Respected Syedna, we are all disappointed by your views on female circumcision

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s recent wa’az (sermon) in Mumbai has come as a disappointment. For almost three months now, Dawoodi Bohras who wish to see an end to female circumcision (khatna) had been hopeful. Starting with Sydney in February, many Bohra jamaats in different cities around the world have issued letters to their members, asking them to stop practicing khatna because it is against the law in those countries. (Read more about the jamaat letters here.)

The jamaats issuing these letters – be it in Australia, USA, UK or Sweden – are all trusts that function with the sanction of the central Bohra leadership, whose headquarters are at Badri Mahal in Mumbai. The jamaat letters gave hope to Bohras across the world, even in countries like India and Pakistan where there are no laws against female genital cutting, that the Bohra leadership would eventually ask the whole community to stop practicing khatna.

After all, in a community that is so close-knit and centralised, why should girls in some parts of the world be spared from circumcision, while girls in other countries continue to be cut? If Dawoodi Bohras are one community, how can there be different rules based on geography?

In this light, the Syedna’s recent public sermon on April 25 has left large sections of Bohras surprised and disheartened. His speech, given at Mumbai’s Saifee Masjid on the occasion of the death anniversary of 51st Syedna Taher Saifuddin, made an indirect but fairly clear reference to khatna.

A four-minute audio clip of that section of the sermon has been circulating among Bohra social media groups all week, and several concerned community members wrote to Sahiyo to tell us that they had attended the wa’az and were shocked by the Syedna’s statements. On April 29, The Times of India wrote a report about these statements, which can be read here.

In the sermon, delivered in the Lisan-ul-Dawat language, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin can be heard saying the following:

“Whatever the world says, we should be strong and firm…whatever they say, it does not make a difference to us, we are not willing to accept [what they say]…we are not willing to talk to them. What are they telling us? That what we are doing is wrong?…who are they to teach us?”

The Syedna then makes a reference to other vices that people have, such as drugs or cigarettes, asking, “Why don’t they tell those people [that they are wrong]?”

A clearer reference to khatna comes with the following words in the speech:

“It must be done. If it is a man, it can be done openly and if it is a woman it must be discreet. But the act must be done. Do you understand what I am saying? Let people say what they want…but Rasoolullah [Prophet Mohammed] has said it…Rasoolullah will never say anything against humanity. He has only spoken [of] what is beneficial…from the perspective [“haisiyat”] of the body and the soul. What do they say?…that this is harmful? Let them say it, we are not scared of anyone.”

The Syedna’s sermon is significant for many reasons. This is the first time that he has made such a clear reference to khatna in public without explicitly spelling it out. All through the recent Australia case hearings as well as the anti-khatna campaigns by Sahiyo, Speak Out on FGM and other Bohras, the community was eagerly awaiting a word on the subject directly from the Syedna.

But his declaration that Bohras must continue the act, irrespective of opposition from various quarters, indicates that Bohra authorities were not being sincere when they issued various jamaat letters around the world. The implication of his speech is that the jamaat letters asking people to stop khatna are insignificant – a mere formality to save Bohras from facing criminal consequences in countries where female genital cutting is illegal.

Were the jamaat letters a mere pretence to hoodwink international governments? His speech says “the act” must be done openly for men and discretely for women. Why?

The Syedna says that the “the act” must be practiced because the Prophet recommended as something beneficial. But according to the jamaat letters issued with the sanction of the Syedna, the Prophet also preached the value of “hibbul watan minal imam” – love and loyalty for the laws of one’s country. So which teachings of the Prophet must Bohras in those countries follow?

Most significantly, we would like to point out one thing: the Syedna’s speech dismisses and rejects all opposition from “them”, from all those saying that khatna is harmful and must not be practiced. The “they” he is referring to, however, are not just governments of countries like Australia or the USA.

The strongest form of opposition to khatna is now coming from within the community – from Bohra women who have either undergone khatna or have seen their loved ones go through it, and from Bohra men who are horrified that their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends have to go through the cut. These are Bohras of all hues – staunch believers, regular masjid attendees, occasional attendees, sceptics, liberals, traditionalists, reformists – but they are Bohras, and they no longer want the practice of khatna to continue. By alienating these women and men as “they”, as outsiders, the opposition cannot be wished away.Those opposed to the practice have strong reasons for their views, and we urge the Syedna and all Bohras to engage in meaningful debates and discussions on the issue, rather than trying to shut out opposition.

Lastly, the Times of India report quotes a source close to the Bohra authorities, claiming that this speech was not about khatna and has been misinterpreted. However, hundreds of Bohras have interpreted his speech as a reference to khatna and circulated the audio clip widely. If the leadership believes that all of these people misinterpreted the speech, we urge the Syedna to publicly clarify this, and make his stance on khatna clear.

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Sahiyo Speaks at United Nations for Commission on the Status of Women Annual Conference

On March 21st, Mariya Taher spoke at a Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) side CeGOoI1WoAA9ATdevent entitled: Empowering Muslim Women through Storytelling: A Roundtable Discussion.Sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the United States of America to the United Nations Permanent Observer Mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the United Nations, the event sought to showcase how storytelling can inspire social change and focused specifically on how storytelling platforms can be used to amplify the voices of Muslim women worldwide, particularly with the rise of Islamaphobia.

