"Don't Mention It" Episode 3: Ending Violence Against Women & Girls: A Conversation with Shelby Quast

Underestimated_Sign Logo.jpg

“Don’t Mention It” is a series from Underestimated: A Podcast about the things we’re apparently not supposed to be loud about. The things that don’t get talked about often enough. The stories of people and the issues they face that are undervalued in the mainstream, and shouldn’t be.

Today’s episode, my interview with Shelby Quast, Director for the Americas for Equality Now, is the third in a three episode series within “Don’t Mention It” focused on fighting to end FGM/C and gender based violence against women and girls. 

Show Notes

Equality Now


End FGM/C U.S. Network


Additional Music Credits: “All the Answers,” by Lee Rosevere



Shelby Quast:             00:09              

I was just talking with them. I said, if you can't say them, you can't address them.

Elizabeth:                     00:19              

“The law is a statement of your worth by your government. Laws that trea men and women, girls and boys unequally relegate women and girls to a lower status in society. Failure to outlaw practices that harm women and girls leaves them with no recourse for violations against them. The law is the way to hold your government accountable for your protection.” - YASMEEN HASSAN, GLOBAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, EQUALITY NOW

Elizabeth:                     01:09              

You are listening to "Don't Mention It," an inclusive series about health along the spectrum of femininity from the Underestimated podcast. I am your host, Elizabeth Palmer. "Don't Mention It" is about the things we're apparently not supposed to be loud about. The things that don't get talked about often enough. The stories that are undervalued in the mainstream and shouldn't be. Today's episode is the third in a three episode series within "Don't Mention It" focused on fighting to end FGM/C and gender-based violence against women and girls. My guest today is Shelby Quast, Director for the Americas for Equality Now, an organization that has been working on the ground and in the courts and with stakeholders, legislators, and survivors around the world since 1992 to end violence against women and girls. They fight to end FGM/C, to end child marriage, to end sex trafficking, to end sexual violence, and to achieve legal equality for women and girls around the globe.

Elizabeth:                     02:17              

A couple of notes before we jump into my interview with Shelby. Number one, this interview was recorded in January, just after the Women's March in 2019, so later in the interview when Shelby refers to last weekend, that is what she's referring to. Number two, this episode includes some very blunt conversation about topics like child marriage, rape, violence, sex trafficking and FGM/C. These are incredibly important topics to know about, but can be incredibly difficult to hear about. It is important to remember that these practices perpetuate in silence, and that sharing this information is done with the intention of helping survivors, to amplify those stories and to create awareness so that these practices, which inflict harm on women and girls, will end. Number three: We say the words clitoris and vagina in this episode. So if those terms make you clutch your pearls, know that there is no shame in talking about the female body, and I would remind you again that gender-based violence thrives in silence. Let's not contribute to that silence. So say it again with me once more for the people in the back: VAGINA. One final note, Shelby and I discuss FGM/C not being required in any major religious texts. I would encourage you to go back and listen to episode two, my interview with FGM survivor and activist Mariya Taher, where she clarifies the religious text issue.

Elizabeth:                     03:54              

I'd like to introduce you to my guest today. Here's her bio, "Shelby Quast became Director in 2015, after having led the organization’s policy advocacy efforts since 2010. Based in Washington, D.C., Shelby works with international organizations, NGOs, and the U.S government to advance human rights for women and girls and to inform U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Prior to joining Equality Now, Shelby worked with the International Legal Assistance Consortium, which she co-founded in 2001, on global post-conflict legal reform. She also co-founded the Partners for Gender Justice, a network of United Nations (UN) agencies, member states, and civil society organizations. She has worked internationally for over three decades in a broad range of disciplines and, earlier in her career, practiced law at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C. She participates in numerous coalitions and working groups, including the Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security; Anti-Trafficking Advocates Network; Girls Not Brides USA; International Violence Against Women Act; and the Coalition for Adolescent Girls. Shelby speaks widely on human rights and authored numerous reports on Gender Justice for the UN and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. For Shelby, effective laws are essential to protecting people's rights and can accelerate social change. But laws do not implement themselves; they are tools in the hands of the people and legal system."

Elizabeth:                     05:34              

Shelby Quast, welcome to Underestimated. Thank you for being here.

Shelby Quast:               05:38              

Thank you.

Elizabeth:                     05:40              

So, I wanted to start by asking you if you could share a bit about your own story, and the path that led to your work with Equality Now.

