Ilhan Omar’s Opportunity

The Minnesota congresswoman could take a bolder stand for some of her most vulnerable constituents.

Ilhan Omar stands in front of microphones.
Mary Calvert / Reuters

In July, at the Washington, D.C., conference of the Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy, Representative Ilhan Omar gave a heated answer to a question posed by a member of the audience. The woman had asked if Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib would be willing to make public statements condemning female genital mutilation. She said that given a recent court decision in Detroit that had found the only federal law against FGM unconstitutional, it could be “really powerful” if the two Muslim congresswomen would do so.

Omar listened quietly, a half-smile playing at her lips, and then she gave her answer. She called the question “appalling”; she said that it was “frustrating”; that she was “quite disgusted, really,” that “as Muslim legislators we are constantly being asked to waste our time speaking to issues that other people are not asked to speak to.” She suggested that FGM has become a particular litmus test for Muslim elected officials, one that puts assumptions about their religious and cultural identities ahead of full confidence in their American one. Should she keep a daily schedule, she asked rhetorically, in which she reminded herself that every single day she needed to condemn FGM, al-Qaeda, and Hamas? The audience began to applaud.

Omar told the questioner that she has given “statement after statement” on FGM, that she has “voted for bills” against it, including one she voted out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She said she wanted to make sure that the next time someone was in an audience looking at a Muslim representative, that the person would not come forward with “an accusation that we might support something that is so abhorrent, so offensive, so evil, so vile” as FGM. Her response brought cheers from the crowd.

It was a brilliant political move; it’s difficult to imagine anyone asking her about FGM anytime soon without being mindful of that moment. Excerpts from the exchange were widely posted by news outlets, including The Guardian and CNN; several progressive publications sided with the congresswoman. “Ilhan Omar Is Done Responding to Bigoted Assumptions About Her Beliefs,” read a headline in The Cut. The holder of this particular “bigoted assumption,” however, was not a closed-minded evangelical looking to demonize a culture she didn’t understand. She was Ani Osman-Zonneveld, the founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, looking for allyship from the two most powerful Muslim American women in government. Omar was aware of her identity because Zonneveld introduced herself before speaking. “I always introduce myself,” she told me on the phone a few days after the event, “because I don’t look Muslim, and I don’t wear the hijab.”

Zonneveld’s organization promotes human rights throughout the Muslim world, including LGBTQ inclusion, gender equality, and diversity. She has been outspoken about cruel practices that “have nothing to do with Islam,” such as stoning and FGM. In the first part of her question—the part that didn’t go viral—she asked Omar for an update on a bill she’d sponsored to sanction Brunei for imposing stoning as the penalty for homosexuality; that query produced not anger, but a plea for the audience “to help advocate for it.”

This is partly what made the harshness of her response to the FGM question notable—she was willing to talk about stoning, but outraged to be asked about genital cutting. I asked Zonneveld why she thought Omar became so dismissive of her on the matter of FGM, and she sighed: “It probably had to do with being worried about anti-immigration attitudes.” She said she understood this concern, but insisted that, nonetheless, “we have to keep hyper-focused on this issue. We have to defend the human rights of the girls.”

Was it wrong to ask Omar to join the fight against FGM? Not when you consider that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disproportionate number of girls at risk of FGM in the United States live in Omar’s Fifth Congressional District in Minnesota, which includes the largest Somali diaspora in the United States.

Omar was telling the truth when she said that she has made “statement after statement” condemning FGM. When discussing a bill before the Minnesota legislature, she averred that the practice is “heinous,” the “most severe form of child abuse.” She is not alone in using such harsh language. Many Somali officials, and officials belonging to the Somali diaspora, have similarly condemned the practice. Somalia’s provisional constitution says that “circumcision of girls is a cruel and degrading customary practice, and is tantamount to torture. The circumcision of girls is prohibited.” These are strong words, but they have had no reported effect on the rate of FGM in that country, where only 2 percent of women and girls escape the procedure.

After Omar’s election to Congress, a rumor went around the internet that while a state representative in Minnesota, she had voted against a bill prohibiting FGM in the state. This was not true. Omar voted in favor of the bill, which would have introduced felony criminal charges for parents who forced their daughters to undergo the procedure, and would have allowed Child Protective Services to remove the injured daughters from their parents’ care.

However, she had serious objections to the core aspect of the bill. “What I would have liked to have been done is for us to advocate for their parents to be charged with the laws that are currently in place,” she said—although no Minnesota laws were in place that punished parents specifically for FGM. There was only an as-yet-untested federal law that would later be found unconstitutional on the grounds that the matter was best left to the states. “What I would have liked,” Omar said, “for this bill to actually propose is what kind of level of charges that we would like to see brought up.” But what level of charges would be too much for a procedure that she had publicly called “the very worse form of child abuse”? She objected to barring the state from returning children to their parents’ homes if those parents arranged for them to be cut, questioning what further harm might befall them, and she suggested that the bill was just an attempt for media attention on the part of its sponsor. On the day of the vote, according to the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Mary Franson, Omar sat in an office watching the vote on television. She entered the House floor only to cast her own vote in favor of the law, despite her reservations.

The bill failed to clear the state Senate, and did not become law, in large part because community groups representing the African diaspora in Minnesota objected to it. Isuroon, a nonprofit Somali women’s organization, argued that the penalties on parents were too harsh, and called the state efforts to eradicate FGM a “witch hunt.” The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage also opposed the law. Republican* State Senator Karin Housley, who wrote the counterpart bill in the Senate, told the Star Tribune that she had come to fear that the bill would force the state into the position of “Big Brother,” rather than allowing immigrant communities to solve the problem from within their own ranks.* And this is the only direct protection that the girls in Omar’s district have against parents imposing FGM: no specific state or federal law, just the recommendation of a white Minnesota legislator that the state “empower communities to address this practice from within.”

So this is where the matter stands in the American congressional district with the highest number of girls at risk of having their genitals mutilated. The feds have turned the matter over to the states, and in Minnesota there is no law specifically tailored to punish parents who allow this obscenity to be forced on their female children. The only hope of these girls lies in their “community.” In other words, we have allowed these girls—American girls, full citizens of this country—to be identified as “other.” We have done to them exactly what Omar claims she does not want done to her: allowed their racial, ethnic, and religious identities to supersede their American one. And it is a profound shame on all of us.

There is no room in this country, not one inch, for these gruesome practices. Nothing—not a witless respect for the cultural traditions of others, not a craven impulse to avoid looking intolerant—nothing should stop us from protecting every single American girl from being abused in this manner. Nothing should stop us from unequivocally prohibiting this kind of savagery, least of all the absurd insinuation that to do so would be somehow racist or ethnocentric. We do not reject FGM because it is practiced primarily by dark-skinned people, or because it is often erroneously presented as an Islamic commandment. We reject FGM because it is barbarism.

We have planted every flag we have in the name of civilization, and it is time to plant one now. America is the inheritor of that long tradition that slowly, over centuries, produced John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Abigail Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr. Want to fight the patriarchy? Look no further than Somalia, where women are disbarred from making every major decision, including that most delicate and tender decision of how to manage one’s own fledgling sexuality. The Somalis take that right from 98 percent of their girls when they cut them open and rip away parts of their vagina. But this is America. These are our girls. And we don’t do that here.

* This article originally misidentified Karin Housley as a Democrat.