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Houston woman faces historic indictment over female genital cutting

The indictment alleges Zahra Badri knowingly transported a minor from the U.S. for the purpose of female genital cutting in 2016.

Photo by Bill Oxford/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — A Texas woman is facing the first-ever indictment for transporting a child outside the U.S. for female genital cutting, according to federal authorities. 

The indictment alleges Zahra Badri, a 39-year-old British Muslim woman residing in Houston, knowingly transported a minor from the U.S. in foreign commerce for the purpose of female genital cutting between July and October 2016.

The indictment was announced Wednesday (Jan. 13) by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. Badri is expected to appear before a U.S. magistrate judge soon.

“Female genital mutilation is child abuse,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick said in a statement. “The long term damage, both physically and physiologically, is well documented. Unnecessary medical procedures on children will not be tolerated.”

While female genital cutting has been illegal in the U.S. for about 25 years, officials said it was the first time the Department of Justice has brought charges against an individual under the 2013 provision that criminalizes transporting a minor outside U.S. borders for this purpose, a process sometimes called “vacation cutting.”

Female genital mutilation or cutting, also known as FGM/C or female circumcision, refers to the removal of the external female genitalia, in part or in whole, or other deliberate injury to genitalia without a medical reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 513,000 U.S. females — from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds — are at risk of undergoing cutting.

The practice is “a violation of the rights and bodily integrity of women and girls, and can have long-term physical, psychological and sexual consequences for them,” said the nonprofit group Sahiyo, founded by FGM/C survivors in 2015.

The group is particularly focused on ending the practice within the Dawoodi Bohra community, a small branch of Islam’s Ismaili Shiite minority, in which many girls are cut at about 7 years old. Female genital cutting is known as khatna or khafz among Bohras.

Female genital cutting is not mentioned in the Quran and the practice is widely condemned by most Muslims. But many Bohras consider it both a cultural norm and a religious practice. The sect’s religious authorities say that khatna is sanctioned by some of the community’s other religious texts. Sahiyo’s research suggests most Bohras believe cutting is important for religious purposes, to decrease sexual arousal and to maintain traditions. 

In 2017, two Michigan doctors and six other members of the Bohra community became the first Americans prosecuted for performing or facilitating the practice, on nine girls. Federal officials believed the doctors may have been cutting girls since at least 2005. 

But the following year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled the law was unconstitutional, declaring Congress lacks the authority to ban the practice at a federal level and dropping charges against the defendants in the watershed Michigan case. Several states have since passed state-level bans.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed into law the bipartisan Strengthening the Opposition to Female Genital Mutilation Act, which gives federal law enforcement the authority to prosecute perpetrators of female genital mutilation.

The indictment against Badri, which concerned crimes allegedly committed in 2016, took place under the 2013 amendment to the original federal ban, which was not challenged in the 2018 ruling.

“In light of this indictment of the Houston woman, we strongly urge members of all FGC-practicing communities to completely abandon this age-old ritual, not just because it is illegal in the US and several other countries, but because it is harmful, patriarchal, medically unnecessary, and detrimental to the well-being of girls and women,” Sahiyo said.