My decision as a mother to not cut my daughters

By Masuma Kothari

Country of Residence: United Kingdom

A vivid memory of my cut has lived through so many years that I can recall the entire act. This experience always intrigued me and it did lead me to the insights of child psychology as to how tender a 7-year-old is. Even though my personal experience was not very excruciating, I clearly remember the sense of betrayal, and it never went away.

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I was never convinced with the benefits theory that was proclaimed, and honestly, nobody really knew at a deeper level the real reason to follow this practice when I sought guidance. Because of the social influence, it was apparent that herd mentality, unexposed details, unquestioned thoughts promoted this practice.

When my elder daughter was near the age, I had to figure out for myself if my daughter should also be cut. It felt as if I had Godlike power to alter something natural belonging to my daughter’s body forever, and that did not feel right. For me, the decision was a chaotic fight between the cultural beliefs and the scientific quest. I reached out to a few of my doctor family members to understand if there was any scientific aspect. All of them discouraged the practice. That is when the light in my heart beamed strong.

I chose courage and discussed this openly within my group of Bohra friends. Surprisingly, I found most of the women were also against it and this strengthened my defiance! In fact, my mother secretly regretted having the practice done to me, too.

I was sure I did not want to take away what God had bestowed on my daughters. With this clarity, I announced it to my family that we won’t be conducting this on our daughters. One additional powerful advantage was that we resided in the United Kingdom. Since it is a criminal offence here, it was an easy argument to assure a few of our noisy family members back in India.  Because we as parents were strong, nobody really questioned or bothered to enforce this. It was simply about standing up for what we thought to be correct.

My husband was firm from day one that he was not willing to get this done for our daughters, yet he had given me the ownership of making this decision in case I was convinced that it had to be done. My decision scale had a chunky weight on anti-FGM, which was also a major influence in my decision to not cut my daughters.

There is absolutely no need to do this. If you are a parent struggling with the obligation to have this done, just say no to this age-old trauma-enabling practice and move on guilt- free with loud pride that you have made the right choice.

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Locating female genital cutting through films and documentaries

By Debangana Chatterjee

Though films and documentaries related to female genital cutting (FGC) promise to uphold the realities surrounding the subject, there are undeniable strings of subjective interpretations attached to them. Thus, rather than becoming ‘real’, these films and documentaries transpire as the reel portrayal of realities. Desert Flower, a 2009 German production is the most pertinent feature film on the subject based on Waris Dirie’s 1998 autobiographical account of the same name. In the realm of popular culture, the film relegates the practice of FGC being coterminous to infibulation, whereas infibulation is one of the most extreme variations of the four types of FGC, as has been classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Rather than providing the holistic imagery of the practice, this film portrays a partial picture of it.

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Desert Flower

The documentaries on FGC are majorly driven for either anti-FGM awareness campaigns conducted by various international organizations, or for journalistic ventures of finding and documenting facts by renowned media houses from across the globe. Some of these major documentaries include Warrior Marks (1994), The Cut (2009), The Cutting Tradition (2009), ‘I Will Never Be Cut’: Kenyan Girls Fight Back against Genital Mutilation (2011), A Pinch of Skin (2012), The Cruel Cut – Female Genital Mutilation (2013), True Story – Female Genital Mutilation in Afar, Ethiopia (2013), Reversing Female Circumcision: The Cut that Heals (2015), The Cut: Exploring FGM (2017), Jaha’s Promise (2017), Cutting the Cut (2018). Another talked about documentary of 2018, Female Pleasure, though does not solely deal with FGC, features the renowned activist against FGC Leyla Hussain to shed light on the practice as a mode of controlling female sexuality. With the exception of A Pinch of Skin and Cutting the Cut that focuses on the particularities of the practice in India and Kenya, respectively, from an internal vantage point, others make cultural commentaries on the practice from the perspective of anti-FGM advocates.

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A Pinch of Skin

Cutting the Cut was produced in 2018 under the aegis of The Health Channel in Kenya. Winnie Lubembe, a Kenyan herself, is the narrator, producer, and writer. With a special focus on the Maasai community of Kenya, the documentary presents both against and for narratives of the practice. On the one hand, it discusses the hazardous aspect of the practice. On the other, views supporting legalization of the practice are also presented, as it arguably promotes medicalization as well as cultural preservation. The non-alienation of the community and the need for complementing legal banning with adequate awareness programmes and cultural redressal are the two main takeaways of the documentary. It also highlights the political nuances operating through the legal state apparatus.

