Here’s a question for #meToo and Time's Up: If you forcibly transport a little girl across state lines to have her genitals mutilated so she will never feel sexual pleasure, is that sexual abuse?
Not according to U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman. Friedman, 74, this week dismissed the most serious federal charges against two doctors who perform a ritual known as female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM involves a ceremonial cutting of the labia, sometimes of girls as young as 7, to prevent sexual enjoyment later in life. The procedure is common among the Dawoodi Bohra, a sect of Islam that has its roots in India, and that now has 22 mosques in the United States. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 500,000 girls and women in the United States – overwhelmingly Muslim – have been subjected to FGM, either here or in their native lands.
Friedman is presiding over the trial of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, who argue they should be allowed to carry out the practice on grounds of religious freedom. Attar’s wife is also on trial: she allegedly held the girls’ hands as they were being cut.
"There has been silence and a sitting on their hands within the women’s movement on this issue. Do we not give it the attention it deserves because it involves children, who can’t describe what was done to them?"
The doctors and the mothers of four of their underage patients were charged with transporting the girls from Illinois to Michigan to engage in “criminal sexual activity,” which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Friedman’s ruling – that FGM is not sexual activity -- ensures that none of the defendants, if convicted, will spend more than five years behind bars.
The thought of young girls being mutilated in order to deny them sexual pleasure outrages Liz Yore, a children’s rights attorney who has taken on FGM as a personal crusade. “There has been silence and a sitting on their hands within the women’s movement on this issue,” Yore says. “Do we not give it the attention it deserves because it involves children, who can’t describe what was done to them? The purpose of FGM is to remove the physical pleasure of sex that God gave to women as well as men.”
Rep. Dave Trott, R-Mi., whose district includes the hometown of the doctors on trial, is staunchly opposed to FGM. “It’s a practice that’s unacceptable in our country,” Trott told me. “It’s gender violence in my opinion. It’s got nothing to do with the Muslim faith.”
Trott introduced a bill in congress to triple the federal penalty for performing FGM from five to 15 years in prison. “The goal is to stop the practice,” he says. “If there’s an 8-year-old in school, and her teacher knows the parents are planning to do this, they have to speak up.”
Harvard Prof. Emeritus Alan Dershowitz, an expert on First Amendment issues, was consulted by Dawoodi Bohra. He suggested that the sect’s religious requirements could be satisfied with what he calls a “pin prick” of the labia, instead of complete removal. “My goal is to propose a solution that strikes the appropriate balance between religious liberty and the rights of young girls not to be mutilated,” Dershowitz told me.
Right now, those rights are not being respected. For FGM, and those who remain silent about it, Time's Up.