They would call the “bhoot” if I didn’t stop screaming

(Trigger Warning: Below is the account of one woman’s experience with FGC. We thank her for being brave and sharing her story with us).

By Fatema Kabira

Age: 19

Country: India

Seven years old. I was seven years old when they forced me to have a part of my femininity cut off. I don’t remember much from my childhood. My memories are very vague. Yet, despite my poor memory, I clearly remember the day I was circumcised. That day is a vivid memory.

My grandmother and mom told me I was going for a sitabi (a celebration for women and girls). I used to love sitabis when I was a kid. So, I got really excited and eagerly awaited going to the sitabi. I even insisted to my mom that I wear my new clothes and topi. After dressing up in my favourite clothes, I left with my grandmother and mom to go to the sitabi.

We didn’t end up attending any sitabi and instead we went to a place that was unfamiliar to me. It was an old looking building. The steps were covered with dust and were broken. I was confused why we were there. We went inside somebody’s house and were greeted by a middle-aged woman whom I failed to recognize. I asked my mom what was going on, but she ignored me. The house was small with only one room, kitchen, and a storage unit attached to the ceiling. The one room was dim and gloomy and gave out an eerie feeling. The Aunty chatted with us for a while and then went inside another room to bring something back. When she came out she had a blade and 2 or 3 other items in her hands (I can’t recall what they were). She came and sat in front of me. My mind went blank. I thought, ‘Blade?’ ‘For what?’ My grandmother then asked me to remove my pants. Innocently, I told them I did not want to use their washroom. My 7 years old brain could not comprehend any other reason why my grandmother would ask me to remove my pants. And that too in front of an unknown woman since my grandmother knows how shy I was even in front of my own mother. But I obliged to my grandmother’s request. They made me lie down and held my hands firmly to the ground. Next thing I remember is the sight of the silver blade and a sharp agonizing pain in my most intimate area. I screamed in terror. What did they do? The Aunty told me to keep quite or she will call the “bhoot” (ghost) that stayed in her storage unit. I didn’t oblige to them this time. I screamed and yelled and tried to free myself. It was all in vain. They did what they wanted to do. It was all over. I cried all the way home. It hurt every time I urinated. The sight of the blood made me sick.

I was hurt and angry and confronted my mother about this. She told me she was under religious obligation and she did what thought was the right thing to do at that time. Fortunately, I didn’t face any medical repercussions due to the unhygienic and brutal way in which I was circumcised. But it has left a psychological impact on me. I feel disgusted, ashamed, and angry at what has been done to me. There is no reason that justifies this barbaric practice. There is no reason that justifies taking away women’s inherent physical rights and ability to experience pleasure. Young girls are scarred for life and this needs to be stopped.

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A message from Sahiyo

Hello Sahiyo followers, friends, and supporters.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for coming out in such large numbers and taking forward our goal to end Khatna.

We have recently received a lot of media participation in creating awareness and thanks to them, this issue is now garnering the attention of Bohras from all around the world. However, we would like to add that our media interviews are done with the sole intention of reaching out to the community members, and not as a publicity stunt or public relations exercise. As an organization, we try our best to convey to the media what the aims and goals are of Sahiyo.

We as co-founders of Sahiyo, stand united against khatna. But our objective is to do this with the cooperation of our sisters without alienating or judging them. Sahiyo was, is, and will always be an organization that operates from knowledge, gathered within the community, and not merely on the basis of opinions or feelings harboured individually or as a group.

With that said, our khatna online survey is still open to all Bohra women who are 18+ years of age – regardless of whether or not khatna has occurred to you or whether or not you agreed or disagree with the practice. So please feel free to fill it out the anonymous survey as we are on the last stages of compiling and analysing the data received. If you would like the link to the survey, please e-mail us at info@sahiyo.com.

