Secret cutting

A highly publicized criminal cruelty case shines the spotlight on female genital mutilation in the U.S.

Published October 30, 2006 9:16PM (EST)

News agencies great and small have been all over the case of 30-year-old Ethiopian immigrant Khalid Adem, who is accused of cutting off his daughter's clitoris with a pair of household scissors. The particulars of the case are grisly and sad: Adem's ex-wife, Fortunate Adem, alleges that he circumcised their daughter in 2001, when she was 2. (Now 7 years old, the Adems' daughter testified in court that her father "cut [her] on [her] private part.") Fortunate says she didn't notice the wound until a year after it was inflicted; she testified last week that "he said he wanted to preserve her virginity. He said it was the will of God." She further told the court, "I thought he was crazy," and the couple divorced in 2003. Fortunate has since been involved in the passage of anti-mutilation legislation in Georgia, where the family lives.

For his part, Khalid Adem testified that he's aware of the practice of female genital mutilation and its prevalence in rural parts of Ethiopia, but he maintains that he did not mutilate his daughter. When asked what he would think of a person who believes in genital mutilation, Adem said the practice brought to mind words like "mind in the gutter" and "moron." Adem's lawyer doesn't dispute that the Adems' daughter was mutilated, but he has suggested that Fortunate, who has had custody of the girl since the divorce, may have been behind the crude operation.

For those not directly involved in the Adems' case, the trial is most interesting as a matter of precedent. The Associated Press notes that experts say the Adem trial may be the first criminal case on female genital mutilation in the U.S. However, it's unlikely to be the last; the AP notes that, based on 1990 Census data, the Department of Health and Human Services "estimated that 168,000 girls and women in the U.S. had undergone the procedure or were at risk of being subjected to it." (To say nothing of women worldwide; the World Health Organization estimates that over 100 million women around the world have experienced genital cutting.) As Equality Now executive director Taina Bien-Aime told the wire service, "with immigration, the immigrants travel with their traditions. Female genital mutilation is not an exception."

The coverage of the Adem case is helpful if it draws attention to the practice of genital cutting and its consequences. (It will probably also be used as fodder for our country's ongoing debate about circumcision.) The danger, though, is that the publicity will also contribute to fear and isolation among immigrants and suspicion and stereotyping among nonimmigrants. At a time when support and funding for immigrant integration probably aren't as robust as they need to be, outreach into immigrant communities remains critical; here's hoping that when federal and state governments assess their budgetary needs, they take these factors into account.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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