The weak laws against female genital mutilation in America

August 22, 2019 • 10:25 am

I wasn’t aware that Ayaan Hirsi Ali had started a foundation, the “AHA Foundation“, one of whose goals is to ban female genital mutilation (FGM) in the U.S. You may not be aware that although FGM is illegal in one form or another in 35 states, there’s no ban on it in fifteen states. Here are the offending states:

Washington (state)
New Mexico
Massachusetts (!!)
Connecticut, and

For two decades there was a federal law against the practice, but a 2018 federal trial of several people accused of practicing FGM wound up with a judge ruling that FGM was a “local criminal activity”: therefore the states and not the government should regulate it. Thereby the judge overturned a 20-year-old law.

But even the nature of the state laws against FGM vary widely. If you look at the article below at the AHA Foundation, you’ll see the various kinds of FGM that are practiced, a map of which states have laws (and what kind of laws) against FGM, and what you can do about it. I’ve added the map, the “surgeries”, and how the laws differ. To get the pdf, click on the first screenshot below:

The various forms of FGM:

And here are the laws graded in terms of severity (and desirability):


The provisions that correspond to the “grades” are based on things like whether “vacation cutting” is illegal (i.e., parents can’t go to another country or state to get their daughters mutilated), whether practitioners and guardians can be prosecuted, whether or not “ethnic/religious culture” can be used as a defense, and whether there are education and outreach programs for at-risk communities. To get an “A” grade, all of these provisions have to be in place in the right direction, and only three states—Arkansas, Utah, and Michigan—get that “A”.

This is unconscionable. Why should it be legal for a parent to horribly mutilate the genitals of their daughters when their daughters can’t give permission?

In case you want to know, I’ve come around to the view that circumcision should also be illegal until a male is old enough to ask for it. I don’t think that asking, however, should allow you to get FGM, as it has but one nefarious purpose: to reduce the sexual pleasure of females. And it has a number of horrible side effects: infection, incontinence, infertility, and the like, and also has led to lifelong trauma. You probably know that Hirsi Ali herself was a victim of FGM.

My only beef is that Hirsi Ali’s pamphlet barely mentions Islam as a promoter of FGM. As it notes:

. . . FGM is not particular to any religious group, nor prescribed by any faith. It is actually a culturally-based practice, a harmful tradition passed on through families and communities that pre-dates all major religions. FGM has been co-opted by some religious sects, but there is no major religion that requires FGM.

Well, this is technically true, but FGM is most prominent in Islam, and, as I understand it, several sects of Islam do promote it strongly. I think the de-emphasis on Islam is a tactic adopted by the Foundation as a way to reduce the harm of FGM without being accused of “Islamophobia” if you oppose FGM.

And indeed, you should oppose it. If you live in one of the many states with no laws against FGM, or deficient laws, write your Senators and Congresspeople.

You can donate here, and I already have.

Although Hirsi Ali has been demonized, threatened, and put on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “anti-Muslim extremists”, she’s been engaged in positive activity her whole political career, including writing her last book, Heretic, on how to reform Islam. And now she’s largely putting Islam aside to fight against a horrible form of anti-woman violence.

Note too that Maajid Nawaz was also on the SPLC’s list, which no longer exists (he sued them), and on the first page of the pdf the AHA Foundation thanks Nawaz’s foundation, Quilliam, for partnering on the FGM report.

These are people who are not keyboard warriors, but activists who take direct action to reduce palpable harm. I admire them and urge you to support them.

Here’s a list of the Foundation’s general goals:

Established by Ayaan Hirsi Ali to put the ideas she writes into practice, the AHA Foundation works to protect women from honor violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. Our programs advocate for freedom of speech on campuses and in public debate, and amplify the voices of Muslim reformers and ex-Muslims.

Worth supporting, no?

84 thoughts on “The weak laws against female genital mutilation in America

  1. Pity the US has not Mr Hirsi Ali in Congress instead of Mss Omar and Tlaib. Note that she has some experience: she was MP -and a good one- in the Netherlands.
    I think she is correct to stress that Islam does not require FGM at all (nor forbids it). Mohammad is said to have opposed the more severe forms, such as infibulation. I think it is more than just fear of being branded as ‘islamophobe’ (would Ayaan fear that?). I think it has more to do with trying to somewhat or somehow ‘civilize’ Islam, to get rid of it’s worst excesses against women.

