Judge orders female genital mutilation charges be dropped in historic case

A federal judge on Tuesday declared the country’s female genital mutilation law unconstitutional, dismissing nearly all charges against two doctors in Michigan and others accused of subjecting minor girls to genital cutting at a clinic in Detroit.

The case involves at least nine minors from Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois — some of whom prosecutors alleged were tricked by their mothers into thinking they were going to Detroit for recreational activities before having their genitals cut at the Livonia clinic, The Detroit Free Press reported, citing court records. 

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Dr. Jumana Nagarwala said the practice was custom as part of the young girls’ religion and said the girls belonged to her Muslim sect, the Dawoodi Bohra. She also argued that the federal female genital mutilation law she and others who assisted her were being prosecuted under is unconstitutional.

The U.S. statute at issue states that "whoever knowingly circumcises, excises or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person" who is under the age of 18 will face a fine and/or up to five years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman reportedly concluded in the case that the law criminalizing female genital mutilation that Congress passed in 1996 was unconstitutional and said that the regulation of the practice is up to the states.

"As laudable as the prohibition of a particular type of abuse of girls may be ... federalism concerns deprive Congress of the power to enact this statute," Friedman wrote in his opinion of female genital mutilation, abbreviated as FGM.

"Congress overstepped its bounds by legislating to prohibit FGM ... FGM is a 'local criminal activity' which, in keeping with longstanding tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress," he added.

As a result of the ruling, charges brought against Nagarwala, those who assisted her and four mothers who took their daughters to the Livonia clinic, were dismissed, according to The Detroit Free Press.

Shannon Smith, Nagarwala's lawyer, praised the judge’s decision but also said she expects the government to appeal the ruling.

"But we are confident we will win even if appealed,” she told the local paper. 

However, women’s rights activists are calling the judge’s ruling a setback for the protection of women and girls.

“It’s a giant step backward in the protection of women’s and girls’ rights,” Shelby Quast, the Americas director of equality for the rights organization Equality Now, told The Detroit News. “Especially when there is a global movement to eliminate this practice.”