Shelby Quast:               05:49              

Sure. It started out, I suppose - you know, in childhood I was raised by a single mom, ended up going college and going abroad, which really impacted everything I did from there on out, it had an international bent to it. And when I came back, I did 10 years in international business and then decided I would go to law school. And when I went to law school, I focused on international business and international issues, and went to a law firm, and a couple of years later ended up getting into a partnership with people from around the world, lawyers and lawyers groups and bar associations because we were working, we know there was a lot of conflict going on in the world, and different countries and different groups would show up and advise individual countries, but usually based on their own system. So either a common law system, a civil law system, the U.S., Germany, France, somewhere else - and it was often competing, not really helping those countries. So we formed what we called the international legal assistance consortium and it brought together, as I said, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, bar associations from around the world with no single legal framework. And we would, um, help post-conflict societies. So immediately post-conflict, we would go in and help assess what the laws were, what the legal framework was, and help advise the interim government raise the issues with them. They would decide what the priorities were, and then we would look to our global membership and trying to help them, put in place rule of law to rebuild their country. And one of the things I noticed in doing that, was maybe of all the international support and development funds, 10% went to rule of law, and of that maybe, maybe 1% went to the rights of women and girls. And finding that this was pretty consistent in many countries, I then worked to found what we called the Partners For Gender Justice, brought together Sweden and South Africa and different entities of the United Nations to try to focus on what it meant for women and girls rights. If we're looking at rule of law, how are we looking at their rights? Starting with the Constitution, looking at how they're implemented, looking at access to justice for women and girls, and in many, many situations, there was sexual violence involved with the conflict and a lot of people were in communities where rule of law had been broken and, for many reasons that brought about increased sexual violence especially for, for girls. So that was, part of that. And I was involved with that for a number of years, and I came back and was in Washington D.C., and there was a, I read an advertisement that was actually for Equality Now that was looking to start a presence in Washington D.C., and I thought it would be really interesting to start to focus on my own country for a little bit and see what the state of women and girls rights were. So 10 years ago, that's what brought me to Equality Now.

Elizabeth:                     08:51              

Got It. And so what did you find when you came to look at the status of our own country?

Shelby Quast:               09:01              

So I've been doing this for a number of years, and I've seen different situations in the U.S.; one that we do have a lot of issues that we need to address - our Constitution. And it's, you know, the most basic founding legal document we have, does not have equal rights for women at that most basic level. We're still working to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, but also at state level and at federal level, there are a lot of issues that affect women and girls. And because there's often shame attached to issues of violence and sexual violence around women, people aren't talking about it. And I've seen a tremendous change over the last 10 years of women and girls owning their issues. So one of them is female genital mutilation. We've certainly seen a huge shift, and I first learned about the issue when I was working in Liberia in West Africa, and to learn that it's happening in this country. And that we had, that we would push at Equality Now - Equality Now was actually founded 25 years ago because no human rights organization would address female genital mutilation. So again, knowing that we had a law, but that very few people in our government and education and health care and law enforcement knew about the law and knew about what to do with it. We also saw a lot with sex trafficking, a tremendous problem that people, again, wanted to think happened only to people over there, other people, and understanding that it happens in every city, that we see girls that are affected and almost every high school, that these things happen, you know, in, in all of our communities and all of our neighborhoods. And we also work on child marriage, something that Equality Now has just now launched this year with our partner, that we just founded a national coalition to end child marriage in the U.S., because we know over, you know, several hundreds of thousands of girls have been married, some as young as nine, someone as young as 12 - again, still ongoing. Only two states of 50, have laws that require girls be a minimum of 18 to get married.

Elizabeth:                     11:10              

Whoa, I did not know that.

Shelby Quast:               11:10              

So it, so that’s - a lot of people don't know that, and so we talked to the survivors who were married at that age, and they know that. And they know that, you know, it wasn't just - it's not just child marriage. What it is is in many cases, for example, they're still exists, in the federal law, a exception to statutory rape if the perpetrator is married to the victim, and that addresses children who are 12 to 15 years old. So, we have a federal exception to statutory rape if a child is 12 years old and married to the person who's raping her. So there's, there's some things we need to catch up on and need to pay attention to. And they're not just laws that are on the books not being used. We know that this is still happening, because we're working with a lot of survivors who, as I mentioned that are just, we're finding the more we share their stories, and the more we stand with them to be able to tell that story and use their voice, the more stories are being told by other people. The shame is as being removed, and we're hearing a lot more people who are speaking about their extra answer in the U.S.

Elizabeth:                     12:19              

That's, that's one of the things that I'm, this podcast because I'm based in the Metro Detroit area is based in the Metro Detroit area. Of course, the recent verdict into tree regarding FGM with girls from Michigan and Minnesota, and neighboring states, put FGM as an issue in the news in a way that I don't think it had been. I think there were a lot of people, as you said, who, who were like, well, that doesn't happen here. That happens in other places. But of course it does happen here. And as you said, survivors of this practice are very aware that it happens here. And, same with, with the sex trafficking when I was looking at Equality Now's initiatives, you know, to, end to end sex trafficking. I, the last few years I've been seeing more and more stories in the news about, you know, girls in Michigan and Ohio and all these, you know, every, every state in the country, but also just places where - it just really makes me think, you know, when I was a teenager, was it dumb luck? It seems so much more pervasive that than anybody thought. Not anybody, obviously - again, I shouldn't, I, the, the victims know, uh, or the survivors know. So one of the things I wanted to ask you, was with a lot of these issues like FGM, like child marriage - these are really big, heavy, sensitive issues. What are some of the biggest challenges that you find you face here when trying to fight to end violence against women and girls?

