BOSTON -- WE DON'T WANT to believe that it happens here. Stories about this most brutal of traditions are supposed to carry foreign datelines.
Female genital mutilation -- a label as grisly as it is accurate -- only happens in places where ancient ritual still overwhelms reason. It happens among people who regard a woman's sexuality as so dangerous that it must be eliminated. It happens in communities where women are taught that mutilation is the price of belonging.
Across the world, somewhere between 100 million and 130 million women and girls have been mutilated in infancy, at puberty, in pregnancy. They've had their clitoris amputated, their labia cut away, and then were sewn together in ceremonies too (( painful even to read about.
This is the fate of nearly every woman and girl in Somalia. Of 90 percent of the females in Ethiopia. Of half in Egypt. You can read all about it in reports at international conferences.
But now we are learning that female genital mutilation has been imported to America.
The numbers are still uncertain. No one has yet properly gathered data from the immigrant communities where daughters are being mutilated by the dictates of cultural tradition. The estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands. But the anecdotes and the testimony are piling up.
When Rep. Pat Schroeder first began talking about this issue in America, many of her colleagues regarded it as, in her words, feminist ranting. Even an aide refused to believe that it was a serious problem until he went with Ms. Schroeder to a Denver school, where a teacher said, "You see those two Somali girls, let me tell you what happened to them last week."
Now evidence comes from horrified doctors who encounter mutilated women on the examining table or in the delivery room. It comes as well from immigrant women themselves, telling their stories and trying to save the next generation of children.
In October's Atlantic Monthly, Linda Burstyn writes about families who import someone from home to perform these so-called "circumcisions" in America. She repeats the words of a taxi driver in Washington who approved this practice because he "wasn't going to let my daughters have those things!" She tells about mothers who believe that without the crude surgery their daughters will be grotesque, unmarriageable, and tells about a grandmother who fears that her baby granddaughter "will grow up horny. She'll be like American girls."
A matter of abuse
By every measurement, genital mutilation on a minor is child abuse. In England, Sweden and much of Europe, it's been made illegal. In France, a mother was jailed for having her two daughters cut. But not a single case has been prosecuted in America. Indeed, just three states -- New York, Minnesota and North Dakota -- have made female genital mutilation on minors a felony.
Our reaction has been muted by ignorance and squeamishness. It's been tempered as well by some perverse respect for cultural "differences" -- that neutral word which can lump together clitoridectomies and folk dances. It's been tamped down by a bizarre analogy made between female "circumcision" and male.
Bills in Congress
But at last human rights groups like Equality Now are supporting the work of activists who live in the communities where this goes on. At the same time, Congress is finally confronting this reality.
Two bills, sponsored by Pat Schroeder in the House and Harry Reid in the Senate, would make it illegal to perform female genital mutilation on a child in America. As part of the foreign appropriations bill that's now in conference committee, these bills would also provide funds to find out how widespread the problem is and in which communities.
Stopping it at the border
Another strategy proposed by Ms. Schroeder would try to stop female genital mutilation at the border by adding a requirement to the immigration bill: All new immigrants would be told they cannot bring this "tradition" with them.
Just weeks ago, the U.N. conference in Beijing was full of talk about gender and violence. The speeches were sprinkled with painful references to the horrors of this ancient rite. Ms. Schroeder was not the only woman to listen, wince and realize, "how lucky I was to be born in America."
We have to make sure that luck holds and extends to every female. The U.N. plan of action was indeed a take-home document. This country too has to say no. Not here. Not anymore.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.