By Priya Ahluwalia
Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography, and writing. She is currently conducting research on the individual experience of khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series: Khatna Research in Mumbai.
The proverb, “It takes a certain courage to raise children,” rings true, especially since much of the responsibility for a child’s development rests solely on the parental system. The parents significantly influence a child’s development, since the social connection formed with them serves as the prototype for all their future interactions. Through this parental interaction, the child learns values, traditions and learns to understand the culture. Within the cultural context of India, much of this responsibility shifts onto the shoulders of the mother. Due to the proximity and consistent presence of the mother, the child is naturally attuned to her and views her as their primary caregiver responsible for providing love, warmth, and protection. Any adversity experienced by the child may be seen as the mother’s inability to fulfill her responsibilities.
Similarly, in the case of khatna, which is a custom among the Bohri Muslims in India which involves partial or total removal of the clitoris, girls may subconsciously blame their mother for failing to “protect” them, although women understand that culture and tradition are responsible for the pain they experience. In my own research, when I conversed with participants I found that even when another female member takes them to be cut, the blame rests upon the mother alone. Initially, I found myself puzzled on this discrepancy in attribution. But during in-depth conversations with my participants, I found that all of them “trusted” their mothers to love them and to protect them. They stated that their mothers had “broken my trust” by continuing a practice without even attempting to understand its implications. Thus, the participants were angry because they had been betrayed. This experience has been discussed significantly in other research, as well. However, I wondered about the kind of emotions elicited in the mothers who were at the receiving end of their daughter’s anger.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk to mothers. Through conversations with them, I found that even the mothers have been significantly impacted by the revelation that they had done wrong to their daughters. From a mother’s perspective, her world is crashing down as well. Through all these years she has developed a belief that khatna is good. It may make her daughter belong to their community. it may keep her safe. She acts on this belief with good intentions of protecting her daughter and doing what she believes is her motherly duty. As her child grows up, she does many such acts with good intentions to protect and love her daughter. Throughout her life, the mother forms the belief that I am a good mother who has checked off all the boxes. Several years later, she may find herself in a situation where she is now bearing the brunt of her daughter’s anger because she has failed to protect her child from harm, particularly of khatna. This revelation shatters a belief in khatna she may have fostered for more than half of her life.
In therapy, we always say that beliefs are the most difficult psychological construct to work with because all beliefs are interconnected. These interconnections form the self of a person. When one belief is broken, it causes a chain reaction where the other beliefs begin to be questioned. The same happens with a mother. Post-revelation she begins to question every aspect of her life, her identity, and her essence. A mother may then feel an overwhelming sense of failure and inadequacy. Biologically speaking, whenever we are overpowered, our fight or flight responses kick in. Therefore, the mother may respond to her pain with anger and denial. It is helping her keep her sense of integrity intact.
When the mother responds in anger and denies having done anything wrong, the impact it has on the survivor is severe It heightens her emotions. It’s important to remember that both the mother and the survivors are fighting their own battles. Both parties need time to process this shock. Thus, it is essential that the space for change is provided by both sides.
Some of the pointers to remember during this time that are applicable to both the survivors and the mothers:
- Remain empathetic. Both of you may be struggling.
- Be kind. Do not raise your voices while talking. Do not accuse each other.
- Listen when the other person talks. Both of you have the right to say your part.
- Have conversations outside the purview of khatna.
- Establish some routines with each other: eat together or go for walks together.
- Respect each others’ decisions.
The dynamics of a relationship are bound to change once such an intense conversation takes place. It is essential that during this time of transformation, a sense of support for each other is established. At the same time, it may be difficult to do so, but it is imperative that this be done if the new dynamics are to mimic the love, warmth, and comfort that may have been present in the previous relationship. My participants themselves mentioned that although the dynamics between them and their mothers have changed, with time and space their bond has only become stronger.
A message to the survivors, you have the right to be angry. You have the right to be heartbroken. Give yourself time to feel all these emotions. Take care of yourself. Access some helpful resources.
For mothers who regret their decisions but do not know what to do, apologizing always helps. Not only would it heal you, but it may heal your daughter, as well.
For mothers in the dilemma of whether they should perform khatna on their daughters, please don’t do it. A life full of pain and regret is no way to live, neither for you and nor for your daughter.