Twenty years ago almost no one in the West had heard of Female Genital Mutilation. Then in the 2000s, thanks to a few brave and vocal campaigners like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, knowledge of this barbaric practice began to spread.

Originally there was some queasiness about taking up the subject at all. Lawmakers and opinion formers took a while to work out their line. There was an early question mark over whether FGM wasn’t just the same as male circumcision. Most people swiftly learned that the difference was, gynecologically speaking, almost everything. There were some hold-outs among people who thought that since FGM was practiced among Muslims there might be something ‘Islamophobic’ about objecting to the mutilation of young girls’ genitals with knives. On such fine judgement calls (‘child mutilation’ vs the suspicion of prejudice?) is the modern liberal conscience formed.

Eventually by this decade most countries in the West had settled on a consensus that FGM was wrong. Although the question of exactly what to do about it remained.

In the UK, a law banning the practice has actually been on the books for three decades. Yet to date only a handful of people have been charged with the offense and there has not been a single successful prosecution. Some of the reasons are understandable. Collecting evidence in such cases is difficult, and it often relies on children giving evidence about someone close to them. Nevertheless there is a huge question mark over the whole matter. If thousands of girls are being tortured and mutilated in your country every year why would the state not move heaven and earth to bring all those responsible to justice?

Now America has come to one of its stumbling moments in the prosecution of this crime. Two doctors from Michigan have been charged (alongside six others) with mutilating at least nine girls. This is the first attempt in the US to prosecute anyone for this crime. As the Detroit Free Press reports:

‘The historic case involves minor girls from Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota, including some who cried, screamed and bled during the procedure and one who was given Valium ground in liquid Tylenol to keep her calm, court records show.’ 

But a judge in Detroit has dismissed the charges against the doctors because he has accepted an argument put forward by the defense that the country’s FGM laws are in fact unconstitutional: 

‘The judge’s ruling also dismissed charges against three mothers, including two Minnesota women whom prosecutors said tricked their 7-year-old daughters into thinking they were coming to metro Detroit for a girls’ weekend, but instead had their genitals cut at a Livonia clinic as part of a religious procedure.’

US District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that ‘as despicable as this practice may be,’ the US Congress did not have the authority to pass the 22-year-old federal law that criminalizes FGM, and that it is for the individual states to regulate the matter. 

‘Oh my God, we won!’ was the reported reaction of the lawyer for the accused. It will now be for the government to decide whether to appeal the judge’s decision. A number of other charges, including conspiracy and obstruction still remain. But those lawyer’s words speak to something far beyond this one individual case: to the whole difficulty countries like America are having facing up to the nature of this crime.

FGM. OMG. Here is where barbarism and modernity meet, and try to work out if they can’t get along together just fine.