Each One Reach One 2: Read this conversation guide to get started

by Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut

Each One Reach One 2, our month-long outreach campaign that coincides with Ramzan, calls upon everyone, especially Bohra women and men, to reach out to at least one other Bohra to engage in a meaningful discussion around Khatna. Our focus this year is to move the conversation forward, by exploring ways to respectfully and sensitively engage in discussions with our family, friends and the wider community.

Since the arrests in Detroit, many of you have reached out to us asking for advice on how to broach the topic of Khatna with your close friends and family, and how to have sustained conversations with them. To help you with this, we have prepared a guide on effective communication in the context of Khatna. We would like you to reflect on this guide as you begin and continue your conversations.

In the sections below, we explore various facets of conversation: from the power of listening and the method of storytelling, to the challenges of acknowledging nuance and understanding the importance of continued dialogue. Finally, in keeping with the spirit of this sacred month, we encourage you to listen with love, speak with kindness, think without anger, and love without judgment.

Effective Conversation Guide

1) Listening:

The simple act of genuinely listening to another person is powerful. Listen with your full attention, without judgment or assumptions. Simply listen.

Instead of giving advice or telling a person what to feel or do, be a sounding board and brainstorm options.

However, setting appropriate limits is important for effective communication. If someone is being hateful towards you, it is okay to not continue the conversation.

       a) Use open-ended questions:

Unlike leading questions or close-ended questions that can be answered only by yes or no, open-ended questions help people explore their own truths and connect with their own inner strength.

Ask “What are you feeling?” instead of “Do you feel all right?”

        b) Use reflective language:

Use phrases such as

  • “I hear you’re feeling…” or
  • “It sounds to me like…”

coupled with more tentative statements like

  • “I wonder if you’re feeling…?” or
  • “Did I get that right?”

This helps people to name what they are experiencing, invites them to correct your understanding, and conveys your sincere interest in what they have to say. When you reflect back the language that people use to describe their own experience, you meet them on their own ground.

Some FGM/C-related words to keep in mind as you listen to someone’s specific language include how they refer to FGM/C – “khatna,” “FGM”, “FGC”, “female circumcision”, “procedure”. Using the same words as the speaker lets her know that you respect her point of view, even if it’s not your own.

        c) Validate personal experiences:

Stigma and trauma can often make people feel like they are alone, or that they are the only ones feeling that way. When you initially listen to their stories, it is not the time to engage in a political fight or an academic argument. Whether it is a woman sharing her experience of khatna or someone who states that khatna must be done for religious reasons, help the person feel heard, without judgement. You can share your views at a later stage.  

2) Sharing stories during conversations:

There is an art and a craft to storytelling that can be intimidating for people who find it hard to believe they have any story worth sharing, especially if it’s about something personal, taboo, or hidden. Storytelling practices support an individual’s ability to think through what it is she wants to say, whom she wants to say it to, and what she hopes will happen as a result, while retaining significant control over the use and distribution of her narrative.

        a) Know the risks:

Sharing personal stories could help a person feel more empowered and connected to other friends or family members who have undergone FGC. But it can also come with personal risks: a person may feel more vulnerable and alone after sharing her story, or might be shamed by others.

Don’t pressure, coerce or shame others into telling their story, even if it is to promote a cause they believe in. Work to create the conditions necessary for someone to feel encouraged and supported to share their story with you.

         b) Use whole stories, not talking points:

Stories have the ability to persuade, influence, inspire, and galvanize people to action. Human, vulnerable, authentic personal stories don’t fit easily into talking points, but they have incredible power to connect with others across differences. Work to create the conditions necessary for a someone to feel encouraged and supported to share their story with you.

3) Embrace Grey Areas:

A person who has undergone khatna may have experienced pain and sadness and/or nothing at all. She may want to keep it private and need emotional connections with others. She may think FGC is wrong and still believe it is a religious right. She may feel many other combinations of emotions that could seem inconsistent at the outset. It is important to recognise that multiple truths can live together simultaneously.

Issues around how khatna has happened and her feelings around it are not always black and white, and to open the door to change and new insights, we need to acknowledge and explore the grey areas. It is helpful to use a ‘both/and’ approach instead of an ‘either/or’ approach.  

