Muslim Reformers Dr. Zuhdi Jasser and Shireen Qudosi Discuss U.S. FGM Trial
Zuhdi Jasser: This is Zuhdi Jasser sitting in the chair for Seth and Chris, who are away today. Thank you for joining me in our last hour now. A major federal case in Detroit had some big news out this this week of a charge that was dropped. I’d like to introduce all of you to Shireen Qudosi. Shireen is the Director of Muslim Matters with America Matters. I want to tell all of you what they’re doing. It is unbelievable work and I’ve been honored to be part of their coalition.
America Matters launched a campaign against FGM or female genital mutilation, one of the most horrific yet rampant crimes against young girls, done globally. The campaign is called #StopFGM and it’s driven by their CEO Samantha Nerove, a veteran. A diverse coalition of survivors, activists, medical professionals, writers, scholars, men and women with unique backgrounds who came together to amplify their voices to stop FGM in the United States. You can follow their campaign on Twitter at @StopFGM.
Shireen, welcome to the program. I want you to begin by educating us a little bit and reminding us about the cases of the physicians in Detroit, and then we’ll get people updated about what happened a couple weeks ago, where one of the charges was dropped. Tell them about these doctors in Detroit and how much precedent is being set by their charges.
Shireen Qudosi: The Detroit FGM trial came into national headlines last year when American-born Muslim emergency room physician Dr. Jumana Nagarwala—who by the way was educated at Johns Hopkins Medical School and is from the Dawoodi Bohra community—practiced FGM on two seven-year-old girls. In what can be described as back alley, after-hours, behind-closed doors, she performed this on-site at a medical clinic owned by another Muslim doctor in the community. The two little girls were brought in by their parents across state lines for female genital mutilation. It has irreparably mutilated them. It has destroyed their ability to feel the most sensitive parts of themselves. Even as they marry later in life, they will be completely prevented from being intimate fully, even with their own husbands. Now what is more damaging for me when I read the statement from the girls, as a woman and as a mother, is that these little girls don’t even understand what happened to them. They’ve been made to be sexualized while they’re still in their childhood. These girls believed something was wrong with their tummy and they had to go to the doctor for that. These girls trusted their parents and they were brutally, brutally cut.
Zuhdi Jasser: And I think what’s important for people to understand is if you look at the World Health Organization and other descriptions, they have five types of this act [FGM] that are done. Some will say, “Well you know, Type 1 is the most severe and Type 5 is mild and includes just a little knick that they try to minimize as being no different than male circumcision. But at the end of the day, the bottom line is that it’s all mutilation.
There is no way to do a procedure on a seven-year-old let alone a newborn young girl – that’s number one. Number two, the intent of these procedures and there were interviews done by local media in Detroit, and their local Fox stations and also a few other local stations where they talked to the community there, and they said, “Well, you know the Dawoodi Bohra community and it’s a marginal sect.” But if you look actually at the procedure done, while some are done by non-Muslim communities across Africa and elsewhere, this is not specific to that one community. That community had a network of ability to have physicians because it is more tribally networked, if you well, because of its heterodoxy. But at the end of the day there was an imam in Northern Virginia who only few months ago talked in a sermon where he legitimized FGM, and said that women are born hypersexual and women need to have this procedure done to normalize their sexuality.
Shireen Qudosi: I’m glad you brought this one up. One of our coalition members is from the Dawoodi Bohra community, a survivor herself, doing incredible work. I spent an hour this morning talking to Ammar Karimjee who is well-known as an activist, a male coming from the Dawhoodi Bohra community of women who have had this done to them. He’s also speaking out. This is being pushed back against the community, beyond even the Dawdoodi Bohra community. The best example I can give you, the most poignant example for an American audience, is the Maasai warrior community. The Maasai are pushing back against this happening in their tribe, and what’s so special about them is that the Maasai are the most authentic to origin of their tribalism. So they haven’t changed that much over the years, and yet they’re really aggressively pushing back against this aspect of their culture.