Shelby Quast:               14:06              

It's funny, it's not so different than the issues we face everywhere that we do this, I just, I have to add it because one thing that's interesting, in the last couple of years, I think for the first time women and girls that live in the U.S., mainstream America, are finding themselves part of this global movement to stop the pushback of women's rights, because they're seeing it happen here. And, I think previously it had been something that, oh, people would support it when it happened over there. Wherever over there was, it wasn't their neighborhood. And now women and girls in these neighborhoods are seeing it happen here. They're seeing it - there's, they're feeling it firsthand. And even though it's maybe always been happening, kind of in a, in a more hidden way, a lot more people are feeling the impact. So I think we're seeing that happen in the U.S., and seeing people begin to learn about it, began to talk about it. It's a, it's a, for us it's a multi-sectoral approach. And if you have the law, and we think the law really is a very important piece, it reflects often priorities, it allows people, something, to hold duty bearers - so it could be law enforcement, could be judges, could be teachers, could be doctors - something to hold them accountable to. And when there's a law, it allows us to have discussions we may not otherwise have. It allows us to say who's responsible for implementing it. Do doctors need to be aware of the fact there's a law and what's their role now in either preventing it, the practice from happening, because they've been made aware of this issue - of treating it as they're aware something's going to happen - so I think for us, really seeing how, how people can address it, that we need to raise awareness of what these issues are. We need to make sure that there are legal protections in place that require, and I just said, teachers, doctors, the legal framework, the whole, the whole bit that encompasses that - judges, lawyers, you know, law enforcement, social workers - everybody to be aware of the issues, what their responsibility is under the law. And it also allows us to advocate that there be a budget to implement those things, because a law, a law by itself doesn't do anything right, but really ensuring - so a lot of this is just raising awareness, more than we thought. You know, we pushed really hard to make sure there's a law, and then we realize nobody has any idea what's in the law or what it means, and female genital mutilation was a perfect example. The law was passed in 1996, and Equality Now, and Safe Hands For Girls, so Jaha Dukureh and I worked very closely together holding people in Washington D.C. accountable saying you've had a law, but do you know what the scope of the problem is today? You know, there has been many years in between the passing the law and doing anything about it. And it looks like you haven't done anything. So that was, that was interesting, when we got a, you know, the White House and we pushed very hard for the previous administration to put together an inter-agency working group. And they did. That, had those different actors; Department of Justice, Health and Human Services, Department of Education, but also some of our foreign policy folks at Department of State and USAID to say, alright, what are we doing? How do we address it? We got the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be aware there's a law, to be aware there's a practice. And we had a huge summit in 2016 that brought together all of those actors, but also survivors from across the 50 states in the United States, and people from other countries as well to try to raise not only awareness, but what does it mean to act. And I think that's something that actually led to that Detroit case, was making people more aware. And even with the Detroit case, and all of the awareness that came around it, it was very - we tried to be very intentional about showing that, one, it's not just the Dawoodi Bohra community, a small community outside Detroit, Michigan, that's being affected here, but it happens in every state, and there are all kinds of communities - including survivors from white, Christian, Midwestern communities. So it's, you know, we find it being practiced for very different reasons. But these young girls who are affected and at risk, are often born in this country, they go to school with all the other kids - they're, they're as American, as any other child, and we think that they should be protected against violence like any other child. For example, FGM isn't an exception to child protection issues. It's right there included at the mainstream. It's a form of abuse, it's a form of child abuse, it's a form of violence. And we need to ensure that girls are protected from being cut. And our laws are very clear about that, that there are no exceptions, no religious exceptions or cultural exceptions. It is just like any other form of violence against children. And I think that that was a piece for us, to make clear because for a long time, not only FGM, but other what they called quote unquote cultural or religious issues, were somewhat, you know, off limits. People didn't address them. They didn't talk about them. Doctors said, oh, that's, that's not my area; law enforcement's like no, that's like cultural or religious issue. And when the policy was changed to identify female genital mutilation as a form of violence, it actually shifted who was responsible for addressing it. So we've seen some shifts there that, you know, that, that, and the other, for us, the biggest piece is actually listening to the people who are affected by it, who are using their voice. And it's, it's taken tremendous courage for survivors, especially of female genital mutilation, because it involves genitalia. Something that we don't talk about all the time publicly. I would say very little do we talk about it, but making it okay to talk about - I've sat with many senators and staff had finally said, do you know what, what the term FGM actually means, and we'll, we'll get out some drawings, and we'll show them and we'll talk about the clitoris and the labia and what's being removed. And it's not just an acronym. It actually has a lifelong impact on the women and girls who experience it. So sometimes having very blunt conversations, um, you know, it's somewhat like removes the issue from under the table, and puts it on the table. And it makes it clear that the shame is not the survivors. It's the community that won't protect them, or it's somebody else's. But it's certainly never sits with the survivor. And that's across any of the issues that we work on. And I think for us, listening to survivors giving their voice a platform if they don't already have one, becomes very important in sharing the story and the reality, the daily reality of what it means to live with something like this and why it's a protection issue, because it has lifelong consequences.