    1. I think it’s very relevant and worth stressing that Islam does not require FGM. In that those who do it (and acknowledging that most is done by Muslims), cannot claim any support from their religion, nor can they use religion as an excuse, legal or otherwise.


  2. My nephew attends George Mason University in Northern Virginia. Recently, one of his professors that FGM cannot be considered immoral and that no white westerner has the moral authority to deem it so. No student spoke up to counter that statement.

  3. I thought male circumcision was supposed to be for health reasons even though it was originally for cultural or religious reasons. What is the origin of male circumcision for non-health reasons? It can’t possibly be for the same reason as female “circumcision”.

    I almost passed out at my desk reading this.

    1. “What is the origin of male circumcision for non-health reasons?”

      It comes from a horror that teenage boys might masturbate, and an attempt to make that less likely by making it less pleasurable.

      As for “health reasons”, that idea arose in the UK and US because the Victorians were too coy to state the above explicitly, so talked about improving “cleanliness”, by which they meant “moral cleanliness” and an absence of “impure thoughts”.

      1. Since you seem to know about this, maybe you can explain or say what you think about the professor’s remarks? Should circumcision be made illegal until the male is old enough to decide?? This seems a bit much to me. If we all waited that long no one would get it.

        Personally I was circumcised as a baby and I remember nothing – no pain, nothing. That seems appropriate to me.

        1. So if the female is young enough, then is FGM ok?
          Surely the correct answer should be cut no bugger unless they consent!

            1. Your final point as I read it suggests that as a several day old infant you remember nothing. I am pretty bloody positive the tiny you felt plenty. If that is enough for you to keep practicing this barbarism on males why not females? Different levels of brutality not withstanding.
              Why slice at the most precious thing in your life?

              1. I don’t know Bob, maybe because they are not the same. Why not start a movement to get the whole thing made illegal if you are so concerned?

        2. “Should circumcision be made illegal until the male is old enough to decide??”

          Yes. Isn’t that obvious? Such a procedure without medical need is clearly against all medical ethics these days, isn’t it?

          “If we all waited that long no one would get it.”

          You’re right, they wouldn’t.

          “Personally I was circumcised as a baby and I remember nothing – no pain, nothing.”

          But then you’re not really aware of what you’re missing. Ask uncircumcised men whether they’d readily dispense with that part of their body, and few would like the idea.

        3. I wonder how many circumcised men wish they weren’t? Not me. I go further than Randall – I am very glad I am not uncircumcised.

          The tissue loss is not remembered, but for aesthetic reasons it is appreciated, and women I’ve discussed this with agree. I’m unaware of any decreased enjoyment of sex – that’s hard to imagine actually.

          Yes I had no choice, just as I had no choice in my genes, my parents, my environment, or whether I went to school.

          Drawing a line where parents can make decisions concerning their children is hard. Should parents be allowed to expose their children to religious indoctrination? Required to? I think childhood FGM produces life long harm and is over the line. Infant male circumcision, on the other hand, seems a decision best left to the parents.

          1. “The tissue loss is not remembered, but for aesthetic reasons it is appreciated, …”

            It’s fine if you are happy as you are aesthetically, but so are most uncircumcised men. Few get it done as adults for “aesthetic reasons”.

            “I’m unaware of any decreased enjoyment of sex – that’s hard to imagine actually.”

            If you didn’t have sexual organs/feelings at all, how good would you be at imagining them?

            “Infant male circumcision, on the other hand, seems a decision best left to the parents.”

            Why? What makes someone less-able to decide for themselves at age 18?

            1. I agree almost no one would want to be circumcised as an adult. My claim is that I am perfectly healthy, happy, and retroactively approve of the choice that was made for me.

              Making a distinction between FGM, castration, and circumcision is not hard for me.

          2. I wonder how many circumcised men wish they weren’t? Not me. I go further than Randall – I am very glad I am not uncircumcised.

