"Four people she doesn't know held her arms and legs down in a gynecological examination chair," Zarema says, describing how her daughter was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) at a medical clinic in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, a region in Russia's North Caucasus. "And this is a child who I don't even take in to get shots, and she was there without her parents."
She says her daughter was visiting her estranged father in June 2019. The man asked his new wife to take her to a clinic for the crippling procedure, which removes the external part of a woman's or girl's genitals, including the clitoris and labia, or both. "No one warned me, no one asked me. Nothing," Zarema says, speaking on the phone from neighboring Chechnya, another Russian republic. "I was at the market here in Grozny when I found out. I fainted."
"When I asked my former husband why he had this done, he literally said: 'So that she doesn't get turned on,'" she says.
Zarema filed criminal charges, and the doctor who allegedly performed the operation is now on trial in a court in Magas. Proceedings against pediatric gynecologist Izanya Nalgiyeva began in December 2019 and have now restarted after being suspended because of coronavirus lockdown measures. Nalgiyeva is being tried for actual bodily harm, which means she could face a fine but not a prison sentence.
But lawyers from the Stitching Justice Initiative (SRJI), a human rights group that focuses on gender-based violence in former Soviet Union countries and whose lawyers are in charge of the case, argue that Nalgiyeva should be facing tougher punishment. "This is clearly a crime, a crippling operation on a girl's genitals clearly needs to be qualified as grievous bodily harm," says Tatyana Savvina, a lawyer from SRJI working on the case. Grievous bodily harm carries a prison sentence in Russia.
Motivated by money?
Savvina says she believes the girl's father should be punished along with the doctor. Her team requested that investigators open a case against the Aibolit clinic, where the operation was performed, but that was rejected.
According to the girl's relatives, the clinic was offering the procedure for 2,000 rubles (around €25 or $28). Savvina says the clinic is still open, though "cutting" is no longer on the official list of its gynecological services.
The director of the clinic, Beslan Matiyev, has told RFE/RL he denies any wrongdoing, claiming the family's case is motivated by money. The doctor who performed the operation has said that it was a medical necessity to treat the girl's "labial fusion," his lawyers say. The girl's mother has said her daughter didn't have any health problems.
A crippling practice
Russia does not have a law specifically banning female genital mutilation, though the Russian Health Ministry has called the practice "crippling." Activists say the practice is widespread in some areas of the majority-Muslim Northern Caucasus. In a 2016 report, the SRJI estimated that every year, over a thousand girls are subjected to FGM in the
Russian republic of Dagestan alone, while in Ingushetia and Chechnya FGM is very rare. Ismail Berdiyev, a leading mufti from the North Caucasus, said several years ago that the practice should be carried out on "all women," to reduce "depravity."
In 2016, a draft law on making FGM punishable by up to 10 years in prison was introduced into the Russian Duma but wasn't passed. According to the UN Population Fund, FGM has been outlawed in an estimated 59 countries around the world, though in some countries, including France, it is covered by existing laws on bodily harm or torture.
FGM can cause severe bleeding or serious health complications, including in childbirth. One of the co-authors of the SRJI report on Dagestan, Yulia Antonova, told DW in 2016 that in Russia, "the law needs to be strengthened because otherwise there will not be any prosecutions at all."
Tatyana Savvina says that the current case shows just that. "According to Russian law it is not obvious that this is grievous harm," she says. Meanwhile, Savvina explains, any injury leading to the "removal or loss of a testicle" in a man is always considered grievous harm, while FGM isn't. "There doesn't seem to be a desire to protect women. There isn't even a law about domestic violence in Russia," she adds.
In response to a request for comment on why the current FGM case isn't being considered grievous harm in court, Ingushetia's Investigative Committee referred DW to federal investigators. DW did not receive a response from the federal Investigative Committee ahead of the publication of this article.
Savvina believes that because this is Russia's first court case on FGM, it could set a precedent for other cases in the country. She says the team plan to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if they decide the judgment in the girl's case isn't tough enough.
A different future
Meanwhile, the girl's mother Zarema says that her daughter's health has recovered since the operation last year, but the psychological trauma is still taking a toll. "She only has a few hairs left on her head. And her hair just keeps falling out. And that started after all this."
Zarema herself underwent FGM as an adult around the age of 20, she says, explaining that the girl's father, who was her husband at the time, insisted on her being cut. But she wanted a different fate for her daughter.
"The Almighty created us with everything that we need, believers and non-believers. God gave us that feeling for a reason," she says, referring to sexual arousal. "[He didn't do that] in order for someone — some doctor — to cut something off and deprive us of what the Almighty created."