It Happens Here: The Reality of Female Genital Mutilation
This April, two Detroit doctors were arrested on charges that they performed female genital mutilation -- in this case, they were accused of cutting the clitoris or clitoral hood to stop girls from experiencing sexual pleasure. It is obviously a complicated topic, further politicized by the fact some of its practitioners are Muslims. We sat down with Mariya Taher, who was "cut" at age seven and went on to co-found Sahiyo, an organization that hopes to prevent other girls from enduring the same pain. She told us ...
It's Not Just A Muslim Thing
Remember how doctors used to treat "hysteria" as a women's issue? Well, most of what you've read about the practice probably focuses on the hilarious old-timey vibrators doctors invented to help ladies masturbate the problem away:
But as Mariya explained, vigorous masturbation was only the nice treatment for hysteria. It was not the only one. "People don't recognize that clitoridectomy, a form of genital cutting, was performed in Europe and the U.S. up until the 1950s. It's a practice that you were able to find in medical books. There's one American woman, Renee Bergstrom -- she was born in the Midwest, a white American woman, and underwent it when she was three years old by a Christian doctor. She went to see the doctor because she was touching her genitals and her mother was concerned. The doctor recommended she undergo it because a clitoridectomy was supposed to prevent masturbation ... But that knowledge that clitoridectomy was once accepted in the U.S. has been forgotten completely."
Further back, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, America's blandest mad cereal scientist, recommended removing the clitoris as a legitimate treatment for nymphomania. And it's still a global problem: "In the last couple years, there's been a lot of evidence has been gathered to show that it's happening also in other places, such as Russia, Colombia, and parts of Asia like Singapore, Malaysia."
Several Christian sects, and even one group of Ethiopian Jews, also practice cutting. "I think people like to 'other' it, saying it happens only in religious places and Africa, so you don't think about the fact that it's happening in medical settings, or that it's happening in the U.S., or it's happening in Ontario. That's why I always try to emphasize it is a global issue ... the large-scale data by organizations such as UNICEF unfortunately only report FGM prevalence for 30 countries at this point, but there are many other countries where it's been reported."
And due to increases in immigration from regions where FGM is practiced, more than 500,000 women have undergone it, or are likely to be subjected to it, right here in the U.S. The largest risk groups live in California, Minnesota, and New York. When somebody brings up female genital mutilation, don't think rural Africa -- think Duluth.
It's A Clumsy Procedure, And It Affects Every Woman Differently
The World Health Organization has four classifications of female genital mutilation, and emphasizes that none of them has any medical benefit, and all often lead to illness and/or death. The categories range from "partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce" (Type 1) to "narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora" (Type 3). Mariya explains that the Dawoodi Bohra community of Islam she grew up in favors Type I -- aka clitoridectomy -- which is referred to as "khatna."
"People have different reactions . I definitely know many women who have felt very traumatized, emotionally much more than physically ... for me, part of the clitoral hood was removed. But I guess, fortunately for me, when I have visited health professionals, OB-GYNs, they can't tell that anything happened. So I don't know, it might just mean that whatever happened to me healed, so I suppose I'm fortunate in that sense."
The goal of "cutting" is to stop women from experiencing sexual pleasure, because nothing is more dangerous to a certain group of wildly insecure men than the awesome power of the female orgasm. You might expect the procedure to totally kill all sensation, but Mariya says that's not the case: "I've heard many stories from women, one story in particular relates to a woman who had it done in a health setting in the U.S. She is a health professional herself, and she let me know that nobody could tell physically what had happened to her, but she has noticed that when she is sexually active, her clitoris is overstimulated to the point it's sort of painful, which probably is the result of nerve damage."
In Mariya's community, khatna is traditionally done in the home, and by women with little-to-no training. Girls as young as six or seven are taken to an "auntie's house" under false pretenses, essentially like being told you're going to McDonald's and stopping at the dentist instead. But y'know ... obviously way worse.
Mariya Karimjee, who grew up in the same religious community as this Mariya, told This American Life last year that she too was cut in someone's living room. Unlike our source, she bled profusely for days afterward, suppressed the memory for many years, and remains unable to have anything approaching a normal sex life.
