By Rachael Alphonso, Green Madcaps
City: Mumbai, India
I’m no fan of Vogue, so I was wondering what the face of a pretty African model, Waris Dirie, was doing on the cover of my favourite Reader’s Digest. ‘Desert Flower’, the title said. Her photo betrayed no sign of what she had suffered in her childhood – Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
‘Circumcision’ – wasn’t it something only men had to undergo? How was it physically possible for women? And why? Having read the Bible and references to the Torah, I had never found any reference to women needing circumcision. So what was this all about?
I read the article, “….a sharp stone…I felt the sting…my flesh was being torn away…no anaesthetic….” I couldn’t imagine the pain!
Had it not been the Reader’s Digest, I would not have believed it! Because of her ‘circumcision’, menstruation for Waris was utterly painful. She could not have a steady flow which resulted in painful cramps. Soon, she was married to a man a few decades her senior who would have to tear open the skin over his wife’s vagina to be able to penetrate her during sex. Childbirth would be worse.
I was stunned reading about it, and when my group in college was asked to do a project I was quick to gain support from my group to investigate this topic. We began our research. Our discussions and debates within the group, despite all efforts, became one-sided simply because we believed that nothing ever could justify the genital mutilation that Waris or any other girl suffered as a result of the circumcision. We could not find any medical or rational evidence that supported the idea.
But the perpetrators of FGM continued to say it was done for the ‘benefit’ of the women and that women’s sexuality needed to be tamed. Men ‘simply fell for it’ [sex], and men could not control themselves, so women had to be controlled. We found this argument had taken different forms in different cultures, emerging into practices that control women and make them believe they are nothing more than their sexual organs, nothing more than a womb that bears children.
We presented this topic to the rest of our class, and were proud of ourselves for doing so. Unconsciously, we also believed we were less affected by FGM because we also believed FGM could not happen in India.
We were wrong.
After our presentation we learned that many of our classmates were victims of ‘khatna’– a practice by which a piece of the clitoral hood is removed. Our classmate told us that the reason given by her religious leaders was that if a woman found pleasure in her sexual organs she would go on a rampant sexual orgy with anybody. Her sexual urges needed to be controlled so her morality was ensured. Their justification for khatna was also aligned with their belief that because men cannot control their sexual urges, women must remain covered and ‘decently’ dressed.
The classmate who spoke of her own khatna and her cousin’s ‘khatna’ revealed that when they experience sex, they most likely would not be able to experience the clitoral orgasmand/or sex would seem slightly sensitive, but that’s all in terms of ill effects.
She also informed us that nowadays, painkillers are used, and the procedure is done by a qualified medical professional. My group realized that she was made to believe that khatna was good for her, the harm nonexistent, as long as the cutting was done using the correct instruments and anesthetics.Later, we realized that many women may be traumatized by their experience but they are unable to speak about it, because they may not recognize they have a right to do so
While Nigeria banned FGM in early 2016 – something that my presentation group and I heralded as a great move – we also learned that the Bohra leaders in India announced ‘khatna’ as a necessary part of their religion. The leaders claim it was meant for cleanliness, but to me, it is clear that the clitoris is in no need of surgical manipulation for cleanliness. What I find most interesting is that these ‘rules’ and ‘announcements’ were made by men (as the Bohra religious authorities are all men) who themselves do not possess a vagina and know little about the care of one.
Millions of women have survived without undergoing khatna. My friends and I are among them. Then why are my Bohra sisters forced to believe otherwise? Who made these rules? Does the rule-maker have a vagina?
(The original article appears on Green Madcap’s blog.)
Rachael Alphonso is a life-long learner, a feminist and an environmentalist.