A Pinch of Skin, on the other hand, is a 2012 Indian production directed by Priya Goswami. This can be designated as one of the maiden attempts to shed light upon the practice among the Bohra women in India. The maker, despite not belonging to the cultural community, makes honest attempts to put herself into the shoes of the believers, and thus, brings out voices both pro and against the practice. In fact, the naming of the documentary is indicative given that it does not merely portray the practice as ‘gruesome’ and ‘barbaric’. Rather it highlights the practice of nicking the tip of the prepuce of the clitoris, prevalent among the Bohras.

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A Pinch of Skin

Barring these two, representations through visuals of the cultural ‘other’ from an external vantage point appear to lack intricacies and layers. For example, The Cut: Exploring FGM, The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation, and The Cutting Tradition are produced respectively by Al-Jazeera, Channel4 and SafeHands for Mothers in collaboration with the International Federation of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (FIGO), respectively. The Cut, directed by  American-journalist Linda May Kallestein, has also been funded by multiple Norwegian agencies. Most of these representations are located beyond the cultural purview and thus, lack empathy in their cultural portrayal. Though The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation and Jaha’s Promise feature Somali activist Leyla Hussein and Gambian activist Jaha Dukureh respectively, it is to be reminded that the onus ultimately lies at the hands of the creative teams of these documentaries. Even Jaha’s Promise uses one of the clips from Barack Obama’s speeches where he is referring to the practice as ‘barbaric’ which as a term is discredited for its blatant cultural insensitivity. It is problematic to assume that the mothers always put their daughters through the practice intentionally being fully aware of its consequences. Fatma Naib, the presenter of The Cut: Exploring FGM, an Eritrean immigrant to Sweden, showcases details of the state of the practice in Somalia and Kenya with substantial subtlety so far as it highlights campaigners against the practice from within these cultures. As a whole, it is not merely about the geographic positioning of the creative teams but about the outlook that they share while describing cultural specificities.

Nuances and variations of the practice are not adequately showcased in many of these films. For example, out of all the countries with reported cases of FGC, African countries especially, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt are highlighted out of proportion. It is largely because of the rampant prevalence of the practice mainly in these countries. It is to note that only 10 percent of reported cases worldwide are the most severe and may fall into the category of infibulation- even in Africa. Notwithstanding the need to highlight the regions with a higher percentage of the practice, these documentaries seem to make convenient choices so far as the cases are concerned. This comes hand in hand with exoticization of pain. For instance, the documentary True Story – Female Genital Mutilation in Afar, Ethiopia, starts with the representative audio of excruciating scream of a newly-wed girl who dies out of profuse bleeding due to forced penetration of her infibulated vagina. This scream is followed by figurative graphics of a splash of blood accompanied by a heart-wrenching narration of the incident. The Cutting Tradition with its explicit emphasis on four African countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso, uses substantial, real visuals of the practice. The cultural orientation of these representations is reflective of a cultural aversion toward the unintelligible culture. The visual knowledge of the matter, thus, gets constructed from a position of power going in tandem with the existing Western liberal discourse.

Though there are well-intentioned attempts to bring out hard-hitting facts regarding such sensitive subjects, in many cases such intentions get mired with preconceived prejudices. Notwithstanding the possibilities of becoming judgemental even after belonging to the same culture, it is important to understand the outlook of the makers. Needless to say, the making of films and documentaries are driven by factors of storytelling or awareness-raising and are thus, difficult to be objectively oriented. Attempts to bring out different sides of various cultures, giving voices to women of these communities who break the shackles of conformity may pave the way for a ‘real’ and relatively balanced depiction of realities in regard to FGC.

Why female genital cutting still continues: Exploring the reasons behind its sustenance

By Debangana Chatterjee

The reasons why female genital cutting (FGC) continues are multifarious and overlapping. Complex and interconnected sets of reasons for FGC are woven into the faiths of the communities. Thus, faith becomes the genesis of these reasons, making FGC considered to be beneficial by the communities. These reasons can be broadly grouped as traditional, socio-cultural, sexual and hygienic, but are also closely connected with each other:

• Traditional: According to Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, authors of Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, for a number of communities FGC is considered a rite of passage to womanhood and is driven by traditional beliefs. This womanhood is often believed to add to the marriageability of the circumcised women. The practice is carried forward by the women belonging to these communities for generations. Though there is no direct mention of the practice in the Quran, hadiths became a traditional source of its justification. At this juncture of faith, tradition paves the way for the socio-cultural reasons behind the practice.

