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.

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