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Girls & Women

Michigan Doctor Denies Performing FGM, Says It Was ‘Religious Practice’

@igeldard via Twitter

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, the 44-year-old Michigan doctor arrested and charged with mutilating the genitals of multiple young girls, claims she performed a religious practice and that it involved no cutting. 

Her attorney, Shannon Smith, argued this in court Monday in Michigan in the first federal case of FGM since the practice was outlawed in 1996.

Smith claims Nagarwala, an emergency room physician who has been placed on administrative leave from Henry Ford Hospital, did not use cutting to remove a layer of skin from the genitals of the two alleged victims, both 7-years old girls. Smith said Nagarwala “wiped off” the outer membrane of skin with a “scraper” cover in gauze, which she gave to the parents to bury as part of a cultural and religious ceremony. She said there was no mutilation or blood involved.

Read More: For First Time Ever, US Doctor Facing Federal FGM Charges

“This is part of the culture,” said Smith in court Monday during a bail hearing. She also said the procedure was religious. 

Nagarwala is part of the Dawoodi Bohra community, a small group of Shia Muslims that grew out of India. It is also one of the only remaining Muslim sects in India where FGM is a known cultural practice according to Vice News. Both victims’ families are members of the Bohra community, according to federal investigators

But the prosecution disagrees with that defense. 

"She knew that this was illegal but did it anyway," federal prosecutor Sara Woodward said in court. 

The federal judge in court also pressed Nagarwala and her attorney as to why she performed the procedure after hours with no billing or documentation. 

Take Action: Raise Your Voice to Protect Girls and Women

The United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization also disagree with Nagarwala’s claim. Both organizations have stated that no religion or culture can condone FGM, and the WHO states there are no medical benefits and that the practice is a violations of human rights. 

endfgm.PNGImage: Twitter

Female genital mutilation is illegal in the US. In addition to the federal ban, 24 states have laws against the practice, including Minnesota, the home of the two victims in this case. 

Minnesota state law against FGM specifically states that neither parental consent nor cultural or religious reasons can excuse FGM, according to Equality Now. 

In the case against Nagarwala, the two victims were transported from Minnesota, where it is illegal, to Michigan, which has no state law against FGM. The gap in state laws led federal prosecutors to bring charges, making it the first federal case against FGM and a landmark case for girls, women, and human rights.  

Nagarwala was also charged with transporting an individual with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity (FGM), and lying to a federal agent, who investigated after an anonymous tip-off. With these charges added to the FGM charge, which carries a five year maximum prison sentence, Nagarwala is facing between 10 years and life in prison. She pleaded not guilty to all charges. 

After hearing evidence U.S. Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub ruled that Nagarwala poses a threat to the community, and will be held in jail while she awaits her trial starting April 27

“Minnesota is a small community; nobody performs the procedure over there,” Isufali Kundawala, a member of the Bodha community who now lives in Dallas, Texas, told The Detroit News. “The closest thing is Detroit, and members get to know this by talking to other members of the community who tell them, ‘Hey, this is a doctor who can perform it, so please come over here.’ 

FGM, known as khatna to the Bohra community, is a divisive topic. While some are against FGM, it does occur in the community, Hindu Times reports. But there is still a culture of secrecy and taboo around the issue. 

Read More: Why Medicalization of FGM Is a Serious Threat to Girls 

Activism combined with legal reform to protect girls and women, like Global Citizen and CHIME FOR CHANGE’s Level the Law campaign, can spark change and protection for future generations of girls.

“Laws play a very essential role in bringing about social change. Gender reforms are slow and hard-fought, even more so when they involve ancient, archaic and cultural practices of a secretive and closed community like the Dawoodi Bohras,’’ Dilshad Tavawalla, a child protection attorney told Hindu Times. 

And seeing these laws put into action is an encouraging step toward ending sexual violence and abuse against women.