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:

[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.