Unlike my fellow Americans, the news of a Detroit doctor being arrested for performing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) did not shock me. I grew up in the same religious sect (Dawoodi Bohra) as the doctor, and twenty-seven years earlier, in 1990, before U.S. federal legislation criminalizing FGM/C existed, I too was cut.
I only recall small bits of what happened to me. My family was in India visiting relatives. My mother and aunt took me to a stranger’s apartment. The door opened. In front of us stood elderly women in sarees. They laughed, the atmosphere felt relaxed. I was the only little girl in the room. The next moment, I was on the ground. My dress lifted, my underwear pulled down. Something sharp cut me down there in a spot I thought was private. I cried. Soon, my mother gathered me in her lap and held me tight, soothing me, telling me it would be okay. The older women brought me a soda. I drank it eagerly.
In 2016, I finally found the courage to go in front of a news camera and share my story. The decision was not made lightly, and it took me nearly eight years to step forward. I was nervous about being labeled a victim when I wasn’t one. I dreaded the idea of my parents, whom I love dearly, being cast in a negative light. I worried that their fellow Dawoodi Bohras would become upset that their daughter aired the community’s secrets in public. In the end, I recognized that my fears were the same fears thousands of other Dawoodi Bohra women felt while sharing their story.
I wanted to break the sense of powerlessness that persists generation after generation.
So part of my life’s work for the last decade has been advocating against FGM/C. No matter how many times I speak on the issue, I sense that most Americans are afraid to shatter their illusions of what FGM/C is and where it occurs. Often, it is misperceived as taking place only in small villages in Africa. People in general tend to distance the problem, othering it away, feeling safer in the belief that this form of violence doesn’t happen in the U.S.
But, FGM/C has occurred in our country for centuries. Up until the 1950s, clitoridectomy, a form of FGM/C, was considered acceptable by health professionals to treat a wide range of conditions including “hysteria” and mental illness. In December 2016, Renee Bergstrom, a white, Midwestern woman revealed that at the age of three, she too underwent the cut, performed by a Christian doctor who wanted her to stop touching her genitals to prevent masturbation.
The misperception is not unique to the United States.
Only in the last few years has the United Nations recognized FGM/C as occurring globally. In 2015, the UN implemented the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and Goal #5 — intended to help achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls — for the first time called on all countries to collect information on the prevalence of FGM/C. Prior to the SDG’s implementation, only “relevant countries” were asked to track this type of data. That meant FGM/C was only measured in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where UNICEF collected data. Other countries where FGM/C was reported, including in the U.S., had no obligation to track this information. For decades, millions of women and girls suffered from this ordeal because they lived in places not viewed as “relevant countries.”
Today, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 513,000 women and girls are at risk for it in the U.S. The UN reports that 200 million women have undergone FGM/C globally, based on UNICEF data collected in 2012 in 27 countries, restricted largely to sub-Saharan Africa. The report does not include women from other regions of the world. It does not include women like Renee Bergstrom, the two little girls found to have undergone FGC in the Detroit case, or myself.
In 2016, a UNICEF report finally included Indonesia as a country where FGM/C is practiced. The release of national data from Indonesia raised the total of girls who have undergone FGM/C from 130 million in 29 countries – as estimated in 2014 – to 200 million in 30 countries. Only 10 million of that increase was due to population growth worldwide.
This gap in data underscores how important it is for anti-FGM/C advocates like me to highlight that it occurs in our communities. So we share our stories. We go against the traditions of our cultures that for centuries have told us to remain silent, and we speak up, hoping that someone will listen.
However, after my story’s release, when I should have felt pride at speaking up, I felt devastated instead. I searched for my story online and came across a tagline in an article that read, “The gruesome practice of female genital mutilation is at record highs in America due to the influx of Muslim immigrants.” Some news sources had taken my story of hope and courage and twisted it into a story that “proved” why immigrants should be kept out of the United States. They ignored the part in my story where I said I was born in the U.S., and somehow, even without me mentioning the religion I was raised in, they assumed it was Islam.
I immediately doubted my decision.
In sharing my story, I’d unwittingly contributed to the misconceptions about millions of immigrants and Muslims who on a daily basis feel the effect of islamophobia in our country. I thought of my bearded father, who I often describe as a jolly Indian Santa Clause, and my devout, rida-wearing mother who fed me way too much food when I visited. Had coming out as a survivor helped fuel islamophobia in a way that put my parents, my family, and my friends in danger?
After the Michigan Doctor’s arrest, I witnessed the same links to islamaphobia. On the day the doctor was arrested, Sahiyo, the organization I cofounded to advocate against FGM/C issued a statement:
We call on the entire Bohra community to make a concerted effort to bring an end to this unnecessary and potentially harmful tradition. We believe it is also imperative for the community leadership to call for a clear, unambiguous, worldwide end to female genital cutting.
Hours later, this comment appeared on our website:
You people are sick and need to leave the country. Although I’m a very socially liberal person in regard to races, cultures, sexuality and religions (even toward those idiots in Westboro) your religion’s endorsement of child abuse anywhere in the world is the exception. Your opposition to FGC sounds completely insincere when couched within a matter of national law and not as a recognition of a flaw in your beliefs.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement condemning FGM/C and those arrested in the Detroit case. The Detroit case has put the Dawoodi Bohra community on alert. Someone writing for Sahiyo’s blog described it this way:
I quietly discuss this case among close friends and relatives who share my sentiments, frightened to openly voice my happiness that there is yet another breakthrough in ending this practice. I feel the heavy hand of the community leaders bear down upon me, and feel stifled to openly express my feelings. This is the fear that prevents others to come forward. It is real and it is suffocating.
Now when I speak publicly I must plea with the media, legislators, and society at large not to use FGM/C to target vulnerable and already marginalized people. I make sure I frame my comments in a manner that acknowledges that white girls, Christian girls and U.S.-born girls undergo FGM/C, hoping no one makes the false assumption that it only happens among Muslims or Africans in places far away.
The Detroit case has highlighted for many Americans that FGM/C does occur in our country, but the revelation also demonstrates how misunderstood this form of gender violence is. This case shows just how powerful the secret of FGM/C really is to have been hidden in the United States for so long. But like any broken secret, people are now trying to understand how it was kept hidden for so long. They blame Islam. They blame immigrants.
The debate on FGM/C has become politicized fodder for islamophobia, but that’s the wrong place to focus. Look to the women and the girls. Look to the community leaders and the tradition keepers who enforce these harmful practices. Look to them to decide to put an end to this, and be prepared to support them.
Mariya Taher is a social activist and writer who co-founded Sahiyo, an advocacy organization. Follow her on @mariyataher83
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