       Change your perspective:

Sure, it may be easier if the whole world saw the issue in the same way you do, but that’s not realistic. Conflict exists because we are human, and because our different background, values, and beliefs mean that we perceive the world and its issues in unique, diverse ways. Hold space for universal human truths–such as our shared ability to be compassionate and loving–and recognize some experiences as specific and particular, such as the experience of some women going through physical and psychological pain due to FGC while others state they did not experience such consequences. The key is to show support and respect for all.

4) Continued Conversations:

Social Change takes time, and often we may experience that we don’t get the results that we want in one conversation. Therefore, it is important to take stock of what has occurred during the course of the conversation, and allow all parties involved some time and space to reflect on it. However, do not let it be your last conversation. Change can only happen if we are constantly in dialogue with each other.

Reach out to us at info@sahiyo.com or info@wespeakout.org if you have any questions or want to share your experiences! 

Effective Conversations poster

Announcing Each One Reach One 2: Let’s discuss Khatna this Ramzan

EACH ONE REACH ONE 2:
Taking the conversation forward….
Ramzan 2017
A campaign by Sahiyo and We Speak Out

In this holy month of Ramzan, we invite you to participate in Each One Reach One 2, the second edition of a global campaign to promote conversations around Khatna among Bohras.

Last year, in February 2016, Sahiyo and Speak Out on FGM (now We Speak Out) launched the first edition of Each One Reach One, a campaign to help break the silence around the practice of Khatna, Khafz or Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the Bohra community. For one month, we encouraged each one of you to have a conversation about Khatna with at least one other Bohra — a friendly, respectful, non-judgmental conversation that would help us all understand one another.

A year down the line, we can say with confidence that the silence around Khatna has definitely been broken. The recent arrests of Bohra doctors in the United States have encouraged debate and introspection, both within and beyond the community. There is greater visibility in the media regarding FGC among Bohras. Legal efforts at ending this practice have led to a call for consultations from the Women and Child Development Ministry in India. Although we have achieved last year’s objective of starting a conversation around Khatna, there is a lot more work to be done.

Today is the first day of Each One Reach One 2, our month-long outreach campaign that coincides with Ramzan. This campaign calls upon everyone, especially Bohra women and men, to reach out to at least one other Bohra to engage in a meaningful discussion around Khatna. Our focus this year is to move the conversation forward, by exploring ways to respectfully and sensitively engage in discussions with our family, friends and the wider community.

As you have seen through reactions to our work on social media, we are still received by many within our community with hostility and contempt. It is important for us to continue to respond to criticism with love and tolerance. Sahiyo and We Speak Out have been accused of shouting over Bohra women’s voices. We want to remind our community that we provide a platform to those who have been silenced, so that everyone who wants to speak has an opportunity to share their story. We hope to connect, not divide; to engage, not shut out; to listen, not mute; to reach out, not polarise; and to love, not hate.

Our campaign for EORO 2 focuses on guiding you to have meaningful conversations in various scenarios within and outside your families. Through our communication guides, we will suggest open-ended questions that you may ask your loved ones in order to engage in a sensitive discussion. As usual, we will also complement these guides with the relevant facts around Khatna. We encourage Bohras within India and abroad to participate in our campaign. Do continue to watch this space over the next month as we publish our guides.

To begin with, you can read our basic guide to effective conversations by clicking here.

Our conversation guide is informed by the concept of “Pro-Voice”, a word coined by the founders of abortion-rights group Exhale. Being Pro-Voice is about listening to one another’s stories with empathy, without an agenda or judgement. Learn more about Pro-Voice through this TED talk.

We would like to wish each one of you a blessed Ramzan full of fasting, prayer, forgiveness and charity. In keeping with the spirit of this sacred month, we encourage you to listen with love, speak with kindness, think without anger, and love without judgment.

As you participate in Each One Reach One 2, feel free to reach out to us at info@sahiyo.com or info@wespeakout.org to share your experiences, questions, perspectives and feedback.

To cut or not to cut? Let our daughters grow up and decide

By: Insiya

Age:34
Country: Mumbai, India

As I belong to a well-known and educated family, I was always given a chance to think outside the box. My parents were always supportive irrespective of what our community norms were. I was educated and given the same rights as my brothers and my voice was never unheard and my opinions were also considered. I was a daughter but treated as a son.

