Wrongly accused of genital cutting, a Muslim mom won’t accept ‘case closed’
The family calls the incident on an island off the coast of Washington state an example of the long reach of Islamophobia
"The women, according to reports from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Homeland Security, worried that the girl had undergone female genital mutilation, or FGM, an ancient ritual defined by the United Nations as the removal of external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. FGM is a federal crime, and women’s advocates across the globe are campaigning to end the practice, which causes trauma and health complications.
When a detective asked the women in separate interviews why they suspected FGM rather than a natural or medical condition for any perceived difference, they each invoked the mother’s background as a Turkish American Muslim, according to the sheriff’s report.
That linking of Islam to FGM, a practice that spans faiths and continents, touched off an inquiry that made its way to the Homeland Security office for human rights violations and war crimes, home of an anti-FGM program called Operation Limelight USA. The call also upended the child’s family and is forcing a tough conversation on the island about the far-reaching harm of anti-Muslim stereotypes.
Homeland Security agents looked into the claim along with local authorities and found no evidence of a crime, according to records reviewed by The Washington Post. The sheriff’s report chalked it all up to a misunderstanding “borne out of a sincere but misguided fear” as well as “false assumptions based on Internet research.”
“Case closed,” a detective wrote in September.
“The case is not closed for me,” said the girl’s mother, Ferah Uri.
She and her husband, Richard Uri, said they can’t sleep because of intruding visions of strangers forcing their daughter’s legs apart. Ferah quit her job because they no longer trust babysitters. The couple worry that they’ve landed on some watch list and might face hassles at the airport. And they wonder how much their daughter, now 2, remembers of their distress last summer.
Ferah has read the sheriff’s report so many times that she knows it by heart. The same phrases keep flashing through her mind: Homeland Security. War crimes. Crimes against humanity. Turkish descent. Muslim mother.
The family said their ordeal reflects what they see as the ground-level consequences of Islamophobia, a form of bias that Muslim rights groups say is often overlooked because of the widespread post-9/11 vilification of Islam. Reluctant at first, the Uris ultimately decided to share their story, which they said reveals how a single incident can leave a trail of devastation.
“America has become a country where people feel safe talking that way and acting that way,” Richard said. “On the ferry, you might see signs that say, ‘See something, say something.’ Well, that doesn’t mean see anything, say everything.”
The babysitter says she acted out of concern for the child, not out of bias, and that the sheriff’s report didn’t reflect her full interview.
Anti-Muslim bias has long permeated American pop culture and politics. The main tropes, drawn from the extremist fringe of a religion with nearly 2 billion followers, depict Muslims as inherently violent or eager to oppress women through measures such as forced veiling or FGM.
Anti-Muslim smears seldom receive the full-throated condemnation as other types of discrimination. Both Democrats and Republicans were criticized in recent weeks for wavering on whether to punish Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) for her repeated portrayals of Black Muslim Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as a suicide bomber and part of a “Jihad Squad.”
To the Uri family, the attacks on Muslim women in Congress come from the same ingrained stereotypes that led to an FGM accusation on their island. The couple said they didn’t want their daughter growing up in a community that would give bigotry a pass. One day, they said, they hope to tell her that they pushed beyond “case closed.”
“I want them to have consequences,” Ferah said of the women who brought the claims. “We’re the victims. They’re the ones being protected.”
“The court of public opinion is all we have left,” Richard said.
Ferah, 45, inherited her Turkish father’s tan skin and dark hair. She has always gravitated toward that part of her heritage, she said, sometimes to the consternation of her blonde American mother. Ferah said that neither her mother nor her lighter-skinned, hazel-eyed sister ever fully understood how uncomfortable it was to have her appearance scrutinized.
“My mom would feel a need to explain to people we met why I looked so dark,” Ferah said.
After high school on an island near San Juan Island, Ferah moved to California and began exploring her roots through folkloric dances from Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. For years, she bounced around the country for dance and college, eventually returning to the islands in 2013 in search of new direction.
“I’d always come up here to regroup and figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Ferah said.
