Malaysian NGO Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and British charity Orchid Project are jointly developing a new Asia Network to End FGM/C, to strengthen movements to end the practice of FGC in Asian communities.
To shape this network and its priorities, all interested organisations, activists, and stakeholders working in the region on FGM/C or related issues in Asia are invited to fill out this consultation survey. The closing date for this survey will be 22nd December 2019.
(Editor’s note – The courageous woman who shared this letter would like it to be known that sahiyo’s platform was the official outlet for her letter.)
Country of Residence: United States
To Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin,
We are the ones who showed up. We are the ones who wore the right thing, said the right thing, didn’t ask too many questions. When you became our 53rd leader, we changed our license plates and phone numbers to include the number 53 in your honor. We came to you in our moments of deep grief and our moments of sweet joy to ask for your permission to bury a loved one, get married, move to another country. We parted with our money in Dawoodi Bohra taxes to benefit you and our community. We put photos of you up on our walls. We traveled to Texas, Nairobi, Mumbai to hear your sermons. We prayed to you and for you. We did all of this in the name of the community, in the name of feeling supported by the ballast of history. We trusted your goodness, your wisdom. We believed that when we called to you for help, you would come.
We understood; we all knew what you were talking about. You were speaking about khatna, a globally reviled practice in which someone cuts part of a girl’s clitoris. You instructed us to carry out khatna on our young girls regardless of what the “big sovereign states” (read: US law) had to say. One month later, US-based jamaats published letters stating that community members should follow the law and not practice khatna in the US. These letters didn’t say that khatna was inherently wrong; they impliedly encouraged us to travel elsewhere for the procedure. We were confused – how could we not be? But we kept our heads down. We did not understand or agree with this practice, but we believed in you.
Khatna has gone global – The New York Times, the BBC, Al Jazeera, UK Parliament – are associating the Dawoodi Bohra community with this heinous act, accurately reporting on a procedure that has abused and denigrated our women. In encouraging this procedure, you sanctioned violence against young children.
And now here we are. April 2017. Dr. Jumana Nagarwala committed a crime in flagrant disobedience of her role as a healer and doctor. But we can’t place the blame entirely on Dr. Nagarwala. She didn’t come up with this idea. She did it for you, in your name, under your instruction. On April 26, 2017, a federal jury indicted Dr. Nagarwala, Fakhruddin Attar and Farida Attar. Your followers are in hot water now and what did you do? You washed your hands of them. Less than a year after your pronouncement that you were “not prepared to understand” what “big sovereign states” say, you swiftly worked to ally yourself with US law enforcement. You issued a statement saying it was “unfortunate” Dr. Nagarwala had not followed US law, that the Dawoodi Bohras do not support any violation of local, state or federal law.
So much for staying “staying firm.” You threw Dr. Nagarwala under the bus and bailed.
So now we know. We know that it doesn’t matter how much we gave and prayed and observed. We know that even if we show up and wear what you want, say what you want, do what you want, you won’t show up for us when it matters. You will not take responsibility for your actions. You will not stand by your followers.
I will continue to go to the jamaat and pray alongside my fellow Bohra women. I do this now only for the love of my family, for the peace that this brings them, for the Allah who sees everything we do – including you, Syedna. But I do not believe in your wisdom and power anymore. I have lost all faith in your goodness, your grace. I will not listen to your edicts about what I should wear, how I should educate my children, how I should live my life. You took no responsibility for your follower who carried out your instructions – a mother of four who is now facing jail time. You abandoned her when she needed you most. You would do the same to me and my family. I know that when the reckoning comes, you will not stand by me, and so I will not stand by you anymore.
When the public resolution on khatna (female circumcision) from the Bakersfield Jamaat (community) was released shortly after the Sydney case, an old weight was lifted from me. There. They’ve finally said it. Do not do this.
As I followed the events leading to the trial and prosecution in Sydney, I could only hope an official mandate against khatna would make its way to the U.S. Jamaats and to Bakersfield, where my own khatna was performed. It did. Thanks to the brave whistleblowers in Sydney and the upstanding efforts of the Sahiyo women, we’ve seen the snowball of these resolutions from Dawoodi Bohra communities all over the world.
The victory however, was short-lived for me as I’m sure it was for many others working to educate people about this practice. To no one’s surprise, statements from the central dawaat (clergy), are suggestive of these resolutions being just a way to protect our communities legally—to prevent another Sydney, to prevent another Amil from going to jail, and lessening the impact of these letters.
If you read the resolutions carefully, the focus was never about taking ownership, but to use the state or country of residence as the scapegoat for denouncing the practice. Even worse, our sisters in India and other countries where there are no such laws can still be subject to this practice. We need a resolution not from the Jamaats, but from the head of the community. We do not do this.
Following the discovery of my own cutting many years ago, I remember attending a women’s function at home and anonymously submitting a question as to why we practiced khatna. The question was deferred by the M.C. to a doctor in the Jamaat who stood with authority and explained how it was essentially a matter of “cleanliness”—nothing more and nothing less. There was no mention of sex or sexuality at all.