            I had a friend who was circumcised as a teenager – 14 or 15 I think he said – and so is one of the few people who can answer that question from experience.
            He wasn’t hugely bothered one way or the other. He wanked before the circumcision, he wanked after ; in his opinion, he didn’t gain or lose much in terms of sexual function. It was no big deal, to him. Painful for a few weeks after the operation, but painful for a few months before the operation.
            My minor operation (repairs to adhesions subsequent to an infant circumcision) was similar – no huge differences in performance or sensation before or after.
            All of which said, circumcision without medical need should obviously require the written consent of the patient. Religious scruples of a parent not being sufficient reason.

        4. Personally, I am very glad that my parents never saw fit to cut bits off my body for no good reason. It’s totally unethical to make such a decision for another person unless there is a good medical reason.

      2. I thought it was more pleasurable for a man without the foreskin because it was more sensitive underneath. (That was my understanding from talking to other girls/sleepovers/friends.) I just googled this and found this article. Now I am actually really curious.

        “Quick explainer: Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin, the tissue covering the head of the penis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Circumcision removes up to half of the skin on a penis, skin that likely contained “fine-touch neuroreceptors,” which are highly responsive to light touch, according to research.”

        In fact, a Michigan State University study found that the most sensitive part of a circumcised man’s penis is his circumcision scar. A possible explanation: After circumcision, “the penis has to protect itself-like growing a callus on your foot, but to a lesser extent,” says Darius Paduch, M.D., Ph.D., a urologist and male sexual medicine specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. This means nerve endings are further from the surface-and therefore, may be less responsive.”

        Circumcised vs. Uncircumcised Guys—How Sex Measures Up
        By Cassie Shortsleeve

        I thought this was the exact opposite way around.

            1. An amusing coincidence to my eye, with regard to the topic. I have the sense of humour of a teenage boy though!

        1. The only people who can really compare are men circumcised as adults, and the general opinion of such people is that sensitivity is often reduced.

          Indeed, a common claim is that reduced sensitivity can be a good thing since it prolongs sex to the benefit of the female.

          1. I think circumcision in a man sounds terrible (now). I didn’t really know too much about it at all. I would agree that it should be a choice for an older young man. Leave the foreskin on so it’s better for the man, too.

            1. Having seen the travails of a classmate in boarding school (he was 16) who developed the condition of a non-retractable foreskin – and he had to be circumcised – it took months to heal properly and was misery. Late circumcision is NOT recommended. As one circumcised as a baby – I’m very glad of my condition – there are definite advantages of not being a “trumpet” as the Happy Hooker called them.

          2. Many years ago I had a girlfriend from the European continent who complained that uncircumcised men were a bit, shall we say, “oversensitive,” though I don’t take such testimonials to be alone an adequate justification for male circumcision.

            1. I didn’t know anything about this until today as I thought the sensitivity was the other way around (more sensitive for circumcised penises). In looking up a little more I saw that there are “foreskin rings” that I believe make it so that it is less sensitive to avoid climaxing too quickly. It’s a plastic ring or something like that that goes around the tip. I’m not sure. Regardless of religion, I think most boys/men are circumcised in the Northeastern United States (and Buffalo/Central NJ/NY). I had one friend once who dated an uncircumcised man and he was from CT.

              Also an observation: I don’t think it’s that easy at all for women to climax. Even just compared to the circumcised penises. It’s just harder. (no pun)

              1. Can’t say that I’ve been with a scientifically selected cross-section, Liz, but from my experience, circumscribed though it may be, there’s a lot of variance in the ease with which women achieve orgasm.

                Had one girlfriend who claimed (and I had reason to believe her) that she could get there by rubbing her legs together in a particular way. I nicknamed her “Cricket.” Others, not so easy.

                And we men can always tell when you’re faking, 🙂

              2. It would be interesting to study the sensitivity for these parts and to see how long it takes to happen for different sexes. I have always been very anti-fake and never understood that whole thing. One time I did just to see and there is no point.

                The thought of female genital mutilation makes me overwhelmingly sick. I wouldn’t have thought that circumcision is on par but that would be good to study too.

        2. To add:

          “… for a man without the foreskin because it was more sensitive underneath.”

          In most uncircumcised men the foreskin slides back upon erection, so is exposed anyhow.

          In circumcised men, where that part is exposed continually, it thickens and hardens (presumably becoming less sensitive?) because it has to, being continually exposed.

          Further, the idea that one can increase sensitivity by removing a part packed with never endings doesn’t sound likely; not does the idea that forming scar tissue can increase sensitivity.

          1. “Further, the idea that one can increase sensitivity by removing a part packed with never endings doesn’t sound likely; not does the idea that forming scar tissue can increase sensitivity.”

            I wasn’t saying either of these things and neither was the article. I believe the article is saying the opposite.

      3. It [male circumcision] comes from a horror that teenage boys might masturbate, and an attempt to make that less likely by making it less pleasurable.

        And, dadgummit, it’s worked; hasn’t been an adolescent boy who’s tossed one off since.

    2. I think the discussion about male circumcision has no place in a debate about female genital excision and other FGM, there is no comparison. It is like comparing excising the nail of your little toe to amputating a foot or even the whole leg.

      1. I agree. It’s pretty common though. Every article here at WEIT that mentioned FGM, that I have any recollection of, included a significant derail into the injustice of male circumcision.

        I’m not sorry, but circumcision isn’t comparable to FGM in severity. It’s not even in the same ball park as FGM. Yes, circumcision is an issue. No, discussing it every time FGM is mentioned does not help either cause.

        1. The form of FGM where they prick the flesh and take a drop of blood is less harmful than male circumcision, and the removal of the clitoral hood is analogous and homologous to male circumcision. Would you be in favor of keeping them legal?

          1. Did I write anything about keeping any form of genital mutilation legal? Let me look. Nope. I wrote about how any mention of FGM inevitably turns into a discussion of MGM. Like this one for example.

      2. They are different, indeed, though I think the legal prohibition of one might have implications regarding the legality of the other.

        Certainly, if congress (or a state legislature) can enact a statute prohibiting the one, it has the power (if not the will) to prohibit the other (without either triggering any First Amendment Free Exercise clause concerns, I should hope).

        1. If legal theory can’t make a distinction here, something is wrong with the theory. I think the hangup is the good liberal core principal that the sexes should be treated the same. In this case, the core principal should be overridden by recognizing the disparity in well being that results in each case – they are not the same, not analogous.

          1. I your response appears to be founded on intuition and personal experience, Carl. That’s fine, but it’s hardly a substitute for sound legal and logical analysis.

            And I never said “legal theory can’t make a distinction,” (emphasis added), merely that such a distinction isn’t as simple and bright-line as you seem to suppose.

            1. We have a domain disconnect. I’m not making a legal argument, but a meta-legal one – some people might call it moral or ethical. I don’t doubt that legally a bright line doesn’t exist. But it does by my ethics.

        2. It is not an issue of making a distinction in the laws but the connection between a religion and a surgical procedure. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the medical community says male circumcision has no health basis and has significant risks. If so, then the only reason to allow it is religious freedom, which is exactly what supporters of FGM will claim. Arguments can be made for allowing one and not the other but they aren’t legal arguments.

      3. “It is like comparing excising the nail of your little toe to amputating a foot or even the whole leg.”

        This sounds like a good comparison.

  4. Why this is not a federal law is almost as bad as the act in the first place. Everything is a local crime activity, slavery was a local activity so what does that mean? Judges are sometimes as useless as politicians.

      1. Unless a lawyer steps in to explain this to us I just do not buy it. How about kidnapping? That is automatically a federal crime I believe. Again, pretty local unless you take the person across state lines. Like most things it is that old state/federal argument that ruins this country. Let the states decide and end up with crap.

        1. Didn’t you guys have some “civil” war over this a few years ago? Or is that not settled yet?

    1. Congress scope of enumerated powers is very limited, and most of that falls under the regulation of interstate commerce. IIRC, the judge deemed FGM services not interstate commerce.

  5. BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme had an interesting report on FGM in the US a few weeks ago. Its revelations about the prevalence of the practice in some fundamentalist Christian churches came as a big surprise, to me at least.

      1. Thanks for the link, I had no idea that was happening in white fundamentalist churches. Though not so surprising when you think about it.

  6. Just because there is no law aimed at FGM does not mean it is not crime. It is a despicable assault against a minor and should be treated as such. In other words, if it is illegal cut a girl’s leg or face, it is also illegal to cut her genitals. There is no reason that the crime cannot be prosecuted in all 50 states.