Around the same time, Richard also returned to San Juan Island looking for a second act. He was fresh out of prison after a conviction for his role in a cocaine-smuggling network that ran from Southern California to Canada. Along with several associates, Richard was arrested after a bust and served five years on state and federal charges. By the time he was released in 2013, Richard said, he had overcome his addictions and was determined to remake his life.
He and Ferah met that year at the clinic where he went for mandatory drug testing. She was an administrator who helped him find a counselor and complete his paperwork. After his program was over, the two began working out together and hanging with mutual friends. Ferah said Richard impressed her with his intelligence. Soon, they were dating.
“When he quoted Kahlil Gibran to me, I was a goner,” she said of their shared appreciation of the Lebanese American poet.
The couple married in 2015 and decided that life on San Juan suited them. They began renovating a house and volunteered for community service projects. Ferah built a career in business development and does bridal makeup on the side. Richard earned a college degree and became a drug counselor at the same center where he met Ferah.
Richard, 50, said he’s proud of his redemption story and credits the island for playing a part. He’s now the county’s behavioral health program coordinator.
“I want there to be less stigma,” Richard said. “I want there to be a way back into the community for people who make mistakes.”
The couple said they struggled to conceive for two years before a pregnancy test finally came back positive. Their daughter, whose name they asked to keep private, was born on Sept. 4, 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit.
Remote-work orders meant that the Uris were able to spend their first year as parents at home with their newborn. They said they didn’t worry about child care until their daughter began walking and it became impossible to work while watching her around-the-clock.
That’s when they learned that child care, stretched thin nationwide, had become virtually nonexistent on San Juan Island during the pandemic. Ferah posted about her search in a Facebook parenting group called San Juan Mamas and Papas, and a neighbor replied with the name of a massage therapist who was looking for extra money.
Ferah said the candidate, Danielle Lovgren, seemed like a good fit at first. She was a mother of four, including a daughter the same age as the Uris’, and her parenting experience was reassuring to Ferah.
Ferah said she dropped her daughter off at Lovgren’s place perhaps six or seven times over the course of three weeks without incident. Then one Thursday in July, Ferah said, Lovgren pulled her aside when she arrived for pickup.
“She says, ‘I need to discuss something with you that’s a little awkward.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, my daughter is biting or something,’ ” Ferah recalled. “Then she says, ‘Your daughter is abnormal down there.’ ”
Ferah said she was blindsided and confused. She asked Lovgren what she meant. She said Lovgren told her that she had seen anatomical differences and asked whether she had advice on how to wipe the girl during diaper changes.
“I’m looking at her like, ‘What the hell?’ ” Ferah said. “I’m starting to have a panic attack.”
Ferah said her instinct was to flee, but she first accepted a bag of cherries from Lovgren and gave her a friendly goodbye to conceal how violated she felt. Ferah waited until she was in the car to burst into tears. She said she then began dialing everyone she knew in the medical field to ask what Lovgren might’ve seen. She also booked an appointment with a pediatrician.
“Ferah came home crying and panicking and told me what happened,” Richard said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, who did we leave our kid with?’ ”
The parents racked their brains for any clue they might’ve missed, anything that indicated a problem. But there were none, Ferah said, and their daughter had been seen for regular checkups since birth. Doctors hadn’t noted anything concerning about the girl’s genitalia, according to the parents and medical records they provided to authorities.
“Big capital letters ‘NO,’ ” Ferah said. “The doctor who did my C-section? Nothing. The pediatrician at the hospital? Nothing. Her pediatrician here? Nothing.”
When doctors reassured them that nothing was wrong, the Uris’ worry turned to anger over what they felt was a violation of their daughter’s body and privacy. Ferah fired Lovgren in a scathing text message that said, “no one should be peering in there but a medical professional and only at my consent. NO ONE not ever.”
When asked for comment, Lovgren replied with a statement saying that the redacted medical notes included in the public records don’t rule out a physical anomaly and that she only wanted the child to be seen by a doctor. The child was seen by multiple doctors, according to the records, and none raised concerns.
