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Cultural sensitivities must never override gender equality

Two recent news stories highlight the import of discriminatory practices from the Indian subcontinent into North America.

An American doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, was arrested for performing genital cutting on two seven-year-old girls this past February at a clinic in Livonia, Mich. Another physician, Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, along with his wife, Farida Attar, were charged for aiding and abetting. These individuals belong to an Indian-based Shia Muslim sect, the Dawoodi Bohra, which allegedly practises female genital mutilation (FGM).

Closer to home, another Canadian medical study has found gender imbalance in children born to Indo-Canadian women. A disproportionately large number of boys are born to women of Indian origin; more so, if their mother tongue is Punjabi. Preferential attitudes toward boys persist, no matter how long women from India have lived in Canada. Studies from 2016 found the same pattern, estimating that almost 4,500 Indo-Canadian girls had gone "missing" owing to sex-selective abortions during the past two decades. The alarm bells were first sounded in a 2012 study that found a third baby born after two girls was twice as likely to be male than female in Sikh, Hindu and primarily non-religious Chinese communities.

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Negative views of women and girls lie at the heart of both practices. FGM is a cruel procedure, in which some or all of external female genitalia is cut off. Sometimes, the vaginal opening is also sewn almost closed. The practice is meant to suppress the sexuality of females. The preference for boys over girls in certain Indian communities is based on three main planks: a son is the breadwinner; the family must finance a dowry for each daughter; and elderly parents will be cared for by their son(s). Furthermore, lineage is passed through males.

While these attitudes have been ingrained for centuries elsewhere, one would think that migrating to a land where gender equality is emphasized would lead to a change of heart. Apparently, more needs to be done to uproot customs that have been transplanted here. Efforts must come from both within and without affected communities.

We need honest public conversations about these difficult topics. Multicultural sensitivities should never override gender equality, nor should they censor the expression of strong opinions. Let it be said: Both sets of cultural practices are, well, barbaric. They have no place here (or in fact, anywhere). Not only are they "un-Canadian," they are inhuman.

Government policy is also a necessary tool to combat discriminatory practices.

While Canada has legislation against the practice of FGM, there are no laws that prosecute parents who send their daughters abroad to have the procedure done. In contrast, France and the United States have outlawed "FGM tourism." It is time for Canada to follow their lead.

And while Ottawa has moved to address FGM, our governments have failed to address female feticide. They ignored the call by Dr. Rajendra Kale, in 2012, to ban disclosure of the sex of a fetus until 30 weeks (after which point an abortion is difficult). South Korea banned such disclosures in 1988, helping to reverse gender imbalance.

Finally, there can be no change unless there is opposition within communities. There will be pressure to circle the wagons in wake of negative media coverage. I still remember an Ottawa community leader telling a local congregation, following the "honour killing" of Aqsa Parvez, that the media were trying to make the Muslim community look "bad." Outrage was not directed at family violence, but at the media for covering that violence.

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Today, many courageous Bohra women who underwent khatna (i.e. FGM) in their childhood, are speaking out against the practice, directing their personal pain toward addressing social justice. They risk ostracization from their own families and excommunication from their faith community.

Who, on the other hand, will speak up for the 4,500 "missing" girls in the Indo-Canadian community, so that female feticide will cease? To the women who abort their daughters: you were not subject to sex-selective abortion – why, then, inflict it on Your daughter-to-be? There will need to be many painful conversations about the central moral issue: aborting a fetus simply because it is female.

Minority communities are in a difficult spot, especially with anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise. However, failing to address harmful cultural practices unequivocally, allows problems to fester and, ultimately, cause even more damage.

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