But as our community was a little more tightly knitted, everyone had a say in what happened to me, and with all the women in my family influencing us, my mom agreed at the age of seven that I would have to go through the ceremony of Khatna.

I still remember that day clearly. My mom and masi (aunt) took me to this woman’s house in Pune to get the job done. I might not remember the pain now, but the fear, the sadness and distrust from that day remain. I know many of my cousins still ask me, “Why are you so upset about what happened? Has it changed us in any way?”

I agree Khatna might not have changed my desire towards sex, but it has changed my outlook towards our mothers who told us that anyone who touched us forcefully was wrong, especially in our private areas, but then they, themselves, took us to an unknown woman, a stranger who pulled down our pants and touched us. How is what this stranger did any different from sexual abuse? Why don’t our mothers or grandmothers or aunts think that seven is not an age where children are old enough to understand what is happening to them? Why don’t they realize that this may leave an impact on us that might make our parents regret their decision later on?

I don’t remember the pain of childbirth, but I remember the emotions I felt. That’s the same for these little girls. I don’t think I can decide if Khatna should be abolished or not for adult women, but, I am sure Khatna shouldn’t happen to young kids. Childhood is about making sure your kids are safe and that they trust you to not scar them. Let our girls grow up. Inform them of any changes that we might plan to do to their bodies. Let’s educate our kids about our religion, not scare them into practices.

I know many people who will disagree and they are welcome to do so, as I only want to share my point of view. I am a mom of two girls. I know I can make their lives better by not forcing them into my or our elders’ beliefs. I want to educate them that our community is a progressive community where we are confident, educated women, who are taught to be entrepreneurs, and who have the right to choose the path we desire.

For all the mothers of daughters in our community, please take the time to think about what I am saying. Let our daughters grow up and make their own choices. Let’s not decide on their behalf.

‘I want Bohras to wake up and stop practicing Khatna’

By: Anonymous

Age: 32
Country of current residence: Bahrain

I’m a victim of FGM and this is my story. It’s the same as every other FGM survivor. India. A dingy house. An old woman. A blade. Pain. Blood. Being given chocolate. And then being yelled at to stop crying.

And the thing that hardly anyone talks about is how ANGRY it makes you and how you can’t find ways to release the anger. It’s been 25 years and I’m still so, SO angry. Why was a piece of me cut off for an unnecessary reason? Why was psychological trauma inflicted on me at such a young age? Why am I suffering from horrible period pain every month just because my mother blindly followed what was expected of her to do? Why do I have to feel the pain of seeing the guilt and shame on my mother’s face now whenever this topic is raised because she hates herself for what she did? And why is it STILL being done to little girls who don’t have the power to stop it? It makes me mad, mad, MAD!

And this always makes me wonder how others follow this religious leader or even stay in this community. Why don’t more Bohras question the teachings? Why don’t they protest? Does the dream of heaven make them so blind that they approve of abuse on young girls?

I’m so, SO happy to see FGM get media traction and be publicized for the world to see. I want to see FGM STOP. Let the leader declare that khatna needs to be stopped so the Bohras who follow his every command will stop mutilating their daughters. I want Bohras to realize they CAN decide for themselves what is right and wrong. Cutting off a part of girl children’s genitals without their consent, for no medical reason, is completely, and unequivocally wrong.

 

A Mother’s Brave Choice about Female Genital Cutting

By: Anonymous

Age: 30
Country: United States

Khatna is a term and a practice I learned about when I was about 15 years old. I was chatting with a friend over AOL instant messenger and she asked me if I had ever had Khatna done to me. At the time, I was completely unaware of the practice or that it was performed on young girls within the Bohri community, to which I belonged. I was unsure of how to respond to my friend. Like other practices performed on children at the time of their birth, such as a Chhatti which is a naming ceremony for the baby or an Aqiqah which is the sacrificing of a goat on the occasion of a child’s birth, I assumed that Khatna was probably also done to me but I was just too young to remember.  

I immediately asked my mother about Khatna and if she ever had it done to me. She responded “No beti, I did not have it done to you.” And in a more hushed and slightly worried voice, she went on to say, “But do not ever tell anyone.” I probed further, asking what it was exactly. My mother was unable to completely explain what it was or why it was done. All she was able to say was that girls are cut within their “private parts”. She went on to say that yes, she had undergone it herself at the age of seven, but that she could not subject her daughters to it because of the physical and emotional pain it had caused her at the time of the cutting and the pain that it has caused her since then.

