The movement to end FGM/C: Looking back at the 2010s and looking forward in 2020

By Sahiyo

2020 is here, and we at Sahiyo are excited. 2020 brings with it not just a new year, but the dawn of a new decade of hope and hard work for our global movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). This is the decade in which we must give it our all, because we have pledged to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting by 2030

As we look forward to the 2020s, we cannot help but look back at the 2010s for inspiration. The last decade has been game-changing, not just for Sahiyo or the movement against FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras, but for the anti-FGC movement in Asia as a whole. 

At the start of 2010, FGC was still considered an “African” problem, and Asian countries were barely on the map of the places where FGC is prevalent. Today, we know that FGC is truly and disturbingly a global phenomenon putting 3.9 million girls at risk every year,  as you can see in this map created by Orchid Project:

Nearly half the countries on the map above are not yet included in the UN’s official list of 30 countries where 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC. In the 2020s, let us work to ensure that this information gap is bridged, so that Asian survivors of FGC are officially recognised. 

In fact, you can start now by signing Sahiyo’s petition asking the global community to invest in research on FGC prevalence and advocacy and support services to end FGC in Asian countries. 

But first, let’s take a look back at the biggest milestones of the 2010s from Sahiyo’s perspective.

The birth of Sahiyo:

In late 2011, ‘Tasleem’, an anonymous Dawoodi Bohra woman from India, started a Change.org petition asking the Syedna,  the religious leader of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, to call for an end to FGC in the community. Although there had been scattered attempts to call out the secretive practice of FGC among the Bohras in the 1980s and ‘90s, they drew limited attention and the practice continued to be shrouded in silence. 

Tasleem’s petition, however, received nearly 3,500 signatures, triggered a spate of media reports on FGC in India, and inspired a few Bohra women, like Aarefa Johari and Farida Dariwala, to speak out publicly about their experiences of FGC. 

The media reports on FGC at the time also inspired Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami to make A Pinch of Skin, the first documentary film on FGC among Dawoodi Bohras in India. As Goswami’s film won the 2013 National Award for the best documentary in India, the taboo topic of FGC remained alive in the media, sparking private conversations between like-minded Bohra women all over the world who were keen to see an end to FGC.

In late 2014, five of those women banded together to create a formal platform that would work to end FGC among Bohras and Asian communities at a transnational level. That platform — Sahiyo — was eventually founded in mid-2015. 

Breaking the silence, once and for all:  

In 2015, the private conversations on FGC among Bohras also burst into the public sphere with the launch of WeSpeakOut (known as Speak Out on FGM at the time). 

WeSpeakOut started as a private women’s WhatsApp group spearheaded by Masooma Ranalvi. In October 2015, the group launched a Change.org petition addressed to the Indian government, seeking a legal ban on FGC in India. Seventeen Bohra women publicly put their name to the petition, and the response was huge and immediate: media all over India began writing about FGC among Bohras, community leaders were forced to respond, and the silence about FGC among community members was broken for good. More than 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.  

From 2015 to 2019, we have watched the movement against FGC snowball into a global force that communities have not been able to ignore. There are now dozens of Bohra women fearlessly speaking out about their FGC experiences, signing up as Sahiyo volunteers, attending our events and pledging not to cut their daughters. Women and men have faced backlash from their families and communities for speaking out, but the movement has only grown stronger. 

Research and investigations:

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the results of the first-ever research study on FGC among Bohras: an online, exploratory survey that found an 80% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohra women respondents. Among those who were cut, 98% women reported feeling pain when they underwent the ritual. Interestingly, 81% of respondents did not want FGC to continue in the community. 

In 2017, a Sahiyo investigation also revealed that FGC is being practiced by some communities in the South Indian state of Kerala, leading to furore in the region. Before this, it was believed that the Bohras are the only community in India practicing FGC. 

In 2018, WeSpeakOut published a seminal field study on FGC among Indian Bohras. The study found FGC prevalent among 75% of the daughters of the respondents. At least 33% of the respondents who were cut reported that FGC negatively impacted their sexual lives. 

More research on the FGC in Asian communities is the need of the hour, and we are aware of several studies that are currently underway in various parts of Asia. Continuous research can help us better understand not only the prevalence and impact of FGC on women and girls, but also the needs of survivors and trends towards abandonment of the practice. 

Developments on the legal front:

The 2010s were a landmark decade for FGC on the legal front, particularly for the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Australia: In 2015, three Bohras — a mother, a nurse and a community leader — were convicted for performing FGC on two minor girls in Australia. This was Australia’s first case under its 1997 law banning FGC. However, the legal ups and downs did not end with the conviction in 2015. 