And as our source, Mariya Taher, points out, at the time, FGM wasn't actually a crime: "There was no federal law in place. That law passed in 1996, so by the time I carried out my thesis, there was."
It's Mostly Women Perpetuating Female Genital Mutilation
The Quran makes no mention of female genital mutilation. Neither does the Bible or the Torah. Yet Muslims, Christians, and Jews around the world still do it. W-why?
"I found that there were so many different reasons for why it was carried out, from hygiene to sexual control -- I've actually heard justifications that it is done to decrease your sexuality as well as increase your sexuality, or that you have to undergo it because it is an identity marker in a way ..."
It's not a rural problem, or even an issue of ignorance. Of the 385 women Mariya interviewed, 80 percent had experienced FGM firsthand, and more than half were college-educated. "It's a practice that you can't just say is being continued by an ignorant group of people. Particularly the Dawoodi Bohra group in which I was raised in. They pride themselves on education for women, so they're a very highly educated population. But this fact also shows you how powerful the idea of tradition is ... My mom, when I talked to her about it, really I believe carried it out because it was tradition. It was something that other women had done to girls in their families, so you have to continue it because it was supposed to be for the good of the girl. Really, my mom didn't think to question it, because you don't question the traditions ... I think men not knowing about it is changing now, because there's so much media attention, but previously that was very common too -- men did not know anything about it, and that's why my relatives ... my own father didn't know about it, and he had four younger sisters."
And yet everyone and her sister was having it done, so it became common, "kind of like getting your period," Mariya says. "You saw other people coming out okay after their procedure."
The overwhelming majority of women Mariya interviewed -- 82 percent -- said they would not do the same to their daughters. So the tradition is dying. But then again, that means there are still others likely to carry it on. And it's often the women who keep the "tradition" alive. Back to Mariya's study: Of the respondents who had suffered FGM, 67 percent reported that their mother made the decision, and 74 percent had it done to them by a "traditional cutter" or midwife.
"It was honestly something I didn't even think to question; I just knew it happened," Mariya said. "And when my sister had it done three years later, it was normal and celebrated, and I didn't think anything about it. Not until high school did I start to wonder more about it. I remembered talking to someone else from the community, a friend of mine who was really upset about it and traumatized from her own experience, and that was when I want to say that maybe I started to question it, and started to wonder more myself about it."
Ultimately, she concluded: "It's a form of gender violence that's unique in that it's perpetuated by women to women."
And further, FGM is approved by otherwise non-abusive parents. That's why it can take years for victims to realize anything fucked up happened: "The first time I started questioning what had happened to me was when I was in high school, I think, or college. I started relating what happened to me with what was considered female mutilation."
It's Becoming A Normal Medical Procedure
Those Detroit doctors we mentioned in the beginning add an interesting wrinkle to this whole thing. They were practicing FGM in a sterilized medical facility, and not on somebody's living floor. That's ... better, right? Less chance of infection? Maybe. But in a strange way, the fact that FGM is moving from an at-home amateur procedure to a medical one makes the problem worse:
"Medicalization is something that we're seeing happening in many communities that continue this harmful practice. FGC is becoming medicalized in an attempt to make it 'safer,' but in reality, medicalization is making FGC more challenging to actually end in practicing communities."
One of the many criticisms of FGM is that it's done in the aforementioned unsanitary conditions, and that can lead to shock or other complications. That's hardly the only criticism, but it's one that many groups have decided to tackle. People pointed out that this horrible, pointless practice may also not be sterile, so practitioners said "Gotcha, we'll make it more sterile!" and considered the problem solved.
"When you look at Asia, for example in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore -- it's medicalized there, and it happens to babies at birth. Some of my colleagues have told me that birth packages are available to newborn girls. It's allowed by the government."
Everyone already agrees that unlicensed living room surgery is dangerous. That's why we don't have unlicensed living room surgeries. That's the "given" portion of the argument. Focusing on the conditions around the act only lets proponents ignore arguments about the act itself, which is obviously the central issue: "It's also why it's difficult, when you're working on this, advocating against this. I think documenting the health effects is important, but you have to use a holistic approach, you have to talk about human rights and a woman's bodily integrity as well. If you just focus on the health risks ... it's not going to be persuasive at all."
