Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was asked a thoughtful question about the status of the federal female genital mutilation (FGM) statute, since a federal judge had found the law unconstitutional last year. This innocuous and benign question seemingly triggered Omar into a huffy harangue.
Omar seethingly lit into the questioner, calling it an “appalling” question. Ironically, global human rights advocates would view not the question, but the practice of female genital mutilation as appalling. One would have thought that the media-savvy and influential legislator from Somalia, where 97% of the little girls’ genitals are mutilated, would jump at any chance to advocate against such a barbaric practice.
Instead, Omar was seemingly “insulted” and “disgusted” by the question and proceeded to haughtily lecture the questioner:
‘How often? Should I make a schedule? Does this need to be on repeat every five minutes? Should I be, like, so today I forgot to condemn al-Qaeda, so here’s the al-Qaeda one. Today I forgot to condemn FGM, so here we go. Today I forgot to condemn Hamas … You know, I mean, it is a very frustrating question that comes up.’
Why is Omar so testy? Is she somehow conflicted over this brutal practice? After all, despite global condemnation and insidious health complications, Somalia continues to practice FGM and, in fact, is the highest FGM-practicing country in the world.
Listening to Omar’s defensive and haughty tirade to a question about the status of the female genital mutilation law is nothing short of bizarre. One would have thought that the questioner had accused her of immigration fraud by marrying her brother!
The world health community recognizes FGM as a heinous form of female child abuse that has targeted over 200 million women and girls around the world. Yet, the imperious Omar is tired of answering this question, feeling put upon that she must constantly address this issue.
Her defensive and strong pushback belies the fact that she should welcome any opportunity to decry this barbaric procedure that has been imported into the U.S. One would think that she would welcome the opportunity to speak in a public forum about the pain, suffering, and lifelong consequences from FGM.
Her vitriolic response is both curious and very revealing. Omar ended her rant by stating, “If you want us to speak as American politicians, you should treat us as such.”
Well, two of her fellow “American politicians”decided to carry out their legislative duties and act to address the absence of a federal FGM law. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) have introduced companion bills that would criminalize female genital mutilation nationwide.
H.R. 3583 and S. 2017 were both introduced in late June with the goal of overturning the 2018 ruling by a federal judge declaring that Congress was unable to pass a 1996 law which banned FGM. The newly proposed legislation would again ban FGM on girls under 18 and specifies on laws governing interstate commerce, which Congress has jurisdiction over.
This legislation is critically important because only 35 states have criminal laws banning FGM. Congress needs to pass this federal legislation to protect the more than 513,000 girls and women at risk of FGM in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control. FGM is often seen in the United States as a problem that doesn’t happen here. But this practice occurs all over the world and is happening right here on American soil as well.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations both have declared that FGM is a human rights violation. It is a practice that leaves victims with lifelong consequences and causes multiple physical complications. Initially, a victim can suffer from shock, infection, blood loss, and sometimes death. Most survivors suffer from frequent urinary tract infections, difficulty in childbirth, infertility, chronic pain, painful menstruation, painful intercourse, and genital sores—many physical complications the survivor must suffer with in silence.
Women and girls are not just impacted in a physical way; many also suffer from the emotional impact this trauma can cause. Because FGM is regularly done in a non-sterile environment without any form of pain control, it is often one of the most traumatic events they will ever experience. Women and girls are left to deal with anxiety, depression, frequent nightmares, flashbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
All these complications are worsened by the fact that communities are unaware of what FGM is and are not educated on how to help someone who has endured FGM, which also forces survivors to suffer in silence. Survivors need advocates, such as U.S. legislators, to speak out against this barbarism.
The urgency of passing federal FGM legislation cannot be overstated. Answering to the American people is the sworn duty of our public servants—our legislators—who work for the people. Sen. Blackburn and Congressman Perry understand the importance of criminalizing this appalling practice. Unlike Omar, they welcome the opportunity to answer repeated questions about FGM legislation.
By the way, Rep. Omar has yet to sign on as a co-sponsor for H. Res. 960, Empower Our Girls Act, which adds FGM to seven Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant programs, allowing FGM victims to receive assistance. Nor has she signed onto H.R. 3583, Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2019, which would once again ban the practice for girls under age 18 and includes six specific provisions recommended by the Justice Department.
Now, that’s “appalling.”
Elizabeth Yore is an international child rights attorney who served as Oprah Winfrey’s Special Counsel. She heads the national initiative EndFGMToday.com.