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Dogon people of Mali / Photo by Jenny Cordle

• Socio-Cultural: Among practicing communities, the practice in many ways becomes a hallmark of communal identification, as it garners acceptability and induces social conformity within communities. Some communities are also believed to have adopted FGC due to contiguous cultural influences. Considerable communal pressure for performing FGC involves the threat of social ostracism. Local structures of authoritative forces ensure the continuation of the practice by implementing these measures on the basis of their social norms. As the practice remains one of the sole sources of income for traditional cutters, economic reasons as a corollary to the socio-cultural ones also drive the practice.

• Sexual: FGC is believed to control women’s sexual behaviour. There are claims of it restricting women’s sexual urges. Extreme procedures, such as infibulation, are used as mechanisms to keep women’s premarital virginity and marital fidelity in check. Due to the extreme pain that intercourse typically causes in infibulated women, women do not get sexual pleasure. FGC is frequently claimed to be used as an impediment toward the “promiscuous” nature of women.

• Hygienic: Many believe the removal of a part of female genitalia amounts to cleanliness. In this regard, cleanliness in the hygienic sense results in physical purity, which is ultimately believed to pave the way for spiritual purity. This understanding of purity becomes closely entangled with the cultural beliefs of femininity and modesty.

Despite creating this broad rubric of prominent reasons, the reasons noticeably overlap and are distinct in manifestation when it comes to the customs of specific communities. In certain cases, there are multiple driving factors, whereas in other cases the manifestations of these reasons are even more particularistic. For example, as Laurenti Magesa, the author of African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, explains among the Kikiyu people of Kenya, FGC is celebrated as a mark of womanhood. Among the Bambuti and Thonga community, during the procedure girls are shown no mercy and are treated with ruthlessness as a sign of their gallantry and bravery. Among certain groups in Tanzania and Somaliland, infibulation is believed to form a “chastity belt” around the skin of female genitalia.

Magesa underlines a few reasons for FGC specific to diverse African communities. Primarily, it is conceived as a mark of valour and of enduring physical pain within the community. This pain is thought to teach girls about sacrifice for the community as well as a sense of belonging. Finally, many believe that the practice strengthens the community bond among generations and knits the community together. Among many communities, girls are prepared for the practice through an initiation ceremony. But among the Zaramo people of Tanzania, the girl is secluded for a substantial period after circumcision. During this particular period, girls are trained and informed about obedience in general, conformity to social norms, fertility, and childbirth. According to Kouba and Muasher, the Dogon and Bambara people of Mali believe that a child, born with both male and female souls, is also possessed by wanzo. Wanzo is believed to be evil residing in both the male and female genitalia and thus, cutting as a process helps in getting rid of wanzo.

In India, Bohra Muslims are evidentially the most significant community practicing FGC, which is termed as khafz. As per the believers of the community, Da’i al-Mutlaq, also known as Da’i, hold an authoritative, infallible status in the community. Da’i or Syedna (as referred to by the Dawoodi Bohras) is considered to be the sovereign leader, spiritual guardian and temporal guide of the community. As Da’i considers Daim-ul-Islam as the binding religious text for the Bohras, diktats of the text are taken as truth by the community members. It is a text written by Al-Qadi al-Nu’man who served from the 11th to the 14th Imam of the Shia lineage. In this text, the Prophet is believed to advise for a simple cut of women’s clitoral skin as this assigns purity on women and may make them more “beloved by their husbands”. The community mostly puts forward religious reasons based on their faiths in support of the practice. There are multiple narratives justifying the practice among the Bohra community members. A substantial number of community members believe that the practice tames women’s sexual urges and preserves modesty. Many claim that the nicking of the prepuce helps increase women’s sexual pleasure by exposing the tip of the clitoral hood. In this regard, it is often put forward in the same breath as the genital altercation procedures of clitoral un-hooding. Similar narratives espouse that the practice induces purity among women. For them, if it is well within the rights of Muslim men to be spiritually pure by performing circumcision, it is unjustifiable to prevent women from attaining equivalent purity. In fact, in certain cases, there are convictions by the pro-FGC Bohras toward the futuristic scientific revelations about khafz’s perceived benefits.