At the time, I did not realize the significance of my mother choosing not to have the practice performed on me and my sisters or furthermore, why she explicitly asked me not to say anything to anyone, especially within the community.

A few years after my initial inquiry about Khatna, I was at an all-women meeting at my local mosque. Someone asked the wife of our priest, known as a Behnsaab, about Khatna. The Behnsaab responded that it was done to enhance sexual pleasure in women and that it is required for all women within the community. Having heard conflicting information from my mother years earlier, the Behnsaab’s comments confused me. However, the fact that the Behnsaab stated that the practice was required helped me to understand why my mother asked me not to talk to anyone about my lack of Khatna. My mother feared the backlash she or her family might face for going against the word of the community and therefore, she kept her bold choice a secret.

Today, as a grown adult, having learned about the physical and emotional harm it causes, I realize and appreciate what my mother did for me and my sisters. I cannot begin to understand what women who have undergone Khatna must face in their day to day lives. It continues to shock me that this practice still goes on (though it is more underground) and apart from “tradition” most people have no legitimate medical reason for why Khatna is still part of the community’s practices or really even know why it is practiced. I hope that as more and more people become aware of the practice and its harms, efforts from within the community become stronger to stop this harmful practice of violating young girls for the sake of tradition.

Why do Dawoodi Bohras practice Khatna, or Female Genital Cutting?

by Aarefa Johari

What is the real purpose behind Khatna for girls? The Dawoodi Bohra community has been practicing this hidden ritual of female circumcision, also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), for centuries, with no public discussion on its need. It is only in the past year that the Bohra leadership has finally spoken out about why they expect the clitoral hoods of seven-year-old girls to be cut.   

In June 2016, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin issued a press statement in which he described circumcision as an act of “religious purity”. This is similar to what a senior spokesperson from the community told Sahiyo in a private conversation last year: he claimed that the main reason for female and male circumcision, according to Da’im al-Islam (a 10th century book of jurisprudence), is hygiene or taharat – not just physical but also “spiritual” and “religious”.  

Then in February 2017, a senior spokesperson for the community gave an anonymous interview to The Hindu, in which Da’im al-Islam was quoted again. Except, this time, the unnamed spokesperson said that Khatna serves to “increase the radiance on the face of the woman and the pleasure with that of her husband”.  

Now, ever since three Bohras in USA were arrested on charges of FGC, several Bohra women who support Khatna have taken to social media to defend the ritual. All of these women claim that Khatna is done to increase sexual stimulation, and that it is “scientifically” and “medically” beneficial because it is “just like the clitoral unhooding procedure done in the West”. Some of these women also claim that Khatna is done to maintain genital hygiene.

And yet, this is not how most Bohra women have traditionally explained Khatna as they passed down the practice from one generation to another. In 1991, professor Rehana Ghadially interviewed around 50 Bohra women in an article called All for Izzat, and found that the most common reasons given for Khatna were: a) it is a religious obligation, b) it is a tradition, and c) it is done to curb a girl’s sexuality.

Since then, several independent researchers, activists and filmmakers have found the same thing in their countless interactions with Bohra women: a large majority of Bohras have consistently claimed that they cut their daughters either to moderate their sexual desires, or to unquestioningly follow a religious tradition. In fact, several Bohras refer to the clitoris as “haraam ni boti” or sinful lump of flesh.

Sahiyo’s reserach study of 385 Bohra women also found the same thing: the majority of respondents claimed that Khatna is done as a tradition or to curb sexual desire, and very few Bohras cited “hygiene”, “medical benefits” or “increasing sexual pleasure” as reasons for practicing Khatna. In fact, when filmmaker Priya Goswami was researching for her 2012 documentary A Pinch of Skin, a woman teacher from a Bohra religious institution clearly told her that the purpose behind Khatna is to control a girl’s sexual urges, so that she does not have premarital or extramarital affairs.  

So why are the new social media defenders of Khatna now pushing out the opposite narrative, and claiming that female circumcision is meant to enhance sexual pleasure? What is the real purpose behind Khatna?

To understand this, let us look at what Islamic texts say about female circumcision.