 

Human Rights Day Panel at New England School of Law

On March 10th, 2016, Sahiyo Co-founder, Mariya Taher, will be speaking on the Human Rights Day Panel at the New England School of Law in Boston. More details are below:

Topic: A Poignant Discussion on Female Genital Mutilation

Date: March 10, 2016

Time: 4:00 pm

Location: New England School of Law – 154 Stuart St, Boston, MA 02116; Cherry Room

Guest Speakers: Susan McLucas, Mariya Taher, Katie Cintolo, Dina Haynes

Sponsored By: International Law Society, Immigration Law Society, Charles Hamilton Houston Enrichment Program, Center for International Law and Policy

I Will Not Be Silent – Ban Khatna Globally

Zehra Patwa

Age: 45

Current Country of Residence: United States

In 2014, I saw a video that changed my life.  My husband sat me down, told me that this was going to be upsetting and showed me a video.  It was a documentary from Australia featuring my cousin’s wife recounting her experience of being cut at the age of 7 in a dingy apartment in India by an old woman. Her telling of the story horrified me, which is the same reaction I have always had about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) but what threw me was the fact that this was a Bohra woman, like me.  She said this happens to all Bohra girls around the age of 7 and that it had happened to her sister, too.  For a moment, I refused to believe it but as she kept talking, I realized that it could have been done to me too.

I grew up in the UK and moved to the US in 1994.  I immediately recalled that summer trip to India at the tender age of 7 to attend my uncle’s wedding.  My mother had made me new dresses and I had matching hats and headpieces to go with them.  It was going to be so much fun.

What I couldn’t recall, though, was the actual khatna, but I have since received confirmation from my family that it was done to me. Even then, the reality did not sink in. How could I not remember it?  Maybe it wasn’t done to me after all, maybe it was all a ruse to “save face”.  What I’ve learned since is that some women erase the memory of the traumatic event completely and utterly.  Sometimes, it can be restored and other times it can’t.  I still haven’t accepted if it’s better to know or to not know.  Either way, it feels like a violation.

I cannot stand by quietly and let other girls in our Bohra community be subjected to this terrible practice.  I will not be silent. Even though I do not recall my personal khatna, I feel lasting psychological damage has been done just knowing that it happened to me. I can only imagine the physical and psychological damage done to those girls and women who, to this day, have vivid memories of it.

The Bohra jamaats in Sydney and Melbourne in Australia and, now, London in the UK have banned khatna (khafd).  Why do our sisters from all over the Bohra diaspora still have to suffer when our sisters in Australia and London are spared?  Are Bohra women valued more in some countries than others?  All Bohra women are subject to the same rules and edicts from Aqa Maula, why is this any different?

Khatna is illegal under Female Genital Mutilation laws in the US (18 U.S. Code § 116 – Female genital mutilation) but if khatna should not be done by some Bohras, shouldn’t it be extended to all Bohras regardless of the law in that country?  If you had a daughter in Dubai, would you still consider subjecting them to khatna if your sisters in Australia and the UK are specifically told not to?

To cut or not to cut? 10 Bohra stories to set off a debate on khatna

By Chandni Shiyal, PhD Student, Mumbai University

I first found out that female genital cutting is practiced among Dawoodi Bohras in India during my M.Phil research on FGM in Africa. I was shocked when my Bohra friends not only confirmed they had undergone the practice but also seemed absolutely fine with it. I began to talk to more and more Bohras about it – my friends, their relatives, even strangers I met on the train. Most of them seemed to support the practice; some told me they had been cut but did not know what exactly was done; others said they must maintain silence about it because of the pressures of society.

Here are some of the stories that emerged from a series of informal interviews I conducted with Bohra women in the past few years:

