- Prosecutors revealed that Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who belonged to the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Mumbai-based sect of Shia Islam, was part of a secret network of Indian American physicians performing FGM procedures on minor girls who belonged to their small Indian Muslim sect.
Michigan doctor Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who is on trial on charges of performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on minor girls in the U.S., was part of a secret network of physicians performing the process, federal prosecutors disclosed last week. Prosecutors said Nagarwala, a former Henry Ford Health System emergency room physician in Detroit, “was part of a secret network of physicians in a tight-knit Indian community who were cutting 7-year-old girls across the country for years as part of a religious obligation and cultural tradition that had mothers and daughters traveling all over for the procedure,” reported the Detroit Free Press.
Nagarwala belongs to the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Mumbai-based sect of Shia Islam, who are said to practice a type of genital cutting called khatna, or khafz.
The prosecutors further revealed that “female physicians in California and Illinois were performing FGM procedures on minor girls who belonged to their small Indian Muslim sect,” the Detroit Free Press reported. They also alleged that Nagarwala traveled to the Washington D.C. area to perform FGM on as many as five minor girls there.
At the Sept. 16 hearing, Department of Justice attorney Amy Markopoulos told a judge that these doctors “were in demand,” per the Detroit Free Press report. “This was not a discrete, one-time occasion,” the report quoted Markopoulos as saying. It was not arbitrary,” she said, adding that “travel is often necessary to perform the procedure.”
During the trial, the defense sought to suppress evidence and have the 4-year-old case dismissed altogether. Nagarwala never harmed any child, they argue, but rather performed a benign procedure that involved only “scraping” — not cutting — of girls’ genitalia, according to the Detroit Free Press report.
FGM is the collective name given to several different traditional practices that involve the cutting of female genitals. The procedure is commonly performed upon girls between the ages of 4 and 12 as a rite of passage. In some cultures, it is practiced as early as a few days after birth and as late as just prior to marriage or after the first pregnancy.
The United Nations Population Fund, FGM refers to “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other nonmedical reasons.” Despite the fact that it is conducted for sociological, cultural, religious, hygienic and socioeconomic reasons, it is banned by law in at least 44 countries, including the United States. The World Health Organization considers the procedure a human rights violation and, estimates that 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone the procedure. More than 3 million girls in Africa are said to undergo FGM each year. The procedure has been illegal in the U.S. since 1996, and there are no medical benefits for girls and women, according to the World Health Organization.
According to Sahiyo, a group that aims to end genital cutting, Bohras have long considered khatna to be a religious requirement for women, even though it is rarely discussed by mosque leaders. The social pressure to have daughters undergo the procedure has been quietly passed down from woman to woman over generations, the group says.
Nagarwala is charged with performing FGM on nine minor girls from Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota. Prosecutors allege that nine girls — four from Michigan, two from Minnesota and three from Illinois — underwent FGM after hours at a Livonia clinic at the hands of Nagarwala. Her codefendants are Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, the owner of the Livonia clinic where the FGM allegedly took place; his wife, Farida Attar, who is accused of being in the room and holding the girls’ hands during the procedures, and Fatema Dahodwala, the mother of one of the alleged victims.
The 2017 case, the first to be brought under the 1996 law that criminalized female genital mutilation, was closely followed by human rights advocates and communities where cutting is still practiced and whose members have moved in growing numbers to the United States and other western countries.
In September 2017, Nagarwala was released from jail after five months on a $4.5 million unsecured bond. The amount posted was courtesy of supporters and well-wishers who had reportedly agreed to post assets or cash in order for her to be released pending trial. The bond is believed to be the largest ever set in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan.
However, in November 2018, nearly all charges against all those involved were dismissed following Judge Bernard Friedman’s ruling that the federal female genital mutilation law is unconstitutional. Congress did not have the right to criminalize the practice, Friedman said during the ruling.
News reports say that Friedman’s ruling is a result of a request made by Nagarwala’s attorneys asking him to dismiss the charges against their client. The Detroit News reported that the lawyers were challenging a 22-year-old federal law against female genital mutilation, calling it unconstitutional. The lawyers say that until Jumana Nagarwala’s arrest in 2017, the law had been unused.
Meanwhile, Nagarwala and other defendants still face obstruction charges; they are accused of telling members of their community not to cooperate with investigators. Nagarwala also remains charged with conspiracy to travel with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, and she is expected to face trial in April, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The case was set to go to trial in April 2019 on a single obstruction charge, but got delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Detroit Free Press reported. “In March, the government issued a new indictment that includes five new charges, including conspiracy to make false statements and witness tampering,” the report said. “Prosecutors allege that Nagarwala and her three cohorts lied to the FBI about FGM that was going on in their community, and instructed others in their religious community to do the same if the FBI came asking questions,” the report added.
But, per the report, “the defense claims the new charges are about vengeance.” They cited “the many blows the prosecution took in years past,” specifically 2018, “when a judge declared the federal FGM law unconstitutional and dismissed nearly all charges.”
Defense attorney Mary Chartier argued in court before U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman on Sept. 15 that “the government engaged in prosecutorial vindictiveness, adding that “the defense has systematically dismantled the government’s case,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
The report noted that Friedman has said that “he would take the matter under advisement and issue an opinion at a later date as to whether he will dismiss the new indictment.”