There are certain Hadiths, particularly from the Shafi, Hanbali and Hanafi schools of Islam, which mention female circumcision as either permissible, honourable or as a sunnah (recommended) practice. Many Islamic scholars around the world have disputed the authenticity of these Hadiths. But even if we were to take them at face value, the main thing that these Hadiths prove is that female circumcision was already a prevalent practice in parts of Arabia at the time of Prophet Mohammed – it was not a new religious ritual introduced in Islam.  

One Hadith that is frequently cited is Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, which contains this particular story:

“Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:
A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (PBUH) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.”

This same anecdote – of the Prophet cautioning the woman against cutting too much – has been interpreted and translated in slightly different ways by different scholars: some translate it as “do not cut off too much as it is a source of pleasure for the woman and more liked by the husband”, others have translated it as “…it is a source of loveliness of the face and more enjoyable for the husband”.

In Volume 1 of The Pillars of Islam (Ismail Poonawala’s English translation of Da’im al-Islam), on page 154, a very similar sentence is translated like this: “O women, when you circumcise your daughters, leave part (of the labia or clitoris), for this will be chaster for their character, and it will make them more beloved by their husbands”. This is what the spokesperson of the community, in his aforementioned interview to The Hindu, seems to have translated as “increase the radiance on the face of the woman and the pleasure with that of her husband”. (Italics added)

I am not an Arabic scholar, but it is evident from these various translations that different Arabic and Islamic scholars have interpreted the same message in slightly different and contradictory ways. What some interpret as an increase in the “radiance” or “loveliness” of a woman’s face (which is a reference to her sexual satisfaction – not literal radiance), others interpret as something “better” or “chaster” for a woman (which could be a reference to her sexual chastity).    

All Muslims would agree that old Islamic Arabic is not easy to interpret, because its words are often ambiguous or have multiple connotations. But this ambiguity could help us understand why many generations of Bohra women have believed that Khatna is done to control a woman’s sexual desires, and why other Bohras can possibly use the same text to claim that Khatna is done to increase sexual pleasure.

In fact, this very argument was made recently by a fervent Khatna supporter and Sunni Islamic scholar Asiff Hussein. In a comment on the Facebook page of Speak Out on FGM, he explained the connection between “increasing pleasure” and keeping a woman chaste. He said:

“This [removal of the clitoral hood] necessarily leads to a satisfactory sex life among women, thus ensuring their chastity. The classical jurists were not such parochial men after all. They deduced from this one statement of the prophet what it really meant.”

In other words, by ensuring that a woman is sexually satisfied in her marriage, Khatna will ensure that she does not stray out of marriage. This connection between the multiple interpretations of the Prophet’s words does sound plausible, and if it is to be believed, then Khatna does boil down to sexual control of women!

But do we really need to control or enhance women’s sexuality in any way?  

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what reason you choose to believe in, because no reason can justify the practice of cutting a girl’s genitals, however “minor” the procedure.

No one has the right to curb or control a woman’s sexual desires, or to tell her to be chaste. These are patriarchal ideas that have no place in today’s world. Similarly, no one has the right to try and enhance the future sexual life of a young girl by altering her genitals. Seven-year-old girls should not be sexualised at all; they don’t even understand sex or the functions of various genital organs. Why can’t we leave their genitals alone, untouched, the way they were naturally born?  

Remember, the clitoral hood serves an important purpose: it protects the clitoris from over-stimulation, abrasions and injury, and it naturally retracts during sexual arousal to allow exposure to the clitoris. It does not need to be cut in order to expose the clitoris. We must understand the natural functions of our body parts before artificially altering them with a blade.

Instead of blindly claiming that Khatna is the same as “Western” clitoral unhooding, we must understand that clitoral unhooding is not performed on unconsenting minor girls. It is chosen by some adult, sexually active women only if they have problems such as too much prepuce tissue coming in the way of orgasms.

And finally, if you think that the purpose behind Khatna is taharat, then remember: physical hygiene can be maintained very well with soap and water, and the key to achieving “spiritual” or “religious” purity lies not in a person’s genitals, but in their thoughts, words and deeds.