“While it is the family’s right to keep it private, it’s not OK to act as if there wasn’t a reason to say something,” Lovgren said in the statement. “I never wanted to have to have such a conversation. I have plenty of years of experience with diapering, and clearly felt it necessary, even at the risk of making myself vulnerable.”
Ferah consulted with nurses and social workers about whether to report the incident to police, but they said authorities weren’t likely to take the incident seriously because it wasn’t sexual in nature. The babysitter had overstepped a boundary, they agreed, but they urged the Uris to move on with their lives.
“I really was trying to put it in the rearview mirror,” Ferah said. “I thought it was behind us.”
A rude awakening
Detective Lukas Peter’s phone call arrived at the worst time, Ferah said, just as she was putting her daughter down for a nap. When she heard Peter was from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, she said, she assumed that one of the nurses or social workers in which she had confided had alerted him on her behalf.
In the call, however, Peter informed Ferah that “the other party” had made a report.
“What do you mean, ‘the other party?’ ” Ferah recalled asking, still thinking he meant a nurse. “He said, ‘Well, the babysitter.’ ”
Ferah remembers her outrage exploding in staccato bursts: “You mean? To tell me? She called the police on me? After what she did to me and my daughter?”
Yes, the detective confirmed, the complaint originated with the sitter. Ferah said she asked what Lovgren could “possibly say that I did to my daughter.”
“And he said, ‘Well, are you familiar with female genital mutilation?’ ” Ferah said.
In her retelling, the shock of those words left her speechless. She immediately remembered a college paper she had written on FGM for a gender studies class. She saw the gruesome images she had come across in her research. She said she couldn’t fathom being accused of cutting her daughter.
“My heart just dropped,” she said. “I couldn’t even talk.”
The case wasn’t open long. The detective read up on FGM, according to the report, finding that the practice was extremely rare in Turkey. He also interviewed a previous babysitter, who said she hadn’t seen anything worrying. Lovgren herself told him that “there were no injuries or obvious scarring," the report says.
Based on those interviews and 15 pages of medical records provided by the Uris, authorities concluded “there is no evidence of any form of mutilation, and any abnormality appears to be of natural origin.”
The Uris said the detective reassured them that the matter was over.
Ferah, however, said she had the unsettling feeling that they still didn’t know the full story.
“I don’t let things go,” she said. “I had this little tap-tap-tap, ‘Something’s not right, something’s not right, keep going, keep digging.’ ”
A few weeks after the case was closed, Ferah made an official records request to better understand what had transpired. When the documents arrived, she said, she opened them at a quiet moment during her daughter’s snack time.
“I took out my laptop, and I started reading,” Ferah said. “I started hyperventilating after the first sentence, when I saw that it was Homeland Security and that they had sent it to war crimes and all that stuff.”
From the report, she found out that Lovgren had secretly recorded her. She learned that another person, Lovgren’s friend Kaya Silkiss-Hero, had looked at her daughter’s vagina and called the authorities. The report says Silkiss-Hero did research online about FGM and “what she saw appeared to be similar.”
Ferah also learned that Homeland Security apparently checked her travel to make sure she hadn’t taken her daughter overseas for FGM. The report says a federal agent told local authorities he “had no reason to believe the Uri family had traveled anywhere to have such a procedure done.”
Richard, who is White and said he’s not religious, at first had been reluctant to see bigotry in the incident. He said that reading the reports changed his mind.
“Every day since then, I’ve come around closer and closer to thinking that this was entirely about prejudice,” he said. “I’m just so used to this community being the opposite of that, I guess it was a rude awakening for me.”
Peter, the detective, declined to comment beyond the information in his report.
“The facts I used to arrive at my conclusion are all there,” Peter said. “I can tell you this case is unique and the only such case I’ve had in 11 years of law enforcement, four as a detective.”
There’s no clear picture on how prevalent FGM is in the United States. The most-cited statistics come from a 2016 government report that says more than half a million women and girls in the United States are at risk or already have been cut. However, that figure doesn’t represent a tally of cases; it’s an extrapolation based on immigration patterns from countries where the practice is widespread. U.S.-based activists are currently collecting more data and have campaigned for — and won — tougher anti-FGM laws.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson issued a statement saying the agency could not comment on specific investigations but treats all reports of potential crimes, especially those involving children, “with the utmost seriousness.”
“ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations special agents pursue any lead alleging the suspected federal crime of female genital mutilation (FGM) and encourages anyone who suspects FGM to report it to law enforcement,” the statement said.
Lovgren declined to go into detail on the record beyond saying that she is “appalled” by how she’s depicted in the sheriff’s report and that she “never thought the Uris harmed their child.”
Lovgren authorized her close friend Annie Waugh, who lives on nearby Lopez Island, to speak in her defense. Waugh said Lovgren isn’t biased against Muslims and “is not the person that is reflected in these papers.”
In a long phone call, Waugh defended Lovgren as a stressed-out mom who simply saw something during a diaper change that concerned her. She said Lovgren didn’t know that recording the conversation with Ferah violated the state’s two-party consent laws and said that Lovgren wasn’t the first to introduce the idea of FGM.
“She didn’t want to make a diagnosis,” Waugh said of Lovgren. “She didn’t want to do anything weird or wrong. She absolutely was sincere and good-hearted, and she thought the baby was really sensitive and not comfortable.”
One part Waugh said she did not excuse was Lovgren allowing her friend to view the girl’s genitals.
“The mistake she made was to have someone else look at the baby. Period,” Waugh said. “It was an error of judgment.”
Silkiss-Hero did not respond to requests for comment except for one brief text message in which she suggested without elaboration that she was the target of defamation of character, along with “slander and lies.”
Richard said the experience has tested his devotion to restorative justice, a community-led approach to amends-making. Though he describes his family as “under attack,” Richard said, he still believes that the best resolution doesn’t involve police or courts.
“I wish they would admit fault, because we don’t feel safe right now,” Richard said. “Not because they’re going to ‘get us’ or anything, but because we feel it could happen again.”
Ferah said she wants “consequences” but isn’t sure what that might entail. She said her anger still bubbles up every time she thinks she’s ready to forgive. In a text message that proposed restorative justice, Ferah also blasted Lovgren’s actions as “invasive and reckless.” Ferah said she couldn’t get past the escalation to Homeland Security when the issue could’ve been resolved locally, through Child Protective Services.
“If you had GENUINE concerns, WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL CPS?!?! That’s what normal people do. They don’t call HSI,” Ferah wrote to Lovgren, referring to Silkiss-Hero’s call to the tip line. “Instead, you examined my daughter’s vagina then invited a STRANGER to also examine her!”
Lovgren replied, according to an exchange reviewed by The Post: “I brought a concern to you in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Your outrageous response is what created drama." She accused Ferah of harassment and said she would agree to a mediated conversation only if it were held in a counseling center such as the island’s Safe San Juans, “where you cannot verbally abuse me anymore.”
The parties are now in a hostile stalemate. The Uris have demanded an apology, the women haven’t issued one, and local authorities have closed the case. The Uris said they decided to go public in part because the controversy is already spilling into local Facebook groups, and they wanted to explain in detail why they can’t just “get over it.”
Ferah said the feeling of injustice is compounded by isolation; there’s no mosque on the island and only a couple of other Muslims. She said she fixates on the what-ifs: What if she hadn’t been half-White and born in California? What if she weren’t married to a White islander? Would she still have custody of her daughter if she spoke accented English and wore a headscarf?
“I’ve always been proud, and for the first time in my life I was ashamed,” Ferah said, her eyes filling with tears. “I felt like, ‘Why did I have to be born into this?’"
Ferah said she returned to traditional dance to restore a sense of self. She dug out her sparkly costumes and played music from Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia. One day, while spinning rhythmically, Ferah said, she lost track of the time and danced so long that her body ached for days.
“I felt peace, a little bit, for the first time in a long time,” she said.
Ferah said she also felt clear about her place in the country and was ready to fight for it. She opened her journal and wrote: “Ferah Bakuy Uri. I am Turkish American. I am Muslim.”
Accused of FGM, a Muslim mom won’t accept ‘case closed’ - The Washington Post