  • She was circumcised at age seven. The practice, she says, started at the time of Mohammed Rasoolullah. It is done to curb sexual desire, so that the woman remains within her “limits”. She never discussed this subject with her sisters till they were all married. Even though times have changed, many new-generation Bohras continue the practice under family pressure, because their parents claim it is farziyat (obligatory) in the religion. But today she wants to fight the practice.
  • She was cut at seven, when her mother took her to an “aunt’s” place. The pain lasted for three days. There are no “side-effects” to the practice, she says, but it is done to reduce sexual desire. Her daughter is now three years old, but her mother-in-law already keeps reminding her that the girl needs to be cut. She doesn’t support the practice now, but she knows she will have to give in to family pressure and eventually circumcise her daughter.
  • She is 45. The practice, she says, involves spreading a girl’s legs and cutting. The pain is horrible. They apply some cream. The girl is told to avoid playing and jumping. She is given coconut water to recover and is told to avoid putting water on that part for a few days, and apply Dettol for hygiene. But it takes time to heal. It is done at a young age, she says, to avoid any questions or opposition. The practice is done with the consent of Maula, the community leader. People are told, “If you do not do this, you are not a Bohra”.
  • She tells me the practice began at the time of the Prophet. Even though the Quran doesn’t mention it, one must follow the Nabi. It is a matter of faith. What the Africans do is quite harsh and backward, but what we do, she says, is a milder form that causes no harm. The practice, she says, involves removing the extra “haraam” flesh above the “urine part”, just like one would remove a cancer. Cutting reduces sexual pleasure, she says, and when the woman marries, she is able to give her husband pleasure. When a girl is circumcised, it beautifies her vagina – “Ek nikhaar aati hai”. She believes girls who are not cut possibly undergo menstrual and gynaecological problems. I mention that other Muslims in India do not practice female circumcision, to which she says, “We perceive the Quran differently; we are the Brahmins of Islam.”
  • She was circumcised at the age of seven. She doesn’t remember what exactly happened, but knows it is done to reduce a woman’s sexual desire. She believes the cutting is for her betterment. She does not really feel the need to go against the practice and admits she would have her daughter circumcised, albeit unwillingly. But if she gets confirmation that the Quran makes no mention of female circumcision, she would try her best not to let her daughter be cut. It is possible, she says that women who are not circumcised probably feel more sexual pleasure than those who are cut.
  • She was cut at seven and did the same for her daughter, but was a bit scared about it. It is difficult, after all, to prepare a young child for something like this. Recently, her friend from the Jain community married a Bohra boy, and she had to undergo circumcision. She was told that her nikah would not be valid if she was not cut.
  • She was cut when she was three months old. She believes male circumcision is harsher than female circumcision, because boys need a surgical procedure, while a girl’s clitoris can be cut even with a fingernail. The main reason behind the practice, she says, is because men in the community often work outside the country for months, and khatna helps control sexual desire.
  • She believes khatna is a part of the religion and is fine with it. She belongs to a modern family, she says, and was given the freedom to live a life of her choice. For instance, she freely interacts with her male friends. Then she says, “If my mother had even once told me about khatna or asked me if I wanted it done, I would have refused. What hurts me is that it was done without my consent.” Nonetheless, she says she would circumcise her daughter if she had one, because there is a scientific reason behind it. It maintains good sexual pleasure and prevents sexually-related diseases. Besides, at madrasa she learnt that if parents do not get khatna done for their daughters, it would count as a sin on their part.
  • She recently had her daughter circumcised in Dubai. There, only Bohra doctors in hospitals perform circumcision on girls, and she was charged around Rs 1,300. There are no side-effects, she says, but it pains for two days. She believes she is a modern woman – she does not force her daughter to wear the rida and would never discriminate between a son and daughter. “But when it comes to religion,” she says, “I follow it strictly. I feel I am because of my community and if I don’t follow my religion, it is sin.”
  • She was seven years old when it happened. She was taken to the doctor and had a small surgery that was over in less than an hour. She was happy because she got to eat ice creams and cakes and chocolates. As a child, she could not comprehend the repercussions. A part of her body was taken away from her without her consent, and this, she says, is the greatest regret she has. Even though she has no major physical or psychological trauma, she knows she would not have taken the same decision for herself. Female circumcision has no scientific basis and is one of the thousands of ways in which society puts men on a higher pedestal than women. She will never let her daughter be cut. Giving in to family pressure is the easy way out, but it is the duty of an educated generation to stand for what is right and not perpetuate such customs. This, she says, is the time to be the change.

Sahiyo’s comment: Please note that Female Genital Cutting or Female circumcision (khatna) is not mentioned anywhere in the Quran. The practice did not originate at the time of Prophet Mohammed, but in fact pre-dates both Islam and Christianity. In Islam, female khatna is NOT farziyat or obligatory – it is mentioned in some Hadiths as sunnat, or recommended. Khatna also has NOTHING to do with the vagina or its beautification – the practice involves removal of the clitoral hood and/or clitoris, which is located well above the vagina. Finally, depending on the extent of the cut and the manner in which it was done, many Bohra women do report experiencing side-effects including: pain and urinary difficulties in the days after the cutting, pain during intercourse, and lasting psychological trauma.

Mariya Ali – London Bohra Resident – “Last Generation to Lose a Pinch of Our Skin”

By Mariya Ali

I was born and raised in London, England and have been a lifelong member of the London Jamaat. Although FGM has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1985, myself and many other girls have been subjected to this barbaric ritual, despite it being outlawed.

