ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A doctor in Michigan was arrested last week. She's accused of performing a genital-cutting procedure on two 7-year-old girls. The practice, sometimes called female genital mutilation, is often intended to control a girl's sexuality, making intercourse less enjoyable, even painful. It's common in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and illegal in the United States. Federal officials believe the doctor, an Indian-American woman named Jumana Nagarwala, may have been conducting the procedure on girls in her religious community for the past 15 years.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When news of the arrest broke, it resonated with Tasneem Raja. She's a journalist. Until recently, she worked here at NPR. And she comes from the same religious sect as the doctor arrested in Michigan. And she had the procedure in question done to her as a child here in the U.S. Raja wrote all about this in Mother Jones recently. When I spoke with her earlier today, I asked her about the reactions she was hearing from the people she grew up with.
TASNEEM RAJA: You know, as the story got bigger and bigger my friends were calling to say, you know what? I think this feels like the case that the community is not going to be able to ignore. This is not the first time that this form of cutting in our sect, the Dawoodi Bohras, has come to light. But it just seems that every time a woman comes forward with her story or, you know, a story is discovered the community is able to sort of, you know, pretend it's not happening and move on. But, you know, we've got a criminal case here, and it feels like the stakes might be different this time.
CORNISH: You mention the Dawoodi Bohra, this Shiite branch of Islam based in India, right? Can - you describe it as secretive and relatively small. Tell us more about it.
RAJA: Sure. It's a small branch of Shia Islam with about a million followers around the world. It is based in India. There are thriving outposts across America. You know, Bohras identify as Muslims, but there are concerns in and out of the community that this sect has veered away from Islamic principles and has become a closed-off totalitarian society. You know, it's important to say that other Muslim groups have been distancing themselves from the Bohras, you know, in light of Dr. Nagarwala's arrest. This is not a common Muslim or South Asian practice, and female genital cutting is not mentioned in the Quran.
CORNISH: And yet it is common in this particular sect, right? How have the religious leaders here talked about it? How have they responded to the public scrutiny?
RAJA: Yeah. You know, so far the clergy has responded to the arrests in Michigan by saying, you know, Bohras are supposed to follow local laws and they will assist the investigators prosecuting this case. You know, that's shocking to a lot of Bohras, including the more hardcore ones because they see the clergy letting one of their most faithful and obedient followers in many ways, you know, take the fall for something that the clergy essentially tells us to do.
CORNISH: This doctor has denied any wrongdoing, but in the article you are very suspicious of how she's denied it. How come? And how does that relate to your experience?
RAJA: Dr. Nagarwala says she didn't cut these girls, that she just wiped them and that she gave the gauze to their parents to bury, you know, according to Bohra accustoms. But that's not what the girls told investigators. One girl said she screamed in pain and she could barely walk afterward, and a medical examination shows that both of the girl's bodies have been altered. You know, when I heard Dr. Nagarwala say this I was frankly shocked and a bit appalled. Nearly all of my Bohra female friends and I had this practice done to us when we were children. And none of us was wiped. We were cut. We bled, sometimes for days. And some of us were left with lifelong physical damage.
CORNISH: You know, you were raised in the States and you write about learning about female genital cutting, like, in a classroom and having classmates saying, oh, you know, thank goodness this isn't happening in the U.S. Were you ever able to talk about this really before now?
RAJA: I've talked about it with my friends over the years. There's such a feeling of shame and secrecy around this practice. And I think for me and a lot of my friends that I've talked to even a feeling of did that really happen? You know, did I just imagine that? And the way I remember it - you know, there was a story about female genital mutilation going on in Africa. You know, there was, like, a pretty bad case that had come to light. And one of my friends sent me the article and said, you know, this is - we should talk about this stuff because, you know, it's not exactly the same, but this happens in our community, too. And it was the first time that anybody had just spelled it out so bluntly.
This practice is so secretive in our community. Girls are told not to tell anybody and, you know, we usually don't, so men in our families often don't even know it's happening. Over the years, you know, I've had friends tell me, I didn't even know that this was common in our sect. I thought my mom only did this to me. But, you know, at this point I'm pretty fortunate to have a network of, you know, other women who are sharing their stories, coming forward and supporting each other in the hopes that this practice will finally end.
CORNISH: But talking about it, it's not without social cost.
RAJA: It's important to understand that this community is tight-knit and tightly controlled. You know, Bohras feel tremendous pressure to conform. There's this fear of angering the clergy. And so you might think some women would just lie, you know, and say their daughters had this done when they didn't. But Bohras believe that their leaders are all-seeing and so, you know, they're afraid to do that. You know, a Bohra woman talking to a reporter last week said this is like a cult. You know, it feels like we have a tyrant over us and there's this whole control thing going on.
CORNISH: In the story, one of your friends actually says nothing is going to change. And do you feel that way? Do you see any changes that could be happening as a result of this case?
RAJA: The only way that this practice will end is if the clergy unequivocally comes out and tells Bohras that it's time to stop and, you know, offers support to women and girls who have already experienced it. You know, for a lot of Bohras who oppose this practice it's particularly frustrating and even scary that these arrests are happening now, you know, in a time of increasing Islamophobia. Thanks to the arrests there's more awareness and more of a challenge on the clergy. But no one I've talked to wants, you know, everyday Bohras to be targeted and punished for something that's being mandated from the top. And, you know, they feel like the sooner that the leadership publicly ends this and offers support to victims who are already out there, the sooner all Bohras and all Muslims will be safer.
CORNISH: Writer Tasneem Raja. Her article appears in Mother Jones. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
RAJA: Thank you, Audie.
(SOUNDBITE OF ART AKNID'S "FIRST SHOCK")
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