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.

31 thoughts on “Why do Dawoodi Bohras practice Khatna, or Female Genital Cutting?

  1. An insightful read.m, although I can’t seem to place, why are we quoting Hadith from Imam Shafi, Hanafi and Hanbali who are Sunni Imams (students of Imam Jafar is Sadiq (as)), we are Shia Muslims, and we need something authentic coming from Imam Ali (as) onwards to prove this act, which not available in any books.
    Also, the Daim ul Islam, who is the author of this book?

    There are many questions, you just can’t quote Hadith here and there.

    I can’t seem to place, why are we quoting Sunni Imams, when we are Shias of Aale Muhammed (as) ?

    1. Thank you for your comment. Daim al-Islam, as many Shias are aware, was authored by Qadi al-Numan in the 10th century, and has been specifically referred to and quoted multiple times in this article precisely because it is the main book that Bohras adhere to. The other Sunni Hadiths have been quoted to point out the similarities in the Khatna-related references between them and Daim al-Islam, as well as the differences in translations and interpretations. The point is, Khatna pre-dates Islam and its various sects, so looking at all of these texts and interpretations could help understand the common narratives that have emerged among Khatna-practicing communities to justify the ritual.

  2. Malik ul Aster

    The ignorant tyrant of the bohras emphasises that this practise must be carried in discreet and that it is Rasulullah’s sunnat, what a Fib.
    Infact none of the women in Rasulullahs time had undergone FGM.
    Sunnis, shias and the other muslim sects should take strict action on this 7th fail kid, who in the name of Rasulullah is preaching wrong things and misguiding the community.

    Msg. To muffi :- please dont try to Dictate and make things difficult for your people.
    People are now Intolerant and if u try to show ur power ul be thrown off the throne.

  3. firoz hussain

    This is such an idiotic thing going in our community that i am ashamed to be a part of it….by doing all this you are contradicting God’s creation and proving him wrong ….. the one we are worshiping every day..people behind this should definitely be behind the bars….they all show us fancy dreams of eternity enjoying all good life themselves and there children. No body has right to touch an innocent child.
    Ashamed and totally against it.

  4. FormerBohri

    I am a 30 yr old Bohri female born and raised in the US, never had this procedure done, nor any of my sisters thanks to my parents being well-educated and moderate, but I am sure many of my friends and relatives had it done . Growing up I was always faithful, spiritual, and looked up to my parents and the way they raised us; therefore I always pledged to stay close to the teachings of the Bohra community.

    Well let me tell you, that now, being an adult and having had my own worldly experiences, higher education, etc, I have changed my stance 180 degrees. I am still extremely spiritual and faithful and always looking for ways to better myself and the Earth in which we live, but I will never ever go back to the Bohra community. It is a cult, and all cults are dangerous. It took me so long to realize it and to finally admit to that, especially since I had defended it harshly for so long to my sisters, friends, possible suitors who had already come to the realization that this was a cult and had nothing to do with spirituality. It was a long and psychologically painful process for me, but once I was out, it was incredibly freeing. I encourage every Bohra to think clearly and critically and to know that there is a way out. If you really believe in God, that is all that matters and you will be ok and actually be better off than before because you will have the freedom, time, and energy to cultivate your spirituality in ways that you see fit.

    Watching Leah Remini’s A&E series on Scientology, I would have never thought in a million years that I would liken it to Dawoodi Bohra Islam. But there are many parallels. Psychological abuse, social ostracism, fear is what is used to keep people in the system. The driving force for the people in charge is money, power, their own delusions that what they’re doing is right. This is in no way a reflection of Islam as a whole, and there are many examples of extreme sects and cults in every religion. I make this important distinction for people because in a time when Americans are extremely fearful of Muslims, Islam, and terrorism, I want to assure you that the Dawoodi Bohra community is extremely peaceful and has nothing to do with terrorism. They have always and will always live peacefully in whatever country they are in. There are many positives to the community and to every cult like Scientology, Jehovah Witness, etc, but there are also serious negatives, as with FMG and moreover all the brainwashing, fear, money, and power involved in something that is supposed to be virtuous. So as I said before, cults are always dangerous and wrong.

    Regarding FMG, it is illegal in the US and we Bohras are all very aware of that , which is why khatna is to be done underground and discretely, but it still deemed necessary to be done. Therefore, I believe the defendants be charged for their crimes, and more importantly, the leaders of the sect in Detroit and the head leadership in Bombay need to be investigated and persecuted as well, because everything that is done in the Bohra community must be ordained from the leadership in order for it to be done. The Bohra people are the victims, and I personally have nothing but empathy when dealing with them because I was one of them not too long ago. Wish all Bohras the best in finding their own spiritual journey, whatever that may be.

    1. Looking to Stop FGM in the UK

      Hi FormerBohri,
      Thank you for your insightful paragraph on FGM in America.
      In the UK, we are facing a similar struggle with FGM, as it is both illegal to perform it here and take your child to a foreign country to get it done. I am trying to find a way to educate the Bohra community about the potential risks of such an operation but do not know a way to go about it. Have you had any success in talking about it to the US community?
      Best wishes,
      Another former bohri

  5. Kulsum

    I just read a news article giving an update on the case against FGM in the Supreme Court. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/sc-scoffs-at-bohra-claims-on-genital-mutilation/articleshow/65483769.cms?
    “It is hearing several petitions seeking a ban on the practice. However, an association, claiming to represent the women of the community, is opposing any ban on the practice. ”
    Anyone know which association is being referred to here? Would like to write to them to stop falsely representing me.

    1. Hi Kulsum, the association being referred to is the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom (DBWRF). Do write to them about how you feel about this! Sahiyo would be happy to publish your letter, if you wish to write an open letter 🙂 You can reach out to Sahiyo by writing to info@sahiyo.com

      1. M

        Thank you for this article. Being a person who has been through this as a child, I’ve had so much religious trauma that no one in my family understands.

        As an adult now, the disconnect between being a bohri and living in outside world is insane and not talked about.

        But this was quite insightful and helpful. Thank you

  6. Zarqa

    Well done Sahiyo
    I am doing Phd thesis on Female Genital Mutilation Dawoodi Bohras FGM in Karachi ,Pakistan.
    This will be first Phd Level thesis on Dawoodi Bohras FGM.I am also following you in twitter.
    My twitter account is Zarqa@London.Researchers,
    I visit your website quite often to take some information and also update myself on the current work you are doing against this practice. You are the only NGO working for FGM in Dawoodis.
    My research interests are harmful cultural/social/religious practices.
    I am based in London at the moment.

    1. Safiya Tyebally

      Hi Zarqa,
      I’m a student living in Singapore and I am doing my Independent Study Research on the Dawoodi Bohra community in Karachi regarding their practice of female genital circumcision. I would love to read your thesis if it is completed.

      Look forward to hearing from you!

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    I believe this is happening in Nepal as well, has anyone done research about Dawoodi Bohra Community practicing FGM/FGC in NEPAL?

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