When faith becomes a part of people’s everyday life, life needs to get enlightened from its core not by denying faith but by striving for incorporating elements of rationality to it. Although these reasons for the continuation of the practice may not seem justifiable to some in the present context, the incomprehensibility of these reasons may not be countered with outright rejections. In fact, forcefully drawing the private matters of women into a public spectrum may be a source of those women feeling alienated. Rather, holistic approaches and educational campaigns may be useful tools to win the trust of the communities. The chasm between the opposing sides (those who believe FGC to be harmful and those who claim it is a religious right) can only be bridged by generating mutual respectability and building conversational engagement.

 

More about Debangana:

Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com. 

A Nigerian Nurse’s Perspective on Female Genital Cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

Female genital cutting (FGC) occurs in many countries around the world. Through my future posts, I hope to explore a few of these places by meeting with those who can speak on them. Many African countries and countries in the Middle East have been reported to have a large concentration of practicing communities. However, FGC is not limited to these areas, nor is it practiced by every single person in these regions. Recently, I spoke with Uzokau Chukwu, a registered nurse, about her thoughts on FGC.

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Brionna Wiggins with Uzokau Chukwu

Mrs. Chukwu is from a community in Imo State, Nigeria, where she spent her childhood until age 13, before moving to the United States. To her knowledge, FGC was not practiced  in the place she grew up. Instead, her community does an alternative practice, a tradition entirely without blood or cutting, where the area above the pubic bone is massaged.

“Older women in my village says it’s to reduce the sensation of a girl being overly sexed,” she said.  “They don’t cut anything.” According to her community, it still meets the security needs of those who fear raising a promiscuous daughter without cutting away at the body.

Mrs. Chukwu didn’t hear of FGC until she came to America and began her medical studies later in life. She worked alongside a student who came from a country with a high prevalence of FGC, so the topic was analyzed through an infection-control perspective.

The practice of FGC brings up health concerns, as girls may be laid directly on the ground for the procedure, and there is risk of severe injury or death. The operation may be done in a setting without sterile equipment.

“People were saying that some girls are dying after they go through that procedure,” she said. “They bleed to death or, you know, they cut so much nerve or into something, and then the places where they’re doing those things are not clean.”

Additionally, Mrs. Chukwu is left to ponder a handful of questions. How do practicing societies know if FGC works to reduce sexuality? Do they have alternatives? Did they notice a vast difference between those who are cut and uncut? Who came up with this practice? Who deemed it to be right? More importantly, who asks the girl for proper consent?

I agree with Mrs. Chukwu that FGC might be a slightly different matter if FGC was limited to consenting adult women rather than young girls. However, the idea of “cutting into someone’s body,” especially having to hold down the person as the procedure goes on, is disturbing. Although it goes without saying (I still asked), Mrs. Chukwu wouldn’t have herself, her daughters, or anyone else undergo the procedure. She wondered in passing if she was being too harsh in judging those who have their girls cut, but she also demanded concrete evidence that the cutting had any medical benefits at all. Ultimately, Mrs. Chukwu fears that FGC perpetuates the second-class status of women worldwide.

The conversation on FGC is definitely opening up to the general public on a worldwide scale as awareness grows. Admittedly, it’s hard to convince others to abandon FGC, as to do so is to challenge their beliefs, especially since it’s a practice that has persisted for generations. Hopefully, increased advocacy against FGC will spike awareness of its detriment to women and society.

More on Brionna:

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Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.

Reflections on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting & Intergenerational Trauma

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

I am not a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In fact, my father is vehemently opposed to the practice. Even though I was shielded from FGM/C, I know loved ones who have undergone the procedure. One of those survivors is my mom.

 

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My parents are from Somaliland, which lies on the northwestern part of Somalia, but we now live in the United States. FGM/C has evolved into a cultural practice in Somaliland that has strong social roots. There is a lot of stigma if you aren’t cut (guilt, shame, neglect). My experience within the Somali community is that FGM/C has been discussed within the realm of religious theology as an acceptable form of practice. The only problem is that there is no religious text in the Quran that advocates or allows this practice. Granted, FGM/C is practiced around the world for a variety of reasons. But it is vital to highlight our personal experiences which will enable us to find collective solutions to end the practice.

I didn’t know much about FGM/C until I immigrated to the United States. The irony is that it’s a common practice passed down through generations, but it’s a closely guarded secret. No one talks about it unless it’s your time to undergo the procedure. After I looked into the different forms of FGM/C and the harmful effects, I was immediately repulsed by the actions of my community. I was enraged that the perpetrators of FGM/C were not held accountable for committing a human rights violation. I just can’t fathom how my community would eagerly rally against islamophobia, but turn a blind eye to FGM/C.