There was a story today in the New York Times about a Maasai girl who helped 50,000 girls escape cutting. So when we just celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’re still ignoring the conversation of what slavery and oppression looks like today in the larger part of the world. In the states, we can’t even decide if this [practice of FGM] is wrong or not. And as a developed nation, we haven’t even hit the basic threshold of this question yet, whereas a 17-year-old girl from the Maasai girl is helping 50,000 girls escape cutting. Meanwhile we’re twiddling our thumbs wondering whether this racist, or a cultural practice, or a religious practice — and all it is is a ritualistic tradition that needs to die off. And I think, Zuhdi, that’s what 21st century freedom looks like: the right to escape ideology, rituals and culture, and to emerge as an autonomous free-thinking individual who [in this case] can recognize their sexuality as an extension of their voice. The Maasai are a good example of people fighting to alter their culture without losing their identity. That’s the thing that you see in Dawoodi Bohra communities, the thing that you see in many other communities that transcends ethnicity, race, and religion.
Zuhdi Jasser: And I think people should not be deceived by thinking this bizarre and misogynistic practice belongs to one specific sect. That imam in Virginia—I don’t even know if he was fired yet, he should have been fired—they tried to walk back his sermon. The walked back his sermon because of a video that was posted. And this was a Sunni so-called mainstream imam. It wasn’t from a Dawoodi Bohra or any other community. This is a real problem and prevalent and I think Muslims need to own it to prevent it. Hats off to the prosecutors who devoted a lot of resources over time to gathering…This was a crime done across state lines. Kids were being funneled in from Minnesota and elsewhere from families who were trying to get this done in Detroit where they found a couple doctors who had an after-hours set-up where it was done.
This week, Shireen, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman granted a defense motion to dismiss a conspiracy charge alleging Dr. Nagarwala and Dr. Attar transported minors to Detroit with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. The news reports said that while female genital mutilation is a federal crime, the allegations do not constitute criminal sexual activity. We can have that kind of debate, but what’s significant about this dismissal of this one charge?
Shireen Qudosi: I’m not a lawyer, and we have activist lawyers on our coalition looking into this. The judge passing this [dismissal] tells me he’s not very well informed on the issue. You have already sexualized the child when you perform FGM. She’s still a child, but they’re looking at this child as a woman. What’s more alarming is that female genital mutilation is a conveyor belt to the normalization of domestic violence and abuse. It leads to (very often) forced marriage, so this is a very connected issue. When I spoke to [FGM] survivors when this ruling came out, they were in tears Zuhdi. They were in tears, not understanding how anyone could not see this as a sexual activity or a sexual crime.
Zuhdi Jasser: The bottom line is many precedents in the case will be used for others.
Zuhdi Jasser: The two doctors are no longer in jail, right? They had their bail posted to the account of a million dollars [$4.5m bond] by somebody right?
Shireen Qudosi: The doctor [Nagarwala] did, yes.
Zuhdi Jasser: Unbelievable. So their bail was posted and hopefully they have ankle bracelets on. At the end of the day, these so-called physicians committed horrific crimes against young girls that were trafficked from Minnesota and elsewhere. They committed this procedure which they call female circumcision, but it’s more like female genital mutilation. And the charge, one of the charges of criminal sexual activity was dropped. Before the break we were talking about what that can mean, as this case sets a lot of precedent.
Let me set the frame, if you will. Right now a lot of narrative about the threat of Islamists groups is coming out of the evidence that was challenged or unchallenged in the Holy Land Foundation Trial in 2008. That was one of the first trials that ended up (after a second try) convicting six board members for funneling money to Hamas. And a lot of the evidence released by the DOJ, and the FBI and other testimony ended up being used in America as being either unindicted co-conspirators or involved in the network of Islamist groups. So this case and this trial, which is due to happen in a couple months, I think, and Shireen can update us on that. I think some of the things that happened here are important for us to pay attention to, whether it happened in Phoenix or anywhere across the country.
