M. Arsalan Suleman (SFS’03) is a non-resident fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a counsel in Foley Hoag’s International Litigation & Arbitration practice. He is the former acting U.S. special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Ending the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) requires a comprehensive approach that includes education, advocacy, coalition building, and law enforcement. Religion has long been used as a justification for the practice, even though such claims are widely disputed from within those religious traditions themselves (I focus on Islam in this piece, though FGM/C is prevalent in other traditions as well). The practice, which predates Islam and is not practiced by most Muslims, has a long history rooted in cultural patriarchy. While law enforcement is an important tool to combat the practice, education and community-based advocacy will likely prove most influential in ending FGM/C.
The Michigan Case and Religious Freedom
The Michigan case shines a bright spotlight on the use of religious justifications for FGM/C. Because the Michigan defendants are asserting a religious freedom defense to the federal statute barring FGM/C (18 U.S.C. § 116), the government will have to prove that the prohibition is the least restrictive way of furthering a compelling government interest, as per the requirements of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (42 U.S.C. § 2000bb–1). The health of the child will be the most compelling government interest. There are a myriad of studies, including by the World Health Organization, documenting the severe short and long-term physical and psychological health detriments of the practice.
But the defendants claim to have used a less severe form of the practice, raising the question of whether banning the practice altogether is the least restrictive means of protecting the child’s health. On this issue, the court will look at the tangible and documented physical and psychological harms to the victims in this case, and perhaps to similarly situated victims as well. The fact that there are no health benefits whatsoever to FGM/C supports upholding the statute as drafted. The court also may resist any attempt to demarcate what form of FGM/C does or does not have physical and psychological health effects, given the speculative nature of such an exercise and the weight of medical information and opinion against the practice overall. It is worth noting, as a point of comparison, that there are well-documented health benefits to male circumcision, and very few studies documenting health harms.
Addressing Religion-based Justifications
Clarifying Religious Teaching on FGM/C
The outcome of the Michigan case will help clarify the RFRA legal standards at issue, but since the basis of the religious claim itself is not on trial, the case will not resolve the religious debate on FGM/C. Dialogue within communities is critical in exposing the dubious nature of religious justifications for the practice. Religious actors and community members can and must play a critical role in debunking the flawed opinions cited to support FGM/C. For example, significant religious authorities, like Al Azhar University in Cairo and the International Union of Muslim Scholars, have clearly condemned FGM/C as un-Islamic. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-member body that includes all Muslim-majority countries in the world, has a zero tolerance policy against FGM/C. At its heads-of-state summit in Istanbul in April 2016, the OIC called on all of its member states to ban the practice. Because FGM/C is a minority practice that is rarely discussed in public, many people are unaware of it and the weight of religious authority against it. Open discourse will help clarify such misconceptions.
Taking Advantage of Teachable Moments
Whenever misinformed views on FGM/C arise, like they did recently at the Dar al Hijra mosque in Virginia, it creates an opportunity for community members to speak out and educate others about Islam and FGM/C. That is exactly what happened—a broad coalition of religious and community leaders organized around the issue and produced a statement that clarified the un-Islamic nature of FGM/C and provided community members with access to organizations equipped to address issues arising from FGM/C and other sexual health-related issues. And even though the mosque’s board issued a statement rejecting FGM/C and expressing its concern over that particular imam’s comments, the mosque’s most prominent imam resigned because he felt the board did not go far enough to address the situation. This type of dialogue and activism on FGM/C—rare for Muslim communities in the United States—has helped raise awareness and disseminate education. The Michigan case provides for a similar opportunity for communities across the country.
Community-based Coalitions and Advocacy
Because FGM/C’s persistence is linked to a number of factors—cultural, religious, economic—coalition advocacy and education efforts are often the most successful. Social media has created space and opportunity to amplify the many voices within communities that are and have been working to end the practice. Last year, a joint U.S.-OIC panel discussion at the UN highlighted such efforts by organizations like Sahiyo, which focuses in particular on the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community (the Michigan defendants are members of that community). Religious and community leaders are also utilizing video messages to speak out against it.
When rights groups, development organizations, religious actors, and community organizers are able work together to combat this shared challenge, the likelihood of success is much greater. Many community organizations that are working on ending FGM/C, like Safe Hands for Girls, utilize this approach. During the Obama Administration, the State Department took a similar coalition approach in bringing various actors, like religious leaders and the OIC, together with community and rights organizations to unite around ending FGM/C. Another joint U.S.-OIC event at the UN provided a forum for these stakeholders to discuss best practices for ending FGM/C.
Efforts to “sanitize” and preserve “minor” forms of FGM/C pose a real risk of perpetuating the practice globally, including its most severe and extreme forms. Community-based education and advocacy—particularly when done in coalition with health professionals, religious actors, and other key stakeholders—are critical for bringing this harmful practice to an end.