Elizabeth:                     21:28              

Absolutely. Because of the courage of survivors of female genital mutilation and some of the other practices that are harmful to women and girls, because of their courage and coming forward and sharing their stories along with the battles in the legal arena - What, um, I guess, what does the approach look like at the communal and cultural level? It's, it's a sensitive thing because it's obviously such an intimate and private thing, but it's also sensitive because I think, not just, I think - it's, it's unfortunately a reality that a lot of people won't do their research. They won't understand that this isn't just something that happens in the Muslim community. A lot of people who are bigoted will use something like FGM to try and gin up Islamophobic sentiment, which is of course horrendous and unfair, um, because it doesn't just occur in Muslim communities. Um, and, and it, and it totally, that attitude also totally just removes the significance, or attempts to remove the significance of survivors who, who, uh, are in, in communities of faith that practice this, and their experience and that erasure is unacceptable. So how does, how does - how do we work towards that equality at the communal and cultural level where it's, you know, it's, it's in many cases it's people's own families, own parents, own aunts who have subjected them to this.

Shelby Quast:               23:17              

Yeah, it's complex. I'll start by saying that. There's no, 'here's the easy answer to that issue.' I do think that we have paid extra attention because again, over the last couple of years we've seen an issue that was female genital mutilation that we were working very hard on and raising awareness on get linked to an anti-immigrant kind of platform, as well as an anti-Muslim platform. And that was incredibly concerning for us, it was taking an issue about protecting girls, and turning it into something else. And that is was very harmful. And so at every turn we've really taken care of to push back on that. That this isn't something that happens just to one group of girls, or that that again, that you know - that child protection isn't only for a select few, it's for everybody. And this isn't, special protection for girls that might be at risk of FGM, and it's also not an exception for girls that might be at risk of FGM. And we've seen a lot of discussion about, you know, the push for anti-Muslim - um, and again, it's had to be a really concerted effort to push back against that. And working very closely with, women's legal, Muslim, Muslim women's legal groups and religious scholar groups who are making it incredibly clear that this is not a part of Islam. It's not required in the Quran, it's not required in the Bible, it's not required in the Torah. So it's not required for girls in any of these religious teachings. And, just clarifying that becomes important. We sometimes hear the terminology is, is different. You'll hear female circumcision, so people say, 'oh, that must be just like male circumcision that's accepted, so that's okay.' - and they move on, and the fact is that they are very different issues - there's a big movement against male circumcision and - You know, so there's, there's a movement there. I, they're not the same thing. They're very different, but the fact that there's also a movement there, and I think people need to be more educated and that, that comes in, we've seen a lot of, lot of increased awareness and coverage by press, by some mainstream media. I think that's very important. I'd like to see more of it. More people who understood what it is we're talking about, that it's not something that oh, it was brought here, and if we just, you know, build a wall and keep everybody out, we'll be safe. It actually lives here as well, and that, you know, sort of child marriage - as a matter of fact, child marriage affects, um, probably more people who are white, Christian - it's a tremendous issue here. So we have a lot of issues that I can't, people don't want to own them. And that's - it's very scary if you start to say this happens to everybody, and it happens in my community, but I didn't know about it, or it happens in my community, but I didn't take action against it. So I think coming back to that question that you asked of what's, you know, what's at the community level, and I really think it's, as I said the law is one small piece of it, but it also needs to, these discussions we need to be had at the community level, where people are actually getting their information. Where a lot of times that's schools, it's teachers, it's counselors. So being aware about what the issue is, and being able to discuss it is important. It's, again, health care providers, social workers - people who are engaged in the lives of individuals within communities and having those discussions and, and it becomes important. We've talked with law enforcement that it's not just about enforcing the law, it's actually about engaging with the community. Because the law is probably, you know, as, as a lawyer, I'd say 95% prevention, maybe 5% prosecution. So it needs to be used to have those discussions, but in a way that's safe, in a way - a lot of people that we've worked with from around the world, when they start to understand the health implications, it's a different - they listen to it differently. A lot of people didn't self identify as being a survivor of female genital mutilation, but they certainly knew that sex was incredibly painful. They knew that urination was very difficult. They knew that they suffered from urinary tract infections. Their periods were just unbearable. And when someone's connected the dots and said, 'oh, you know, bet you that's a result of this' - that they don't want to give, they don't want to do that with their daughters. And they have - and we've seen this with the youth movement, which is just amazing within the movement to eliminate female genital mutilation by 2030. And the part of the UN goals of countries around the world is the youth who are speaking out, especially those who've experienced FGM and said, I will not do that to my daughter. It stops with me. And that's a very powerful movement that we're seeing with the youth who are speaking up, telling their story, talking about their experience in a way that generations before them couldn't. And didn't.

Elizabeth:                     28:40              

Right. I'm sorry to interrupt. I was just going to say, in some cases at great risk to themselves - because unfortunately the toxic patriarchy doesn't know any borders. And a lot of these women and girls are in areas where they may not have a safe space. And yet, and yet we're seeing more and more of them come forward. And it's, it's just, it's awe inspiring. Truly.

