If there were any issue that Republicans and Democrats could agree on in the current, brutal political climate, one might think it would be female genital mutilation and the need to ban it.
Not a chance.
In Minnesota, a bill that would ban the practice, known as “female circumcision” in places such as Somalia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere in the Third World, was passed overwhelmingly in the House but died in the Senate.
Now in Maine, a similar bill, LD 745, is being put up for a second vote in the state house after failing in late June. The state Senate passed the bill but the House rejected it, forcing another vote on an amended bill set for July 20.
In both states, it is primarily progressive Democrats pushing back against the criminalization of FGM. Many have even refrained from calling the practice what it is – female genital mutilation – opting for the more sanitized “genital cutting” or “female circumcision.”
The issue of FGM has been front and center since two doctors – Fakhruddin Attar and Jumana Nagarwala – were arrested in April in the Detroit area and charged with mutilating the genitals of two 7-year-old Somali girls, who were delivered to the doctors by their parents in Minnesota.
In the Detroit case, the attorney for Nagarwala has already announced she will argue her client’s case on the basis of religious freedom – that it is her client’s right to carry out the procedure on little girls because it is part of their religious beliefs and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment.
Federal prosecutors have said the two young Somali victims represent the “tip of the iceberg” and that upward of 100 girls have likely been victimized by the two Detroit doctors.
“This reminds me of how quickly we lost the same-sex marriage issue,” observed former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. “We had a tiny window of opportunity to pass legislation on same-sex marriage, but society changed so quickly and accommodated what was always considered as wrong. As hard as it is to believe, people could be deluded by this argument [of religious freedom to perform FGM]. Legislators need to work fast.”
If passed, Maine would join 24 other states that already have similar statutes on their books.
But Democratic lawmakers are waffling on voting for the bill, many of them caving to pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has come out against anti-FGM bills in several states, including the one in Maine.
While the ACLU does “not support the practice of FGM, we do not believe that a criminal approach in Maine will contribute to any legitimate efforts to eradicate the practice,” said Oamshri Amarasingham in testifying before the state legislature’s Committee of Criminal Justice and Public Safety.
Sirocki and the bill’s other supporters are urging all Maine residents to contact their state lawmakers and urge them to vote “yes” on L.D. 745, for women and girls and against the ACLU.
The Detroit case is the first ever prosecuted under a 1996 federal law against female genital mutilation.
More than 513,000 girls and young women are at risk of FGM in the United States, almost all of them from immigrant families who entered the country from Third World, mostly Muslim nations such as Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan.
In the United Kingdom, another country with a high Muslim population, more than 5,000 cases of FGM were prosecuted last year. While the barbaric practice predates Islam and is not exclusively a Muslim practice, the majority of its practitioners today are Muslims who adhere to strict Shariah rules. Muhammad is reported to have referred to female “circumcision” in a hadith as a deterrent against promiscuity.
Maine is considered one of eight high-risk states because, like Minnesota and Ohio, it has a high concentration of Somali refugees. More than 99 percent of women in Somalia had their genitals mutilated by the time they are married.
Maine’s bill would criminalize FGM, making it a class-B felony to perform the procedure on someone under 18. It would also allow their parents or guardians to face child-cruelty charges.
Unlike male circumcision, there are no health or hygiene reasons for removing all or part of a girl’s genitalia, said the Maine bill’s sponsor, Rep. Heather Sirocki.
“There are absolutely no medical benefits at all to this type of procedure, and it is not similar to male circumcision,” said Sirocki.
She said Maine is a high-risk state, with MaineCare billing last year showing eight instances of providers treating problems resulting from FGM, such as infections and problems with urination, menstruation or sexual intercourse.
“The specific law is wanted by the Maine Prosecutors Association because there was some ambiguity around this and there was a case that failed on appeal because it was not specific enough,” said Sirocki. “The prosecutors really feel they need that clarity to specifically prohibit this and that’s what they’re asking for.”
The vote on legislation that would make female genital mutilation in Maine a crime could happen as early as July 20. Maine residents are being urged to contact their representatives in Augusta and press them to pass the bill to protect girls and women from the practice.
Sirocki said the state Senate has indicated it will amend the bill once more, then the House could bring a vote forward next week.
She added that citizens can reach out to Senate President Michael Thibodeau and urge him to retrieve the bill from the “dead file” and adopt Sen. Joyce Maker’s newest amendment. Reaching out to Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and other Democrat members of the House to urge support will also help make the law become reality, Sirocki said. Find contact information for House members by district here.
Public contact information for Senate President Michael Thibodeau:
- Email: Michael.Thibodeau@legislature.maine.gov
- State House office Phone / Senate President’s Office: (207) 287-1500
- Public contact information for Speaker of the House Sara Gideon
- Email: Sara.Gideon@legislature.maine.gov
- Business phone: (207) 287-1300
- State House message phone: (800) 423-2900
Even though FGM has been illegal in the U.S. since 1996, without a state law on the books, all crimes relating to FGM have to be prosecuted on a federal level.
“Federal prosecutors take a very small amount of cases,” Sirocki said. “The state of Maine deals with thousands of cases. If a situation would occur and this is the issue, if the federal government doesn’t have enough prosecutors, it doesn’t get prosecuted.
“This bill has been close to my heart for months,” she said. “The bill’s intent was simply a prohibition of child abuse, and it could serve as a deterrent.
“We could be and we should be sending a strong message to the affected communities that female genital mutilation is not legal in Maine. Period,” she continued.
Sirocki said her fellow lawmakers are using excuses for not voting for the bill, including that current laws already cover the abuse and that the practice is not happening in Maine.
“For those who remain unconvinced that this is happening here, I ask, ‘What harm is there in passing a law that is never used?’ I also ask, ‘What if it saves one little girl from experiencing the pain and suffering from this horrific crime?’ I hate the thought of little girls, living in our midst that may be subjected to this painful form of child abuse and assault. These little girls need our help. Please set your differences with me aside and help them.”
“Female genital mutilation is child abuse and an abomination for all those afflicted by it. Some seek to defend the mutilating of little girls by claiming that this cruel disfiguring must be allowed in America as a form of ‘religious practice.’ Legislators in Maine have an opportunity to establish unmistakably that no little girl living in their state can be maimed for any reason.
“It is simply intolerable that half the states in this nation, including Maine, still do not have laws protecting girls and women from this ghastly, involuntary disfiguring,” Yore added. “Hopefully, that will soon change.”