There's Even Backlash To The Backlash
For a very long time, victims of FGM didn't talk about it. Now they do, and it's regularly makes front-page news. This is good. But even positive attention has some disturbing side effects. Mariya mentioned a case in Australia in which the leader of an Islamic sect became the first person in that country to be arrested for FGM.
"After that happened, the religious authorities decided to issue a statement to all the congregations around the world, to notify them that if they lived in a country where a law against it existed, they shouldn't continue because they should follow the law of the land. Ironically, there is no specific law against FGM, and so a bit later that year, the Syedna -- the Dawoodi Bohra head religious leader -- said in a sermon that women must continue it discreetly.
Unfortunately, the increased awareness of these crimes is also fuel for a certain species of bigot. Take, for example, the response when Mariya related her experience to The Detroit Free Press earlier this year. The article specified that Taher and the two arrested doctors in Detroit were from a small sect, and emphasized that genital cutting "affects girls of all socioeconomic backgrounds and occurs in all parts of the world, not just in remote villages in Africa or Asia, but here in the U.S., too."
And now here's a small sample of the many, many Islamophobic responses to the article:
So Mariya, and other women with similar experiences, are caught between a rock and Breitbart.com:
"That's something I didn't realize -- I was unintentionally contributing to adding fear, or to Islamophobia. That was never my intention -- my intention was to talk about violence and share the story of what's happening in your community, because previously it wasn't publicly acknowledged that it was occurring."
Mariya often finds her interview quoted by websites devoted to ending the "Islamization of America." Like this one, courtesy of career Islamophobe Pamela Geller:
Or this Federalist column that sails right past the point, arguing that "Fear Of Islam Should Not Enable Female Genital Mutilation Inside The United States." In all of these pieces, Mariya's interviews are quoted (read: copied and pasted); she's never directly interviewed. And it's never pleasant to find that your testimony and mission have been taken out of context by the likes of Jihad Watch.
But often, the backlash comes from within the Dawoodi Bohra community: "A group that was formed within the community is encouraging a lot of backlash ... they are touting religious freedom, but they're essentially promoting khatna."
We're a little unclear how "educated and articulate" applies to the grade-schoolers who would be operated on.
"That group has a social media presence, so they started a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and an Instagram account. A month ago we started noticing an increase in the backlash -- that isn't new, but we were experiencing it on a smaller scale. But in the last two weeks, the backlash has just intensified so much more ... I woke up one day, and all of a sudden my cousins and some other people were sending me these images and pictures -- 'SAHIYO is not my voice' -- and then we learned those images were being shared around Instagram ... some of them were saying we were damaging the community, or that we were just looking for fame."
Mariya's organization started its own Instagram account, because that's how you fight back in this ridiculous year of 2017. "And then, ironically, it was shut down two days later, and we had no idea why, but the automated message we were seeing from Instagram stated that we were violating community standards. We were very confused by that." That happened again, with only one post up. Suspicious. Mariya is featured in a very well-produced video on the subject called A Small Nick Or Cut, They Say, which has an unusually high thumbs-down to thumbs-up ratio. Suspicious.
Mariya explains: "People who believe in the religious aspect of the practice, or who simply do not like that the Dawoodi Bohras are being attacked over this issue, were sending messages on WhatsApp, urging people to go on YouTube to down-vote these videos and other anti-FGM videos."
And this is how the fight to keep female genital cutting has evolved. Everyone now has to agree that some types of mutilation are bad, but argues that their specific style isn't a big deal. "They're also saying that this type , which is one of the least-severe forms, is not mutilation, because they want to separate the more severe forms from what they practice." That's pretty messed up, and more than a little frustrating, but that's what progress looks like. You can't get people to drop their traditions overnight, even if they're stupid and harmful. At the very least, everyone now agreeing that some forms of genital mutilation are bad is a step toward no one believing any type of genital mutilation is good.
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