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NYT editor says paper avoids term ‘female genital mutilation’ — here's why

New York Times reporter Celia Dugger is facing backlash from some readers after she referred to “female genital mutilation” as “cutting” because the term FGM is “culturally loaded” and “widens the chasm” between African and Western civilizations. (Keen Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

The New York Times took some flak over the weekend when the health and science editor refused to use the term “female genital mutilation” to describe the Detroit-based doctor arrested this month for performing the barbaric procedure.

Times reporter Celia Dugger said using the “culturally loaded” phrase would “widen the chasm” between African and Western civilizations. Since Dugger’s April 13 story, a second doctor has been arrested for performing female genital mutilation, which is frequently abbreviated to FGM.

“I began writing about this back in 1996, when I was an immigration reporter on the Metro desk covering the asylum case of Fauziya Kassindja,” Dugger wrote. “I decided in the course of reporting that case — especially after a reporting trip to Togo, her home country, and the Ivory Coast — to call it genital cutting rather than mutilation.”

She continued: “I never minced words in describing exactly what form of cutting was involved, and there are many gradations of severity, and the terrible damage it did, and stayed away from the euphemistic circumcision, but chose to use the less culturally loaded term, genital cutting.”

Dugger’s explanation came in response to a complaint filed by a Times reader who took issue with the journalist’s April 13 story and headline, “Michigan Doctor Is Accused of Genital Cutting of 2 Girls.”

“There’s a gulf between the Western (and some African) advocates who campaign against the practice and the people who follow the rite, and I felt the language used  [female genital mutilation] widened that chasm,” Dugger argued.

However, the practice has been widely rejected as unacceptable and barbaric — not an issue of cultural nuance. The World Health Organization describes FGM as “a violation of the human rights of girls and women.”

And the United Nations took it a step further, asserting that the use of the word “mutilation,” rather than Dugger’s word choice, “emphasizes the gravity of the act and reinforces that the practice is a violation of women's and girls' basic human rights.”

“This expression gained support in the late 1970s, and since 1994, it has been used in several United Nations conference documents and has served as a policy and advocacy tool,” the organization wrote.

Last week, the Justice Department announced the arrest of 53-year-old Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife, Farida Attar, 50, who have been charged with allegedly conspiring with Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who was arrested earlier in the month and charged with performing FGM on young girls at a medical clinic in Livonia, Michigan.

Nagarwala has denied the accusations against her, saying she understands FGM is illegal and has never performed the procedure on anyone. Rather than cutting, the doctor claims she removed a membrane from the girls’ genital area using what she called a “scraper.”

She went on to tell investigators she then gave the membrane to the girls’ parents, who would then bury it in the ground as part of a “religious practice,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco described the doctor’s alleged procedures as “horrifying acts of brutality on the most vulnerable victims.”

“The Department of Justice is committed to stopping female genital mutilation in this country, and will use the full power of the law to ensure that no girls suffer such physical and emotional abuse,” he said.

Nagarwala’s case marked the United States’ first federal prosecution of FGM.


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