By Samantha Nerove

In a 409-0 unanimous vote, the United States House of Representatives approved a bipartisan bill that increases the maximum federal penalty for female genital mutilation (FGM) from 5 to 15 years. The bill, called Stopping Abusive Female Exploitation (SAFE) Act, was sponsored by Michigan Representative Dave Trott after physician Dr. Jumana Nagarwala was accused of performing a ritualistic cutting, or “female circumcision,” of two seven-year-old girls — the first such case on U.S. soil.

On the House floor, Trott spoke of Dr. Nagarwala of the Dawoodi-Bohra community, whom he believes has “reportedly committed this heinous act hundreds of times.” Trott went on to add, “We must make it clear to America and the rest of the world this practice will not be tolerated. We don’t know if raising it from five to 15 years is enough of a disincentive for doctors not to be doing this, but it’s certainly a start.” In an interview, Trott further shared, “We realized that our federal statutes weren’t really consistent with what some other countries are doing around the world.”

When the landmark FGM trial made headlines this year, America Matters responded by forming the #StopFGM campaign. This campaign brings together a diverse coalition of activists, survivors, attorneys, doctors, scholars and other professionals to champion this issue. Here, our esteemed coalition members weigh in on the passing of the SAFE.

Reda Eldanbouki, a prominent Egyptian lawyer who has won all three cases of FGM  in Egypt, spoke with America Matters’ Director of Muslim Matters, Shireen Qudosi, in Los Angeles. He believes the penalties are necessary measures.

“The Egyptian Penal code stipulates that penalties may reach a life long prison sentence, which means 25 years of imprisonment for FGM,” notes Eldanbouki. “Despite the law reinforcing women’s rights, Egypt faces challenges with judges and police officers who may be tolerant to such crimes of violence committed against women. What we need is to increase the level of awareness and hear from and about circumcised women, and train those women to help educate on and eliminate such crimes. We also need qualification and training for professionals ranging from members of the clergy to physicians.”

James Middlebrook, Director of Millennial Matters at America Matters, is confident tripling federal FGM penalties from 5 years to 15 years is a great bipartisan accomplishment for our nation. “The House has sent a clear message to all who perpetrate this heinous act: we will not tolerate it in America,” says Middlebrook.

As a millennial, and as part of the vital chorus of men’s voices that believe in protecting women, James wants other lawmakers to know that the public overwhelmingly supports these actions.

“As activists, going into 2018 we need to build on this momentum and keep the focus on saving little girls. The legislation is great, but it is a reactive measure, not a proactive deterrent. I believe we need to engage communities to prevent FGM, not just respond to it.”

Ani Zonneveld, president and founder of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), is encouraged by the passage of the bill and in the House and hopes the Senate will do the same. As one of the most respected North American Muslim theologians and community organizers, she also has sent a critical message to lawmakers who might be apprehensive  of the bill out of a sense of compassion for religious or ethnic communities.

“Regardless of how many years one is punished for conducting FGM/C, we urge legislators to ensure that [the] Religious Freedom Act cannot be used to circumvent this legislation. As a faith-based human rights organizations we [MPV] adamantly argue for the individual right over cultural and supposedly religious practices and we must recognize, sometimes, the worst human rights abusers are our own family members.”

Founder of Our House NYC, the highly anticipated “TEDx of Religion,” Oz Sultan believes triple penalties for FGM sends a strong message, setting a powerful deterrent against a cultural practice that hurts far too many girls and women.

“The SAFE Act builds on previous legislation led by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY) and is a message for states where FGM isn’t outlawed that the practice has no place in America.”

Kylla Benes, Editor and Data Analyst for America Matters, is pleased to see increased spotlight on FGM is moving elected politicians into action.

Kylla adds, “Enacting tougher penalties may certainly dissuade some from carrying out the practice. But I would like to see more efforts towards education. We have to reach out to these communities and help them understand that not practicing FGM is what’s honorable, and the healthiest choice for girls.”

Shirin Taber, Director of Middle East Women’s Leadership Network, believes passing the SAFE Act will help create awareness and help protect thousands of American girls from FGM and other gender-based violence.

Taber reflects, “As the daughter of Muslim and Christian parents, I am grateful for the House passing a bill that protects little girls from abuse. As a young child I, too, suffered, abuse. These crimes against children must stop now and no longer affect future generations. We must send a powerful message to the rest of the world that America will have zero tolerance of acts of violence toward women and girls. While we welcome people of all cultures, creeds, and faiths, we must always uphold our universal human rights.”

For many #StopFGM coalition members, this issue is on the front-lines alongside other causes they’re passionate about. Working on several, intertwined issues gives them an acute understanding of how important it is to work collaboratively toward the common goals of dignity and human rights. Read on to learn more about these powerful activists.

Reda Eldanbouki is seen as a fierce defender of women’s rights in the full spectrum of their lives, after having spent the month of December interviewing dozens of new FGM victims in Egypt, and becoming a powerful male advocate, in one of the most densely affected populations groups where 90% of women suffer from female circumcision.

Recently, Ani Zonneveld launched MPV’s highly anticipated publishing house, which serves as an outlet for those interested in Islam and social, spiritual, and cultural perspectives from a progressive Muslim viewpoint. Oz Sultan is passionate about ending child trafficking; he’s also launching the highly anticipated “TEDx” of religion in 2018 with Our House NYC.  

In 2018, Taber will join a strategic group of leaders who will convene in Geneva to implement the “Plan of Action” to prevent the incitement of violence that leads to genocide and war crimes. The landmark Detroit FGM trial has brought these spirited campaigners for human rights together under one umbrella, and it’s also brought awareness to how interconnected women’s rights are as coalitions and countries rally around the need to #StopFGM, a front America and its allies can lead on.

“Too often women and girls are the greatest victims of such terror. As Americans, let us commit to always stand up for the least represented and promote peace building in our communities and around the world,” says Taber.

The question of if and how states decide to stand up for the least represented communities is a debate taking hold across the U.S. Most recently, New Hampshire legislature discussed a proposed bill to make female genital mutilation illegal in their state. American Matters had the honor of being present and offering testimony. We also spoke with representatives about the physical and mental health impacts this practice has on women and girls. Together, we can protect little girls.


For more information on #StopFGM, visit