female-genital-mutilation-the-status-of-u-s-laws-restricting-the-practice/
Islam and ties to FGM:
Gomaa, A., 2013., The Islamic view on female circumcision, African Journal of Urology 19, 123-126
Quentin Wodon (2015) Islamic Law, Women's Rights, and State Law: The
Cases of Female Genital Cutting and Child Marriage, The Review of Faith & International Affairs,
13:3, 81-91, DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2015.1075762
Asmani, Abdi, 2008. De-linking FGM/C from Islam. USAID.
Rosenberg, L, Gibson, K, Shulman, J. (2019), When Cultures collide – Female genital cutting and U.S. obstetric practice ACOG, Vol 113, No. 4
Policy, Law, activism and Cases: