THE NEW YORK TIMES, New York, NY, Saturday, December 28, 1996.

December 28, 1996

Tug of Taboos: African Genital Rite Vs. American Law


HOUSTON -- Just six months after arriving in Houston from a
Somalian refugee camp, Ahmed Guled's family has eased into the
American mainstream.  His children attend the Pilgrim Elementary
School.  They spend afternoons with Power Ranger reruns. The baby
girl toddles around in a Gap T-shirt and denim miniskirt.

Guled himself holds dear the all-American dream that his children
will go to college and prosper in the United States.  But he also
clings to an ancient tradition that is customary in parts of
Africa -- and that became a federal crime this year.

He believes his daughters must have their clitorises cut off and
their genital lips stitched together to preserve their virginity
and to follow what he believes his Muslim faith requires of him.

"It's my responsibility," he said. "If I don't do it, I will have
failed my children."

Caseworkers and federal health officials say stopping the
practice of female genital cutting among the small, but growing,
population of African refugees and immigrants in the United
States will take more than simply passing a law.  It will mean
finding a way to change the minds of parents like Guled.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated this
year that more than 150,000 women and girls of African origin or
ancestry in the United States may be at risk of having the rite
performed on them or have already been cut, though it cautions
that no field surveys have yet been done to confirm that
statistic, based on 1990 Census Bureau population data.

The rite is commonplace in 28 countries that span Africa's
midsection, though it varies widely in its prevalence and
severity.  Some ethnic groups do not follow the custom at all,
while others do so almost without exception.  Like other refugees
in Houston, Guled, who was a math teacher in his homeland, said
he would, if necessary, take his 17-month-old daughter Ikram out
of the country when the time comes in six or seven years.  His
elder daughter, 11-year-old Faduma, was initiated before the
family fled Somalia after a bomb fell on their home in Mogadishu.

One recent afternoon his older children clustered around the
television, while his wife, Halima Ali Haqi Sheeky, who is 28,
shyly explained the purpose of the cutting.  Ikram was curled up
in her lap, placidly sucking her thumb.

"We were taught that this was a way of ensuring a girl's good
behavior," she said. "It prevents them from running wild.  Women
should be meek, simple and quiet, not aggressive and outgoing.
This is something we just accept."

Two Strategies Meant to Stop the Practice

Picture: Congress this year adopted a dual strategy to combat
the practice in the United States. It directed federal health
agencies to develop a plan to reach out to the immigrant
communities and educate them about the harm of genital cutting.
And it criminalized the practice, making it punishable by
up to five years in prison.

But the law will be difficult to enforce.  While refugees are
often impoverished, those who are able to save enough money to
take their daughters out of the country for cutting are probably
not violating the law as it is written, some human-rights lawyers
say.  Justice department officials said they were not sure how
the law, which goes into effect in March, would apply in such a

"It hasn't come across as something to even think about before,"
said Marsha Liss, a trial lawyer in the child exploitation
section of the justice department's criminal division.

Doctors who spot cases of genital cutting are likely to be
reluctant to report parents to authorities for fear of breaking
up close-knit families and sending well-meaning mothers and
fathers to prison, child-abuse experts say.

Also, the population from African nations where genital cutting
is common are scattered across the United States, making it
difficult to concentrate enforcement efforts.  Besides Houston,
they live in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago,
Philadelphia, Atlanta and other cities.

Secrecy Impedes Effort to Eliminate Rite

Picture: But perhaps the principal complicating factors are the
secretiveness of those who believe genital cutting is an
essential rite of passage, and the hidden nature of the wounds
and scars themselves.

With the recent attention to the issue in the media, immigrants
and refugees said they are intensely aware that their custom is
forbidden in the United States.  Guled said that he heard the
practice was prohibited in the United States on BBC radio early
this year while he was still living in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Only in recent months have federal agencies begun gathering
information about the practice.  The U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services recently surveyed state child-abuse agencies.
Thirty have replied so far.  Only two reported a case that
involved the practice, federal officials said.  In Hawaii,
child-protection authorities intervened in time to stop the
cutting; in Georgia the mother who cut her daughter's genitals
was an American, not an African, said Joyce Goldberg, a
spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources.

Several doctors in the United States and in Canada, where there
is a large Somali population and where the practice is also
illegal, said in interviews they had seen girls who have been
genitally cut. But the wounds were healed, they said, and it was
difficult to know when they were subjected to the practice.

Carolyn Levitt, a pediatrician in St. Paul, Minn., said a
14-year-old Ethiopian girl came in complaining of a burning
sensation when she urinated.  When a nurse practitioner examined
her, she was shocked to discover that the girl's genital lips
were largely fused.

"She said, 'Oh my gosh, what am I seeing?"' the doctor recalled.
"Then she called me in. I found a warm, conversant teenager who
said convincingly that nothing had happened.  She wasn't asking
for help. And she didn't seem like a victim."

Dr. Levitt did not report the girl's family to child-protection
authorities.  She couldn't say for sure whether the girl's
urinary complaint was related to the cutting.

