Earlier this month, Detroit Emergency Room doctor Jumana Nagarwala was arrested and charged with the mutilation of two 7-year-old girls’ genitals in the nation’s first female genital mutilation case . Not long after, Dr. Fakharuddin Attar and his wife Farida Attar were arrested in connection to Nagarwala’s case and accused of providing the facility and assisting Nagarwala with the procedures . The victims, who were transported from Minneapolis to see Nagarwala, were told that they were going on special girls’ trip and that they had been brought to a clinic to be treated for stomach aches. The two victims were told the procedure was to “get the germs out” and that they should keep it a secret. It is believed that Nagarwala has performed the procedure on more victims .
According to the WHO , “Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Believe it or not, FGM has a complicated history in the US. The practice was not federally outlawed until 1996 and clitoridectomies were practiced until as late as the 1960s . Doctors would use FGM to prevent masturbation in young girls . Paradoxically, the procedure was also performed to help married, heterosexual women achieve orgasm.
It comes as no surprise to me that the law was not a big enough deterrent for Nagarwala and her accomplices. FGM is not only federally illegal; 14 states have laws regarding the practice, which includes the victims’ home state of Minnesota . Michigan does not have any state laws outlawing the practice, however, Nagarwala was operating on these girls for free in a clinic that she wasn’t employed at–meaning the procedures were completely off the books and could have gone unnoticed had she not been reported. When interviewed, Nagarwala explained that she understood FGM is illegal, though she claims she was simply removing a membrane for the girls’ families to bury. All the same, it must be incredibly hard to take a country’s laws on your cultural practice of FGM seriously when the country has such a lackadaisical attitude on other forms of infant and child genital mutilation.
Baby boys and intersex infants are not protected in the same way that baby girls are from the practice, nor are procedures on their genitals seen in at all the same light. Proponents of Routine Infant Circumcision (RIC) on baby boys often speak of erroneous health benefits such as reduced chance of sexually transmitted diseases or urinary tract infections. These benefits are negligible, especially when it is considered that risk of diseases and poor health outcomes can be managed with proper intact care . Removing healthy tissue “just in case” is hardly a standard of care we should be aiming for with our children. Claims of preference and aesthetics from proponents of RIC are often cited as valid reasoning for the procedure. That reasoning is borderline sexually abusive, seeing as childrens’ genitals do not exist for their parents’ enjoyment. Operations to “correct” ambiguous genitalia on intersex infants also persist, likely because our society is still uncomfortable with people who cannot be categorized into the gender dichotomy. The medical risks of these surgeries include scarring, reduced sensation, and possible sterilization. These operations also come with a great social risk: that in “correcting” doctors chose to assign the gender that the genitals most match , making assumptions about their future social and physical development that they cannot quantify. As we know, gender identity could be complicated both socially and biologically , making the risk of assigning the wrong gender too much for comfort, especially considering that the cosmetic intervention could reasonably be put off until the child is old enough to choose it on their own. There is only one reasonable way to handle cosmetic genital surgery: the person who should make the decision is the person whom the genitals are attached to.
Laws are not enough. It’s time for us to take a strong ethical stance against the mutilation of all children and infants’ genitals equally. We need to put pressure on the medical community to condemn the cutting of minors’ genitals unless absolutely medically necessary , as it is often on their misguided advice that parents choose the procedure. In order to completely be rid of FGM in our society, we can’t continue to play the twisted game of relativism needed to condemn FGM while still allowing other forms of non-consensual, cosmetic genital cutting to continue. Take a look at what people from countries that practice FGM say about the procedure and compare it to the things popularly said about the other forms of infant genital mutilation. Change, true progress, is not possible without changing our attitudes towards all babies’ genitals.