After the Australian court case and subsequent convictions for circumcising two minor girls, the Sydney Jamaat issued a notice urging followers not to circumcise their daughters in Australia or abroad. On February 15th, the London Jamaat followed suit and issued a similar notice.

The letter, similar in wording to the one that was issued by the Sydney Jamaat, points out that Islam mandates that its followers be loyal, contributing citizens who abide by the law of the land in which they reside.

Despite the UK law explicitly stating that it is illegal to take a UK citizen outside of the UK for the purpose of circumcision, I know of many minors who were circumcised while abroad. It is important to note that this has also been addressed by the letter issued by the London Jamaat. It states that “You must not take your children outside UK for purpose of khafd as that is equally prohibited by law”.

The London Jamaat is the first Jamaat after Sydney to publicly discourage followers from performing this procedure on girls. Although this is a huge step in the right direction, the notice that was issued does not condemn the practice itself, but rather it discourages followers from breaking the law.

As a woman who has undergone this barbaric ritual, and on behalf of all of the other women who have suffered, do suffer and continue to suffer, I hope that this is the first of many Jamaats to follow suit and finally stamp out this practice. I thank the decision makers of the London Jamaat for taking this step and I sincerely hope that my generation is the last generation to lose a pinch of our skin.

A note about Sahiyo’s Online Survey

There have been a few media reports showcasing that ‘80% of Bohra women who took a survey on khatna were circumcised’. This statistic does come from Sahiyo’s online survey. However, we request that media representatives please first get in touch with Sahiyo before quoting or mentioning this statistic in any article, TV or radio interview.

The statistic is a preliminary result and Sahiyo is concerned that this figure is being shared out of context from the rest of the online survey. A final report of the survey will be available in May 2016. For more information, please contact info@sahiyo.com.

 

 

After Australia, Bohras in London asked to stop practising female circumcision

(Originally published in Scroll.in on February 16, 2016)

A notice issued by community authorities asks members to obey British laws that make female genital mutilation illegal.
Aarefa Johari  · Today · 01:00 pm
After Australia, Bohras in London asked to stop practising female circumcision

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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In another victory for Dawoodi Bohras campaigning for an end to the ancient practice of female genital cutting, all Bohra residents of London have been instructed to stop the practice of khatna, or female circumcision, as it is illegal in the United Kingdom.

Just last week, a similar notice was issued by community authorities to all Bohra residents of Australia, where three Bohras were recently convicted for circumcising two minor girls and now face potential jail time.

The Bohras are a small sect of Shia Muslims who hail predominantly from Gujarat but are now spread out around the world. They are the only community known to practise female genital cutting in India, but so far, there are no laws against the practice in India.

On February 15, the Anjuman-e-Burhani (London), a trust that manages the affairs of the Bohra community in London, sent out a letter to all local members informing them of a resolution passed by the trust on Saturday.

The letter clarifies that laws in the United Kingdom make all forms of Female Genital Mutilation illegal in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and that since 1985, the Bohra practice of khatna – which involves snipping off the tip of a young girl’s clitoral hood – has been illegal even if it is performed outside of the UK by or on a UK citizen.

‘Abide by the law of the land’

Like the notice issued by Australian Bohra authorities, the London letter quotes an Islamic teaching by Prophet Mohammed – “love for the land of abode is part of faith” – to emphasise the need for community members to abide by the laws of their country.

The letter then instructs community members not to engage in khatna within the UK under any circumstances, and also not to take children outside the UK for the procedure, “as that is equally prohibited in law”.

The letter issued to Bohra residents in London.
The letter issued to Bohra residents in London.

The notices issued, both in Australia and in London, indicate the impact that the conviction of the three Bohras in Sydney has had on the community.

In November 2015, the Supreme Court of New South Wales found a Bohra mother, a retired nurse and a senior clergy member called Shabbir Vaziri guilty of carrying out genital cutting on two minor sisters between 2010 and 2012, when the girls were six and seven years old respectively.

The three people could face a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Hearings to determine the quantum of punishment began on February 5 and are expected to go on for a while.

This is the first instance of any Bohra being arrested for khatna anywhere in the world, and the London letter makes note of that: “It is noted that a number of members of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Sydney, Australia, have been convicted in November 2015 by the Supreme Court of New South Wales for undertaking khafd [khatna], which emphasises the seriousness of the crime.”

To see the original article, please click here.