We need a Bohra Revolution

By: M Bohra

Age: 23
Country: United Kingdom

The ongoing investigation into Dawoodi Bohra doctors engaging in khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), and the community leadership’s ambivalence regarding this practice, have once again brought up unanswered questions. What message is the leadership in India sending to the Bohra community when it disowns the doctors’ acts, not for their irreligiosity, but for their illegality in the West? Must the Bohra leadership accept the legal and moral responsibility of promoting khatna, especially since they advocate travelling to countries without FGM laws to continue this practice? Or can we expect them to continue throwing their misinformed, fanatical and grovelling followers under the bus to save themselves?

Many Bohris, in the privacy of their friends and families, will complain about the strict social norms that regulate every act of our lives within the community: where we pray, what we wear, who we do business with, what our family roles are, who we befriend, what we say, how we dissent, how we think. These criticisms are kept out of the community arena by the authoritarian diktats of the leadership. They hold the power to socially boycott (which, for many community-linked businesses is linked to economic loss), extort money for officiating religious ceremonies (including permitting travel to the Hajj pilgrimage), and even denying burial in Bohra cemeteries. While we continue to chafe under this authoritarian religious regime, however, we must acknowledge our own prejudices.

Bohris, despite all evidence, believe that we are God’s chosen people. We consider ourselves not only superior to non-Muslims (which is a broader Islamic problem), but even non-Bohra Muslims. We call our own community “mumineen” (the believers), and the others “musalmaan”. Even other Shia groups are generally only respected during the first ten days of Muharram, when we enthusiastically join our “Shia brothers” in the Ashura processions and sermons, only to exclude them from our lives on the eleventh day. We consider our mosques cleaner, our prayers more spiritual, and even our cemeteries as somehow more special. We are “blessed” to be ruled by tyrants, who guarantee us a heavenly afterlife in exchange for worldly money.

Are we surprised that the leadership continues to promote a domesticated and desexualised ideal for our women, when it promotes a passive and unintellectual ideal for our men? It is important to remember that their power comes from our submissiveness, which is the result of our own prejudices. We need to introspect and question the foundations of our own biases. What is unclean about a non-Bohra mosque? What is inappropriate about performing the Hajj without being led by a Bohra priest? What is the problem with marrying outside the community? Can Bohra women question the religiously-sanctioned ideal of making rotis and handicrafts confined to their homes? Why do we have to control women’s sexuality through physical means, but not men’s? If the current system is broken and cannot be reformed, are we ready to create new religious and social spaces with other disillusioned Bohris? Can we create new inclusive and non-hierarchical spaces to end religious dogmatism, bring financial accountability, provide spiritual healing and engage in progressive social reform without prejudice?

Here’s a little history lesson to conclude this piece. The office of Dai Al-Mutlaq, which is currently held through hereditary means by Mufaddal Saifuddin, is not the same as the position of the Imam, who is considered as the rightful spiritual and political successor of the Prophet in all Shia traditions. The first Dai was appointed by Arwa Al – Sulayhi, a long-reigning queen in Yemen, as a vicegerent (deputy) for the young Imam At-Tayyib. The succession of Dais was not always hereditary, and was likely based on spiritual and political merit. Increasing persecution drove the leadership to settle in Western India, where they were welcomed by a community of religious converts. Note how the position of the Dai was created by a powerful woman ruler (who probably wasn’t told to make rotis and handicrafts), not as a hereditary office, and owed its continuity to the goodwill of the new community of Bohris in India. Over the centuries, the leadership has forgotten who was in charge. It’s time for a reminder.

 

The Detroit doctor arrests are an opportunity to talk about Khatna

By: Anonymous

Age: 33
Country: Pune, India

Even though I clearly remember when ‘khatna’ was performed on me, it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first started to question this practice within the Dawoodi Bohra community. It always felt wrong, but if my mother, sister, and seemingly everyone else in the community embraced it, who was I to question?

I had been an obedient little Bohra girl – attending the mosque, fasting, and doing everything exactly as it was expected of me. As I reached my teens, however, the restrictions I had as a Bohra woman grew ever more oppressive. My curiosity led me to start looking for any information I could find about ‘khatna’ – but to be honest I didn’t even know what to type into Google! When I finally figured it out, gory pictures of female genital mutilation in Africa filled my computer screen, but there was little or no information about it being practiced within the Bohra community. Talking about it within the community was obviously taboo, but I did have a college friend, a Bohra girl my age, who I confided in. “I think we may have some problems when we grow up, and we may never be able to enjoy sex,” she said. That was the limit of her knowledge and she was as confused as I was. My anger continued to grow – many rules within the community, especially for women, were illogical, outdated and absolutely unnecessary. And ‘khatna’ was the cruelest of them all.

