Thursday, November 02, 2006

Uh-Oh! A Dangerous Precedent - "Dad Gets 10 Years In Girl's Genital Mutilation"

Let me say at the outset that I am against female genital mutilation. However, this development, I believe, gives me some cause for concern.

This happened in Georgia. From the AP:
It has happened to 130 million women and girls around the world, the State Department has estimated, but Wednesday may have been the first time a U.S. court was called on to exact justice for one of them.

The victim, now 7, was just 2 when her genitals were cut, but she remembered the horrific act well enough to testify at her father's trial. He "cut me on my private part," she said, clutching a teddy bear in her videotaped testimony.

Khalid Adem was convicted Wednesday of aggravated battery and cruelty to children, though he had insisted he was innocent and denounced female genital mutilation, which is common in his homeland of Ethiopia.

His attorney, Mark Hill, asked that his client's culture be taken into account. "We don't quite understand it here, but in Ethiopia, it used to be the normal thing."

Superior Court Judge Richard Winegarden rejected that argument, sentencing Adem to 10 years in prison and describing his crime as "unimaginable."

"This child has suffered, will suffer, the rest of her life," he told Adem.

Prosecutors said Adem, 30, used scissors to remove his daughter's clitoris in his family's Atlanta-area apartment in 2001. The child's mother, Fortunate Adem, said she did not discover it until more than a year later.


The practice crosses ethnic and cultural lines and is not tied to a particular religion. Activists say it is intended to deny women sexual pleasure. In its most extreme form, the clitoris and parts of the labia are removed and the labia that remain are stitched together. Knives, razors or even sharp stones are usually used, according to a 2001 department report. The tools are frequently not sterilized, and often, many girls are circumcised at the same ceremony, leading to infection. It is unknown how many girls have died from the procedure, either during the cutting or from infections, or years later in childbirth. Nightmares, depression, shock and feelings of betrayal are common psychological side effects, according to a 2001 federal report.
It continues. Read it all.

I actually doubt the mother did not discover it until a year later. Didn't she change the two-year old girl's diapers? My guess is that she was probably complicit but did not want to be sentenced
as well.

Now, this is a cultural matter, but also a religious one. This female circumcision crosses cultural boundaries, but that does not mean it is not mandated by particular religions. I don't know whether they were Muslims, nor am I an expert on Muslim law, yet it seems that there is dispute about it, with some considering this practice mandatory, others considering it to be a minhag, and others considering it to not even reach that level.

Here is a writeup from answering-Islam. I will ignore their commentary since this site appears to be the equivalent of a come-and-hear for Islam. I would not assume that a translation to English for the purpose of Muslims is deliberately lying for Western audiences, but know well from my translation for Rif that translations from other languages can sometimes be quite nuanced - thus, the need for translator comments.

That website gives a citation from what appears to be a Shulchan Aruch for Islam called "Reliance of the Traveler":

Now, Sunna literally means "trodden path," and that and the context ("not obligatory but sunna") suggests that sunna is approximately equal to minhag, custom, the way things are normally done (and thus the path is trodden and worn down because of all the travelers). Sunna may have similar status as minhag in Judaism. Again, I am no expert in Islamic law. But it seems a three-way dispute. Is it obligatory? minhag? just a courtesy for the husband?

If so, we have the state at odds with religious practice, one that we and many others disagree with. And if so, it is a scary precedent in terms of religious freedom.

The Romans outlawed male circumcision, brit milah. This was not necessarily to wage war on Judaism and to oppress the Jews. The Romans worshiped the male human body, and mutilating it could have been considered sacrilege. Their values were telling them that this circumcision was wrong.

In the US and worldwide, there are activists campaigning against male circumcision, just as there are activists against female circumcision. These activists are not (necessarily) anti-religious, but rather they consider this gender mutilation that should be outlawed and punishable by law.

This is also part of what concerns me about the recent issue of metzitza be-feh in New York. While the danger to infants may very well be real (I am willing to grant that, though I am no expert on medicine, nor do I know how the likelihood of herpes infection increases), it is dangerous to the free practice of religion to:

a) have the State decide that certain religious practices are to be outlawed, for whatever reason
b) have groups declare that this is not actually mandated by religious law and therefore the State should have no compunction about outlawing or regulating it.

Indeed, I even agree that metzitza, let alone metzitza be-feh, is halachically unnecessary. One need not do metzitza, and there have been teshuvot allowing use of glass tubes, for example, to effect metzitza be-feh.

However, at the same time I realize that this is my opinion, and my religion. My religion is similar in many respects to Chassidim, but it is not the same religion. Sure, both are called Judaism, and are flavors of Judaism, and I would have no halachic/religious problem marrying into a Chassidic family (except of course that I am already married, so there are halachic problems related to the Cherem of Rabbenu Gershom). But what they consider halacha based on their religious authorities is different from what I consider halacha. I can claim they are wrong in their reading of the various gemaras, midrashim, rishonim and acharonim, but then they are practicing a different religion than me, and I have no right to dictate to them what their authentic religious beliefs are. (The same thing applies to other respects of brit milah such as the use of a local anesthetic. The same applies to the shechita controversy a while back. Etcetera.)

If one group can go to the government and proclaim that "X is not authentic Judaism" (or whatever religion) on behalf of a different group, while claiming that they are the same group, then there is enormous potential for the State to stifle unpopular religious practices.

Which may be a good thing. But I think it can be a bad thing.

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Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

While your analysis is astute, is protecting religion on the back of mutilated girls defensible?

Now, I am fully aware of the slippery slope and that one man's FGM is another man's MGM. The fact that *I* see a distinction between FGM and bris milah doesn't mean others, particularly the state will etc.

But where is the red line where we cannot be silent about what is being done as ostensible religious obligation, worrying that it will come back to bite us? Before or after honor killings?

As for MBP, what I think a lot of people who are against it wish is that there be recognition of the potential problem and an undertaking of personal responsibility for the communities which are required by their own religion (to use your term) to perform MBP. The thinking is that if they demonstrate their own personal responsibility and desire to perfect a method that can be considered more sanitary and shows that they recognize the problem then the state will not need to step in and we can avoid the precedent of state control of some aspects of bris milah.

joshwaxman said...

It's a difficult question. I don't think I do, but it still is difficult question.

To an extent, it is somewhat related to other examples of possible governmental overreach. For example, in the past many have had problems with the Patriot act with the types of powers it granted to the government to combat terrorism.

And while I supported the Patriot act, at various points some aspects of it were used by ambitious prosecutors against gangs, organized crime, and child molesters, if I recall correctly. And while in each of these cases, one can argue, "how can you say that you want to prevent curtailing of civil liberties at the expense of the children," it is uncomfortable erosion of civil liberties. And typically, it is the case that pulls most at the heartstrings that comes to court, but then precedent has been set, and precedent has a lot of force in the American judicial system.

On the other hand, we cannot give blanket excuse to anything permitted by some religion. For example, the slavery case that was in the news recently.

I agree with you about MPB that this is what a lot of people who are against it wish. But on the other hand, there are potential negative side effect of how they try to advance it. And then, there are also the scandal-mongers who make a lot of noise and love to do so, and do not care how it effects those other communities. (I'm thinking of a particular insane blogger, whose name I won't mention here.) And then there are the religious ethnocentrists, who think that because that is halacha for them and they are Jewish, the other Jews are simply wrong and illegitimate and must be stopped. (Consider, for example, the whole brouhaha about shlugging kapparot, with Sperber stepping in to defend the authenticity of this minhag.)

AlanLaz said...

It looks like names aren't always prophetic. It turns out that Fortunate Adem isn't so fortunate.


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