Minnesota Somalis are setting out to end an ancient custom intended to keep girls virginal and marriageable.

In Minneapolis, Fartun Weli enlists a congressman to condemn female genital cutting in a YouTube video. In St. Paul, Imam Hassan Mohamud advises families against flying daughters to Africa for the ritual. And in Somalia's Puntland region, Anisa Hajimumin, a Hamline University graduate, rolls out a ban on genital cutting.

As the number of African immigrants in the United States has swelled recently, the century-old ritual has landed back in the national spotlight. A new federal law went into effect banning "vacation cutting," the practice of taking girls out of the country to be circumcised; the Obama administration summoned a task force to combat cutting here and overseas.

Amid this surge in attention, some local Somalis see their community as a driving force in stamping out the practice around the world. Despite concerns that talking openly about the custom makes the community an easy mark for those looking to stigmatize it, a few have become outspoken activists in Minnesota or Somalia. Others have taken on the role of low-key cultural ambassadors, making their case privately with relatives or friends who might circumcise their daughters.

"The issue needs to be raised from the horse's mouth," said Weli, head of Isuroon, a statewide women's health nonprofit based in Minneapolis. "There's a leadership role we as a community have to take on."

'You can't feel sorry for me'

In one of her signature smart jackets and long skirts, Weli stands before a large screen showing a drawing of female genitals.

She is explaining cutting to an auditorium full of University of Minnesota medical students. In the practice's more common forms, a portion or all of the clitoris and labia are removed. In the more extensive version practiced widely in Somalia, the labia are also stitched together to leave only a small opening. It's a rite of passage into womanhood, meant to ensure girls stay chaste and marry well.

"I myself went through this, and I still can't look at it," Weli says with a glance over her shoulder. "So scary looking!"

Weli is here to tell the future physicians that patients like her need thoughtful care, not pity. Yes, this ritual can complicate the milestones of a woman's life: the first period, the first sexual intercourse, the births of her children. Weli sometimes refers to it as genital mutilation, the term favored by activists.

But cutting becomes a part of women's identities, and Weli tells the students, "You learn to live with it. You can't feel sorry for me."

With a rate of female genital cutting of more than 95 percent, by latest United Nations estimates, Somalia has the highest rate of 28 African and Middle Eastern countries that practice the ritual, in Muslim and Christian communities alike. But by all accounts, in Minnesota — among the first states to ban the practice in 1994 — the Somali community has largely broken with it.

Cawo Abdi, a Somalia-born University of Minnesota sociology professor, says she occasionally talks to women who still support cutting but fear breaking the law. Her research suggests that circumcisions are on the to-do lists of some families preparing to leave African refugee camps to resettle in the United States.

Many in the community, though, have had a genuine change of heart, she says; if a Somali girl was born here or came as an infant, it is "highly unlikely" she has been cut.

Metro-area OB/GYNs who work with East African patients have also seen this shift. They are starting to care for the uncircumcised daughters of Somali patients who themselves experienced cutting before coming here.

"The vast majority of the women I work with would never pursue [cutting] with their kids — never," says Deborah Thorp, whose patients at Park Nicollet are about 20 percent Somali.

Even as the custom loses ground, many Somalis remain loath to discuss it. They feel public talk of highly private matters goes against the culture and gives fodder to Westerners eager to see East African women as passive victims of a barbaric custom. But people like Weli believe that by speaking out, the community can own the issue and advocate for better medical care for those who have experienced it.

Isuroon, Weli's organization, has hosted conference calls on the subject — the nonprofit's answer to Western support groups. As many as 200 women have called in anonymously. A fall conference will address the issue. Meanwhile, Weli got Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., to record a YouTube message, in which he calls for rejecting the practice and offers a Department of Justice hot line for people who feel pressured to do it.

"A lot of people are abandoning this practice, but it's not fully abandoned," said Dr. Fozia Abrar, who believes Minnesota Somalis can influence relatives in African refugee camps to skip the ritual. "I think it's time for the community to talk openly about this."

What the Qur'an says

In hospitals or in his storefront mosque on St. Paul's University Avenue, Mohamud gives newborns a traditional Islamic blessing. He takes a bite out of a date and touches it to the baby's tongue, to impart wisdom.

Afterward, some parents linger to ask him anxious questions: Do they flout their faith if they never have their daughter cut? Would the girl have sex out of wedlock or commit adultery? Should they find a way of traveling to Africa to have her circumcised?

Mohamud offers a dual perspective, as the Minnesota Da'wah Institute's imam and an attorney with a degree from William Mitchell. He tells parents the Qur'an prohibits cutting away any part of the human body. He also tells them some Islamic scholars do recommend a "lighter version" of the ritual, in which the genitals are only pricked.

But the practice is not mandatory in Islam and is illegal in the United States, Mohamud tells them, "So you don't have that dilemma here."

"I tell them not to travel, not to do it," Mohamud says.

Amid a groundswell of attention to the custom, the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau released a study this year estimating more than half a million women and girls in the United States have undergone cutting or are at risk — the first such estimate in more than a decade. Minnesota came in third among states, with an estimated 44,000 women and girls who have been cut or are at risk. Critics of the study argue that, because of legal and other hurdles, the risk is small in the United States.

Nationally and in Minnesota, evidence of "vacation cutting" is anecdotal.

"Aisha," a woman in her 20s who did not want to be named, said a relative recently confided that she wanted to arrange for her daughter to be circumcised on a trip to Somalia. Aisha flashed back to her own cutting in Africa, at age 7: Several women held her down during the anesthesia-free procedure. She recalls the searing pain the first time she urinated afterward and years later, on her wedding night.

So she pleaded with her relative not to have the girl cut and threatened to call 911 if she found out the woman went through with it.

Cracking down on genital cutting was on Anisa Hajimumin's short list when she took over as minister of women, development and family affairs in Somalia's Puntland region last spring.

In her new job, Hajimumin lobbied for a first-of-its-kind policy banning the practice in Puntland. The provincial president signed it in March 2014. The policy triggered negative responses, and Hajimumin heard a familiar refrain: How will daughters find a husband? Will uncut girls be unclean?

Now, she is pushing for criminal penalties for those who continue the custom. She envisions an anti-cutting curriculum taught in schools and an end to the practice by 2025. She says: "I understand it's quite a struggle to get there, but I am determined."

Other Minnesota Somalis are joining the campaign. Halima Ibrahim, whose husband was shot by militants in Mogadishu last winter, leads a women's rights organization that tries to counter the custom by talking with mothers. Weli's nonprofit is gearing up to retrain the women who perform the ritual to work as doulas or midwives instead. Even as the rate of cutting in Somalia has started to slip, these returnees are sometimes accused of becoming too beholden to Western ideas.

Waris Mohamud will go back to Somalia this summer with her daughters, 10 and 15. But she has no plans to have them cut. She will visit a rural town where her husband's relatives live, and where families still pay hefty fees to hire cutters.

"I will tell everybody there, 'Don't do it,' " she said. "This cutting is not related to our religion. It's not good for our girls."

Mohamud thinks the ritual has already lost ground in large cities in Somalia. Recently, her mother told her she didn't want to see a young granddaughter cut; there was really no benefit.

"Why did you do it to me?" Mohamud asked.

"Everybody was doing it at the time," her mother replied, "so we had to do it, too."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781