Shireen Qudosi: Yeah, absolutely. The trial is coming up in June. It was postponed from October to November and now it’s coming up in June. So what I’d really like to do is empower your listeners. Your listeners who are naturally going to be very, very, supportive of what we have to say and they’re here listening to us. They’re going to go back and engage with people with a different ideology who will say “Oh this is Islamophobia, or this is racist” or what not. And the best way I can empower the listeners is if you go look at what’s going on in our country right now, the polarity in terms of the DACA ruling—the coldness of the law and reality these families face in the pain of separation. So everyone is seeing this, especially the one coming out of Oakland. And it’s really hard to ignore the video when you see the dad being separated from this family. On the same note, there is a disconnect between the clinical way this judge is looking at the federal FGM statute, deciding that it is not a sexual activity, versus the reality these young girls face from being permanently cut off from themselves. That is what media is not showing you, and that is the reality. So if they can show empathy for people being separated from their families temporarily, we need to have empathy for young girls who are cut off, their genitalia is cut off. They will never get that back. The media doesn’t show the survivor stories. The media does not cover the reality of what these girls are facing. These girls don’t have their voice. It is up to us to be their voice.
Zuhdi Jasser: And I think the judge ignorantly…how many of the judges, Shireen, have we pulled out hair out, listening to the judge tell a family, “Oh this is not an honor crime.” As we saw here in Phoenix, Noor Almaleki was killed because her father because she decided to date and do things her parents supposedly didn’t approve of. And he killed her. And the judge decided in the ruling, “Oh this is not an honor crime. He didn’t honor anyone. I’m not going to call it that.” When in fact, by denying that it was an honor crime, that judge actually gave oxygen to the Islamists and others to honor things that are horrific.
So I think at the end of the day, the judges don’t realize that just because the intent of the physicians wasn’t directly sexual—if anything it was anti-sexual—by them taking this out of the mix and denying the fact the the procedure is actually done to de-sexualize women and by removing it, they’re denying that fact. They are disempowering reformers, disempowering those of us working on the frontlines of universal human rights.
Shireen Qudosi: Yeah, Zuhdi. This is what I like to call the paradox where people are so concerned with cultural sensitivity. But genuine sensitivity is understanding the brutal reality, the underbelly of our culture. Our cultures are beautiful but they’re also archaic and stuck in a really primitive era. That is the work of reform, that is the work of progressive activists trying to shed light on the issue, trying to evolve. So when judges pass rulings like this, they’re not doing any sort of service or credit to the activists, for example the one I spoke to this morning from the Dawoodi Bohra community who has spoken out even as a male, he’s gotten death threats from his own community Where’s our protection? Where is our piece in The Atlantic? Where is our program with Don Lemon. When is that going to get covered if we’re going to be honest about cultural sensitivity.
Zuhdi Jasser: You know, I think, as we hear the president declare today Religious Freedom Day. People sometimes are stymied because the response from the attorneys here, the attorneys for the so-called physicians, are saying that this was a simply religious freedom procedure of female circumcision. And under the guise of religious freedom, the rest of Americans, even on the conservative side, are saying “Wait a minute, is this going to be a slippery slope?”
Even with other procedures we’re seeing for example, the Jewish community is seeing their rights to circumcision and other things that have been done for thousands of years being taken away under the guise of human rights. And I think this is very different. We’ve seen some differences, for example with Alan Dershowitz, who bizarrely has come to the defense of one of the defendants. He claims he’s simply a consultant, but I think at the end of the day, we have to be careful with the moral equivalencies between male and female procedures as this [FGM] is not done simply as circumcision but as desexualization and mutilation.
Shireen Qudosi: Yeah, and if can speak, and obviously you have that medical background, you can speak about it much more clinically. But if I can speak just really plainly as a woman and as sort of a Millennial stil, is having male circumcision doesn’t prevent a man from having an erection. Whereas having female circumcision, or FGM, or female genital cutting – whatever you want to call it – having that prevents us from even wanting to be intimate.
One of our coalition members is an Egyptian lawyer [Reda Eldanbouki] who has won the three counts of FGM cases in Egypt, and he is a man who speaks honestly. FGM is not just something that affects a woman; it affects men too. It inhibits their ability to have really deep and meaningful relationships with women. So it really comes down to that there’s no comparison. You are robbing of their women to feel. You are silencing their voices sexually. The closest I could say is female circumcision or FGM is like castrating women. That’s the closest example I can give that is very plain and honest.
Zuhdi Jasser: And in honor of religious freedom, we want the religious freedom of every young girl born in the United States to choose for herself what she does and does not do, and how she expresses that. And FGM prevents that.