Lawyer: Doctor was doing religious procedure, not harm

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Detroit emergency room physician charged with mutilating the genitalia of two 7-year-olds from Minnesota denied cutting the girls, saying she merely performed a religious procedure that involved removing and then burying skin in the ground.

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala’s lawyer offered the explanation Monday during a dramatic 90-minute court hearing in front of a standing-room-only crowd. The hearing ended with a federal magistrate judge ordering the Northville doctor jailed without bond while awaiting trial, the first of its kind in federal courts nationwide.


“There is clear and convincing evidence that (Nagarwala) poses a danger to the community,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub said Monday.

The court hearing shed light on a controversial medical procedure and pierced a veil of secrecy surrounding the case when it was revealed Nagarwala belongs to a small, insular group of Shia Muslims that has been linked to an mutilation scandal in Australia two years ago.

Meanwhile, prosecutors revealed there are three more victims in Michigan, though Nagarwala has not been charged in relation to those girls. Since being charged, Nagarwala has been placed on leave from her job at Henry Ford Health System.

Defense lawyer Shannon Thompson wanted Nagarwala released on home confinement with a GPS tether and offered to post a cash bond.

Nagarwala, 44, did not react to the magistrate’s decision. The U.S. citizen, who was born in Washington, D.C., stood quietly, eyes downcast during the hearing.

Three supporters watched from the courtroom gallery and declined comment outside court.

The case has gained international attention amid an ongoing debate over the practice of female genital mutilation, an internationally recognized violation of human rights. The procedure is popular among certain religious and cultural communities that believe it initiates girls into adulthood and ensures their marriageability.

The hearing came four days after Nagarwala was arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport while trying to fly to Nairobi, Kenya.

The FBI focused on Nagarwala after learning the doctor allegedly removed clitoral skin from two girls who were brought to Detroit earlier this year from Minnesota. The procedure violates both federal and state law regarding female genital mutilation.

Cultural argument

Authorities in Minnesota have filed child protection petitions for the girls, one of whom was removed from her family last week.

The girls’ parents admitted bringing their daughters to Metro Detroit when questioned by investigators and having Nagarwala perform the procedure at an unnamed Livonia clinic.

With FBI agents listening, a mother of one of the Minnesota victims called Nagarwala, according to prosecutors.

Nagarwala delivered an order to the mother, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward said Monday.

According to Woodward, Nagarwala told the woman “deny everything.”

Nagarwala never performed female genital mutilation, her lawyer said.

The doctor merely wiped off a portion of the mucous membrane from the girls’ clitoris, Thompson said. A small amount was placed on a gauze pad and given to the family for burial, the lawyer added.

“This is part of the culture,” Thompson told the magistrate.

Nagarwala is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra from India, a community that is based locally out of the Anjuman-e-Najmi mosque on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. It’s the only Dawoodi Bohras mosque in Michigan.

The Anjuman-e-Najmi mosque on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills.

Mosque leaders could not be reached for comment.

The Dawoodi Bohras hail mostly from western India and were traditionally comprised of businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals. There are approximately 1 million followers worldwide.

Two years ago, three Dawoodi Bohras faced trial in Australia in a case that raised awareness of female genital mutilation. The case ended in prison sentences for three people, including a Dawoodi Bohra community leader.

Nagarwala’s husband, Moiz Nagarwala, is listed as a leader of the Farmington Hills mosque, according to the mosque’s password-protected website, and records list him as having served as joint treasurer.

The magistrate judge was told Jumana Nagarwala does not hold any official position at the mosque or within the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Woodward, the prosecutor, said the case could be complicated by Nagarwala’s religious and cultural community pressuring victims to protect the doctor.

There is a type of black market medical referral service within the community with members recommending where to find doctors and other people who can perform the procedure, said Isufali Kundawala, a Bohra and retired anesthesiologist near Dallas, Texas.

He has spoken out against female genital mutilation.

“Minnesota is a small community; nobody performs the procedure over there,” Kundawala told The News. “The closest thing is Detroit, and members get to know this by talking to other members of the community who tell them, ‘Hey, this is a doctor who can perform it, so please come over here.’ ”

Court disagreements

Investigators allege medical examinations of the Minnesota victims showed abnormal genitalia that had scar tissue and small lacerations. In one case, a section had been removed or altered, according to court records.

The abnormality could have a simple explanation, Nagarwala’s lawyer said.

“That may have been caused by a child scratching the vaginal area,” Thompson said.

The second Minnesota victim told investigators she received a shot during the procedure.

Not true, Nagarwala’s lawyer said.

“It is obvious to us someone talked to (the girls) beforehand and made them believe something happened far different than what it was,” Thompson said.

Majzoub on Monday wanted to know why the doctor was chosen to perform a religious procedure after hours at the Livonia clinic, for free and with no documentation.

“Why her?” Majzoub asked.

“She happens to be a physician ... and just wanted it to be sanitary and as clean as possible,” the defense lawyer said.

Prosecutors dismissed the defense version that Nagarwala performed a religious procedure, not female genital mutilation.

“We disagree strongly with the characterization of what she was doing,” Woodward said.

Mosque dates back decades

There have been conflicting messages from the Dawoodi Bohra community regarding female genital mutilation.

Community leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin endorsed female genital mutilation in April 2016, according to Sahiyo, a nonprofit group in India that is trying to end the practice.

But a month later, leaders at the Farmington Hills mosque ordered its members to follow state and federal laws and not engage in female genital mutilation.

Woodward, the assistant U.S. attorney, cited the edict from the Metro Detroit mosque in court Monday to show Nagarwala was aware that female genital mutilation is a crime.

Nagarwala is charged with female genital mutilation, a five-year felony, and transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, a felony punishable by 10 years to life, according to a complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court.

Dawoodi Bohras are known for their distinctive dress. Women dress in a traditional two-piece dress that in Nagarwala’s case, includes a distinctive blue or pink head-covering.

“When I saw her picture, I knew immediately that she was a part of the Dawoodi Bohra community,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The sect’s mosque in Farmington Hills was built in 1988 and is attended by about 125 families.

“It is a more insular community,” Walid said. “They do not mingle, and that mosque doesn’t really affiliate with any of the other mosques in Metro Detroit.”

Walid also said he has never heard of a religious procedure described by Nagarwala’s defense team.

“Her admission of it being a religious practice is not a legitimate defense,” Walid said.

Kundawala had a more blunt assessment.

“It’s baloney,” he said.

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