Female Circumcision Comes to America

Performed by new immigrants, veiled in deference to a cultural tradition of the developing world, female circumcision is becoming an American problem

IT is a late-summer night, nearly midnight in Washington, D.C., when the taxicab comes for Mimi Ramsey. She steps into it with a worried look in her eyes and her mouth firmly set. She is on her way to yet another stranger's house, where she will again—for the umpteenth time in the past year—talk about the most personal and most secret of African customs, offering herself as a sort of human roadblock in the traffic of tradition.

At the house Ramsey is kissed on both of her cheeks by her hostess, an Ethiopian immigrant like herself, and ushered into a dimly lit living room decorated with rugs and cloths from their homeland. There she spends the next several hours huddled together with the young mother, Genat, talking in conspiratorial whispers.

"Mother says she will do it anyway, herself—when I'm out of the house—if I don't agree to get it done soon," Genat confides to the woman she hopes will help her. "She says she will take a razor blade and do it." Ramsey nods. She has heard this story many times before, and responds by reciting a long list of reasons why the older woman must be stopped, trying to give Genat the courage to buck tradition and disobey her mother. "You cannot let her do this to your child. Please. It is wrong. You know how painful it is. How damaging. Your daughter may hate you for life for what you allow to happen to her."

Genat shakes her head. She doesn't want her baby girl, just born in this country, to be circumcised, as is customary in her native land, but her mother is adamant.

"She believes in it so strongly," Genat says. "She said if I don't do these things, the girl will grow up horny. She'll be like American girls. And how will I be able to go back to work if my mother is not here to care for my child?"

It is not until many hours later, after a long, sleepless night and a fruitless morning discussion with the older woman, that Ramsey, discouraged, finally ends this peculiar house call. "Please send your mother home," she advises Genat. "Go on welfare if you have to, but don't let your mother stay in the house and do this to your baby."

TO Mimi Ramsey, a forty-three-year-old nurse who lives in San Jose, California, scenes like this one are increasingly familiar. An activist in a growing movement in this country to halt the practice of female circumcision—also called female genital mutilation, or FGM —she, among others, is trying not only to persuade her compatriots to end the practice but also to persuade America to address FGM as a serious health and human-rights issue. It is not an easy task. Even though the details of some of the extreme yet common forms of the practice are as horrifying to most Americans as Nazi human experimentation or brutal child abuse, documentation is hard to come by, and resistance to infringing upon the traditions and mores of another culture is difficult to overcome.

"We don't warn [immigrant] families that we consider this child abuse," says Catherine Hogan, the founder of the Washington Metropolitan Alliance Against Ritualistic FGM. "When you wrap this issue in the cloth of culture, you just can't see what's inside. This is a clear case of child abuse. It's a form of reverse racism not to protect these girls from barbarous practices that rob them for a lifetime of their God-given right to an intact body."

Americans who are aware of the practice, which has been performed on some 100 million to 130 million women and girls worldwide, assume that it is a fact of life only for girls who live in faraway places—a form of barbarism that doesn't touch American homes, schools, or doctor's offices. This is simply not true. As more and more African immigrants move to this country, bringing with them their food, practices, and traditions, perhaps hundreds more daughters of African parents are circumcised in the United States every year.

Many of the immigrant mothers who are making these decisions about their daughters know little or nothing about their own anatomy. They are told that if the clitoris is left alone, it will grow and drag on the ground; that if their daughters are left uncircumcised, they will be wild, and will crave men; that no man from their home country will marry them uncircumcised (although many African men say that they prefer uncircumcised women for sex and marriage); that circumcision aids in menstruation and childbirth (although the opposite is true in both cases); and that it is a religious—usually Islamic—requirement (although none of the major Islamic texts calls directly for FGM). And so these women and their husbands come to the United States filled with misinformation, and remain blindly dedicated to continuing this torturous tradition.

Azza, an Egyptian immigrant who moved to the United States fifteen years ago and now lives in Louisiana, plans to take her ten-year-old American-born daughter back to Egypt in a few months to have her circumcised. "They say it helps us control our emotions," she says. The thirty-three-year-old mother is confused about whether or not she wants to put her daughter through the procedure, first saying that she and her husband are not sure what they are going to do, and finally saying that it is up to him and the Egyptian doctors to decide.

Frequently families will chip in to bring someone from the homeland to the United States to perform circumcisions, because it's cheaper to import a circumciser than it is to send several girls abroad. A taxi driver in Washington, D.C., who hotly defends the practice says that he recently had his daughters circumcised that way. "I stood over her to make sure she cut enough," he says. "I wasn't going to let my daughters have those things!"

AS more and more immigrants from countries that practice FGM come to make their homes in Western countries, these countries are facing the task of confronting a custom that is rigidly adhered to and yet taboo to discuss. The United States has not given FGM the attention or the illegal status that many other nations have given it. The United Kingdom has a full-fledged and longstanding anti-FGM movement that involves the country's social-service agencies. France, Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, and Belgium all have outlawed the practice. The first attempt to prohibit FGM here died in the previous Congress. However, the legislation has been reintroduced by its original co-sponsors, Representatives Pat Schroeder, of Colorado, and Barbara-Rose Collins, of Michigan. Senator Harry Reid has proposed similar legislation in the Senate. Three states, New York, Minnesota, and North Dakota, have passed laws making the practice of FGM a felony unless it is medically necessary.

Knowing that federal legislation to deal with FGM is far from a certainty, a growing number of people are joining the battle to stop FGM in America. They want this country to start documenting the extent of the practice here and to use the courts and social services to put an end to it—an aim they're finding it difficult to achieve at a time when so many cities are struggling with other pressing issues.

"It's a serious problem in most urban centers in the United States," Hogan says. "There just hasn't been enough empirical documentation of it. But what we see when we see it, anecdotally or empirically, is just like incest was in its time—or child abuse. It's the tip of the iceberg."

Several recent events have helped to strengthen this movement. Probably the most high-profile of these were the publication of Alice Walker's novel on the subject, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the production of Walker's documentary film, Warrior Marks, which was shown in cities throughout the United States. Also significant was the well-publicized court case of a Nigerian woman living in Oregon who won asylum in this country by pleading that her daughters would be in grave danger of being forcibly circumcised if they were sent back to their homeland.

Women's-rights groups such as Population Action International, Equality Now, RAINBO, the Washington Metropolitan Alliance Against Ritualistic FGM, and the Program for Appropriate Technology and Health (PATH) and other groups form a loose information-and-activist network on FGM. More important, immigrant women who were circumcised as children have joined forces to fight the tradition among compatriots in this country.

Soraya Mire, a thirty-four-year-old Somali film maker who lives in Los Angeles, has been touring the country with her film Fire Eyes, which shows African children being circumcised. Asha Mohamud, a Somali who has worked as a pediatrician and who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, now directs several FGMprojects in Kenya and the United States for PATH. Mimi Ramsey has made it her avocation to visit African businesses and communities in this country and proselytize against FGM.

Ramsey typifies many who, after hearing about FGM in the media, have finally been able to talk about an experience long suppressed. For years she had gone to doctors for help with the aftereffects of her radical circumcision. For years doctors, either because they were stunned by what they saw or because they were trying to be culturally sensitive, said nothing to Ramsey about what had been done to her and simply prescribed various topical creams and jellies to ease her pain. But in February of last year all that changed.

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