The motto of the state of Maine is Dirigo – Latin for ‘I lead’. Bellwether wants to know who’s leading the fight to protect little girls in Maine from genital mutilation.
A Republican-sponsored bill to outlaw the barbaric procedure is being opposed by Democrats, who say they fear it will offend the cultural sensitivity of the approximately 10,000 Somalis living in the state. But there’s an uglier, more malevolent reason lurking behind the scenes.
Female genital mutilation – in which a young girl’s clitoris is cut out and her vagina stitched closed – is commonly practiced in Somalia, where it is estimated 90 percent of the female population has undergone the ritual. The intention is to ensure that girls remain chaste until they are married, and that they derive no pleasure from sexual activity.
With the arrival over the past several years of thousands of Somali refugees and asylum seekers in Maine, the tradition of FGM also crossed the ocean. So-called “cutters”, who are usually female midwives, often perform the procedure without anesthesia and with dirty razor blades. Some victims suffer from urinary tract problems as a result.
“I had never heard of it, when someone first brought to my attention that it could be happening here,” says state Rep. Heather Sirocki, a Republican. “I said, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’” Once she was convinced it was no joke, Sirocki introduced legislation to ban genital mutilation in Maine. Such was her initial naïveté, she thought the bill would pass unanimously.
Then came an avalanche of criticism from progressive groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant aid organizations, who argue that it is not the state’s role to interfere with cultural traditions that run counter to American values.
“I believe they are more afraid of offending someone than they are in protecting little girls,” says Sirocki. “We believe the immigrant population is vulnerable. I want to get this done this year.” That’s because Sirocki is a four-term member of the House, and by Maine law, cannot run again for re-election next year.
No one in the legislature is openly defending FGM – that might turn off even the most liberal Mainers. Democrats contend that child protection laws already on the books are sufficient, and that singling out genital mutilation would be disrespectful of the Somalis’ cultural inheritance. Sirocki says she was stunned by that argument.
She was in for an even bigger shock when a Democrat, who supports the bill, approached her. As Sirocki tells it, “She said to me, ‘Heather, you know how when a member of our party submits a bill, Republicans kill it simply because a Democrat submitted it? That’s what’s happening here.’”
Then it got even worse. By Sirocki’s account, Democratic Rep. Barbara Cardone of Bangor, who opposes the bill, said she would wait until next year, when Sirocki was out of office, then submit the bill in her own name, so that Democrats would get credit for protecting children.
When I asked Cardone about that meeting, she told me: “I don’t know that it will be the same bill. I will propose a criminal bill. And it’s so I can say that I’m going to address this. I’m not doing it because I want a Democratic victory.”
“I don’t know if they’re telling the truth,” Sirocki said of the opposition party. “They’re not known for that.”
Sirocki says what she learned about FGM as she prepared the bill exposed her to things she’d just as soon not know. “I’m trying to stay focused on the law making it illegal. When you actually think about what’s happening to these girls, it’s just so horrible.”
Equally horrible is blocking a common-sense law when it might save young girls from lifelong disfigurement for political reasons.