High-priced defense attorney Alan Dershowitz has joined the legal team for three Michigan residents accused of conducting female genital mutilation on two young Minnesota girls.
This is the first such case prosecuted in the United States. The defense team is expected to make a two-pronged argument, saying that what happened to the girls does not qualify as “female genital mutilation” but was instead “legal and benign.” Moreover, they are expected to argue that the practice is constitutionally protected as a religious practice.
Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, along with Dr. Fakrhuddin Attar and his wife, Farida, belong to the Detroit-area Dawoodi Bohra community, a sect of Shiite Islam with more than a million adherents worldwide.
The Dawoodi Bohra’s religious leader, Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin, endorsed female genital mutilation at a Mumbai mosque last year, saying it “needs to be done.”
Dershowitz, whose past clients include Jeffrey Epstein, Jack Kevorkian and O.J. Simpson, was retained by the Dawat-e-Hadiyah, an international organization that serves as the administrative arm for the Dawoodi Bohra community, the Detroit News reported.
The trial will begin on Oct. 10 in a Detroit federal court. The two doctors face up to life in prison if they’re convicted, while Farida Attar, Fakhruddin’s wife, could serve 20 years. All three are currently being held without bond after it was determined they are a flight risk.
A central legal question will be whether the procedure—also known as “khatna” or “female circumcision”—harmed the two seven-year-old Minnesota girls.
Because male circumcision is not deemed harmful and can have health benefits, it is not unlawful. In contrast, courts have historically ruled against parents deemed to have caused their children harm when adhering to a religious practice, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who denied their children medical care.
Shannon Smith, a defense attorney for Nagarwala, has said that instead of mutilating the girl’s genitals, her client used a “scraper” to wipe off a portion of the mucus membrane around their clitorises. The practice did not cause harm and had cultural and religious significance, she said.
But the World Health Organization said the practice has no health benefits. And according to the 11-page complaint filed against Nagarwala, one of the seven-year-old girls described screaming, feeling “pain all the way down to her ankle” and scarcely being able to walk after the procedure.
At a May hearing, U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Stafford denied bond to Fakhruddin and Farida Attar, calling their religious defense “a shield,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
“It is important to me … to take religion out of it and focus on the allegations that young girls’ genitals were mutilated and that the defendants played a role. … I think it’s common knowledge that the cutting of the genitalia of a 7-year-old child would be painful. I find this to be a serious crime,” Stafford said.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.