Today, a topic you may not be familiar with (I wasn’t) — and certainly not one of “my favorite things.” However, it’s too important to stay silent on: FGM, or Female Genital Mutilation. It’s also sometimes referred to as female circumcision. The practice happens often in many African countries, Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Yemen. In fact, over 200 million girls and women currently alive are estimated to have been victims of this practice.
What exactly does this involve? A blade is used to cut off parts of a girl’s (yes, it’s usually done to young girls) genitals, to varying extent. Sometimes, she is then stitched closed.
You may wonder, as I did, why on earth anyone would do this. The practice attempts to control women’s sexuality and ideas about purity, modesty and beauty. Incredibly, it is usually performed by women, who see it as a source of honor. They fear that failing to have their daughters and granddaughters cut will expose the girls to social exclusion. Yikes. Makes you glad to live in America, right?
FGM in Michigan
Except, now it has happened here, in Michigan, to be exact. There is a doctor currently on trial there for allegedly performing FGM on two 7-year-old girls from Minnesota. Lest you wonder how they got there, the girls’ moms took them to Jumana Nagarwala’s Detroit-area clinic, apparently desiring this procedure for their daughters. The FBI had installed a secret camera outside the clinic, but still the girls were able to enter and have the procedure. It’s unclear whether authorities were watching the camera at the time the girls were brought to the clinic. Their mothers have been arraigned in federal court. They stood silent during their hearing, and were released on bond.
FGM has been illegal in America for decades, but this hasn’t stopped Nagarwala from the practice. A criminal complaint filed alleges that “multiple” girls have been victims of these procedures at Nagarwala’s clinic, in fact, prosecutors estimate there have been over 100 in the past 12 years. Nagarwala herself is the mother of two children, aged 6 and 12.
A lawyer in the case contends that “There was no federal crime committed of any type. This is, quite honestly, ignorance of religion that has caused fear and an outright attack on this particular sect of Muslims.”
Another couple is charged in the case as well; they are accused of helping arrange the procedures, and of being in the room when they were performed.
Putting a Stop to FGM
I don’t know about you, but it is horrifying to me that this is happening in our own country, and not even that far from where I live. I hope that in raising awareness, we can all stand firm against such practices. With the speed at which morals are currently changing in our country, it’s sadly conceivable that this could become acceptable here if people don’t stand firm against it.
First-Hand Experience with FGM — Interview
My aunt (Elaine, who often comments here) brought this issue to my attention. It’s especially meaningful to her, and so I asked her a few questions so she could contribute to this post:
What is your background related to this issue?
I first went to Africa in 1973, where I spent three months in Chad, a country in the heart of Africa. Female circumcision, as it is referred to there, was practiced in that country. In 1980, I moved to Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), in West Africa, where female circumcision is a common practice, not only among the Muslim population, but also among the animistic population. Being a nurse, I had plenty of opportunity to interact with women and girls who had suffered this mutilation. I saw the immediate aftermath of such destructive surgery (which is really what it is, although usually done without the benefit of anesthesia), as well as long-term side effects.
Were you aware of FGM before you lived in Africa? How did you first encounter it there?
I don’t believe I’d ever heard of female circumcision before visiting Chad, Africa. Missionaries there enlightened me about this horrific practice. But while serving as a missionary nurse in Côte d’Ivoire, I became much more familiar with it. I observed devastating side effects while caring for women and girls there.
Allow me to name a few. For girls who suffered this procedure, they sometimes bled to death, because of a very low hemoglobin. When one is anemic, one tends to bleed much more profusely. Since in Africa, the procedure is usually done by a lay woman in the bush, she has no idea of the hemoglobin level of the girl she is going to mutilate. Since many of them were anemic due to disease processes there, bleeding to death following this procedure was not all that uncommon.
Due to the scar tissue that developed following the procedure, women sometimes had trouble urinating following it, especially for those who were sewn shut (imagine having that done without anesthesia!). I remember trying to catheterize women who had been sewn shut. It was almost impossible to find the meatus, or the opening from the urethra, where the urine leaves the body.
I remember caring for a woman who came to the dispensary in Côte d’Ivoire. She came because she had not been able to conceive, something that is absolutely essential if a woman wishes to be respected in Africa. I was almost speechless when I saw how badly she had been mutilated. Both sets of the labia had been removed, along with the clitoris, etc. Following the excision of these anatomical parts, she was sewn shut. She was left with a very small opening into her vagina. I told her it was very unlikely she would ever conceive, but even if she did, she would have to have a C-section in order to deliver the baby, and C-sections are very difficult to have when living in an underdeveloped part of the world, as she was. I remember how she wept after I told her those things.
I also have clear memories of hearing girls yelling as the procedure was done. I remember one girl screaming, “She’s killing me! She’s killing me!” If you read about the procedure done in the Detroit area, you will realize that these girls suffered greatly, also.
This procedure, in the part of the world in which I was working, was done under very unsterile conditions. How the girls kept from getting infected is beyond me.
There were also long-term side effects related to childbirth. I remember watching women pushing the baby, trying to deliver it. Each time the head of the baby pushed against the mother’s perineum, I watched tissue tear a bit farther upward, where the clitoris would be, had it not been excised. Because there was so much scar tissue that had formed in that area, the tissue was no longer elastic. The pressure of the baby being delivered could do nothing but tear that tissue.
Was FGM a common practice while you were in Ivory Coast?
It was very common. In fact, the girls sometimes had to be removed from their homes in order to be protected from the procedure. It was said there that men would not want to marry girls if they had not been mutilated. Because the parents wanted their girls to get good husbands, they were very eager to have the procedure done on their daughters. But honestly, I’m not sure how much the fathers were involved in the decision-making process regarding this procedure. I believe that it was primarily the mothers who made the decisions regarding FGM.
Was there any resistance to the practice, or was it pretty universally accepted there?
It was universally accepted among Muslims and animistic peoples. Christians, however, were beginning to resist the practice when I left there. I trust that trend has continued, although I can’t speak to that since I’ve been gone from Africa for many years.
I hope it is obvious why I feel very strongly that this procedure must be outlawed, and those who practice it must be prosecuted. As I understand it, it is already illegal in the USA, but it continues to be practiced to some degree clandestinely. It is my prayer that the female doctor who is now being prosecuted will be sentenced harshly enough that it will serve as a detriment to others who might be tempted to practice this terrible procedure.
If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you. I know it’s not easy for the average American woman to read this. But imagine living through it. I’m sure you understand why I feel so strongly about this horrific procedure.
Thanks, Elaine, for your contributions!
Were you aware of FGM?