I faced a dilemma. I was harboring these feelings against my community because I just couldn’t understand the rationale of the people who are advocates of FGM/C. I was concerned that my emotions were clouding my judgment. One day I built up the courage to ask someone who could provide me some context: my mom. I am not sure why I waited until the end of this year to ask my mom why FGM/C is so prevalent in our community, but perhaps I was petrified of how she would react. I was fortunate to have the guidance of Mariya Taher (co-founder of Sahiyo) to prepare me for this day.

The type of FGM/C procedure that my mom endured is common amongst Somali women. Known as infibulation, it is typically the most severe form. My mom was very candid in her experience as she vividly disclosed the trauma and pain she went through. During our intense conversation, I interrupted her because at some point, it was too painful to digest. In the end, she confided in me. “We weren’t educated at that time, and we just did what we thought was right,” she said.

We can’t trace when the practice of FGM/C had its initial roots in my family, but something clicked inside my head in relation to intergenerational trauma. My grandmother was exposed to the same FGM/C procedure as my mom. Despite the agony, my grandmother is convinced it was the right thing to do. After all, that’s all she knows. Even though my grandmother made the decision for my mom to go through FGM/C, it doesn’t mean that she is a terrible individual. If I had to describe my grandmother, the first thing that would come to mind is her independence. She is fierce, loving, generous and vocal. She would never hesitate to express her opinion. It’s a shocking that my grandmother advocated for the practice of FGM/C because it just didn’t fit in with her persona. This is where intergenerational trauma comes into effect.You endure a traumatic experience and one of the ways to cope with that specific experience is to normalize it. If you are not provided the proper mechanisms to manage trauma, it will manifest itself often at the expense of your loved ones.

For a long time, I believed that FGM/C was only practiced in my community. Then I was exposed to data that demonstrated the wide reach of FGM/C. I believe that education and dialogue are crucial to creating solutions for the practice to end. We must not shame communities, but bring awareness of the life threatening risks associated with the procedures that so many girls endure. I believe in humanity and even though the practice of FGM/C is harmful, there is still room for hope.

A response to the letter written by Tasneem Yunus Burhani, Mubaraka Tambawala, Farida Mustafa Hussain, Fatemah Hussain, and Shakera Bohra published in Detroit News

By Umme Kulsoom Arif

In response to your letter published in The Detroit News,Dawoodi Bohra Women of Detroit speak up,” I write to you as a woman who grew up in a part of the Dawoodi Bohra community, just like you. I am also a woman of faith and education, a woman who loves her country as well as her Dawoodi Bohra community, who balances religion and patriotism in a trying, divisive time. And just like you, I am frustrated and saddened by the propaganda and misinformation that has spread surrounding the case of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala because I too am a survivor. A survivor of a harmful practice that violated my human rights, robbed me of my personal integrity, and — in punishing me for my own femininity — left me permanently scarred, both mentally and physically: khaftz.

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You claim that khaftz “in no way can be defined as female genital mutilation,” but do you know what FGM even is? The World Health Organization defines FGM/C as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” So educate me, then — what is the medical reason for khaftz? Why must it be done? Why must a girl be lied to, held down, or drugged so that a blade can be taken to her genitals and a part of her clitoris sliced away?

You call the procedure “harmless,” so I ask you — where does the harm begin in your minds? Where do you draw the line between the “ritual” you defend and the “more barbaric practices from around the world” you claim to condemn? Is it not harmful to deny your daughter the right to her own bodily autonomy? Is it not harmful to violate her right to be free of torture and degrading treatment and to teach her that her body is “wrong” and must be surgically altered based on the words of religious men?

The Quran does not ask this of us, so I ask you — who does? When countries around the world — including the United States — have signed human rights treaties both condemning and outlawing all forms of FGM, who demands that our daughters be subjected to a cutting or scraping without their consent and with no medical reasoning behind it?

Though you claim to be patriotic Americans who follow all the laws of the land, you challenge a law meant to protect the most vulnerable members of the country’s population — its children. How can you in good conscience, claim that khaftz is “much more akin to a body piercing” when a child would never consider getting a piercing in such a sensitive area?

Many of you are lucky to have suffered no consequences — physically or mentally — from khaftz, but your experiences are far from universal. You lie to yourselves when you purport to be representative of all the survivors of the khaftz. You lie to your daughters when you claim that there are no negative effects to the practice. You do a disservice to your community when you hide the truth of this harmful form of gender-based violence behind pleas for tolerance and claims of political persecution. By claiming that your experiences are universal and by defending this harmful practice, you have a direct hand in perpetuating violence against women.

