Female genital mutilation case making history, but not the news

The silence is deafening.

A new federal case teases the makeup of a classic horror story: abused children, women’s rights, sexuality and big-name lawyers. Yet, the news media who pride themselves on covering feminism are censoring a case out of Michigan alleging that up to 100 young girls were victims of female genital mutilation (FGM).

The blackout can be stopped. I saw firsthand, covering the trial of Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell, that public outrage can shame the media into reporting a case. And this media silence, as with Gosnell, is shameful.

Since 2005, girls as young as 6-years-old reportedly suffered FGM in a federal case the Department of Justice calls the first of its kind. That’s because, while a recent CDC study estimated that half a million U.S. women and girls were at risk of or subjected to FGM, evidence was difficult to pinpoint. Until now.

Each child was told to keep her abuse a secret. They didn’t. But the national media have.

In late April, a grand jury issued the first federal FGM indictment in U.S. history. Complaints by government officials singled out three alleged perpetrators, all part of a Shiite Muslim sect. According to initial reports: Dr. Fakhruddin Attar allowed Dr. Jumana Nagarwala use of his clinic to perform FGM, while his wife, Farida Attar, held the girls’ hands for “comfort.”

While the case claims more victims, the complaints centered on the disturbing testimonies and medical examinations of two seven-year-olds from Minnesota.

The first little girl revealed that both children traveled to Michigan under the premise of a “special” girls’ trip. They visited the doctor, she said, “because our tummies hurt” and underwent a procedure “to get the germs out.” While on an examination table, with her legs spread, she remembered being “pinched” on the “place [where] she goes pee.”

The second seven-year-old “got a shot” that made her scream in pain, she recalled. In a picture she drew of the scene, she placed blood on the examination table and said that she could barely walk afterwards.

Each child was told to keep her abuse a secret. They didn’t. But the national media have.

A Nexis search of the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) would leave any researcher in the dark about the case, even as it has inspired new legislation nationwide. And while newspapers and magazines have noted it, the story has been largely left to local reporters.

That might have something to do with another, controversial, factor at play. As local news confirmed, Dr. Nagarwala, the Attars and the girls’ families belong to a small sect of Shiite Muslims, the Dawoodi Bohra.

“According to some members” of this “community,” the Michigan case complaints read, “the purpose of this cutting is to suppress female sexuality in an attempt to reduce sexual pleasure and promiscuity.”

The defense team, consulted by attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Mayer Morganroth, is arguing religious freedom for a “symbolic pinprick.”

Dershowitz, professor emeritus of law at Harvard and Fox News contributor, submitted a statement for this piece. He agrees that the “media response has been generally ill informed,” but from a different standpoint.

“This is not a case of female genital mutilation,” he argues in a statement for this piece. “The practice at issue is far more benign, as will be shown at trial.”

He also stresses that his role in the case, as a “consultant to the religious group, whose goal is to work out a compromise resolution that assures no harm to the child,” has “been misrepresented.”

“The media should interview the women who belong to this group and get their take on the practice,” he recommended. “This is a complicated constitutional case that should be covered with nuance.”

If only the broadcast networks would cover it at all.

While disputed, it’s a case illuminating a scarily secretive form of enslavement for our country’s girls. Unlike male circumcision (which Dershowitz brought up in relation to the case), FGM presents no health benefits, the World Health Organization says, but can inflict lasting physical and emotional pain. FGM victims, such as those Dershowitz recommended interviewing, agree.

Yet the networks have not only ignored this case, but also failed to mention female genital mutilation once in 2017. Let this sink in: the media that obsess over abortion, free birth control and events like the Women’s March haven’t uttered one word on this human rights violation plaguing 200 million women worldwide today.

A similar situation happened with the case of Gosnell. Among other things, the abortionist was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder of three babies, following a trial where witnesses described abortion survivors “swimming" in toilets “to get out.”

While they have differences, both cases present the same issues: abuse of society’s vulnerable by doctors, hot-button political topics (abortion for one, Islam for the other), and censorship by the network news shows.

During Gosnell’s case, I counted a mere 12 to 15 reporters present while I covered the trial. It took 56 days, letters from politicians, a USA Today column and a public outcry, before the networks reported on Gosnell.

That pressure needs to happen again.

It’s the sacred duty of the news media to inform the public. When journalists shirk that responsibility, it falls upon American citizens to educate the press – and insist they shed light on atrocities against our most vulnerable.

Katie Yoder is a staff writer for the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute where she is a Joe and Betty Anderlik Fellow. Follow her on Twitter@k_yoder.