More than my own experience, the hardest time for me was when my older sister’s daughter turned seven (the age when ‘khatna’ is performed), and it was clear that my sister and mother were planning to continue the tradition. I felt helpless and hopeless seeing my little niece in fear. Seeing her in pain the night after she was cut saddened me to the core. This cruel ritual was so deeply rooted in religious and cultural beliefs that it would be very difficult to break. If any change had to happen, it had to happen from within the community – but how, when no one was even willing to talk about it?

As news about the three doctors getting arrested for performing ‘khatna’ on young girls in the US spreads far and wide, it becomes urgent and extremely important for us within the community to talk about it. I am sure that there isn’t a single woman in the community who hasn’t questioned this practice at one time or another. After all, how can a mother willingly subject her daughter to this torture? Instead of hiding our heads in the sand and pretending that what is happening in Michigan does not concern us, we need to use this opportunity to talk and question.

Having grown up in the community, I completely understand the nuances of this problem – no Bohra wants to talk about it because it involves a private part, a sexual organ of a woman, and talking about sex is taboo. But we can get together in small groups of family and friends to reexamine this outdated ritual. There are now non-profit organizations, like Sahiyo, committed to creating awareness and educating the community. There is enough scientific data to prove that there is nothing beneficial about this ritual. Those of us that feel strongly need to find avenues to share our experiences, whether it is through schools and colleges, other community organizations, or signing petitions. We need to voice our anger with a system that threatens its people and brainwashes them to believe that gruesome acts like ‘khatna’ are for their betterment.

I have so many Bohra friends across the world who have little girls and others who will have children in the near future. Of course, they love their daughters, and would rather not subject them to this cruelty, but the pressure to conform is stifling and very few have the power to stand up to it. Our right to think independently has been stripped away from us, and we don’t dare to question our religious leaders. Every single day, several girls suffer this torture all over the world – and it affects their lives forever. Time is passing quickly, and we need to rise up and demand that community leaders put an end to this practice NOW.

A letter to Syedna, by a Bohra woman

(Editor’s note – The courageous woman who shared this letter would like it to be known that sahiyo’s platform was the official outlet for her letter.)

By: Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

To Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin,

We are the ones who showed up. We are the ones who wore the right thing, said the right thing, didn’t ask too many questions. When you became our 53rd leader, we changed our license plates and phone numbers to include the number 53 in your honor. We came to you in our moments of deep grief and our moments of sweet joy to ask for your permission to bury a loved one, get married, move to another country. We parted with our money in Dawoodi Bohra taxes to benefit you and our community. We put photos of you up on our walls. We traveled to Texas, Nairobi, Mumbai to hear your sermons. We prayed to you and for you. We did all of this in the name of the community, in the name of feeling supported by the ballast of history. We trusted your goodness, your wisdom. We believed that when we called to you for help, you would come.

Last year, on Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s death anniversary – a day when you knew that people around the world were watching – you spoke out about “keep[ing] our things strong, stay[ing[ firm. Even the big sovereign states [i.e. United States], whatever it is they say, if it makes any difference to our things, then we are not prepared to understand!…The act has to happen! If it is a man, then it is right, it can be openly done, but if it is a woman then it must be done discreetly, but then the act has to be done. Please understand what I am trying to talk about…”

We understood; we all knew what you were talking about. You were speaking about khatna, a globally reviled practice in which someone cuts part of a girl’s clitoris. You instructed us to carry out khatna on our young girls regardless of what the “big sovereign states” (read: US law) had to say. One month later, US-based jamaats published letters stating that community members should follow the law and not practice khatna in the US. These letters didn’t say that khatna was inherently wrong; they impliedly encouraged us to travel elsewhere for the procedure. We were confused – how could we not be? But we kept our heads down. We did not understand or agree with this practice, but we believed in you.

Khatna has gone global – The New York Times, the BBC, Al Jazeera, UK Parliament – are associating the Dawoodi Bohra community with this heinous act, accurately reporting on a procedure that has abused and denigrated our women. In encouraging this procedure, you sanctioned violence against young children.

