By Maryum Saifee:
When most people think of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), they think of it as a cultural tradition happening in faraway places restricted to pockets of sub-Saharan Africa. FGM is rarely framed as a global issue, let alone something happening in the United States. With more research and data collection, we now know that FGM transcends race, religion, geography, and class.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 513,000 women and girls have undergone or are at risk of FGM in the U.S.. For me, this statistic isn’t just a number. It’s personal. As an American survivor of FGM, I know first-hand the lifelong physical and psychological impact.
I was seven years old when it happened to me. I was staying with my aunt over summer vacation. She bribed me with a chocolate bar if I followed her down to her basement clinic. And without warning, I was cut. The memory was so traumatic I blocked it out for years. A decade later, I was sitting in an anthropology class at the University of Texas when a fellow classmate described her research project. It happened to be on FGM. That’s when the memories flooded back in graphic detail. I later found out she carried this out without my parents’ consent.
Due to the culture of silence surrounding the issue, it is often a struggle for American survivors of FGM to not only speak out, but be heard. Last November, a district judge in Detroit overturned the federal ban on FGM in the U.S.. This now means that nine girls who were transported across state lines (from Minnesota and Illinois to Michigan) will not see justice. And this also means that states that have not criminalized FGM will become destination states for cutters — women like my aunt — to practice FGM free from consequence. Horrified by the federal ruling, my brother Abid launched a change.org petition to ban FGM in his home state of Washington, which I urge you to sign and circulate.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF), as part of its mission to promote freedom from violence, has been supporting fellow FGM survivors and human rights campaigners like Manal al Sharif and Leyla Hussein, in raising transnational awareness of this horrific human rights abuse. As part of Manal’s Freedom Drive across the U.S. to raise awareness on human rights abuses in her home country of Saudi Arabia, she is also using her public platform to advocate for states in the U.S. that haven’t banned FGM to do so. During her stops in Birmingham and Charlotte, she is meeting with civil society leaders, journalists, and local activists to shine a spotlight on the issue and push for state bans in Alabama and North Carolina.
As an anti-FGM campaigner who is currently on a year-long Council on Foreign Relations fellowship placement with the organization, I have been most impressed by HRF’s ability to connect campaigners across borders on common issues to create tangible impact, in this case catalyzing momentum for anti-FGM state bans here in the U.S..
Maryum Saifee is currently a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow based at the Human Rights Foundation. She is writing in her personal capacity as an FGM survivor.