In 2018, an appeals court overturned the convictions and acquitted the three accused Bohras, on the grounds that the girls’ genitals did not show any visible scarring after the ritual, and because the Australian law did not clearly define what kind of rituals qualify as FGC. In 2019, however, an Australian High Court once again flipped the verdict, overturning the acquittals, convicting the three Bohras again, and asserting that all forms of genital cutting are illegal. 

India: In 2017, an Indian lawyer filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking a legal ban on the practice of FGC. Other FGC survivors also joined in the petition and to counter it, a pro-FGC group called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom filed a petition defending the practice of FGC on the grounds of religious freedom. 

The Indian government responded to the petition by stating that FGC would be considered a crime under Indian laws dealing with child sexual abuse. However, the Indian government has made several contradictory statements about FGC since then. 

The Supreme Court has now referred the FGC case to a larger bench that will look into matters of gender equality versus religious freedom. Will 2020 be the year in which India’s highest court picks women’s right to bodily integrity over religious freedom? We will have to cross our fingers, wait, and see. 

United States: In 2017, two Bohra doctors from Michigan were among eight Bohras prosecuted for carrying out FGC on several minor girls. This was the first prosecution under the U.S.’s 1996 federal law banning FGC. In 2018, however, a U.S. district court judge ruled that even though the practice of FGC is “despicable” the federal law itself is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be regulated by individual states rather than by the federal or national law. 

Currently, 35 out of 50 U.S. states have laws against FGC. Among them, 17 states introduced anti-FGC laws in the 2010s, including Arkansas, Florida and Iowa.

In the 2020s, we must campaign for laws against FGC in every U.S. state, as well as in countries across the world. 

Community engagement in 2020: 

It is now globally acknowledged that laws alone cannot be effective in ending FGC. A deep-seated social norm can be changed only if law enforcement is preceded and constantly accompanied by rigorous community engagement, education and dialogue. 

At Sahiyo, we have launched various campaigns and platforms to nurture this dialogue: the Each One Reach One campaign, the I Am Bohra photo campaign, our storytelling blog, Thaal Pe Charcha, Sahiyo Stories, Faces for Change, the Male Ally campaign, and of course, our annual Activists’ Retreats in India and the U.S. to train community members on effective methods of engaging with the community. 

In 2020 and in the years to follow, we have many more advocacy campaigns planned. The first among them will be launching next month, in February 2020: Digital Stories from the Global Voices to End FGM/C program. 

Follow @sahiyovoices on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay updated about the movement to end FGC and to join in our efforts.

And so, here is wishing all of you a happy and hopeful 2020!  

Examining Female Genital Cutting and Intersectionality

By a Bohra

The recent dropping of charges against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who is accused of performing female genital cutting on underage girls in the United States, on a constitutional technicality rather than perceived criminality, solidified my thinking about the relationship between power and oppression.   

This thought was first introduced to me by Irfan Engineer, the son of Asghar Ali Engineer, a prominent activist who engaged in a decades-long battle with the Bohra orthodoxy over community reform. Irfan, a successful activist in his own right, described to me the relationship between the Indian state and the Bohra clergy. As long as the clergy declared electoral allegiance to the government, the state would turn a blind eye to the clergy’s authoritarian rule over the Bohra community. This relationship was made visible by the government’s reversal of its support for a national law against FGC, shortly after Prime Minister Modi (dis)graced the stage at one of this year’s Bohra Ashura sermons.

Modi extolled the virtues of the economically and educationally advanced Bohras, who were allegedly setting a great example for their impoverished and persecuted Muslim countrymen. Seeing Modi on stage, Bohra Muslims could almost forget the carnage inflicted in Gujarat in 2002, and Modi’s rampant Islamophobia since. The Bohra community has probably been shielded from Islamophobic violence because of the clergy’s close relationship with the ruling right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideological parent, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

Even I was willing to overlook the fact that the Indian government’s attempt at criminalising FGC was based more on criminalising Muslims rather than empowering women. Yet, I thought, maybe the ends will justify the means. I was wrong. Modi’s relationship with the Bohra clergy makes it clear that we cannot rely on the Indian government to end FGC in our community. Even if the Supreme Court rules in favour of criminalising FGC, we can be certain that the government will do nothing to enforce the ruling.