Come See “A Pinch of Skin” – A film by Priya Goswami

In 2012, Sahiyo Cofounder, Priya Goswami released the documentary, “A Pinch of Skin”, which has become a national award-winning documentary on female genital mutilation, in India.

A Pinch Of Skin will be screening in Mumbai on 19th Feb at 7.30 PM at Liberty Cinemas. This screening is organised by Osianama (part of the Oisan’s Film Festival) and they are holding a month long screening on the theme of Womanhood.
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Stop female circumcision, Dawoodi Bohra authorities tell community members in Australia

(Article originally posted in Scroll.in on Feb 11, 2016) 

By Aarefa Johari

Three months after a group of Dawoodi Bohras was held guilty for female genital mutilation in a landmark verdict by an Australian court, community authorities have issued a notice to all Bohras in Australia asking them to obey the law of the land and stop the practice of khatna or female circumcision.

The notice has drawn cheers from Bohra activists campaigning to bring an end to the ancient ritual of female genital mutilation that is meant to moderate a woman’s sexual urges.

In November 2015, the Supreme Court of New South Wales found a Bohra mother, a retired nurse and a senior clergy member called Shabbir Vaziri guilty of carrying out genital cutting on two minor sisters between 2010 and 2012, when the girls were six and seven years old respectively.

The three people could face a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. Hearings to determine the quantum of punishment began on February 5 and are expected to go on for a while.

The Bohra ritual of khatna involves snipping off the tip of a young girl’s clitoris, which is defined by the World Health Organisation as Type I FGM. Even though female genital mutilation has been illegal in Australia since 1997, the Bohra case is the first to actually make it to the nation’s courtrooms.

It is also the first instance of anyone being arrested for khatna in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, whose members predominantly hail from Gujarat in India. The Bohras are the only community known to practice female genital cutting in India, and so far, many have continued to cut their girls even when they migrate to other countries where female genital mutilation is illegal.

The notice issued to Australian community members on February 9, however, could significantly alter this trend.

Obey the law of the land

The notice, emailed to all Australian Bohras in the form a resolution letter, came a day after the Anjuman-e-Burhani (Sydney) – a trust managing Bohra affairs in Australia – held a meeting to discuss khatna.

The letter begins by quoting a hadith (text comprising the teachings of Prophet Mohammed) which states that “love for the land of abode is part of faith”, making it part of Islamic tradition to “remain loyal to the country of abode and to be law abiding and contributory citizens”.

The letter goes on to state:

“Khafd (also known as khatna or female circumcision) has recently been interpreted by the Supreme Court of NSW to be within the meaning of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as defined in section 45 of the Crimes Act of NSW. It is likely that the practice will be interpreted to fall within the specific laws in relation to FGM in other states or territories of the Commonwealth of Australia. Consequently, khafd is illegal, whether it is carried out within any of the states of Australia or overseas.

All parents and guardians are hereby directed in the strictest terms not to carry out khafd under any circumstances. You are further instructed not to take any person out of Australia for the purpose of khafd.”

If the community follows the instructions of this notice, it would mean that Bohra girls in Australia will henceforth escape a painful ritual that has been practiced in the community for centuries. It could also mean that Bohra authorities might issue similar notices in other countries where female genital mutilation is illegal, including the US, UK and Canada.

No law in India yet

The notice has come at a time when a judge presiding over the female genital mutilation case pointed out, during a sentencing hearing on February 5, that the convicted mother and retired nurse have not expressed any remorse about performing genital cutting on the girls. They have not, he said, made any statement indicating that they now reject the practice or would be willing to speak out against it in their community.

The notice could also be seen as a reaction to the growing negative media attention to the practice of khatna among Bohras in the past year, as more and more women from the community have come forward to demand an end to the erstwhile secret ritual. In December, 17 Bohra women from around the world (disclosure: this reporter is among them) launched an online petition asking the Indian government to act against female genital cutting, which is not yet illegal in India. The petition has garnered more than 44,000 signatures so far.

‘A small victory’

Community members, particularly those in Australia, have welcomed the notice and are now eager to see the rest of the Bohra population around the world follow suit.

Zarine Hashim, a hospital administrator from Melbourne, reacted to the notice with a mix of emotions. “I felt happiness and elation as it was a small victory in the whole scheme of things, but also anger that it has taken a court case to make this happen,” said Hashim. “I really feel that the community, worldwide, needs to take this as an example and reassess the legal, physical and mental health consequences of the practice before performing it.”

To read the original article, click here