I looked around at all of the women nodding their heads in agreement, some smiling even, so accepting. I was infuriated by her response, knowing otherwise, and wanted to scream at the top of my lungs in protest. I didn’t because I knew it was futile. How could I go up against an official voice and a women’s doctor? How could I blame the participants for their naiveté, many of whom were her trusting patients? For years I have been deeply troubled by this dichotomy.
This was the one and only time that I had ever heard anyone in my community even address this practice aloud. To my knowledge, it was never brought up in a public forum like this again, although by this time my attendance at such functions began to dwindle.
Reflecting back on this particular event and similar others growing up in this community, I am at times in disbelief that we are having this conversation. More, that we are forcing this conversation, and people are listening now. I often felt hopeless that there was little official action that could or would be taken on such an underground practice because so few people were willing to speak up or speak out. Many of my family and friends were unwilling to even talk with me about it in private.
Am I confident the Dawoodi Bohras of Bakersfield and the surrounding cities who come to Bakersfield for khatna will abide by the resolution? Unfortunately, no. There are some people who will continue to drive the practice even further underground. The small victory here is that these resolutions by local Jamaats, have created the necessary dialogue for community members to be aware this practice is even taking place, and to give families the option to opt-out in the name of the law.
When my khatna was performed, there was no state law against female genital mutilation and no “opt-out” from the Jamaat. My family had no understanding and no choice–the alternative being unrelenting pressure to perform the cutting or social ostracism.
To the families with young girls in Bakersfield and throughout the U.S. – please listen. This is your chance to end this practice once and for all. A voiceless seven-year old will grow up, and ask the same questions I am asking now. Why did this happen to me? Yes the legal consequences are certainly not worth the risk, but more importantly, the physical and psychological consequences that can result from this trauma are not worth the risk. Stand up, and stand with us.
On June 1st, 2016, Dawoodi Bohra members of the Boston Jammat (congregation) received a letter informing them that on May 31st, 2016, a resolution was passed against the practice of khafd or khatna (as FGC is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community). Below is one Jammat member’s response to receiving the letter.
By Zehra Patwa
As a member of the Boston jamaat (congregation), I am happy to see this letter. The jamaat did the right thing to help parents find relief from the community and family pressure to get their daughters cut.
However, it sows confusion for our friends and families in India, Pakistan and the Gulf because they feel they are being told to do khatna (FGC) where there is no law to prevent it.
What we need is a worldwide standard for all Bohras. Given the many Bohra standards sent down from the Central Dawat, this issue can be handled the same way.
If you had a daughter in India, Pakistan or Dubai, would you still consider subjecting them to khatna if your sisters in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are specifically told not to?
The answer should be no. We are all part of the same Bohra community. Let’s all have the same standards, as we always have.
Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s recent wa’az (sermon) in Mumbai has come as a disappointment. For almost three months now, Dawoodi Bohras who wish to see an end to female circumcision (khatna) had been hopeful. Starting with Sydney in February, many Bohra jamaats in different cities around the world have issued letters to their members, asking them to stop practicing khatna because it is against the law in those countries. (Read more about the jamaat letters here.)
The jamaats issuing these letters – be it in Australia, USA, UK or Sweden – are all trusts that function with the sanction of the central Bohra leadership, whose headquarters are at Badri Mahal in Mumbai. The jamaat letters gave hope to Bohras across the world, even in countries like India and Pakistan where there are no laws against female genital cutting, that the Bohra leadership would eventually ask the whole community to stop practicing khatna.
After all, in a community that is so close-knit and centralised, why should girls in some parts of the world be spared from circumcision, while girls in other countries continue to be cut? If Dawoodi Bohras are one community, how can there be different rules based on geography?
In this light, the Syedna’s recent public sermon on April 25 has left large sections of Bohras surprised and disheartened. His speech, given at Mumbai’s Saifee Masjid on the occasion of the death anniversary of 51st Syedna Taher Saifuddin, made an indirect but fairly clear reference to khatna.
A four-minute audio clip of that section of the sermon has been circulating among Bohra social media groups all week, and several concerned community members wrote to Sahiyo to tell us that they had attended the wa’az and were shocked by the Syedna’s statements. On April 29, The Times of India wrote a report about these statements, which can be read here.
In the sermon, delivered in the Lisan-ul-Dawat language, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin can be heard saying the following:
“Whatever the world says, we should be strong and firm…whatever they say, it does not make a difference to us, we are not willing to accept [what they say]…we are not willing to talk to them. What are they telling us? That what we are doing is wrong?…who are they to teach us?”
The Syedna then makes a reference to other vices that people have, such as drugs or cigarettes, asking, “Why don’t they tell those people [that they are wrong]?”
