Even more than two decades later, Harry Reid is haunted by the video an activist told him to watch.
Men grabbed a little girl in a white dress at a celebration in Egypt, then spread her legs and pulled out a cutting instrument. Blood pooled beneath her.
“I can still see it in my mind’s eye, right now,” said Reid, now 77.
Back then, as a second-term U.S. senator, he was so horrified by the image that he took up the fight against female genital mutilation and authored a law criminalizing it.
While international health authorities say that the ritual has been performed on more than 200 million girls, primarily in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the 1996 U.S. law remained largely symbolic — until now.
On Wednesday, federal authorities accused Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician in Detroit, of performing genital mutilation on two 7-year-old girls at a medical clinic in Livonia, Mich.
Charged with female genital mutilation, transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and making a false statement to a federal officer, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted on all counts.
The girls were told they were brought to Detroit from Minnesota for a “special” girls trip, according to a court filing. After arriving at a hotel, the girls were taken to the doctor “to get the germs out” because “our tummies hurt.”
Both girls told authorities that they were instructed not to talk about the procedure.
One said she was given a pad to wear in her underwear, while the other told authorities that after the procedure she could barely walk and felt pain down to her ankle. The second victim’s parents told investigators that they took their daughter to Nagarwala for a “cleansing” of extra skin.
Authorities say other girls may have been victimized by Nagarwala between 2005 and 2007.
She pleaded not guilty. Her attorney did not return calls for comment.
According to her online bio at Henry Ford Hospital, where Nagarwala practices, she attended Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and speaks Gujarati, a language of western India.
Nagarwala has been placed on administrative leave and her clinical privileges have been suspended, according to Henry Ford spokeswoman Brenda Craig.
“The alleged criminal activity did not occur at any Henry Ford facility,” Craig said in a statement. “We would never support or condone anything related to this practice.”
The procedure may involve a partial or total removal of the clitoris, excision of the inner and outer folds of the vulva or the narrowing of the vaginal opening. Carried out mostly on girls between infancy and age 15, the procedure can be intended to reduce sexual pleasure and promiscuity, and to prepare a girl for marriage.
The World Health Organization says genital cutting has no health benefits for girls or women. The procedure can cause severe bleeding, problems urinating and infections, while increasing the risk of complications in childbirth and newborn deaths.
It is unknown how many girls have undergone the procedure in the U.S., but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the number at risk has risen as more people emigrate from countries where the practice is common, including Egypt, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Reid said he was never swayed by those who defended the practice as a cultural rite and said it’s not supported by religious texts.
“You want a way to hold women back? Just make it so to have sex is a painful thing, not any fun,” he said. “That’s what they’ve done for generations. It’s a way that men suppress women.”
Back in the 1990s, his staff had dissuaded him from getting involved in the issue, arguing that politically it made more sense for a woman to do it.
“I accept that — except no one else would take the cudgel,” he said. “It was just me. I figured I’m a lot better than nothing.”
So he persisted. His bill slipped through, he said, without much fanfare.
The prosecution of Nagarwala 21 years later is “clear evidence” the practice is happening in the U.S., according to activists.
“There’s a myth that this is only happening to people in India or Africa,” said Shelby Quast, director of the women’s rights organization Equality Now. “It’s happening everywhere and we’re beginning to learn that.”
She also said the arrest could lead to others: “It was very quiet. People were not talking about this…. Where this practice is occurring, if there are other doctors that are performing this, I would expect people might start speaking up.”
Though authorities say no one else has been charged under the 1996 law, at least two other criminal cases have been brought against people suspected of or who agreed to perform genital cutting in the U.S.
In 2002, a Santa Clarita man was caught in an FBI sting when he agreed through an undercover agent to perform genital mutilation on children ages 8 and 12.
The man told investigators he had performed more “female circumcisions” than anyone in the Western world, though authorities were unable to corroborate that. He and his girlfriend pleaded guilty to conspiracy and possessing child pornography.
In 2006, an Ethiopian immigrant was convicted of aggravated battery and cruelty to children for removing his 2-year-old daughter’s clitoris with scissors at the family’s Atlanta-area apartment.
In 2013, President Obama signed an amendment to Reid’s law that made it illegal to send a girl to another country to have the procedure done.
For Reid, that the alleged perpetrator in Detroit was a trained physician makes the case hard to comprehend, but he was happy to see his law being enforced.
“I hope it focuses attention on a problem we have in America,” he said.
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