Is that the future of the Dawoodi Bohra community? A future where we must look our children in the eyes and tell them that they have no ownership of their bodies? A future where our daughters must be subjected to sexual trauma and placed at risk for future infection, for future complications in childbirth, or for chronic pain in a most sensitive area? The Dawoodi Bohra community cannot adhere to archaic violence in the name of tradition. The world around us has changed, and today we know more about our bodies and the consequences of our actions than we ever did. We must grow as people, as a community. We must come together to help, not harm.

You may be educated women, but you blind yourself to the true nature of khaftz and its harm. You beg for tolerance and understanding but you do not try to understand the pain you inflict on your daughters when you have them cut. I beg you to take the time to listen to women the world over who have been harmed by khaftz.

Read also “Other Views on FGM.”

Female Genital Cutting Diaries: My first encounter with the tradition of female genital cutting

by Jenny Cordle

A decade ago I lived in a practicing, rural community situated in the lush, southern region of Mali, West Africa. Out of nearly 2,000 inhabitants living in mud-brick houses, a dozen were Christian. The rest were Muslim, and remain among the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Out of love and many other complicated reasons, the Sunni Muslim community members cut their girls, as is the case for why many Shia Muslim Dawoodi Bohra mothers and fathers perpetuate the practice 5,000 miles away in India and among diaspora communities such as the one in Detroit, Michigan.

I am struck by how the impetus to cut has no bounds; how an impoverished Malian community that runs out of grain in the cold season finds the money to pay a cutter; and the lengths an educated, wealthy community such as the Dawoodi Bohras will go to protect the practice.

My first encounter with the longstanding tradition of female genital cutting in Mali punctuated my Peace Corps service in Konza. The local midwife reluctantly confessed that a mass cutting was occurring; I’d made her promise to tell me the next time it happened. I ran to my house, grabbed my camera, and navigated the maze of mud bricks until I stumbled upon several elderly women and a group of girls in the midst of lining up for washing. I was visibly furious and knew I needed to calm down. I didn’t know what I expected to see, or if I would be capable of stopping it, but I had to go.

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photo by Jenny Cordle

There’s a particular kind of hush that falls over Konza during a ritual cutting of girls. The pounding of millet is stifled by a thick silence. What is typically a loose order tightens its reins over a large pocket of the community, with children scattered along the edges.   

At least a dozen girls sat shirtless on the floor of a small dark room with their heads wrapped in patterned scarves typically reserved for women, and wearing small skirts of a different fabric. I searched their faces. There were dried tears and fresh ones. They were silent, their lives having been marked with a before and after by a woman who made it her job to perpetuate a harmful practice. Most of them looked about eight years old—the year I started writing stories and met my lifelong best friend, and thought about what outfit my Barbie should wear.

I’d taken many portraits of youth in Konza. They were intense, gorgeous people with secrets I wanted to know but may never be able to handle. At the time I couldn’t process that they’d been physically and emotionally violated, but my shock and anger was apparent—too visible to the elderly women.

I missed the cutting and thought I missed the cutter. I knew the cutter had come from Djobo, a neighboring community, based on conversations I had with friends. I envisioned her wielding an unsterilized razor, delegating older women to hold the girls down and making a series of quick, but painful cuts. I could see her promptly packing up, blessing the girls who bled too much and praising the ones who silently endured it.

I could see her mounting a motorcycle, and then her back in the dust with her head wrap billowing. I knew she had money wrapped in her skirt: payment for a day’s work. I knew of her need for secrecy, which was honored by everyone in the village. No one would share exactly who she was or where she lived or why I couldn’t speak with her.

I called a meeting with the village chief, along with my landlord and a few elders—the midwife, Binta, sitting next to me in the night as I spoke. I brazenly called for an end to the cutting. I mentioned the harmful effects—that these girls could die. Baji Kone, the chief, promptly told me that it would never happen again and thanked me for the visit. A few weeks later, many other girls were cut. I’d been appeased—but as a white American woman, who was I to pressure the chief to end one of the oldest rituals in Mali?

I would learn that cutting in Mali was a sacred tradition that would not be cast in a violent light. It would be protected and blessed and carried on years later in Konza. I decided as a volunteer that it was not my place to interfere; doing so may have undermined my work in the community.

