In July 2016, at the 32nd session of the U.S. Human Rights Council, the U.S. "cosponsored resolutions" that supported "the elimination of female genital mutilation," the State Department announced.
"Just because this is a tradition in some places does not make it right. This practice is harmful, and therefore wrong wherever it occurs," President Barack Obama stated on Feb. 5, 2016, in his remarks on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.
Yet a case in Michigan has brought the practice into the national spotlight, as attorneys for the parents and doctors who performed the procedure on children argue that it is a religious practice and should be protected under freedom of religion.
Three people were charged earlier this year by the U.S. attorney's office for a federal district in Michigan with performing female genital mutilation on minors, as well as "conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation."
Jumana Nagarwala, M.D., Fakhruddin Attar, M.D., and his wife Farida Attar were all charged with performing the practice out of Attar's medical office in Livonia, Mich., in an Indian-Muslim sect – Dawoodi Bohra – in suburban Detroit.
Lawyers for the accused claim that the practice should be protected under freedom of religion.
However, no human rights violation against children should be protected under freedom of religion, Arriaga said, including female genital mutilation. "This is a grave violation of human rights," she said, and a "form of child abuse that no one should have to endure."
The World Health Organization says the practice "can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths."
One woman who underwent the procedure with other young girls recalled in Mother Jones magazine that "we were cut. Some of us bled and ached for days, and some walked away with lifelong physical damage."
To defend the practice under freedom of religion would endanger the cause of religious freedom, Arriaga said.
"Conservatives and liberals alike must unite to make sure that the Michigan case does not taint the concept of religious freedom, because if it does, everyone in the United States loses regardless of their religious or political persuasion," she said.
(Story continues below)
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In 2016, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a statement saying that religious liberty and religious freedom were being used as "code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance."
"This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion never again be twisted to deny others the full promise of America," then-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Martin R. Castro stated.
Although the statement was sharply criticized by religious freedom advocates including Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Arriaga said that defending human rights violations like female genital mutilation under the cause of religious freedom would ultimately give fuel to such sentiments.
"People who care about religious freedom must make sure that religious freedom is never a code for harming children, that it's never a code for discrimination, that it's never a code for bigotry," she said.
Religious leaders and communities must also speak up for the rights of women, she said.
"Every single state should pass laws criminalizing female genital mutilation, and every community must find leaders in their community that can speak frankly, openly, and in the same language to families who are doing this to these girls," she said. Michigan has recently passed a law increasing the punishment for the practice to up to 15 years in prison.