Other doctors say parents have asked them how to have their
daughters circumcised.  In New York City, Peggy McHugh, director
of the child-protection team at Bellevue Hospital Center, said a
father asked her for a referral to a doctor who would cut his
3-year-old daughter.

"I told him this was not done here in America," she said; then
she asked him if he planned to bring in a son to have tribal
scars etched in his face.  "He was not pleased with me. He said I
just didn't understand what he wanted."

Alternative Is Offered for Cultural Sensitivity
      Picture: In Seattle, after Somali mothers repeatedly asked
that their
daughters be cut, a group of doctors at Harborview Medical Center
agreed this summer to consider making a ritual nick of the
prepuce, a fold of skin that caps the clitoris and that is
analogous to the foreskin of the penis, with no removal of

They said they saw the procedure as an alternative to cutting,
which ranges from removal of the clitoris to the most extreme
form, infibulation, which involves sewing up the genital lips to
leave only a tiny hole for passage of urine and menstrual blood.

But this month the hospital abandoned the proposal after being
inundated with hundreds of letters, postcards, and calls
protesting it.

Retiring Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., had also written the
hospital, saying that she believed its proposal would violate the
new law.

"Harborview's role in considering the need for a culturally
sensitive, safe alternative to the practices of female
circumcision or female genital mutilation has now been
concluded," the hospital said in a news release, clearly hoping
to end the public furor.

The law itself has been sharply debated among many Africans who
have settled in the United States.  Even some opposed to the
practice say they are offended that Congress adopted a law that
seems specifically directed at Africans, rather than relying on
general statutes prohibiting violence against children, as France
has done.

Others feel that Americans have unfairly stereotyped Africans as
people who mutilate their children.

JoAnne D'Alisera, an anthropologist who has done extensive field
work among Sierra Leonean immigrants in the Washington area, said
American co-workers often bluntly ask them if they have been cut.

For the Sierra Leoneans, genital cutting is part of an elaborate,
highly secret initiation rite.  The questions about it are seen
as a profound invasion of their privacy.

"One woman felt people were looking at her and talking to her as
if all she was was a big genital that had been mutilated," Ms.
D'Alisera said.

Among Somali refugees resettled by the U.S. government in
Houston, some say they will abandon the practice, while others
say they must continue it.

Workers at the Refugee Services Alliance, an agency that helps
settle refugees, say language barriers, cultural differences and
poverty all conspire to isolate the refugees.

"What these women need is people who will educate them, not only
about circumcision, but how to survive and assimilate in American
society and still keep their culture and religion," said Miriam
Diria, a worker who is herself an ethnic Somali from Ethiopia.

In recent months the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
has organized meetings with advocates for refugees and nonprofit
groups that work closely with Africans to develop strategies for
combating the practice.

The groups may, for example, ask Muslim religious leaders to
explain to immigrants that the Koran does not require the

Jo Ivey Boufford, principal deputy assistant secretary for
health, said that while there is no specific budget for the
effort, the agency will fund some nonprofit groups to
conduct educational campaigns.

But human-rights advocates say the lack of a specific budget is a
sign that the government is more interested in criminalizing a
cultural practice than helping people break an ancient habit.

"The government should put its money where its mouth is," said
Seble Dawit, director of Alliances -- An African Women's Network
in New York City.

Daughter Protected by Mother's Memories

Picture: There is no monolithic view on genital cutting among
the Somali refugees in Houston. Fahria Abdi, 33, has decided she
wants nothing more to do with it.

She arrived in Houston with her 5-year-old daughter Sahra three
months ago.

She speaks no English and is struggling to survive on welfare in
an apartment that is empty except for mattresses.  She was
separated from her husband in the anarchy that engulfed her
homeland four years ago.

She does not know if he is alive or dead.  She does not know what
will become of her in America.  But she does know she will never
have her daughter cut.  Mrs. Abdi herself was stitched up as a
child.  To show the pain that trauma caused her she ran her
fingers down her cheeks to track the tears.

She said the consummation of her marriage took more than a week
of prolonged nightly attempts at penetration that left her torn
and bleeding.  Childbirth was agony.  "After I have had all this
pain, why should my daughter go through it?" she said.

Several other Somali women who had also been infibulated -- and
who are widowed or separated from their husbands -- said they
would not have that extreme form of cutting done to their
daughters.  The damage to their own lives was too great.  But
they did continue to want the tip of their daughters'
clitorises clipped off.

Halima Eidl, 20, arrived in Houston in 1993, a war widow who lost
a leg to bullet wounds.  She married the young doctor who
ministered to her in the hospital and obtained a false leg for
her.  He was later shot and killed in the chaos.  Like Mrs. Abdi,
she and her 21/2-year-old daughter Rashaida are here alone,
scraping by on welfare.

Mrs. Eidl still believes a milder form of the cutting she endured
is necessary so that Rashaida does not later run off with boys
and have babies before marriage.  She was disappointed that
Medicaid refused to cover the procedure.  She does not know how
she will pay for the tickets to take Rashaida to Africa, but she
will try to find a way.

"I asked the doctor to do it for me," she said. "He told me, 'We
don't do it here.  We only give medicine.' "So we can go to Kenya
to have it done."

(File revised 3 August 2003)