It wasn’t until years after my service that I realized I wanted to explore and understand the motivations behind the practice of cutting. I knew the girls in Mali. They’d sat in my best woven chair under a porch made of tree branches and chatted with me daily. I wanted to know the cutters. Who were these women paid to inflict pain in the name of honor and purity? I’d learned Malian birthing customs, and experienced how many Muslims embrace death as God’s will, but the rites of passage for girls into womanhood was kept from me, so I ran toward it.

(This blog is the first in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain an understanding of the practice, and in doing so, can encourage abandonment.)

Female Genital Cutting is an International Issue

By Brionna Wiggins

Upon hearing about female genital cutting and what it entails, it seems that one of the first facts you hear about it has to do with its prevalence in Africa and the Middle East. While it is true that these continents have a high prevalence (which has been decreasing according to a recent study by BMJ Global Health), it may contribute to the misconception that these are the only places in the world where females undergo FGC. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This practice reaches Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. Its presence on multiple continents leads FGC to be an international issue that needs to end with the support of all the nations involved.

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Map Courtsey of Orchid Project
As part of my senior project, I have been bestowed the opportunity to do volunteer work with Sahiyo. They work specifically with the Dawoodi Bohra community, whose members mainly reside in India, Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa. FGC is also prevalent in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. There have even been reports in Colombia, South America. This puts FGC on every continent in the world!

As previously mentioned, FGC occurs among diaspora communities. When families from countries that practice FGC move into new areas, they inevitably bring along the instilled need to continue the social norm. This leads to FGC being present in ‘receiving countries’, which can include places bordering practicing countries. Despite the handful of receiving countries that ban and criminalize FGC, the practice is still inflicted on girls in an effort to maintain their cultural identity. However, diaspora community members may send their daughters to their home country for ‘vacation cutting’. FGC is not a practice that is restricted by borders. Decades ago, FGC was practiced in some of the same countries that worked to prevent it.

In Victorian Era England, FGC ushered its way into the medical field as a cure for nervous diseases, masturbation, and any other infliction that doctors/surgeons related to the female organs. Gynecological surgeon Isaac Baker Brown popularized the idea of using clitoridectomy, or removal of the clitoris, as a solution for ailments in medical circles. After some time, Isaac Brown and those who followed this method were eventually condemned. Yet, it was not so readily removed from American medical textbooks. Doctors in the U.S. also continued with this treatment to cure female ailments and the last documentation of this practice dates as far back as 1947. It is the year Renee Bergstrom received a clitoridectomy at the age of three in “white, midwest America” (The Guardian). People with good intentions may harm others irreparably, even the ones who trust them the most.

While the practitioners may mean well, it still doesn’t excuse the continual physical and psychological harm of women and young girls. These mistakes have been made before, and are still being made by participating societies and people who perpetuate the practice. With FGC being so close to home, the problem cannot be ignored any longer as someone else’s problem. This practice affects women and girls on every continent. It must be dealt with using the full support of every global citizen to end the practice of FGC for the sake of women and men. You can help advocate against it too. Research is crucial in understanding a multifaceted issue such as this to ensure and reaffirm what you’re advocating for. That’s when you can volunteer your time or voice to organizations working to end FGC and keep up to date on the topic. Also, you can inquire about the laws in your state if they regulate or have anything in place pertaining to the practice. If there’s not a law already, then you can advocate for one being created.

 

More on Brionna:

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Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.

The Legal Side of Khatna or Female Genital Cutting

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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.

Female Genital Cutting or khatna or khafz, as it is also called in the Bohra community, involves cutting or removal of the external female genitalia. Khatna has no known health benefits, but does have well-documented complications, which range from severe pain, excessive bleeding, and scar tissue to frequent infections.

The movement against khatna in India perhaps began in the early 1990s with Rehana Ghaidally’s paper, “All for Izzat”, which attempted to identify the key reasons for why khatna was performed in India. However, the movement only gained momentum in 2011, when the first online petition was filed against it anonymously. The online campaign triggered a barrage of women coming forward with their own stories of trauma caused by khatna. It further fueled both online petitions as well as an onground movement.

Within the Indian context of the Dawoodi Bohra community, the majority of the cases of khatna constitute Type 1, also referred to as clitoridectomy, which involves either partial or full removal of the clitoris, or the fold of skin known as the prepuce, covering it. Interestingly, there are many men and women who support khatna. From a psychological viewpoint, it may be rooted in the cognitive dissonance theory. Men and women of the Dawoodi Bohra community have been indoctrinated to believe that khatna is an essential religious obligation, and the will of God is not to be questioned. The online campaigns provide women in the Bohra community an alternative narrative, which may be in direct conflict with their existing beliefs. This conflict has created a lot of anxiety and conversations which have led to the movement gathering momentum, eventually catching the attention of the Indian government.