Shelby Quast:               29:09              

It's something you look at, and this inspiration, and a lot of times the communities fight back, and then we've seen those same people who, all of a sudden, sometimes shift to find a new community, and that whole community is of different survivors who are all speaking out. They know it's difficult, but they now have each other. And it's interesting to start to see communities come around and say, you know what, we don't want to protect that anymore. We don't want to do that. And understand that maybe they have the power with the internet, and with access to information, and understanding it's not a religious requirement becomes a tremendously big deal for people who previously could only go by what they had been told. And that, that it was - so that you're finding people are much more educated and wanting to protect the next generation. And you know, we, we've, we've evolved, you know, women are speaking out, women have the ability to speak out now, where maybe they didn't before. And so I think we're seeing people claim their rights, and claim the right to not be forced into, um, I don't know, again, early marriage, or sex before they're ready, or female genital mutilation because they're are told to conform. And then that becomes, I think an issue that we see everywhere about how a society tells people they have to conform, and pushing back about what does it mean for a girl that has to conform - you know, conform for what? You know, and that's, so I think pushing back and challenging societal norms where they're not healthy is, um, is moving forward.

Elizabeth:                     30:45              

Yeah. No, I agree. And I, and I think that, you know, so much of the discussion around violence against women and girls, it's really important that, the point you made about communicating that like female genital mutilation is not required in any religious text. And I think that's one of the, probably the biggest misconceptions, at least in the - I mean I've, I have just dipped my toe in the water of research, but that seems to be the scapegoat people who support it use - it's a religious practice, but, but it's not, you know, when you listen to survivors and you listen to, um, religious scholars who don't support it, it's not. So the motivation always seems to come down to using violence to rob women of their bodily autonomy and self determination. And in a lot of cases, you were talking about shame earlier, but like shaming any sort of sexual agency a woman might have, and with the internet and with social media and with the youth movements and people speaking out, where do you think - I mean, it's, it's a long road, you know, then there's a lot of fronts to, to fight this on, but where do you think we are on the path?

Shelby Quast:               32:08              

Well, looking back over the weekend? And seeing women convening and marching and youth marching, and boy's and girl's arm-in-arm marching, you know, men, women together demanding equality, demanding rights? I think we're seeing people find their voice, and if we, if we can actually support people finding that and uniting against inequality, actually, against discrimination, against those issues that try to make us unequal, I think that we're moving forward, we're making progress. And before these things would happen and they happened quietly when people didn't even question them, you know, laws that didn't protect women, didn't protect girls, didn't give them equality at their base. You know, I mentioned earlier the Equal Rights Amendment - there's coming up before Virginia, that would be the 38th state, the final state required to ratify this constitutional amendment that simply says women and men are equal under the law. And that's, I think that's huge. If anyone from Virginia is listening, I hope that they will hold their members of Congress accountable and get the house to pass this. The Senate of Virginia has passed it. But the, the House of Delegates, is pushing hard - and again, it's the reasons why people don't want equality are not very good. They're not very strong. There's a lot of myth attached to that that, you know, horrible things will happen. Well, in truth, they've all happened, you know, women are working now, uh, women are flying. Airplanes in the world hasn't dissolved. Um, the women are voting. It's okay. Women are lawyers, women aren't taking - women are having podcasts. You - all of it.

Elizabeth:                     33:58              

[Mock outrage] We read books, we read books Shelby!

Shelby Quast:               34:01              

Yeah, you know what I mean? So we're doing that and the world, you know, hasn't disintegrated because of it. Really good things will come from equality under the law. Nothing good comes from not having it.

Elizabeth:                     34:13              

Right. Yeah. Some would argue it makes us stronger.

Shelby Quast:               34:17              

Some would argue and makes us stronger and it actually puts us in with the rest of the world who's already recognized in the Constitution. shouldn't be discriminatory on its base. So I think that in those, that there were on the path - I really encourage youth to, are having the courage to, you know - they're not asking permission, whether or not they can act, or protect their rights, or speak out for themselves. They're doing it. And I think we could learn something from that. You know, looking around and they're calling things out that, that aren't fair, that aren't right. We have a lot of youth too that, that could stand to be educated and just look at things. But I think that also comes through the internet, the media, social media, and trying to ensure that the stories are told, that people understand the issues, but they're not - that gender equality and protecting children from violence should not be partisan issues. They should be non-partisan issues that everybody supports. I find it a bit crazy that it gets caught up in politics because if you really look at the issues themselves, people don't support that. But what they do is support rhetoric that ties up all these issues together. And I think if we can break them down, and really talk about them, they're, they're very hard - I don't see any, um, again, I think there's, they're just not partisan issues at all. And we need to protect them from being put and you know, in front of politics.

Elizabeth:                     35:48              

A hundred percent. I was, um, I just as a quick aside, I was listening to the radio yesterday and there was a discussion about how the rhetoric is shaped to make a one side seem like they don't have a moral compass, and the other seem like they are the only moral compass when of course, issues like this - like, like the safety and health of women and girls should not be a partisan issue. You know, whether or not we have clean air to breathe, should not be a partisan issue. They affect everybody. And like you said, when you just ask people in general, regardless of party affiliation or any sort of political affiliation, if they support certain things, like just things - like they tend to, overwhelmingly agree for things that are for the good, you know? Um, so, so I guess, yeah, so how do, how do we, how do we work in combating against that rhetoric? I mean, I know it's a, I know it's a vigilant fight. It's an a constant thing to try and untangle all the spin.