This violent relationship between the state and vulnerable women is not restricted to the Indian context. I am reminded of the first FGC case to be prosecuted in Australia, where three people were sent to jail after being proven guilty. An appeals court, however, acquitted them all after new evidence was released that showed that “the tip of the clitoris was still visible in each girl”. The reduction of the emotional, physical and ideological violence of FGC down to a visual assessment of a pinch of skin shows the weakness of even Western legal systems in protecting marginalised women. It is similar to the victim blaming that is still a routine in rape trials, and the inability of the state to protect women who report honour-based violence. Whether through negligence or structural misogyny, Western and non-Western governments have failed women.

If the government is not an ally, could I turn instead to ‘reformists’ within my own community?

I am in contact with certain Bohras who are not part of the mainstream community, and reject the leadership of the current clergy. They believe that the current leaders have deviated from the true message of the Imams,  and that we must educate ourselves by going back to the original sources of our tradition. I thought that this group of people (mostly men), espousing rationality and critical inquiry, would immediately be against FGC. I was wrong. The emphasis on going back to the original sources means that they accept, uncritically, the infamous book by Qadi Numan (Da’im Al Islam) that advocates for girls to be ‘circumcised’ once they are older than 7 years old. Any debate, often started by the few women in the WhatsApp group, about the necessity of this practice in our modern context, or even about the issue of consent, is shut down. I thought that a shared experience of living under a tyrannical religious clergy might force these men to be more critical of existing power structures and hear the voices of marginalised women. Once again, I was wrong. I learned that the patriarchy, embodied by these ‘reformist’ men, can never be leveraged to end violence against women.

I learned that it is not worth compromising my core values in order to ally with fickle powers that do not center marginalised voices and their struggles. Real change can only happen from the ground up. This is why the work done by organisations such as Sahiyo is vital. By reaching out to individuals, and creating a space to share our stories, Sahiyo creates sustainable change within the community, and rebalances the power structures that exist within.

 

What do Australian Bohras feel about Khatna today?

By: Anonymous

Age: 32

Country: Australia

Khatna is not a topic discussed very often amongst Bohras. Maybe because there is no reason to ever bring it up. However, since the case in Sydney, Australia, in which the aamil, Shabbir Mohammed Vaziri was sentenced to jail for being an accessory to Female australian-44165.jpgGenital Mutilation, the topic has been brought up now and then amongst the ladies. Mostly, the conversation consists of a general curiosity as to what has happened in the Sydney jammat concerning the aamil saab and the midwife who was also found guilty in this case.

I have realized that in the Melbourne jammat, people do not necessarily take the law as seriously as the people in the Sydney jammat do – mainly because the people in Melbourne have no idea about the severity of the case and its effects on the Sydney jammat.

Even in Sydney, the entire ordeal was all very hushed up. People were reluctant to talk about it or even discuss anything regarding the case. So it makes sense and seems natural that people in other cities in Australia would not have much idea of what took place during the trial.

As far as most non Sydney-siders are concerned, khatna is still a religious requirement that needs to be fulfilled.

Most people in the Melbourne jammat have children who are still pretty young. They are not yet of age to have khatna performed. I do not know what parents will do when the time comes for them to decide if their daughters undergo it. I do not know whether they will abide by the legal laws of Australia or if they will still go ahead and have it carried out on their daughters.

There is no way of knowing whether they will have this ‘cut’ carried out on them. You do not ask such questions in the jammat.

The only positive outcome I can think of with regards to the case in Sydney is that it reflects the law of the land and shows that khatna should no longer take place within Australia.

But if people still want to go ahead with it for their daughters, they will still travel elsewhere to have it done. Unfortunately, I feel that unless it comes from the Syedna himself that khatna should end, this practice may still be carried on by those who do not know to question it.

‘Everyone’s business’: Representing Dawoodi Bohras at the No FGM Australia panel discussion in Sydney

by Mubina Jamdar 

Female Genital Mutilation is child abuse and a form of gender-based violence in the name of religion: This was the clear message that emerged from the panel discussion held at The Australian Human Rights Commission office in Sydney on April 29, 2016. The event, hosted by No FGM Australia, was titled “FGM is Everyone’s Business”, and I had the honour of speaking on the panel on the subject of khatna (female circumcision) in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

FGM is illegal in many countries around the world, including Australia. In November 2015, in one of the first convictions under Australia’s anti-FGM law, three Dawoodi Bohras were held guilty of circumcising two minor girls. Since the Bohra community predominantly comes from India, it is time for India to ban this practice and protect young girls from this barbaric practice.

At the Sydney event, speakers included internationally-renowned Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Felicity Gerry QC, international expert in FGM law, and other FGM experts including researchers, health professionals, educators, law enforcement agency and social workers.