The uphill legal battle saw the government oscillating between supporting and opposing the movement. In May of 2017, the Ministry of Women and Child Development declared full support for survivors, deeming the practice a criminal offence with prosecution possible under the guidelines of POCSO (2012). The ministry requested the community to voluntarily take action to stop it. If it failed, the government would seek to implement a law to end it. In December of 2017, the ministry withdrew from its position, citing lack of empirical evidence despite proof from Sahiyo’s landmark study, which revealed that 80% of Bohri women globally have undergone khatna. Although the rejection from the government was disheartening, the momentum of the movement has not faltered. Organizations such as Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut continue to provide crucial support for survivors to rally in solidarity.

Several countries in Africa, as well as the United States and Australia, have made consistent and successful attempts to end female genital cutting. To understand how this has been possible, we must examine how the socio-economic structure of these countries has played an integral role in their success. Several of these countries may have high literacy rates, greater awareness of their rights and a more conducive environment for survivors to speak out.

The Bohra community aspect is crucial to understanding the Indian government’s hesitancy to pass a law. Although India is a signatory to several of the United Nations and World Health Organization conventions which view khatna as a human rights violation, it comes under the purview of existing Indian legislation, such as article 319 and 320 of the IPC and POCSO. No separate law has been passed against FGC until now. Things looked hopeful when the PIL filed against FGM/C was to be heard by the five-judge bench in the India Supreme Court. The decision initially seemed to swing in favor of banning the practice, as the judges referred to it as a violation of the rights of the girl child. The judges questioned how the violation of the “bodily integrity” of the child could be an essential practice of a religion, asserting that right to religious freedom does not negate other fundamental rights of the individual. Despite overwhelming support, the judges later backtracked, deferring to a constitutional bench to decide on the matters of religious rights and freedom. It was the most crushing setback for the movement.

Initially, I wondered what the hesitancy was in declaring khatna as a human rights violation. Later, I realized that the hesitancy was due to the political context and not the practice itself. Family and religion are the founding threads of our Indian community, and khatna is so intricately woven within these threads. Family and religion are our sources of identity, and since India is a collectivist society our ideas, beliefs in practices such as khatna are rooted in a collective experience, rather than an individual’s. Thus, attempting to end khatna risks unraveling the whole moral power structure of the country. Initially, it will begin with the Bohra community, but it may create a ripple effect across the country within other communities and religions. The moral thread of India is religion, and religion dictates our gender roles. If khatna is being questioned, we are unraveling this power structure by questioning the clergy’s teachings, and instead seeking the truth for ourselves by reading the religious scriptures whose access has unduly only been given to men for so long. Perhaps, with this newfound knowledge, our perception of the world will shift, leading to a destabilization of the existing structure and establishment of a new order with women in power. Change is just around the corner.

Although the law is the first concrete step toward ending khatna, it is also a double-edged sword with unintended consequences. The law has the potential to push the practice further underground. The more discreetly cutting is done, the more difficult it would become to track it. Furthermore, the law would bring into question the perpetrators of the crime. Is it parents, midwives, community as a whole, or religious leaders? What would be the quantum of punishment? Would the 7-year-old child be responsible for registering the complaint? Who would protect the child from further psychological harm?

Despite it all, I too believe law is essential in our work toward abandonment of khatna, since it may create awareness and generate conversation. But a law in itself will not stop khatna. Khatna will only end when we realize we are hurting our daughters. Once we realize that no religion, no God and no love is founded on pain, that is when the struggle against khatna will finally end.

 

Sign the #EndFGM petition on change.org

A new change.org petition calling for an end to Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra community was started in September by Ranjana Sehgal and Umi Saran.

The petition is addressed to Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohra community, and was started in response to the Syedna’s visit to Indore to give sermons during the first ten holy days of Muharram.

As the petition mentions, “Although the matter is already in the Apex Court if the directive to end FGM comes from the spiritual head of the Bohra community, it will be easier to put an end to this violent practice. The Government of India’s WCD Ministry has said that FGM is in clear contravention of our laws, the Indian Penal Code and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO).”

Over 16,000 supporters have already signed, and the campaign’s next goal is reaching 25,000 signatures.  If you would like to support by signing, click here.