The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a Bohra doctor on Michigan on Thursday for allegedly performing female genital mutilation on two seven-year-olds, in what might be the first such criminal case filed under a 1996 United States law that prohibits the procedure.
In its criminal complaint filed on April 12, of which Scroll.in has a copy, the FBI accused Jumana Nagarwala, 44, who works as an emergency room physician at a hospital in Detroit, of having used a clinic in Livonia, a city 32 kilometres outside Detroit, to perform female genital mutilation on several children aged between six and eight years between 2005 and 2017.
Nagarwala’s practice came to light after the FBI received information that Nagarwala had cut two seven-year-olds in February. After reviewing call and hotel records, the investigative bureau tracked down the two minors, who are members of the Bohra community living in Michigan.
According to one of the children’s statements to the FBI, their mothers brought them to Detroit for a “special girls trip” and were taken to a doctor’s clinic “to get the germs out”. The child stated that Nagarwala “pinched” her on the part she urinates from and was given a pad to wear after the procedure.
“Female genital mutilation constitutes a particularly brutal form of violence against women and girls. It is also a serious federal felony in the United States,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch in a release from the Justice Department. “The practice has no place in modern society and those who perform FGM on minors will be held accountable under federal law.”
The Dawoodi Bohra community is the only one in India known to practice female circumcision, which typically involves a cut or nick to the clitoral hood. The practice, called khatna or khafz within the community, is defined by the United Nations as Type-I female genital mutilation, which defines this type as including either the cutting of the clitoral hood or the partial or total removal of the clitoris, and is usually done to girls at a young age.
The practice is not yet illegal in India, but female genital mutilation in any form has been outlawed in several countries around the world, including the United States.
The maximum sentence in the United States for female genital mutilation as per federal law is up to five years in jail. However, 26 states, including Michigan do not criminalise it. The FBI has also charged Nagarwala with transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, a charge that they say applies to her because female circumcision in the Bohra community is said to be done to control female sexuality. The maximum sentence for this charge is up to ten years in jail.
Nagarwala has denied all charges against her.
First after Australia
The Detroit arrest comes almost a year after a Supreme Court in Australia sentenced a Bohra spiritual leader to 11 months in jail for trying to cover up the female genital mutilation of two sisters. The mother and nurse in that case, which was the first such in Australia, were also convicted and received sentences of home detention instead.
Bohras have an extensive global diaspora and their affairs are monitored by their spiritual leader in Mumbai, the Syedna, through anjumans, which are trusts appointed by the Syedna to guide the community in cities with significant Bohra populations around the world.
The Australia case was the first such prosecution against any member of the Bohra community and spurred anjumans around the world to issue statements last year to their congregations requesting them to comply with any local law prohibiting female genital mutilation or cutting.
The Detroit jamaat itself issued one such letter to its members on May 11 last year, according to Sahiyo, an organisation that has been campaigning within the community to end khatna, and Nagarwala is likely to have been aware of it.
“While the allegations in this particular case are yet to be proven, we believe it is a serious breach of medical ethics for any doctor to perform this non-medical procedure that is categorically recognised as a form of gender-based violence and a violation of human and child rights,” the organisation said in a statement on its blog, even as it called on the community leadership to unambiguously call for an end to the practice. “In countries like the USA where [female genital cutting] is a criminal offence, we believe that parents, too, cannot be absolved of the responsibility to follow the law.”
In recent years, people from within the Bohra community, including those affiliated with Sahiyo, have begun to speak up against the practice, but with limited support from the clergy, headed by the Syedna, who still classifies khatna as a religious obligation in at least those countries where it is legal. Several members of the community have come forward with testimonies of how they too were subjected to khatna even while living outside India.
“It’s a real shame to see someone like [Nagarwala] be so foolish and blind,” said Moiz Divan, a Canada-based accountant. “I don’t condone her actions, but I feel bad for her. Her unquestioning faith has ruined her life. Ultimately, it’s the cleric’s fault for propagating this idea.”