Here is a summary of key points that the panel raised:

  • FGM, depending on the severity of the cutting, can lead to many serious health issues, even death.
  • It causes lifelong psychological scars and for some, it leads to serious mental health issues.
  • It’s easy to stop the practice in the family if the man takes a firm stand. Women often find it difficult to convince in-laws. Therefore, educating men is equally important.
  • No Islamic scholar has cited any Quranic injunction advising female genital cutting. It’s a cultural practice that existed long before Islam.
  • FGM is an issue of child abuse and child protection. For that reason, this should be made illegal under the same provisions.
  • Australia has a large population from African countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, middle eastern countries and many other countries where FGM is prevalent.
  • Education is the key, at the school level and in the affected community.
  • Spiritual leaders around the world need to give a joint statement to stop the practice.
  • FGM is everyone’s business.

My speech was aimed at educators, community workers and law enforcement agencies. I gave them insights into the community culture to help design future educational programs. I suggested the need to emphasize in education programs that FGM is not a teaching of the Quran or the Prophet, Rasulullah. Since this community is tightly controlled by the clergy and its head office in Mumbai, it is not sufficient to educate community members. Amils (Priests) should be held  responsible by law to discourage community members from practicing FGM. They must report incidents of FGM to the police.

How can you help?

Please sign the petition to make FGM illegal in India, addressed to the Minister of Women and Child Welfare. It was launched by “Speak out on FGM” on Change.org:
https://www.change.org/p/end-female-genital-mutilation-in-india

[Photo courtesy: No FGM Australia]

Notices by Sydney, Melbourne and London’s Anjuman-e-Burhani Trusts on ‘Khafd’ (Khatna) or Female Genital Cutting

On 8th February, 2016, the Anjuman-e-Burhani Trust of Sydney held a meeting and on 9th

February, a notice was released to all members of the Dawoodi Bohra community in their jurisdiction to honour the laws of the land in which they reside and, accordingly, instructed them to refrain from carrying out the practice of ‘khafd’ or ‘khatna’ (also known as female genital cutting) on their daughters.

In their statement, the Sydney jamaat quoted the Prophet Mohammed Rasulullah (SAW) to ask the community members to respect the laws of their respective countries, like they would their religion, in the lines below:

“Hubbul watan minal imaan”, which means “love of the land of abode is part of faith.”

The Sydney jamaat also informed the community that ‘khafd’ or ‘khatna’ is classified as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) under section 45 of the Crimes Act of NSW and that the practice would ‘…be interpreted to fall within the specific laws in relation to FGM in other states or territories of the Commonwealth of Australia.’ Clearly stating that ‘khafd’ is illegal, irrespective of the place where where it is carried out, Australia or overseas, community members are advised in the strictest terms to not engage in this illegal act. (Letter can be accessed on the Sydney jamaat website: http://www.sydneyjamaat.com/site/login)

This was followed by another notice on 10th February by Melbourne’s Anjuman-e-Burhani Trust, which was along the same lines as Sydney.

Melbourne Resolution pic
Letter to Melbourne jamaat by the Anjuman-e-Saifee (Melbourne)

On 13th February, the London Anjuman-e-Burhani Trust held an ‘extraordinary’ meeting, whereby they passed a resolution instructing all community members to follow in the footsteps of their Australian brothers and sisters and abstain from the act of ‘khafd’. In line with Australia, they quoted the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq, HH Dr Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin (TUS), who used the Prophet’s words

to drive the message home, and emphasized on the seriousness of the crime of performing FGM on a minor which has resulted in the conviction of three (3) members of Dawoodi Bohra community in Australia by the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

In their statement to community members, they have highlighted the new guidelines on Safeguarding Children from female genital mutilation (October 2015) and said in no uncertain terms that ‘khafd’ is against England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003 and Scotland’s Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2005. **Also, on the website of the Home Office and the Department of Education, UK government, there are guidelines on Mandatory reporting of female genital mutilation: procedural information (October 2015), which, unfortunately, has not been mentioned in the statement released by London’s Anjuman-e-Burhani.

A welcome step and wise decision, indeed, by our community leaders from Sydney, Melbourne and London. However, it is surprising to note, like Dilshad Tavawalla did in her blog on 17th February  that “All men in the forum were present to reflect, interact and deliberate about the very personal, private, delicate, sensitive, traumatic and grave issue of “Khafz” (Khafd) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) impacting the lives, physical and psychological integrity, and general well-being of thousands of Dawoodi Bohra girl children and women.” And, she asks a most pertinent question that is on all our minds:

“Why no women?”

