Lawyers will argue in a landmark trial that female genital mutilation is a right under religious freedom protected by the First Amendment. Two Detroit doctors and one of their wives are facing multiple federal charges for cutting two seven-year-old girls.
Defense lawyers will argue the doctors didn’t cut the girls’ genitalia and only scraped it, and that the government’s prosecution is culturally and religiously insensitive and their clients were practicing their beliefs, according to the Independent.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been banned in the US since 1996. The practice involves removing part of the clitoris or clitoral hood, and is common in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The case is being watched by First Amendment scholars, although many think it will largely rest on scientific evidence.
“It is hard for me to imagine any court accepting the religious freedom defense given the harm that’s being dealt in this case,” First Amendment expert Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading constitutional law scholar, told the Detroit Free Press.
The question for jurors will rest on whether the children were harmed. If they were, experts say, the religious freedom defense won’t stand.
The case against the defendants dates to at least February, after the FBI received information that the procedure was being performed at the Livonia clinic in Detroit. Court documents do not indicate the source of the information. Agents were watching the clinic when they saw the two girls and their mothers arrive.
The girls, both from Minnesota, later told investigators their mothers said they were going to Detroit for “a special girls’ trip,” according to court documents filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
The government argues the two girls had scarring and abnormalities on their clitorises and labia minora.
One of the girls told investigators after the procedure “she could barely walk, and that she felt pain all the way down to her ankle.”
Dr Jumana Nargarwala, 44, is alleged to have carried out the practice on young children aged six to nine for 12 years. Dr Fakhruddin Attar, 53, is accused of letting Nargarwala use his clinic to carry out the procedure, while his wife Farida Attar, 50, is accused of holding the hands of at least two victims during the cutting procedures to comfort them.
The three belong to the Dawoodi Bohra, an Islamic sect based in India, a “religious and cultural community” that investigators allege practices female circumcision on young girls.
A 2012 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that over 500,000 women and girls in the US were at risk of undergoing FGM.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers the procedure a violation of the rights of girls and women. Experts argue the practice creates physical harm, is damaging to mental and emotional health, and creates medical complications.
“According to some members of the Community (religious and cultural community that practices FGM) who have spoken out against the practice, the purpose of this cutting is to suppress female sexuality in an attempt to reduce sexual pleasure and promiscuity,” according to the complaint.
More than 200 million women and girls in 30 countries have undergone the procedure, according to the WHO.
“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children,” according to the WHO.
The three defendants were arrested in April and have been charged with three federal criminal counts including conspiracy, female genital mutilation and aiding and abetting.