As they left Minesota for Detroit in early February, the two 7-year-old girls were promised a “special girls’ trip.” But the story changed after they arrived at their hotel outside Detroit: They were going to see a doctor at a nearby clinic because “our tummies hurt,” one of the girls later recalled.
According to allegations contained in a criminal complaint unsealed Friday, Jumana Nagarwala, the doctor at the Burhani Medical Clinic in Livonia, Michigan, told the unidentified girl she was going to perform a procedure on her to “get the germs out” of her body. Instead, the complaint says, Nagarwala mutilated the girl’s genitalia, while the office manager, Farida Attar, the wife of the clinic owner, Fakhruddin Attar, assisted.
Earlier in the day, Fakhruddin and Farida Attar were arrested on charges of conspiring to perform female genital mutilation on two girls. Nagarwala was arrested last week and later was ordered jailed without bail, pending trial.
Fakhruddin Attar, 53, a physician, and Farida, 50, appeared in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Friday afternoon and were ordered held, pending a full hearing Wednesday.
Mary Chartier, Fakhruddin Attar’s lawyer, said in an email, “Dr. Attar is unaware of any crimes that occurred at his clinic. Given that Dr. Attar is not a flight risk or danger to the community, and he is a respected and trusted member of the community, he certainly should be released on Wednesday.”
Matt Newburg, a lawyer for Farida Attar, declined to comment.
1996 federal law
Prosecutors described the case as the first of its kind brought under a 1996 law that made female genital mutilation a crime in the United States. If convicted, the three each face up to five years in prison and/or a fine of $250,000 for performing and conspiring to perform female genital mutilation.
The complaint identifies the three as members of “a particular religious and cultural community known to practice female genital mutilation as part of their religious and cultural practice.”
The community was later identified as Dawoodi Bohra, a small, insular Islamic group with mosques in several major U.S. cities.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security began investigating Nagarwala earlier this year after receiving a tip that she was performing FGM.
Using telephone records and video surveillance, investigators tracked two Minnesota couples and their 7-year-old daughters as they visited Nagarwal at the Livonia clinic.
Fakhruddin Attar told federal agents that Nagarwala sees minor girls five to six times a year “for problems with their genitals, including treatment of genital rashes,” and that she does not charge for her procedures.
Nagarwala’s lawyer, Shannon Smith, told the court Monday that Nagarwala merely wiped off a portion of mucous membrane from the girls’ clitorises during her procedure, The Detroit News reported. Small amounts were placed on gauze pads and given to the families for burial, the lawyer added.
“This is part of the culture,” she said.
Smith did not respond to a VOA request for comment.
Nagarwala and the Attars are prominent members of the local Dawoodi Bohra community, a subsect of Ismaili Shi’ite Islam with about 2 million adherents worldwide. While the majority of members live in Pakistan and India, where the group has its administrative headquarters, large numbers of Bohras have moved to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America in recent decades.
The Bohra community is also the most well-known Muslim sect in India to practice FGM, according to a study by Marya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo, a transnational group that advocates for elimination of female genital mutilation among the Bohras.
In a 2016 study of Bohram women, Taher found that nearly 80 percent had undergone the procedure while 81 perecent said they did not want the practice to continue.
“There is huge fear of ex-communication within the community,” said Taher, who herself underwent the procedure at 7, the common age for Bohra females to experience it.
The Bohras’ spiritual leader, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, issued a statement last year saying that female genital mutilation, known as khatna within the community, should not be performed in countries where it is illegal, but he left open the possibility of practicing it in other countries.
Shelby Quast, the Americas director for Equality First, a women’s rights organization, hailed the arrests.
“We’re actually very encouraged to see the law being implemented,” Quast said of the 1996 federal law. “We’re now seeing a greater priority at the federal level. We’re also seeing priority at the state level.”
In the U.S., 25 states have passed their own laws against FGM in recent years, and others are mulling similar legislation.
Michigan state Representative Abdullah Hammoud said he wanted the state to pass a law with a harsher penalty for perpetrators of FGM than is allowed under the federal statute.
“This is a tragedy and a human rights violation,” Hammoud said. “I can’t believe there was a tradition conducting such a procedure.”
FGM is an internationally recognized human rights violation, with all 193 members of the United Nations committed to eliminating the practice. According to Quast, approximately 200 million women and girls live with the consequences of FGM around the world.
In the United States, more than 500,000 women and girls are either at risk of FGM or have experienced it, and they live in all 50 states, Quast said.
“Previously, we thought it was certain communities,” she said. “What we’re seeing is it’s very widespread.”
At a December summit on FGM in Washington, “a woman stood up and said, ‘I’m white, I’m Christian, I’m from the Midwest, and this happened to me,’ ” Quast said. “We’re beginning to understand that this is much more broad-reached than we thought.”
VOA’s Lynn Davis contributed to this report.