On a few days over the last year, federal agents approached travellers at several U.S. airports — flights bound for or connecting to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Frankfurt, Germany, and Dakar, Senegal.
The officials — part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — weren’t searching for contraband, or guiding bag-sniffing dogs. They were part of a smaller office within the agency that doesn’t focus on detaining and deporting people. Instead, they were handing out printed materials. They wanted to talk about female genital cutting.
JFK. Newark. Washington-Dulles. They targeted some of the country’s biggest international airports. In May, they roamed the gates in Atlanta — in the state where an Ethiopian man deported last year was believed to be the first person criminally convicted in the United States for FGC, sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM.
ICE declined a request to speak with the agents for details about how the initiative is carried out. There are brochures involved and, according to photos attached to the agency’s news releases, male and female agents chat with women about to board flights abroad.
FGC is a federal crime, the agency says it tells travellers. It can have consequences on child custody, and in immigration cases, too, even if the procedure is performed outside the U.S.
An agency spokeswoman told VOA via email that “people were happy to hear that’s why [Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security] was out there with materials. Some folks have never heard of it; many have but don’t understand it, the extent of the problem and how harmful the procedure and associated complications are. And some women had been subjected themselves to FGM.”
The project is modelled after one in the United Kingdom, an “awareness” campaign designed to talk about the risks of FGC and publicize the criminality of the procedure.
Removing part of the female genitals for nonmedical reasons is a practice concentrated in a few dozen countries, but performed on a smaller scale in many more, including the United States, where cases have been documented dating to as early as the 19th century. Last year, ICE investigators unravelled the Michigan case of a medical doctor performing FGC on young girls.
The justifications can include religious, cultural or pseudomedical rationales, like when U.S. doctors used the procedure to treat “hysteria.” Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the U.S. are FGC survivors, or are vulnerable to it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mariya Taher, head of Sahiyo — a U.S. nongovernmental organization that advocates for an end to FGC — has spoken publicly about her experience surviving the procedure. Now, her organization is spearheading its own effort to publicize the stories of other survivors in the U.S., with a video project due out this month.
Does Taher think ICE agents handing out pamphlets and talking to families headed to visit relatives abroad, who are maybe considering having the procedure done on their daughters, or planning to have it done on that summer vacation, is an effective method?
“A large part of prevention is educating that it IS illegal … many people don’t recognize that it IS,” said Taher. She wants to know more about what information is being shared and how the conversations with travellers are happening before passing judgment on the project.
“Any effort about the health, legal consequences, support services, I think is really helpful and beneficial,” Taher said. On the other hand, she noted, “I feel conflict. We’re trying to show that FGC happens across the board, regardless of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status. … I’m a little afraid, if we’re just targeting certain countries, that we’re unintentionally misrepresenting whom FGC happens to.”
Dozens of U.S. states have passed laws, in addition to the federal legislation, criminalizing FGC. In the Michigan case, doctors who performed the procedure on girls were charged, as well as four mothers who agreed to the medically unnecessary surgeries. (VOA)
Some of the reasons are as trivial as they can get
When the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, passed away on the morning of the 10th of November 1938, months before the world broke out into war, a Turkish lady in the streets of Istanbul commented to a reporter covering the tragedy, lamenting “Turkey has lost her lover. Now, she must marry and settle down”. The incident is mentioned in Irfan’s Orga’s ‘Phoenix Ascendant’, a comprehensive biography of Mustafa Kemal Pasha.
National heroes are lionized almost everywhere among native communities; but Ataturk and his younger contemporary Subhash Chandra Bose, enjoy a kind of veneration among their people, that even hardened jingoists elsewhere, would not be caught doing. Subhash was an admirer of Ataturk and was determined to meet him, until the British overlords of India, put a spanner in the works. That was not all. In his ‘Glimpses Of World History’, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, made glowing references to Mustafa Kemal, calling him a progressive head of state with the singular objective of emancipating the women of his country. Indeed in Turkey, Kemalism is the byword for progressiveness and the radical intellectual approach.
The trajectory of Sultanate ridden Turkey, and post-colonial India have been analogous, but with a few exceptions. Both countries started out with a prominent Socialist outlook, and statesmen who could navigate the complex waters of international one-upmanship to establish their nascent independent territories into positions of respect. Ataturk did this by having the humiliating Treaty of Sevres, scrapped and Nehru hoisted India to the enviable position of the leader of the NAM (Non-Aligned Movement).
Both men encouraged the scientific temper and set their respective countries on the path of western style democracy. India and Turkey are both Constitutionally Laic, Socialist Republics, with elected governments at the helm of affairs. Both states have successfully produced indomitable women heads of state; Indira Gandhi in India, and Tancu Ciller in Turkey.
However, barring the temper of the Constitutions of the two countries, there have been dichotomies which cannot be missed. The Indian state has an army that has never displayed an interest in the legislative functioning of its polity, maintaining a respectful distance from political upheavals. On the other hand, the Turkish military has tried to usurp power multiple times, in that country. The first three times it attempted to do so, it successfully affected a regime change. The years were 1960, 1971, and 1980. A fourth rumbling from the uniformed men was heard in 2016, but was immediately suppressed and extinguished by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some insiders and whistle blowers have claimed, that the coup was an eyewash, that was perpetrated by Erdogan’s moles present within the military. After all, the only person who benefitted from the crackdowns, was Erdogan himself.