    If new laws would make it easier to prosecute, then pass them, but it is has always been a crime in all 50 states.

    1. I was going to say something like this until I saw your comment.

      I would guess that many states feel that their assault and child abuse laws adequately cover FGM. Isn’t the real problem that assault, child abuse, and FGM-specific laws are all unenforceable defences against FGM because it is done in the home and can easily be hidden?

      1. This is obviously a problem but I could see new laws making the problem better or worse. If they raise public awareness, the communities where FGM is practice could either hide it better or lessen the practice.

        1. I doubt we need new laws only to raise awareness. New laws only get attention for a short time when they first go into effect.

          One additional problem with FGM-specific laws is that they will require precise wording to define what is, and what is not, to be considered illegal. However careful the wording is done, it will undoubtedly invite some people to find a way to circumvent the laws. Perhaps it is better to just go with plain old assault and child abuse.

          Of course, I am no expert in any of this so there’s that. Just a concerned citizen here.

          1. That’s a good point about circumventing the law. If someone is found not guilty of FGM, I would not support an assault trial because I am a very strong supporter of the double jeopardy principle.

    2. but it is has always been a crime in all 50 states.

      I thought that was the very point that PCC(E) started off with. Not all of the 50 states have had it as a crime since their inception/ recognition by the Congress (or however it gets done).

      If new laws would make it easier to prosecute, then pass them,

      Passing laws to restrict the actions of religiously-motivated idiots? This administration and legislature? Who are you trying to …
      Oh, I get it – you’re practising your stand-up routine for the Edinburgh Fringe. Good one – I nearly swallowed it! But didn’t they have the “Best Joke” award earlier this week?

  7. For two decades there was a federal law against the practice, but a 2018 federal trial of several people accused of practicing FGM wound up with a judge ruling that FGM was a “local criminal activity”: therefore the states and not the government should regulate it.

    I still think that case was wrongly decided. But then, the Rehnquist Court squared the Commerce Clause circle when it invalidated the Gun-Free School Zone and Violence Against Women Acts (the first congressional acts invalidated by the Court under the Commerce Clause in 60 years), yet upheld application of federal narcotics laws to a little homegrown weed used for medical purposes.

    The FGM case out of Detroit — US v. Nagarwala — is currently on appeal in the federal Sixth Circuit. The Trump administration refused to defend the anti-FGM statute, but House Democrats have sought to intervene in the case to do so.

    1. The reasoning sounds logical to me:
      “There is nothing commercial or economic about FGM. As despicable as this practice may be, it is essentially a criminal assault, just like the rape at issue in Morrison. Nor has the government shown that FGM itself has any effect on interstate commerce or that a market exists for FGM beyond the mothers of the nine victims alleged in the third superseding indictment. There is, in short, no rational basis to conclude that FGM has any effect, to say nothing of a substantial effect, on interstate commerce.”

      We are a nation of laws and, IMO, congress overstepped its authority. The crime should be prosecuted as assault on a minor or whatever.

      1. One of the main reasons the nascent United States of America abandoned its original Articles of Confederation in favor of a new constitution was to give congress broad powers to regulate commerce among and between the states. And that power has been exercised (and interpreted) very broadly indeed, including to authorize enactment of statutes regulating all manner of medical practice.

        The problem with prosecuting FGM as “an assault on a minor or whatever” is that the procedure is being performed with the consent — indeed, at the behest — of the child’s parents or guardians. Should it nonetheless be prosecuted as an assault, it would make nervous dentists extracting children’s teeth, or doctors their appendixes (not to mention mohels performing britot).

        You can make an argument concerning “medical necessity” (at least for dentists and doctors), but do you really want laymen on a jury making those types of decisions? At the very least, it would likely give rise to capriciously inconsistent enforcement. This is why we need legislation, state or federal, expressly prohibiting FGM.

        1. Parents cannot give legal consent to having their child assaulted. FGM is assault and can and should be prosecuted as such.

          Normal medical procedures are not assault. It’s absurd to conflate the two.