A clearer reference to khatna comes with the following words in the speech:
“It must be done. If it is a man, it can be done openly and if it is a woman it must be discreet. But the act must be done. Do you understand what I am saying? Let people say what they want…but Rasoolullah [Prophet Mohammed] has said it…Rasoolullah will never say anything against humanity. He has only spoken [of] what is beneficial…from the perspective [“haisiyat”] of the body and the soul. What do they say?…that this is harmful? Let them say it, we are not scared of anyone.”
The Syedna’s sermon is significant for many reasons. This is the first time that he has made such a clear reference to khatna in public without explicitly spelling it out. All through the recent Australia case hearings as well as the anti-khatna campaigns by Sahiyo, Speak Out on FGM and other Bohras, the community was eagerly awaiting a word on the subject directly from the Syedna.
But his declaration that Bohras must continue the act, irrespective of opposition from various quarters, indicates that Bohra authorities were not being sincere when they issued various jamaat letters around the world. The implication of his speech is that the jamaat letters asking people to stop khatna are insignificant – a mere formality to save Bohras from facing criminal consequences in countries where female genital cutting is illegal.
Were the jamaat letters a mere pretence to hoodwink international governments? His speech says “the act” must be done openly for men and discretely for women. Why?
The Syedna says that the “the act” must be practiced because the Prophet recommended as something beneficial. But according to the jamaat letters issued with the sanction of the Syedna, the Prophet also preached the value of “hibbul watan minal imam” – love and loyalty for the laws of one’s country. So which teachings of the Prophet must Bohras in those countries follow?
Most significantly, we would like to point out one thing: the Syedna’s speech dismisses and rejects all opposition from “them”, from all those saying that khatna is harmful and must not be practiced. The “they” he is referring to, however, are not just governments of countries like Australia or the USA.
The strongest form of opposition to khatna is now coming from within the community – from Bohra women who have either undergone khatna or have seen their loved ones go through it, and from Bohra men who are horrified that their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends have to go through the cut. These are Bohras of all hues – staunch believers, regular masjid attendees, occasional attendees, sceptics, liberals, traditionalists, reformists – but they are Bohras, and they no longer want the practice of khatna to continue. By alienating these women and men as “they”, as outsiders, the opposition cannot be wished away.Those opposed to the practice have strong reasons for their views, and we urge the Syedna and all Bohras to engage in meaningful debates and discussions on the issue, rather than trying to shut out opposition.
Lastly, the Times of India report quotes a source close to the Bohra authorities, claiming that this speech was not about khatna and has been misinterpreted. However, hundreds of Bohras have interpreted his speech as a reference to khatna and circulated the audio clip widely. If the leadership believes that all of these people misinterpreted the speech, we urge the Syedna to publicly clarify this, and make his stance on khatna clear.
I grew up in Bakersfield, CA and throughout my childhood and adolescence I attended the Bakersfield, CA Dawoodi Bohra jammat (congregation). I don’t anymore and haven’t in a very long time and I’ll be the first to let you know that fact. I still have family members and friends who do, so by way of extension, I still am connected with this jammat.
I was beyond ecstatic to hear that the Bakersfield, CA jammat had passed a resolution against the practice of Khafd/Khatna, otherwise known as FGC in the larger, global community.
I, too underwent this practice when I was a young girl in the early 1990s. My family was on a summer vacation trip to Mumbai. We regularly went every other year to see family. The summer I was seven was when it happened to me.
I don’t remember much. Just the building. My skirt being raised. Something cutting me. And my mother comforting me afterward. (You can read more about my own story in FGC: A Continuing Tradition.) Yet, the experience had a lasting effect on me, one that I truly did not understand until I was years into my gender violence career.
The continuation of khafd/khatna or FGC is a complicated issue. The people who continue it cannot be viewed as ignorant or uneducated. Many times khatna is done out of love, out of this misconception that in order to be a good mother, one has to ensure their daughter undergoes this type of pain. This is the power of tradition and it is one reason why FGC has continued for thousands of years in varying communities in various parts of the world.
Yet, this resolution banning Khatna in Bakersfield, CA gives me hope. The creation of such a public resolution is a first step and recognition that khafd/khatna is a form of gender violence. That it should not be continued simply out of a sense of duty or tradition. The resolution showcases that sometimes “tradition” is bad, and in this case it can hurt others.
Even with the passage of this resolution, I know very well that some individuals will ignore the edict, and continue khafd/khatna or FGC on their daughters. They will believe that the public resolution was imposed on them out of a formal need because the law of the land they reside in bans it. In fact, if you examine the public resolution closely, you will note that it specifically mentions that khafd has been interpreted as FGM by the United States and by the state of California.
I already am hearing whispers that this resolution will be ignored not in Bakersfield, but in many other jammats around the world. The public resolutions that have come out so far in Sydney, Melbourne, London, and now Bakersfield show that the religious leaders of these jammats do indeed take this matter seriously, yet it will be up to the individuals themselves to follow their guidance. And it will be up to all those who are working in the anti-FGC world to support the religious leaders in helping their jammats let go of traditions that have no place in our modern world through education and continued dialogue.
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.