India’s north-western neighbour, has been a major roadblock on the path to India-Turkey relations. Right from its inception, Pakistan has been a firm ally of Turkey. The roots of this friendship go deep down and can be found embedded in the Khilafat movement of the sub-continent during British times, when Indian Muslims had banded together to oppose the abdication of the last Turkish Sultan, and with him, the position of the Caliph of Islam. Turkey supports Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, something that has always troubled the Indian upper echelons, which wants to steer the relationship between their nation and Turkey, ahead.
Where Kemalism had impressed itself upon the elite masses of Turkey, with its accent on westernization, President Erdogan has managed to ride the votebank of the working class, with his emphasis on political Islam. He, unlike his other civilian predecessors, has not only managed to hold on to his position, but has also been successful in reinforcing it and becoming the master of all he surveys.
Turkey remained unaffected by the Arab Spring revolts that have shaken the Middle East since the April of 2011, with the latest victims being Yemen and Iran, which is a testament to its stability. But, as India has watched from the sidelines, this crucial NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member, has shown its back to democracy by embracing a new shade of totalitarianism in the form of the Turkish President’s office, stifled the opposition, dissolved protests from dissidents, and has sought to deal with the Kurdish problem in a much harsher way than previous governments.
Turkey being Asia’s gateway to Europe, a member of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), and a developed nation by many estimates, is crucial to India as not only an economic partner, but also a comrade among the fraternity of the Islamic states, with whom maintaining good relations is vital to India’s interests. During the Cold War, Indo-Turkish bonding had been left in suspended animation due to a conflict of interests; as India was a founding member of the NAM (Non-Aligned Movement), while Turkey was firmly in the Allied Camp, in the Western created and controlled NATO setup.
In the 21st century, India and Turkey have produced two unexpectedly hawkish point men, who seem to share a warm personal rapport with each-other. While India’s Prime Minister Modi, started out in life as a tea seller, Turkey’s Erdogan used to sell lemonade at a train station. Born and raised in humble circumstances, the two men have shown some resolve in bettering their bilateral ties. The year that Modi was indicted for his indifference to the carnage of Gujarat’s Muslims – 2002 – was also the same year that Recep Tayyip Erdogan made himself visible on the radar of Turkish politics.
Despite the co-incidental sweet spot though, India and Turkey are unable to capitalize on the opportunities afforded to each-other. Among the thorny issues that need to be tackled, are:
1.Trade between India and Turkey, is to the tune of 6.4 billion, but India accounts for a much smaller percentage of Turkish imports than other countries, especially those from within the European Union, from whom Turkey buys goods. There is an enormous potential in investing in infrastructure via construction, as Turkey can provide its assistance to India over the matter.
2. On the Kashmir front, Turkey currently favours Pakistan’s stand, though not openly discouraging India. As an ombudsman in the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), it is imperative for India, to get Turkey on board over Kashmir and make that country sympathetic to our stand on the issue.
3. FethullahGulen is a spiritual Sufi Turkish leader, who presently lives in exile in the United States. He used to be a formidable political figure in the power corridors of Ankara, and was a close aide of President Erdogan. A one-time imam in Turkey, Mr. Gulen was an associate of Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) and continues to preside over an empire of charitable institutions that provide education and low-cost housing to the needy, globally. Many Gulenist institutions function in India and have never caused a friction with the Indian state. However, during President Erdogan’s last Indian visit, which took place on the 1st of May 2017, he had insisted that India close down all Gulenist outlets, as they were instruments of sedition against his government. India refused to do so and looked upon the directive as amounting to interfering with our sovereignty, since any such decision could only be taken by our own authorities. Fethullah Gulen was accused of masterminding the military coup that took place in Turkey in the July of 2016, albeit without sufficient evidence. The coup itself, and the crackdown on it, was the bloodiest in the history of Turkey, but for the very first time, it was successfully contained by the elected government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Spiritually and philosophically, Mr. Gulen’s views are more feminist and reconciliatory than the pro-hardline views held by Erdogan.
4. During the day long meeting between President Erdogan and Prime Minister Modi, the former pledged full support to India in its fight against terrorism, but cherry picked on the issue. Erdogan’s primary concern was to help India in our war against the Naxalites, which is a Left-Wing secessionist movement in this country. As an Islamist Right Winger, the Turkish President’s anti-Naxalite stand was predictable. However, he evinced no particular interest in the incidents of cross-border terrorism that India has had to suffer. Pakistan and Turkey are close international allies, especially since Pakistan is the world’s only nation that supports the Turkish created entity of the TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus). Turkey has suffered numerous terrorist attacks ever since the inception of the Turkish Republic in 1923, that were carried out by the PKK, an outlawed, armed Kurdish, political resistance group.
The reason why Turkey is important to India, is due to the reality, that Turkey is West Asia’s most important state, geographically, politically, and militarily. Situated at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, this much-misunderstood country, has been knocking on the doors of the EU (European Union) and if it resolves its Human Rights record pertaining to the Kurds, and the Ottoman Genocide, it might very well become the only Asian nation to be an EU member state. As a leading member of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), Turkey’s support to India is vital for the latter to gain traction within the community of the Muslim world, since currently only some Gulf nations are friendly with us. Turkey is a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member, and its military prowess within that body is substantial. It is the only progressive, and secular (though these are increasingly being eroded), developed nation in West Asia, with a stable political climate. India, being the country with the second largest Muslim population, it is imperative, that the two nations develop closer ties and lasting bonds, if they can lessen the distance between themselves.
The land of the Whirling Dervishes, where the compassionate views of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi have cast a lasting shadow, is India’s forbidden fruit. It can only be hoped, that political wisdom, farsightedness, and reciprocity, will allow the Indians to lay the foundations of a unique friendship, with the West Asian colossus of Turkey.
Tania is a freelance writer with a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies who has a wide range of interests.