Shelby Quast:               37:00              

Yup. Yeah, yeah. I think much of it is actually working in communities, because - I was talking with somebody the other day who mentioned, you know, things happen in California, New York and Washington D.C. where there are hot beds of politics, but the majority in this country lives in other places, and maybe we get into those other places and have real conversations and not finger pointing, not demanding what happens, but having real conversations so people can, you know, conversations in a way that people can actually hear what's being discussed. They can listen to it -

Elizabeth:                     37:41              

And relate to it.

Shelby Quast:               37:41              

Exactly. They can, they can see themselves in that discussion. They have that desire because, as you said, people aren't looking to ensure that children are victims of violence, to ensure there's inequality that women aren't less - You know, sometimes it gets all about one issue. I think we find out that it's only once you once, once you talk about reproductive rights, that's it. But we're talking about a whole plethora of rights that exist. And I think that we need to start having those discussions around them. And you know, that ability to agree to disagree there, there are certain things that people won't agree on and that's, that's okay, but understanding them becomes hugely important before you can not agree to them.

Elizabeth:                     38:25              

100%. And what you said earlier too, about removing that stigma and that shame, you know, being able to sit in a room with senators and say the word clitoris and say the word vagina, and it is - should not be something that's swept under the rug.

Shelby Quast:               38:39              

Yeah, no, I had, I had somebody tell me 'we can't say those words in our district' and I, I remember smiling, and I was just talking with him, and I said, if you can't say them, you can't address them.

Elizabeth:                     38:50              


Shelby Quast:               38:51              

It's okay. And I, you know, I remind people that, you know, not that long ago we did not talk about erectile dysfunction. And now you see ads for Cialis and they're talking about erectile dysfunction. You know, it's, it's okay, we've had some social change. You can have change. And that's, that's the thing is we can have change. And we are starting to have these discussions and people are talking about it, and all of a sudden they see, oh my gosh, they're top models, they're lawyers, they're doctors, they're politicians that have been, that have experienced FGM, it's - I see myself in them, you know what I mean? It's not just - these are people in the thread of our society that have experienced this, so -

Elizabeth:                     39:26              

A hundred percent - and to the the point - you know, that it wasn't, it wasn't a good thing that there was silence about these things in the 50's. It wasn't a good thing. I mean -

Shelby Quast:               39:35              

Exactly, exactly.

Elizabeth:                     39:36              

People tend to, to laud, you know, the 50's, but I mean, we're, we're really seeing what happens when you try to sweep under the rug, all the horrific things that are actually happening when you just turn your eyes away and ignore it.

Shelby Quast:               39:54              

Look at #MeToo.

Elizabeth:                     39:55              


Shelby Quast:               39:56              

All of a sudden, I don't know anybody that, and, and, and I, I'm, I won't say just as a woman, but ,that's how I identify as a woman, so my experience is - I don't know anybody who hasn't experienced to some sort of sexual harassment or sexual violence, especially going into careers and trying to move forward. And most of us were quiet about it. We didn't say something. We knew it would prevent us from moving forward. And we're probably looking back now and saying, huh, maybe we should have said something a little bit more loudly so we wouldn't be here, but it's, um, but, but that, that idea that it has happened to so many. And I think that was what was interesting about the #MeToo movement was so many people saw themselves there. They could identify because they had had some sort of experience. And when we start having these kinds of discussions and in ways that people can, can identify, um, and somehow see themselves in, or their daughter or their son or their friends or their circle, whatever it is, um, that they start to see themselves in that. I think when we look at gender issues and gender fluidity issues, and we've got long, long way to go, but it's come quite far, because people were willing to speak out. And people that we didn't, you know, oh, you didn't know, but, but you really like them, so all of a sudden it's not something that was scary, and the people that are saying, oh, that's me, that's how I live my life - again, it's that voice that people are using, it can be difficult at the beginning, but you know, people thought we would never allow same sex marriage, and well, there we did, and now, and now it's like, I think everyone's okay, it's fine.

Elizabeth:                     41:43              

Right, right - the world didn't explode.

Shelby Quast:               41:46              

Right. You know what, exactly, it's fine. It was this horrible - no, and now people are like perfectly fine with that. So I do think that we have the ability on this path to shift, to change, to say, you know what, we're not going to cut our daughter's clitoris off, because only harm comes from that. There's 8,000 nerve endings in the clitoris, and when you cut it, it doesn't just, it's not a one and done thing. They live with that every day of their life, and it has mental health issues, and it has physical health issues. And the fact people are, you know, they had - most of the people I'm talking to who are sharing our stories, don't necessarily even talk about it in their families still, they may not be able to talk about it with their parents, or their aunts or whoever was involved. That's a process as well. But, but a lot of them have also been able to have those conversations. And sometimes they just said, we're going to, we're just making different decisions, and times have changed and that's okay.