In addition, all these statements come as a shock due to the contradictory nature of the fact that the practice of ‘khafd’ finds mention in the Dawoodi Bohra community 3-volume  publication called ‘Sahifa’ (picture attached of the Ninth Print edition: August 2013) that is published by the Aljamea-Tus-Saifiyah – Academy of the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, HH Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin.  In the book, as pointed out by Ms Tavawalla in her blog on 16th February, “the passage enjoins the performance of ‘khafd’ or Female Genital Mutilation on Dawoodi Bohra girls at the age of seven (7) years and the recommended extent and manner for performing it.”

Sahifa – Published by ALJAMEA-TUS-SAIFIYAH – Academy of 52nd al-DAI-AL-MUTLAQ These are editions in Ninth Print: August 2013 (Eid ul Fitr – 1434H). Three (3) volumes.
Sahifa – Published by ALJAMEA-TUS-SAIFIYAH – Academy of 52nd al-DAI-AL-MUTLAQ. These are editions in 9th Print: August 2013 (Eid ul Fitr – 1434H). Three (3) volumes.

It is clear that despite these statements counseling against the practice, not all Dawoodi Bohras subscribe to the decision made by the jamaats of Sydney, Melbourne and London. I will direct you to the 17th February blog of a Dawoodi Bohra woman named  Rashida Mustafa, who passionately advocates for the practice in the name of tradition.  It is truly disturbing to read someone argue in favour of a violent ritual that can leave little girls with terrible and indelible, lifelong scars. Even so, it is obvious from the sacntimonious tenor of Rashida Mustafa’s  blog that the letters from any of three jamaats – Sydney, Melbourne and London never reached her attention.  As Dilshad Tavawalla says in her blog, Rashida Mustafa must “[…] be afraid – very afraid, […]”. The laws in UK, USA and Canada considers anyone who aids, abets or counsels the carrying out of FGM to be a party to the offence, and hence punishable under those respective countries’ laws (even in countries where the practice is legal, according to the FGM Act, 2003, in the UK).

And, last but not least, there remains the big question of eliminating this practice in India – home to the vast majority of Dawoodi Bohras – and where there is no law per se against ‘khafd’.**

What can we expect from our learned brethren at the Anjuman-e-Shiate Ali, which administers and conducts all affairs of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Mumbai? Can we hope that a notice in line with the praiseworthy and proactive statements against ‘khafd,’ like those released by the Sydney, Melbourne and London jamaats (all based in countries where there are strong laws banning FGM/C), will follow suit?

NB: In a recent article by Anahita Mukherji from the Times of India published on 25th February one can read about the existing laws that can be used against ‘khatna’ in India. Noted lawyers Dilshad Tavawalla and Flavia Agnes were quoted in the article and they pointed out specific sections in the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) that can be used for the purpose of taking a case to court.


Give us your feedback on the Sydney, Melbourne and London jamaat notices on ‘khafd’ by writing to us at info@sahiyo.com or tell us what you think of Rashida Mustafa’s blog! We would like to hear your views on any of these topics, especially if you feel strongly about the resolutions released by the London, Sydney or Melbourne jamaats, and would like a similar statement to be put out to the Dawoodi Bohra community in India and elsewhere.

In Australia, three Bohras found guilty for circumcising daughters

This November, for the first time in the history of the Dawoodi Bohra community, three of its members in Australia were held guilty for carrying out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on two minor girls. FGM has been a criminal offence in Australia since 1997, with a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.Australia were held guilty for carrying out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on two minor girls. FGM has been a criminal offence in Australia since 1997, with a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.

In this much-publicised case, the Supreme Court of New South Wales found Sheikh Shabbir Vaziri, a retired nurse, and the mother of the two girls guilty of performing “khatna” on the sisters in Sydney, somewhere between 2010 and 2012, when the girls were 6 and 7 years old. The police found out about the genital cutting through an anonymoustip-off, and finally arrested the mother, nurse and Sheikh in 2012. The three accused had been out on bail throughout the trial.

During the trial, the defence lawyers representing the accused argued that what Bohras practice as “khatna” involves a ritualisticcutting of a thin layer of skin from the clitoris, and does constitute “mutilation”. The Supreme Court’s guilty verdict, pronounced on November 12, 2015, came as an affirmation that even Bohra “khatna” is a form of Female Genital Mutilation, no matter how small the cut.

The quantum of punishment in the Australia case will be decided in February. You can read more about this case here.