they are still not listening to us. The bills and our stories sit on a desk, unheard, undiscussed and, worst of all, silenced.
Since 2012, the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association has been advocating for a state law that would protect girls from female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C). Yet to this day, no law has been put in place. It is estimated that over half a million girls and women in the United States are at risk of having some or all of their perfectly healthy external genitalia removed for non-medical purposes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Massachusetts 12th in the nation in terms of the number of women and girls who have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGM/C.
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I am one of those women.
Growing up in a Dawoodi Bohra community, a religious sect within the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, I was told it was a sensitive topic, one reserved to be spoken about by women only. I thought FGM/C was normal, and I understood that I was not supposed to mention it in large gatherings or to those outside the Bohra community. What we did was special. It was tradition. It was called khatna.
Not until high school did I connect the dots and understand that khatna was female genital mutilation. After doing research on FGM/C online, it dawned on me that what I had been brought up to believe was a religious or cultural practice was in actuality violence and, because I was seven when someone cut off that piece of my clitoral hood, that it was child abuse.
In graduate school for social work, I carried out a research project to better understand how and why it continues in the United States. Most women I interviewed said it was used to control their sexuality. Nowadays, I hear from proponents of FGM/C that it is done for health and hygienic reasons, though there is no proof it brings any health benefits. In fact, FGM/C can cause physical harm including pain, bleeding, shock, tetanus, genital sores, and long-lasting psychological harm including sexual disorders, fear of sexual intimacy, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder.
My research helped me to understand that FGM/C was a tradition that for generations had been normalized and passed on. Over time, communities had learned to minimize the harm, and in doing so had unintentionally sanctioned violence in the name of culture or religion. It is imperative that we unlearn these toxic lessons.
This past year, the #MeToo movement encouraged women to openly talk about sexual harassment and assault that was a result of their gender. The ripple effect led to Time magazine crowning the #MeToo movement person of the year for 2017. I too tapped into the power of women’s stories and collected dozens from women living in the US who underwent FGM/C so that we could collectively submit testimony to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the judiciary proving that girls need protection here.
But even after all these women, including myself, have bravely shared our stories, and after law enforcement, two attorneys generals, six district attorneys, legal and medical professionals, child advocates and community groups stated their support for An Act to Protect Girls from Genital Mutilation — sponsored by State Senator Harriette L. Chandler during a hearing at the Massachusetts State house in October — the bill was sent to study, meaning most likely it will not move forward.
They are still not listening to us. The bills and our stories sit on a desk, unheard, undiscussed and, worst of all, silenced.
Massachusetts is considered to be a progressive state with respect to reproductive rights, anti-discrimination laws and equality issues. Our state is one of only 17 nationwide with public funding for abortion and one of only 20 states to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet I’ve been told that the reason the act will not move forward is that Massachusetts legislators lack the political will to recognize FGM/C as violence. The skeptic in me wonders if re-election has anything to do with their “political will.” There is a fear, a misconception that by passing this bill and saying FGM/C is illegal, we would be targeting existing vulnerable communities because FGM/C happens to Muslims, to immigrants, to those communities already targeted by the Trump administration.
My childhood comes back to me. The lessons of silence, of feigning ignorance, of keeping entrenched this violence, of passing it off as a cultural tradition. The Massachusetts legislature unknowingly teaches the same lessons. Like in my childhood, I am getting the sense that because cutting of a girl’s genitalia is connected to her religion and culture, we must tread carefully, we must not classify it as harm. We must ignore and keep quiet about the physical and psychological trauma that happens because this is tradition.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.