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Speaking Out Against FGM


A district judge ruled last November that a federal ban on female genital mutilation, or FGM, is unconstitutional. And at a Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy conference last week, the issue came up once more when Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar was asked to make a statement about the practice. She called the question, quote, "appalling."


ILHAN OMAR: As Muslim legislators, we are constantly being asked to waste our time speaking to issues that other people are not asked to speak to because the assumption exists that we somehow support something that is so abhorrent, so evil, so vile.

SIMON: Many applauded her response. But Maryum Saifee, a survivor of FGM, told us that Representative Omar shouldn't have rejected the question, especially since some of the girls in the case who were mutilated are from Minnesota.

MARYUM SAIFEE: This is a missed opportunity because the issue of female genital mutilation is often not discussed in public fora. So I felt it was really important as a representative of a state where girls were affected by this particular case to use the opportunity as a way to elevate the issue. As a survivor, it really - it was hard for me to sort of - on the one hand, I empathize that there are double standards and it's exhausting to condemn for the sake of condemning. But in this particular case, it was relevant and it was timely and it actually affected her constituents directly.

SIMON: You've been challenged, and worse, among a lot of people who know you - haven't you? - for being so outspoken.

SAIFEE: Right. I wrote a piece recently called "The Double Bind" that a lot of, you know, activists across different communities - it's not specific to the Muslim community - but, you know, they were actively kind of fighting against anti-Muslim bigotry on the one hand, but we're also fighting misogyny within our own communities. And so for me, it was hard. The backlash I got was really, you know, from folks that are - that I consider friends, that are allies. And I understood their broader, you know, sentiment that this is something - you know, we're dealing with so many other issues. You know, why do we have to elevate this? And it's because nobody talks about it.

And the reason, you know, I spoke out and told my story a few years ago - and it was hard to do. It's not easy, you know, to be kind of branded as a survivor of this kind of squeamish topic. But it's because if I don't say something - my father was the one, actually, who told me, you've got to speak up because if you're upset, it's not being framed, or people don't know this, that and the other, you have to say something. And I realized when I started to speak out that many folks, you know, because sometimes it is politicized as an anti-Muslim issue and some groups will hijack your story for their own purpose, but it doesn't give the community a free pass to say, I'm not going to work on the issue.

You know, it's really difficult. It's hard for survivors to speak out. And I think she inadvertently - I don't think she intentionally did this - you know, created an environment that will now silence many survivors.

SIMON: Are you at all concerned that if there were to be federal and individual state laws that would forbid FGM, some people would begin to see it as a religious right?

SAIFEE: I mean, FGM is something that transcends race, religion, geography, class. You know, up until the 19th century, it was considered a cure for hysteria, and it was indigenous to the United States and Europe. So this is something that's sort of been part of our history for a long time. I feel that what needs to happen is that we need to reframe FGM as an issue that's - essentially, it's a human rights issue. It's a form of, you know, systematized child sexual abuse with a sharp object. It's terrible. And I think that's what needs to happen is that this particular issue needs to be framed under human rights and child protection.

When we think of FGM, we think of a faraway, you know, sort of place maybe in a village somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. But, no, it's happening right here across different communities, recent immigrants and those that have been here for generations. There's very low literacy on this issue. People have many ideas of what FGM is, where it happens, why it happens. And we need to speak and say that this is happening, and it really is a crisis.

SIMON: Maryum Saifee, who is a survivor of FGM based in the United States, thanks so much.

SAIFEE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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