Elizabeth:                     42:44              

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I've been speaking with a couple of survivors of FGM as well, and part of the discussion also that I was having is, you know, how, the forgiveness - I know that every survivors passes individual, but just because it is, it is a very - but the thing is, the thing is, it's, it's a, it's a really unfortunate reality that, um, family exposing children to harm, it is not a unique thing unfortunately. It happens everywhere. So it's, it's, yeah, I think people tend to, try and relegate issues like - well actually when you, you mentioned #MeToo, I, you know, one of the discussions I was having with, with the survivor recently - We talked a little bit about like, why aren't these things part of the umbrella that #MeToo, you know, is, is supporting and, and you know, maybe, um, maybe they are in some people's eyes, but, but you know, I think that, um, because it seems like me too, for a lot of people, really, for a lot of women, it, you know, they're like, yeah, this is just - It encompasses all types of, you know, sexual violence against women and girls.

Shelby Quast:               44:21              

There's what people see maybe as being on the fringes of that movement. I mean certainly there's sex trafficking. People who were bought for sex and they're saying, but wait a second - there's somebody who put it, and I really liked the way she put it, she goes, 'that's #MeToo on steroids.' You know, it's the hugest part. So I think we're somewhat - and again, that's, that's another, an entirely - it's another issue that we need to frame it so people can see themselves in it. It's not something had happened to them. It's something that happens to everybody. And there's a spectrum of, of what that might look like, where families are involved in any of that, perpetrating harm or pushing somebody out there to be harmed, whether it's female genital mutilation, or prostituting a child, or whatever that looks like. It's very difficult, because you've got - it's very conflicting for a child because there are bonds of family. And there might be all kinds of reasons about why it happened. It was, you know, because you couldn't be part of the community if it didn't happen. Um, we, we didn't have enough money if that didn't happen - there's all kinds of sometimes reasons, but I think when you have those discussions at the end of the day, parents oftentimes, and I think that's what you were talking about, the forgiveness factor, aren't seeking to harm their child, but the reality is sometimes they are seeking to harm their child, and I think that there's that spectrum, right? You can't, it's, it's not the same for any one group. And I think we have to recognize that and allow people to own their story, to own their experience, whatever that might have looked like for them, and not be afraid to have those discussions. Sometimes I think that what we see is people shut them down because it feels, it might feel close to home for them. And it scares people to have the discussion. But in many families they are having those discussions, they are choosing something different. And a lot of places, if it's being done, for example, a female genital mutilation is being done as a, a form of initiation, or moving from child to a woman, then are there other ways to do that? And it does it, can it be, something else, something symbolic where you don't lose the beautiful parts of the culture you're celebrating, but you don't keep the harmful pieces. And, you know, as we evolve, I think people can define, how, you know, culture is one of those things that can change, and does change. And this is one of the areas that we would like to see change. It's, you know, 25, 20-some - gosh, 27 years ago now Equality Now was founded as I said, because there was no human rights organization that would address FGM. But now we see at the United Nations there is a global goal by 2030 to eliminate harmful practices including female genital mutilation and child marriage. And I can tell you, the fact that they were even talking about female genitalia at the United Nations is new. The fact that it ever made its way to that platform, where people around the world are talking about this, that February 6th is the International Day Of Zero Tolerance for a female genital mutilation. And most countries are having some sort of discussion around it. That's a tremendous shift from just five years ago. And so going or going back to that path, I think we're moving forward, and I think we have a long way to go, but I think we're gaining momentum.

Elizabeth:                     47:56              

That's wonderful. That's wonderful, and encouraging. And to that point, what are the most effective ways that people who may be listening, who may find Equality Noq - what are the most effective ways that people can support your work?

Shelby Quast:               48:15              

I mean, learn. That is my biggest one is learning about what the issues are. Educate yourself, talk about them. And you can do that through a lot of different ways. You can come to the Equality Now website and learn about the issues that we work on. We have actions - sometimes when we're trying to change the law in a state or, um, as I said, trying to remove this exception to statutory rape. When, for child marriage - trying to remove that law at the federal level. And then we have actions. You can take an action, and all that means is you are signing up and you're sending either a letter or making a phone call to your representative and saying, I'm interested. I am a constituent of yours. You represent me. And this issue is important to me. There can be financial support for people who don't know what else that they want to do. They can make a donation. It can be reading newspaper articles - but also calling, calling things out that aren't accurate. You know, where people are saying, oh, that's just a, that's just a Muslim issue, that, you know, that was brought here - say, you know, well actually, I read some articles - and having a real conversation about that, not just repeating things. You know, so I think that's, to me, that's the biggest thing that people can do is to educate themselves properly. If there's two sides to something, listen to both sides. Educate yourself, and, and speak up. You know, there's, there's, there's a lot of discussion about it's not really what people do when they're talking. It's about those that remain silent and allow things to happen. And I think that where people are using their voice, where we can get a momentum and a majority of the people to actually say this issue is important to us and we want, we want it to stop, whether it's in our own little community or whether I'm supporting work, in the broader community, I think that that becomes very important that people are standing up, in this case for, for women's rights and for equality. You know, and people aren't asking for, for anything special, they're just asking to be equal rights under the law, and to have laws that protect their rights from being, you know, married at 12, from having their genitalia cut, um, from being, you know, for, from being sold for sex - and those are, those are things that I think, um, that we can stand up and actually defend. So if people are looking to do something, I would ask them to please pay attention, reach out. And as I said, Equality Now is one of those sources where they might be able to do that on some of the issues that we work on.

