American News

Why Won’t Massachusetts Pass a Law to Stop FGM?

women's rights in America, girls at risk of FGM, US news, Massachusetts FGM bill, female genital mutilation in the West, women's rights, khatna, Isamaili branch of Shia Islam, US religious minorities, FGM US law

© Creative Family

June 30, 2018 07:58 EDT

They are still not listening to us. The bills and our stories sit on a desk, unheard, undiscussed and, worst of all, silenced.

Since 2012, the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association has been advocating for a state law that would protect girls from female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C). Yet to this day, no law has been put in place. It is estimated that over half a million girls and women in the United States are at risk of having some or all of their perfectly healthy external genitalia removed for non-medical purposes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Massachusetts 12th in the nation in terms of the number of women and girls who have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGM/C.

I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I am one of those women.

Growing up in a Dawoodi Bohra community, a religious sect within the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, I was told it was a sensitive topic, one reserved to be spoken about by women only. I thought FGM/C was normal, and I understood that I was not supposed to mention it in large gatherings or to those outside the Bohra community. What we did was special. It was tradition. It was called khatna.

Not until high school did I connect the dots and understand that khatna was female genital mutilation. After doing research on FGM/C online, it dawned on me that what I had been brought up to believe was a religious or cultural practice was in actuality violence and, because I was seven when someone cut off that piece of my clitoral hood, that it was child abuse.

In graduate school for social work, I carried out a research project to better understand how and why it continues in the United States. Most women I interviewed said it was used to control their sexuality. Nowadays, I hear from proponents of FGM/C that it is done for health and hygienic reasons, though there is no proof it brings any health benefits. In fact, FGM/C can cause physical harm including pain, bleeding, shock, tetanus, genital sores, and long-lasting psychological harm including sexual disorders, fear of sexual intimacy, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder.

My research helped me to understand that FGM/C was a tradition that for generations had been normalized and passed on. Over time, communities had learned to minimize the harm, and in doing so had unintentionally sanctioned violence in the name of culture or religion. It is imperative that we unlearn these toxic lessons.

This past year, the #MeToo movement encouraged women to openly talk about sexual harassment and assault that was a result of their gender. The ripple effect led to Time magazine crowning the #MeToo movement person of the year for 2017. I too tapped into the power of women’s stories and collected dozens from women living in the US who underwent FGM/C so that we could collectively submit testimony to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the judiciary proving that girls need protection here.

But even after all these women, including myself, have bravely shared our stories, and after law enforcement, two attorneys generals, six district attorneys, legal and medical professionals, child advocates and community groups stated their support for An Act to Protect Girls from Genital Mutilation — sponsored by State Senator Harriette L. Chandler during a hearing at the Massachusetts State house in October — the bill was sent to study, meaning most likely it will not move forward.

They are still not listening to us. The bills and our stories sit on a desk, unheard, undiscussed and, worst of all, silenced.

Massachusetts is considered to be a progressive state with respect to reproductive rights, anti-discrimination laws and equality issues. Our state is one of only 17 nationwide with public funding for abortion and one of only 20 states to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet I’ve been told that the reason the act will not move forward is that Massachusetts legislators lack the political will to recognize FGM/C as violence. The skeptic in me wonders if re-election has anything to do with their “political will.” There is a fear, a misconception that by passing this bill and saying FGM/C is illegal, we would be targeting existing vulnerable communities because FGM/C happens to Muslims, to immigrants, to those communities already targeted by the Trump administration.

My childhood comes back to me. The lessons of silence, of feigning ignorance, of keeping entrenched this violence, of passing it off as a cultural tradition. The Massachusetts legislature unknowingly teaches the same lessons. Like in my childhood, I am getting the sense that because cutting of a girl’s genitalia is connected to her religion and culture, we must tread carefully, we must not classify it as harm. We must ignore and keep quiet about the physical and psychological trauma that happens because this is tradition.

But by giving this justification is the Massachusetts legislature not just “othering” the issue? Does it imply that girls living in Massachusetts do not need protection? Historically, FGM/C has been performed on girls of all ethnicities, religions, economic statuses and education levels. Up until the 1950s, clitoridectomy was used to treat hysteria, mental illness, lesbianism and to stop masturbation. My friend Renee Bergstrom is one woman who submitted testimony that FGM/C was done to her in the Midwest, in Christian America, because at the age of three she touched herself.

I can’t help but wonder whether if FGM/C continued to be prevalent among white communities then Massachusetts would make it more of a priority to pass legislation to protect women. We should not and cannot sanction violence in the name of culture or religion. And we can’t protect all girls in Massachusetts unless we openly condemn female genital mutilation and recognize it for what it truly is — violence against girls.

By passing a law to ban female genital mutilation and cutting, the Massachusetts legislators would be telling us that they are listening to the women and girls living in their state, and that they are dedicated to empowering women, especially young and vulnerable girls who might be at risk for undergoing FGM/C. I hope for that to happen.

*[If you would like to support passing a law banning FGM/C in Massachusetts, please consider signing this petition – Ban Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Massachusetts.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Eagle9 /

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member