The panel highlighted storytelling collectives like the Muslim Women’s Story Lab and Hijabi Monologues, organizations that have created platforms for Muslim women to reclaim their own narratives, whether discussing issues of women’s leadership and mosque access to rising anti-Muslim sentiment and questions around race and solidarity with broader social 12004863_662693941582_4203866971036000489_njustice movements. Mainstream storytelling initiatives, such as StoryCorps, were also part of the panel as they have sought to engage diverse communities, including Muslim women, through community-based outreach. Lastly, Breakthrough’s the G word and Sahiyo’s new FGM/C storytelling initiative were asked to speak as part of this panel as these organizations aim to spark discussion on gender identity and gender-based violence through interactive digital platforms.

Speakers included:

  • Women in Islam, Inc. founder, Aisha al Adawiyah
  • StoryCorps producer, Cailey Cron
  • Muslim Women’s Story Lab Aisha al Adawiyah, Maha Marouan, and Tamara Issak.
  • Hijabi Monologues founder, Sahar Ullah
  • Sahiyo co-founder, Mariya Taher
  • Breakthrough’s the G word, Ishita Srivastava
  • UN Women’s Mohamed Naciri

To read more about the event, click here. To learn more about work that Sahiyo is doing, visit our website at www.sahiyo.com.

Human Rights Day panel at New England School of Law

 

On March 10, 2016, Sahiyo Co-founder Mariya spoke at the New England School of Law for the event: Human Rights Day Panel: A Poignant Discussion on Female Genital Mutilation. Prior to the beginning of the event, the panel organizers played the Hindustani Times news report FGM: India’s Dark Secret to provide context that FGM/C is more global issue than previously acknowledged. In acknowledging the global nature of FGC, currently, the state of Massachusetts in the United States is in the process of passing legislation criminalizing all forms of FGC with the bill – “An Act Establishing Civil and Criminal Penalties for Female Genital Mutilation” (House Bill H1530; Senate S1116).

Other speakers on the panel included members of the Massachusetts FGM Task Force who have been diligently working on the FGC issue for number of years. These members included Katie Donahue Cintolo, Women’s Bar Association and Susan McLucas, director of Sin Saunuman (Health Tomorrow) organization. Professor Dina Francesca Haynes, a human rights lawyer and professor at the New England School of Law who has worked on hundred of FGC cases also spoke.The event was presented by the International Law Society and sponsored by the Immigration Law Association, the Charles Hamilton Houston Enrichment Program, and the Center for International Law and Policy.

Sahiyo at a unique Women’s Day event in Mumbai

On March 8, Sahiyo marked International Women’s Day by participating in a unique rally at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. The event, called ‘Breaking Barriers, Claiming Spaces – Women Unite to Demand Equal Rights Within Religion’, was brought together women from multiple religious groups on a common platform. The organisers of the rally included the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement), Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, Vaghini, Sahiyo and a range of other civil society organisations._G0A3818.JPG

All organised, mainstream religions are patriarchal because they were made by – and are still run by – men. It was this shared sense of inequality that brought these various organisations together to assert women’s rights in religion. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, for instance, is fighting a legal battle to demand the rights of women to enter the inner sanctum of dargahs like Haji Ali. It is also demanding the rights of Muslim women to enter mosques, which – among most Indian Muslim sects – are out of bounds for females.

The Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, headed by activist Trupti Desai, has been protesting against Maharashtrian Hindu temples like Shani Shingnapur and Trimbakeshwar, which don’t allow women into the inner sanctum. In fact, Desai and her band of fiery women could not eventually make it to the March 8 event in Mumbai because they had been detained by the police just a day earlier, for trying storm into the Trimbakeshwar temple.

Sahiyo, represented by its three Mumbai-based co-founders, spoke about the unique issue of female khatna in the Dawoodi Bohra community through a speech by Insia Dariwala. The speech emphasised that khatna is an act of child abuse irrespective of the reasons cited for its necessity by religious clergy and some community members. Read all of Insia’s speech here.

Sahiyo Participates in “Challenges to Minority Women’s Rights and Development in Maharashtra” Roundtable.

On the 25-26th of March, Sahiyo co-founder, Shaheeda Kirtane attended a roundtable conference to celebrate the 125th Birth Anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and to raise awareness about Dr. Ambedkar’s great contributions for welfare of society and especially women. In collaboration with the Minorities Development Department, Government of Maharashtra, and Tata Institute of Social Science, the two-day seminar focused on “Challenges to Minority Women’s Rights and Development in Maharashtra”. The broad issues for deliberation and discussions for the seminar were:

  • Socio-economic situation of religious minority women in India and specially in Maharashtra
  • Discriminatory social practices and hostile environments: domestic and work place
  • B.R. Ambedkar and the constitutional provisions for rights of women
  • The way out and learning from other societies/countries
  • Government schemes for women’s development

Despite significant improvements over the years in legislation and social practices related to women, gender justice remains a far cry in many developing countries. For a majority of women in India, irrespective of their class, creed and regional locations, the ‘right to property’, ‘education’ and ‘freedom’ remain distant dreams and their lives revolve around the male-dominated social practices.

Among the women, those from religious minority communities suffer from multi-fold deprivations. First, as being women in a patriarchal society. Second, as women belonging to already marginalised minority communities, and third, their relations with state which is yet to provide equal opportunities to women in critical spheres.

To contribute to the discussion on women’s rights, Shaheeda was a part of an expert panel discussion where she engaged the audience with a presentation on “Discriminatory Social Practices in the 21st Century: ‘Khatna/Khafd’ amongst the Dawoodi Bohras of India”. She shared information and discussed the non-confrontational approach taken up by Sahiyo to tackle the secret, pre-pubescent, coming-of-age ritual of ‘khatna,’ which is often looked upon as an “African” practice by many in India. She also discussed the much needed attitudinal change that is essential for the community to discard this outdated, patriarchal practice that has no medical or religious basis, and serves as an ancient tool used for oppression of women.