And now here we are. April 2017. Dr. Jumana Nagarwala committed a crime in flagrant disobedience of her role as a healer and doctor. But we can’t place the blame entirely on Dr. Nagarwala. She didn’t come up with this idea. She did it for you, in your name, under your instruction. On April 26, 2017, a federal jury indicted Dr. Nagarwala, Fakhruddin Attar and Farida Attar. Your followers are in hot water now and what did you do? You washed your hands of them. Less than a year after your pronouncement that you were “not prepared to understand” what “big sovereign states” say, you swiftly worked to ally yourself with US law enforcement. You issued a statement saying it was “unfortunate” Dr. Nagarwala had not followed US law, that the Dawoodi Bohras do not support any violation of local, state or federal law.

So much for staying “staying firm.” You threw Dr. Nagarwala under the bus and bailed.

So now we know. We know that it doesn’t matter how much we gave and prayed and observed. We know that even if we show up and wear what you want, say what you want, do what you want, you won’t show up for us when it matters. You will not take responsibility for your actions. You will not stand by your followers.

I will continue to go to the jamaat and pray alongside my fellow Bohra women. I do this now only for the love of my family, for the peace that this brings them, for the Allah who sees everything we do – including you, Syedna. But I do not believe in your wisdom and power anymore. I have lost all faith in your goodness, your grace. I will not listen to your edicts about what I should wear, how I should educate my children, how I should live my life. You took no responsibility for your follower who carried out your instructions – a mother of four who is now facing jail time. You abandoned her when she needed you most. You would do the same to me and my family. I know that when the reckoning comes, you will not stand by me, and so I will not stand by you anymore.

 

 

FGM and the myth of modernity among Dawoodi Bohras

By: Anonymous

Age: 33
Country of birth: India
Country of current residence: USA

I am a male born into a Dawoodi Bohra family. My brother and I had remarkably normal upbringings in the United States. We were members of one of the more secular congregations in the in the US. My parents always pointed out to me how different we were from other Muslim sects. Our community stressed education for our sons and daughters. Many women in our community are business owners, doctors, and primary bread winners. Wahabi, we were not.  

I distinctly remember watching an episode of the news program “20/20” with my parents when I was a “tween”. One of the pieces was on female genital mutilation in Somalia. We watched the whole piece and a hush came over the room…the kind of awkwardness one experiences when a love scene comes on while you’re watching a movie with your parents. I didn’t know why my parents were squirming, but in a few days everyone forgot all about it.

Pic by Jean-Pierre Dalbera
Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera / Creative Commons

Fast forward over a decade and I’m in a serious relationship with my now wife. A Dawoodi Bohra woman. The first time we were intimate she began crying uncontrollably. She told me what had been done to her. She herself didn’t know what had been done to her until she learned about it in college. She felt an electric shock like pain down to her toes when it was done, but I was the first to be rocked by the waves of that ripple effect. She felt scarred and damaged. She wanted so bad to connect with me intimately, but it could never happen. That had been stripped away from her along with her ability to be a complete woman, against her will, as a minor. We worked through it together. I went to her counseling appointments. I reassured her that our love would only grow stronger, but she and I both knew no one could ever give back to her what was lost in that moment.

The “20/20” moment finally made sense.  With two sons, my parents never had to make the gut-wrenching decision to physically alter their children, but to be perfectly clear, had either of us been a girl, there would have been overwhelming pressure to do it. The community would feed their boilerplate lies: “it is to ensure a good marriage”, “it is to make you a better wife”. I later found out from my parents that all the girls in my family had it done to them. I couldn’t stomach the thought. Why put up the front of modernity when 50% of your offspring are subjected to a medieval practice? Stop flaunting your women’s independence when your prerequisite for them to be complete spiritually is for them to be incomplete physically.

My amazing wife has taught me so much. She has taught me forgiveness, and strength. I would certainly have been much more vindictive had I been put in her shoes. It is time for all Dawoodi Bohras to come to grips with this issue. It is a stain on the faith. It has no precedence in Islam, it irreversibly damages our women, and it runs counter to what we claim to be: modern, moderate Muslims. It’s time to bring this issue out of the shadows and into the light.