Not Just India: FGM Thrives Within America’s Dawoodi Bohras Too

“I’d never been touched in that place before... I still get shivers down my spine when I recall it.”

As America handles its very first federal case of prosecution of an FGM crime, the country and community in question is none other than the Dawoodi Bohras of India, the community to which the alleged accused doctor belongs to.

A Detroit emergency room doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, 44 of Northville, Detroit USA was arrested on April 13, 2017 under the charge of performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on two minor girls aged 7.

The arrest has not only brought to the limelight the undeniable fact that FGM exists and is thriving within the Bohra community – but the inescapable conclusion that members of the community are hoodwinking the authorities and continuing the criminal practice of FGM.

First Federal Genital Mutilation Case in the US

According to the press release of the US Justice Department, Dr Nagarwala performed FGM on girls who were approximately 6 to 8 years old.

This is believed to be the first federal case brought under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalises FGM “knowingly circumcis[ing], excis[ing], or infibulat[ing] the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years”. Nagarwala was arrested and is scheduled to appear in federal court in Detroit.

If the charges get proven in court, she could be facing a long time in prison.

The case against Dr Nagarwala dates back to February this year when the FBI launched an investigation after receiving a tip that Nagarwala had performed female genital mutilation on 7-year-olds at a Livonia medical clinic according to the complaint.

As part of this investigation the FBI obtained a court order to review Nagarwala’s phone, which indicated several calls to a Minnesota number. Furthermore, hotel records show two families each with a young girl stayed there on February 3 – and this was confirmed by the surveillance video footage. Seven days later, an FBI child forensic interviewer talked to one of the girls, who said she was brought to Detroit for a “special girls trip”. According to the complaint, “ a procedure to get the germs out” was performed on the first girl. Both the girls were asked to identify the photo of the doctor which they identified as Dr Nagarwala. The girls were also asked to keep the practice a secret.

What is even more despicable is that despite her oath to care for patients,Dr Nagarwala is alleged to have performed acts in clear violation of the medical code of conduct.

“Sworn Secrecy is the Hallmark of this Practice”

FGM – also known as khatna – is still widely prevalent in the Bohra community in India and world wide. It is portrayed as a religious and cultural practice and is rooted in the patriarchal belief that the sexuality of girls has to be curtailed so that they do not become “promiscuous”. Sworn secrecy is the hallmark of this practice and girls of seven who are barely in a position to oppose this act are almost always lied to when they are taken for this procedure by their parents. The procedure almost always leaves strong physical and psychological scars on the lives of these girls which last through life.

The two million strong community based out of India is largely located in western parts of India. Large numbers of Bohras have immigrated to different countries in the world and have taken this practice along with them.

A strong anti FGM movement has taken root in the community over the last few years, with large numbers of women who have been subjected to FGM openly speaking out against the practice.

Speak Out on FGM, a movement spearheading a campaign to end FGM amongst the Bohras has also started a signature petition appealing to the Government of India to pass a law banning FGM in India

FGM is a criminal offence in the state of Michigan and in the other states of America. Interestingly, on 11 May 2016, the Detroit Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat, Anjuma E Najmi had issued a resolution which clearly stated that the practice of khatna/khafz comes under the US state definition of FGM and is hence, banned. The resolution also said that law of the land should be followed and hence advised parents to abstain from FGM/khatna.

Clearly, this resolution was an eyewash and Bohras continued to practise FGM – as is evident from the Detroit case. The fact remains that Bohras owe complete allegiance to the Syedna and every word uttered by his holiness is gospel.

In April 2017, the Syedna himself stated in a sermon in Mumbai that khatna for girls must be done. The Times of India quoted a translation of a recording thought to be from his sermon:

It must be done. If it is a man, it can be done openly and if it is a woman it must be discreet. But the act must be done. Do you understand what I am saying? Let people say what they want…they say?…that this is harmful? Let them say it, we are not scared of anyone.

The WHO’s Word

The world’s leading health body, the WHO categorically states that there is no medical benefit of FGM – on the contrary, it causes irreversible bodily, sexual and psychological harm.

Due to the nature and consequences of FGM/C, it is also a violation of the human rights of women and children. It infringes on the right to life and physical integrity, the right to health and the right to freedom from torture, cruel and unusual treatment, and violence. Since FGM/C is mostly practised on girls below the age of 18 years, it is also a violation of rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 (UNCRC) and violates the guarantee of non-discrimination. Hence FGM cannot be justified as a cultural or religious practice.

What is really ironic is that the community which prides itself on being educated and sophisticated continues a medieval practice which harms the girls and their very social fabric.

(Masooma Ranalvi is Convenor, Speak Out On FGM)