A landmark first is going on in the courts of Egypt where a doctor is going to stand trial on charges of female genital mutilation (FGM). The practice, which is often closely linked to religion, is banned in that country, but other disturbing stories have come out of the United States of America that highlight the issue for Western countries. A court case in Australia will examine charges that two young girls underwent FGM and a recent campaign in America is trying to end the practice within the United States itself.
In Egypt, a doctor is standing trial for performing female genital mutilation on a 13-year-old girl, who died because of the procedure. The girl had the procedure done to her along with three other girls who all recovered in the same room. According to the distraught father, he waited for his daughter to wake up from the anesthetic but, unlike the other girls, she did not. The doctor who allegedly performed the FGM on the girl claims that it was only a procedure to remove genital warts, and that the girl died from an allergic reaction to penicillin. He claims that the charges against him are nothing but invention driven by human rights activists, which he called “dogs” rights people.
Female genital mutilation is illegal in Egypt, having been banned in 2008, but a report in 2010 estimated that over 90 percent of women in the country had still been subjected to the practice. This estimation was based on a representative sample, not a door-to-door census of every woman in the country, but it is still a startling statistic. Nevertheless, some people see it only as a problem for non-Western countries, localized to places like Africa and the Middle East. There are indeed 28 countries in those areas that still practice FGM, but there are also vulnerable girls in America and Australia who have undergone the practice.
According to Jaha Dukereh, who is leading a campaign with a United States congressman and Equality Now against female genital mutilation, says that while many people believe it does not happen near them, it actually does. The AHA Foundation, founded by activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, estimates that approximately 228,000 women and girls in America are vulnerable or have already experienced the procedure. It also points out that that number has increased. Dukereh says in the introduction to her Change.org petition that some of the problem is a lack of awareness, something she is trying to change with her campaign.
For a long time, Dukureh was the only United States-based woman speaking out about her experience of female genital mutilation. “We have a culture of silence,” she said, a circumstance that leads to the lack of awareness which contributes to its continuance. In April, however, Cosmopolitan released the stories of three other women who spoke on the topic and told their stories. One woman identified as Yaam says she underwent FGM as an infant and saw it happen to her sister during a holiday with her aunt in The Gambia. Her sister was only 4-years-old. This was done without the knowledge of her father, an OB/GYN who had actually taught her about the dangers of FGM. Later, her father tried to press charges against the family members who had made his children undergo FGM, but the community did not allow it.
Female genital mutilation has been labeled a human rights violation by the United Nations and the United States has laws against its practice. But once a girl is outside of America, those laws do little to protect her. Some American girls are sent to countries where it is legal and undergo the procedure there. One such girl was Leyla, a resident of the Midwest who underwent FGM in Somalia. Now Leyla has to live with the reality of FGM and the psychological repercussions from the ordeal. She says that the issue of FGM is ignored too much in the United States and wants more information on it to be available to the vulnerable.
The United States, however, is not the only Western country dealing with the issue of female genital mutilation. Australia will watch a court case in which two young girls underwent the procedure. Three people are on trial for the offence, including the girls’ mother. Their defence is arguing that it was a “nick” or “cut,” which does not meet the requirements of the legal definition of mutilation. According to the sex crimes police, the procedure was done for reasons of culture. This culture is often closely linked to Islam and conflated with that religion’s beliefs. Nevertheless, there are some who claim that FGM is contrary to the teachings of Islam and are taking a stand against it. In Britain, thousands of British men from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association issued a statement on their opposition to the practice. The statement calls it an “oppressive cultural practice that has no place in the civilized world.”
There are some, though, who claim that the distinction between culture and religion is artificial in this case and cannot be distinguished. She is a well-known, outspoken opponent of Islam and the practice of FGM. In her opinion, Islam is a “moral framework not compatible with the modern westernized way of living.” Earlier this year, such comments on the religion led Brandeis University to rescind an invitation to her to receive an honorary degree.
Religious, cultural, or a combination of the two, female genital mutilation has critics from all sides. As a human rights violation, many countries are moving to outlaw it within their borders, including countries like Egypt located in Africa and the Middle East. However, people in countries like America and Australia are not as aware of the issue as some think they should be. While that may be because of the culture of silence that exists for victims of FGM, there are still efforts to change the lack of visibility. The practice may be more prevalent in other countries, but Western countries with cases like Australia’s are having to stand up and take notice of female genital mutilation happening at home in order to protect the vulnerable in their own midst.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury