Stereotypes, The Cultural Defense, And Genital Mutilation
In a recent post titled, “Cultural Rituals As Un-Stereotypes,” comments centered around the issue of genital mutilation. I made the argument in my response that this is an example of a ritual used to stereotype cultures negatively. We think we know about the ritual and assume the culture is barbaric for taking part in it. My original post argued that it is not enough to know that a cultural ritual exists. Rather, it is important to understand the ritual. This is particularly important to do before a stereotypical judgment is passed.
The following true court case involves this exact point. The story appears in an article by Alison Dundes Renteln titled, “The Use and Abuse of the Cultural Defense.” The story, which I quote here, demonstrates what can happen when advocates view rituals through the lens of stereotypes.
Adelaide Abankwah and her Gender Asylum claim
In a case that received tremendous media coverage, Adelaide Abankwah, a woman from Ghana, sought political asylum in the U.S. to avoid the custom known as “female genital mutilation” (FGM). She told immigration authorities that she was the eldest daughter of the Queen of the Nkummsa people and that her mother had just died. Because she was next in line to assume the throne, and because she was not a virgin, she had to be circumcised to avoid detection of her lack of purity. So as not to be forcibly subjected to FGM, she fled to the U.S. where she sought political asylum. She attracted considerable political support. Prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton, the leading organization Equality Now, actresses Julia Roberts and Vanessa Redgrave, and legislators rallied around her, seeing her as a victim of a cruel cultural tradition.39 The magazine Marie Claire had t-shirts printed with the phrase “Free Adelaide”. Her gender asylum claim seemed promising as it followed a successful decision for a [End Page 56] woman from Togo, Fausiya Kasinga, who won asylum in the U.S. to escape from precisely this custom.40
At first, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) denied Abankwah’s asylum petition because she had not proved she had a reasonable fear she would be harmed if returned to Ghana.41 During the course of the appeals, she was detained for two years at a detention center in Queens, New York. Eventually the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit accepted her account, rejecting the judgment of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The appellate court remanded the matter, ordering the BIA to grant her petition for asylum.42 Judge Sweet was persuaded that Abankwah was a member of the Nkumssa tribe in central Ghana and accepted her story:
Nkumssa tradition requires that the girl or woman next in line for the Queen Mother position must remain a virgin until she is “enstooled.” During the ceremony to enstool a new Queen Mother, the designated Queen Mother must cup her hands and hold water in them. According to tribal legend, if the woman has disobeyed tribal taboos—including the one against engaging in premarital sex—she will be unable to hold the water in her hands, and it will spill out onto the ground. Even if the woman successfully holds the water, however, after her enthronement, the village elders select a husband for her who will inevitably discover whether she is a virgin or not. In either case, if the woman is believed not to be a virgin, she will be forced to undergo FGM.43
The federal appellate court discounted doubts expressed by the immigration authorities in the case.44 The INS had noted that FGM was not practiced in central Ghana, the area from which Abankwah came, although it was in Northern Ghana, and that Abankwah admitted that FGM “(…) is not regularly practised by the Nkumssa tribe.”45 The outcome was grounds for celebration among women’s rights advocates.
Shortly after the Court of Appeals handed down its decision granting her request for political asylum, information came to light that Abankwah’s claim was false. Adelaide Abankwah “(…) allegedly fabricated details of her background to portray herself as a human rights victim.”46 An in-depth INS investigation and an article in the Washington Post confirmed that indeed [End Page 57] Abankwah was an imposter.47 Her real name was Regina Norman Danson, and she was not a member of the royal family: she was a former hotel worker, and she had stolen the identity of Adelaide Abankwah.48 Moreover, her mother was still alive, and it was unclear from media coverage whether she and her mother were members of the Nkumssa tribe.49 The people in Ghana had no such custom of circumcising adult women about to become queen, nor did they circumcise women as a form of punishment. In short, Regina Danson had assumed a false identity50 and fraudulently claimed to be at risk of being forced to undergo FGM if returned to Ghana. According to a media report, a leader denied her claim: “[t]he tribal chief, Nan Kwa Bonko, testified that Danson was not part of the tribe’s royal family, and that mutilation was not practiced in his region of Ghana.”51 Government officials in Ghana were amazed that the claims had been accepted without question:
The government of Ghana was furious about Abankwah’s claims. Ghana’s Commissioner of Human Rights and Administrative Justice, Emile Short, cautioned foreign governments to be circumspect in accepting claims by illegal immigrants in their bid to regularize their entry. “We had our grave misgivings about these allegations when they were made and we were surprised at how the political authorities and women’s groups in the US rallied to her cause with such passion without conducting proper investigations in Ghana to verify the truth of the story.”52
A grand jury subsequently indicted her on nine counts including perjury, passport fraud, and making false statements to an immigration judge.53 The INS filed charges just before the statute of limitations would have expired. In January 2003, Danson was convicted of several offenses in federal court.54 On August 13, 2003 she was sentenced to time served and two years of supervised release and received a fine (special assessment fee) of nine hundred dollars.55
It is remarkable that this hoax was not discovered during the course of the litigation. One possible explanation for this is that judges may not want [End Page 58] to question the veracity of claims for fear they will appear culturally insensitive or even racist. Yet court failure to investigate the cultural claims thoroughly can lead to fraud of this kind. Those involved in the case should have verified her claim to being Adelaide Abankwah and assessed her characterization of female genital cutting in Ghana.56 It is noteworthy that other Ghanaians living in the United States must have heard about the highly publicized case, and could have exposed the false claims, and apparently chose not to do so.57
This case had negative repercussions for well-intentioned feminists and for women with valid asylum claims.58 Not only did this single case permit ridicule of women’s rights advocacy, but it also called into question the wisdom of allowing courts to evaluate arguments concerning cultural differences. Perhaps most worrisome is the possibility that legitimate petitions for asylum might be rejected because authorities will be fearful of being bamboozled by fraudulent claims. One scholar expresses concern that the media attention to the case generated “public distrust” and says: “(…) that the public scrutiny after the INS follow-up investigation has cast a shadow on courts’ presumption that applicants’ testimony will be credible.”59 Inadequate research threatens to undermine accurate crosscultural jurisprudence with dire consequences for many individuals whose human rights are in peril.
In this case Abankwah’s claim was flawed in multiple respects. First, the group did not have the custom alleged in her asylum petition, second it is unclear whether she is even a member of that group, and third, her decision to flee from Ghana was evidently not motivated by the custom. The most outrageous aspect of the case is that she was not even the individual she purported to be, as she had stolen the identity of another woman! Surely this case demonstrates the potential risks of allowing cultural arguments to figure into legal proceedings without taking necessary steps to verify the factual basis of the claims.