Some call it 'culture ' we call it illegal

March 26, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

MIMI RAMSAY is heading out again, for another foray through the stores, coffee shops and meeting places in California where the immigrant African community gathers.

The human-rights activist from Santa Clara goes about her daily work this way, cajoling and persuading new immigrants from countries like Somalia or Sierra Leone, Nigeria or Sudan to put aside one horrific custom of their homeland. She wants them to give up the tradition that some call female circumcision and others call, more accurately, female genital mutilation.

Sometimes in her quest to save one more girl from the ritual maiming that she experienced in her native Ethiopia, Ramsay succeeds in changing minds. Sometimes she doesn't. But beginning this Saturday she and other activists will have something new on their side: the law.

Years of squeamishness

After years of ignorance, years of denial that it could happen in America, years of pure squeamishness about the whole subject, the bill that Pat Schroeder shepherded through Congress is finally going into effect. With one hand, the bill will reach out to new immigrants and communities where girls are at risk. With the other, it will criminalize the practice, making it punishable with up to five years in prison.

So these days Ms. Ramsay carries warnings along with her usual arguments as she meets with parents and grandparents. Some react with shock, she says, ''They say, 'Wow, a law for [female genital mutilation]? Why? Isn't this our tradition, our culture?''' Others react with uncertainty. And still others react with relief.

A Nigerian father living in North Carolina tells Ms. Ramsay that now he has an argument to protect his young daughters. Her own sister says she can silence her visiting mother-in-law's nightly demands that her little daughter ''needs to be cut, needs to be clean.'' They can say, ''it's against the law.''

Think a hundred times

''What the law can do,'' insists this activist, ''is make people think once, think twice, think a hundred times before they do this thing.''

Not everyone has as much faith in the law as a tool for cultural change. There are some who are concerned that this law could drive the practice further underground and target parents as criminals.

''I can imagine a situation,'' says Hope Lewis, a law professor at Northeastern University, ''in which a parent believes he or she is doing the right thing for the child and then is essentially thrown in jail.''

Asma Abdel Halim, a Sudanese lawyer studying in Ohio, approves of the law as ''a preventive measure,'' but nevertheless she echoes that worry about criminalizing parents. ''We have to ask, are we talking about a blatantly cruel act that is malicious? Is there intent to hurt?''

These women raise questions that resound uneasily in a world where one culture's tradition may be another's cruelty. How do you navigate the currents of change, avoiding both backlash and backsliding? Recognizing other values, but upholding our own?

Child brides

In November an Iraqi family who found refuge in Nebraska innocently and illegally married 13- and 14-year-old daughters to older men in the community. Not long after the wedding, the authorities put the under-age girls in foster care, charged the astonished father with child abuse and the bewildered bridegrooms with rape.

If marriage below the age of consent is wrong, female genital mutilation is horrific. Yet tradition-bound parents may believe, as one Somali father in Houston told a reporter, ''It's my responsibility. If I don't do it, I will have failed my children.''

How do traditions fall? By some double-helix change of rules and mind. In China they no longer bind girls' feet. In India widows no longer throw themselves on the funeral pyre. There are no more eunuchs. And the world that once looked away from female ''circumcision'' has at least, at the 1995 U.N. conference in Beijing, labeled it ''violence.''

In our country we now have a law that can be used quickly to spread the word. It can be used to get an injunction for a girl at risk and, despite loopholes, to put a practitioner in jail. But it can also and properly be directed at parents who -- whatever their intentions -- commit violence against their daughters' bodies.

The Nebraska prosecutor said of the Iraqi family, ''You live in our country, you abide by our laws.'' So it is with polygamy, with child marriage, and surely with genital mutilation.

''I want the world to know that America has introduced a law to protect its little girls from torture,'' says Mimi Ramsay. Now it will know.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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