Elizabeth:                     50:46              

Well Shelby, thank you for your work, and thank you for your time today. I really appreciate you being on Underestimated.

Shelby Quast:               50:53              

Well, thank you for talking about important issues. I appreciate it.

Elizabeth:                     50:56              

After our initial interview, Shelby and I ended up talking more about the Detroit case, and the ruling that happened in November of 2018 in relation to FGM/C. I'd like to share that discussion with you now.

Shelby Quast:               51:08              

I think I was on the news in Detroit for about, I don't know for four days straight. And it was interesting, because there were people who would never have covered the story but for that case. The other thing about that case that's, that's somewhat interesting; we filed an amicus brief in that case and really - and I was at the trial - and it was to try to ensure that this judge understood just how wide reaching this issue is. That it's a global movement to eliminate FGM. It's not something that's targeting a Muslim community - and because it's all very much like the judge was so concerned with um, not being anti-Muslim that he went overboard, and actually it was defending the practice of a community, that wasn't, you know, so, so there was, there's some interesting dynamics that that went on, and we really wanted to make sure he understood this happens to lots of communities, and lots of girls are at risk and um, his, and - just as a one other cap on, you know, kind of feather on this point is - his decision that it was unconstitutional is being appealed by the Department of Justice, it only applies right now to this small eastern district in Michigan at the lowest federal court. So I expected it will go up, it will be appealed, we will file another amicus brief. We will help to highlight the voices of survivors in that as well. So people also, when they heard that it was found to be unconstitutional - again, that's just one judge who threw that over to appeal to let it be decided by people who are more constitutional scholars and did those arguments. So it's not a done deal. That case is still in very much ongoing yeah.

Elizabeth:                     52:54              
Yeah, that is very important to mention, that It is not a done deal. Yes.

Shelby Quast:               52:56              

And it only applies in the eastern district of Michigan at a moment. It doesn't apply anywhere else. So the law is still good, the law is good law.

Elizabeth:                     53:03              

So I didn't actually realize that. So if someone brought a case in Oklahoma under that same law -

Shelby Quast:               53:09              

It's fine, absolutely they can bring a case in Oklahoma. They can bring a case anywhere outside the eastern district of Michigan.

Elizabeth:                     53:14              

Got It. And then since, because Michigan's own ban wasn't passed until after -

Shelby Quast:               53:22              

So that a federal law and then, yeah, the Michigan, there's a Michigan state law that came into effect afterwards -

Elizabeth:                     53:27              

And it can't be retroactively tried under that law -

Shelby Quast:               53:28              

Not for those girls under that particular situation. But there were, there are, there are also state law charges that are moving forward. So once the state law came in, there were other states, you know, doing the laws that came forward. So I think it's, it's important - People think that this case is, they're done, it's decided, it's not - it's just a small district court in the eastern district of Michigan. We'll go to the sixth circuit for review and when it goes there, um, we'll see. We know what their decision is in the sixth circuit, but even then it would only be the sixth circuit where it would apply.

Elizabeth:                     54:02              

Got It.

Shelby Quast:               54:04              

Yeah, they don't have the ability to, to make a full law unconstitutional. So anyway, that's - a lot of people, I guess I did have something else to add. Some lawyer wonkiness - So anyway, so there's the discussion I expect when the case comes up, just this decision, the motion to dismiss on appeal, it will get more coverage and people will want to know more about this. And then when the case comes, it will still come back to the judge in Michigan to take a look at either the remaining factors, or the entire case, depending on what the, what the appellate court decides. So there we go. It should be interesting. I expect more people will be learning about it, so yeah, hopefully you'll play your podcast and people will be listening.

Elizabeth:                     54:45              

I hope so. I hope so.

Elizabeth:                     54:49              

You've been listening to "Don't Mention It," a series from Underestimated: A Podcast. Special thanks today to my guest Shelby Quast. You can follow Shelby's work at Equality Now by visiting equalitynow.org, or by following them on Twitter @equalitynow. You can also support the work of the U.S. End FGM/C Network, and you can find that network at endfgmnetwork.org. All of the women I have interviewed for this series are members of the leadership team for the u s U.S. End FGM/C Network, and their work combating this form of gender based violence in the United States is groundbreaking. Links to all of these organizations will be included in the show notes. Underestimated is written, produced, and hosted by me, Elizabeth Palmer, with music composed in Garageband. Additional music used this week from the Free Audio Archive will be detailed and cited in the show notes. All opinions expressed by me in this podcast are my own, and do not represent the views of anyone else, any employer, any company, or any other entity. If you like what you've heard, you can follow the pod on Twitter @underestipod, that's U-N-D-E-R-E-S-T-I-P-O-D, on Instagram @underestimatedpodcast. Or you can email me underestimatedpodcast@gmail.com, and of course you can find all things underestimated at underestimatedpodcast.com, where you can also find transcripts for each episode of "Don't Mention It," and you can follow the #Don'tMentionIt on social media for updates on the series.

Elizabeth:                     56:24              

Thank you for listening. Have a good week.


Elizabeth P.