          I know that interstate commerce has been used to give the federal government extensive powers. In the case, Wickard v. Filburn, it was clear that there was no commerce (nothing was sold) and no interstate action but it was stilled considered interstate commerce. It was an absurd ruling and I glad that the FGM case did not push the absurdity even farther.

          1. Should a parent have authority to consent to male circumcision or to a child’s elective cosmetic surgery?

            You failed to answer my question whether these issues should be left to juries of laymen who are merely given instructions regarding the legal definition of “assault.”

            The legal questions implicated are more complicated than you suppose, Curtis.

            1. There is only one important legal issue concerning FGM. It is an assault on a child and therefore is very immoral and very illegal and therefore should be prosecuted.

              I will to your other question because you insist. Juries in FGM cases should act the same way as they do in any other case. I do not understand why anyone would think otherwise. Any procedure that is accepted by the ADA or AMA is legal and therefore should not be prosecuted. I do not understand why anyone would think otherwise.

              There are certain complex issues I choose not to debate over the internet because I do not find it productive. Circumcision is one of these. Free will is another.

              1. Do you consider the AMA’s positions on capital punishment, assisted suicide, and abortion dispositive, too?

              2. Correct, I do not argue for or against either even though I have strong views after having listened to both sides. I urge people to look at the other side’s real arguments instead of the straw man that their side imagines for the other. This may seem like taking a side to hyper partisan people.

              3. Oops, my bad for not reading your comment carefully. My position is that FGM is assault and should be prosecuted locally and that congress should stay out of it. I have not seen any of your comments that dispute this.

                I do not plan to comment about assisted suicide, abortion, dentists or anything else that does not seem topical.

  8. Thanks for posting this. My state has adequate laws, but there is certainly room for improvement. I’ll bring this up when my state reps come to the neighborhood next week. I been collecting topics, so this is timely.

    Do I liven in a bubble? When I was pregnant, I was told circumcision was not medically necessary. None of the pediatricians I spoke with recommended that this be done, quite the contrary, they advised against it. This was back in the 1980’s. None of my grandchildren are circumcised. I thought this practice had fallen by the wayside for most people. Is it still widespread?

  9. In only 12 (that would include the US) industrialiazed countries the practice is illegal.
    Many countries where FGM is rampant (including Egypt, Burkina Faso, Niger, Djibuti, but not Somalia or Sudan) have declared it illegal. Despite it being illegal a majority of girls is still mutilated there.

  10. Ayaan is the real deal,
    I’ve seen her twice in person and she comes across as a warm funny intelligent singers person. Notably impressive, but maybe I’m biased.
    I’ve also seen the reality of her security needs when I was wandering around a convention center where an atheist event was being held, looking for a quiet place to rest (I had a sub rural haematoma that I didn’t know about yet) and there was Ayaan, surrounded by 4 big guys being ushered into a black limo to leave the event.
    FGM is unconscionable and should be banned, full stop.
    Cultural sensitivity be dammed.

  11. From Wikipedia, on FGM in the US:

    “In addition to its prevalence in immigrant communities in the US, FGM was considered a standard medical procedure in America for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Physicians performed surgeries of varying invasiveness to treat a number of diagnoses, including hysteria, depression, nymphomania, and frigidity. The medicalization of FGM in the United States allowed these practices to continue until the end of the 20th century, with some procedures covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield Insurance until 1977.

    “With the passage of the federal law ban, the Female Genital Mutilation Act in 1996, performing FGM on anyone under age 18 became a felony in the United States. However in 2018, the act was stuck down as unconstitutional by US federal district judge Bernard A. Friedman in Michigan, who argued that the federal government did not have authority to enact legislation outside the ‘Interstate commerce’ clause.”

    It was not only legal, but actually supported by medical insurance before 1977. Sometimes it takes us a while to catch up with our own modernization. Sometimes it seems to take forever…

  12. I really hope circumcision will not be outlawed in the USA. The flood of orthodox Jews immigrating to Israel will completely destroy whatever is still left of the sanity of my country. Brrrr.

  13. I’m genuinely surprised that in such a developed country like the USA females are still not protected from these awful practices. It’s important to pursue such legislative. Hopefully, in my country, such mutilations are strongly prohibited by law, and I think there were no such precedents for a long time.

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