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. 

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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.

 

A conversation on Khatna with Suleimani Bohras

Sahiyo co-founder Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane talks to Shabnam Muqbil and her husband, Koen Van den Brande, who give us an introduction to the Suleimanis and throw light on the practice of ‘khatna’ amongst their community.

Shaheeda: Please share with us the history of the Suleimanis and where they come from?

Shabnam: The Suleimani Bohras (Suleimanis) are a sub-sect of the Musta’lī Bohra community of the Ismā’īli branch of Shia Islam. They belong to Tayyibi Ismā’īlis, which bifurcated into various Bohra sects including the major group Dawoodi Bohra.  Akin to Dawoodi Bohras, the twin communities follow the same religious tenets and practices. The Suleimanis belong mainly to Yemen and in India are a minority of only 10% of the total Bohra population. There are many Suleimani families who are spread across the world, including the Middle East, Pakistan, Europe, South-east Asia, North America and Australia. The community has now dropped the ‘Bohra’ from its name so we just call ourselves Suleimanis.

Shaheeda:  What about the religious structure and hierarchy of the Suleimanis – can you give us some information on this?  

Shabnam: The religious and spiritual leader of the Suleimanis is called the ‘Da’i’ and he is still based in Yemen, unlike the Dawoodi Bohras, who moved the seat of power to India many generations ago. The present Da’i is an Arab, residing in Yemen.

Koen: The regional/local leader who is representative of the Da’i is called the ‘Hazrat’ and, currently, Hazrat Gulam Husain Husami and Hazrat Ibrahim Ziaee jointly lead the Suleimani community in India and all over the world; Mullahs guide smaller diaspora communities.

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Shabnam Muqbil and Koen Van den Brande

Shaheeda: Tell us some more about the Suleimanis – their customs, education and trade, their way of life?

Shabnam: The Suleimanis are an enterprising and well-educated community that has produced some incredibly talented individuals who have offered much to Indian society, in their own unique ways. As ‘Bohras’, also known as ‘vohras’ or traders, the Suleimani community has traditionally engaged in business. However, there are many notable leaders who have excelled in other professions like law, medicine and education.

Some well-known members of the community are:

  • MF Husain – internationally acclaimed modern artist, founding member of The Progressive Artists Group of Bombay; recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour
  • Badruddin Tyabji – the third President of the Indian National Congress and the first Indian to hold the post of Chief Justice in Mumbai
  • Dr Salim Ali – ornithologist and naturalist, sometimes referred to as the ‘birdman of India’; recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour
  • Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee – Indian educator, jurist, author, diplomat, and Islamic scholar; considered one of leading pioneers of modern Ismaili studies; recipient of India’s third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan
  • Dr Shamsuddin Mohamedi – physician to the Maharajah of Baroda
  • Zafar Saifullah – cabinet Secretary to India’s ninth Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao

Koen: Suleimanis may not be identifiable on the street, per se, as they don’t have a unique dress code like the Dawoodi Bohras. But they have their community mosques in which the women pray on a separate floor. It must be noted that the women, however, are treated as equals and not restricted from getting an education or practicing a profession, though they are encouraged to marry within the community.

Shaheeda: Most Dawoodi Bohras have never heard of any other sect engaging in the practice of Female Genital Cutting in India. Can you elaborate on the prevalence of the practice amongst the Suleimanis?

Shabnam: I have written about my personal experience on your blog, and I am aware that it continues to be practiced by some. It is typically performed between 6 to 9 years of age and, like the Dawoodi Bohra practice, female genital cutting or female circumcision amongst the Suleimanis is called ‘khatna’.

I know of at least one 20-year-old who underwent ‘khatna’ as a child, but at that time already it was being done under an anaesthetic. It is typically performed by a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community in a hospital; ten years ago, the cost for the procedure was Rs 15,000.

I don’t know about the extent of cutting, but more recently, parents are considering this as ‘clitoral unhooding’ and as a minor procedure.  

Also, I cannot comment with certainty on the prevalence or how widely it is carried out today by members of the community, but it is practiced in some families; I do know that several leading families banned ‘khatna’ a generation ago. I strongly believe that research must be conducted to ascertain the extent of the practice today.

Shaheeda: What are the reasons that are given for the practice?

Shabnam: To prevent promiscuity by suppressing sexual desire is what most women believe to be the reason for carrying out the practice. The leadership denies that as a reason, though. Religion and tradition are other reasons given for the practice.

Shaheeda: Is ‘khatna’ considered obligatory or is it considered a religious requirement? What do your religious texts say on the subject?

Koen: It is the parents’ choice, as per our religious leadership. But it is also considered a religious requirement by some members of the community.

From my research, this is what I have gathered and I believe the book used to justify it is the same as the one used by the Dawoodi Bohras for validating the practice.

From the Da’a’im al-Islam, Vol 1, Book of Ritual Purity, pages 154-55:

  1. The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said: “Circumcision is (a feature) of natural religion (al-Fitra)”. He also said, “No Muslim should be left uncircumcised even though he has reached the age of 80”.
  2. Ameer al-Mu’mineen also said: “O women, when you circumcise your daughters, leave part (of the skin), for this will be chaster for their character, and it will make them more beloved by their husbands”.
  3. He also said, “Hasten with the circumcision of your children, for indeed it leads to greater Purity.” He said that a girl should not be circumcised until she is 7 years old.

And from the Da’a’im al-Islam, Vol 2, Book of Wills, page 346:

  1. Ameer al-Mu’mineen, Hazrat ‘Ali ibne Abi Talib wrote the following words as a part of his will, exhorting the people: “Be expeditious in the circumcision (khitaan) of your children, for verily, it is cleaner for them.”

Taharat-1  Taharat-2  Taharat-3  Taharat-4

Shaheeda: Do the men in your community know about this practice? Does it still find much favour amongst the younger generation?

Koen: From my conversations, some men did not know about it… or claimed not to know. As for the opinion amongst the younger generation, I discussed it with young parents and got pledges not to do it to their daughters. I am uncertain about the attitudes of the younger generation, but I want to try and get more information and find a way to protect young girls.

Shaheeda: If it ‘khatna isn’t performed, is that considered acceptable?

Koen: Some feel it is the choice of the parents.

Shaheeda: If it is not performed then is there a fear of social boycott or other repercussions?

Shabnam: Probably. There would be fear, especially when it comes to the right to use to community burial grounds. That fear appears to be real for many, even though the religious leadership has clarified that there would be no compulsion to perform it.

Shaheeda: What is the general community view on the subject?

Koen: Dialogue has only just started, but we have come across some men from the community who are willing to oppose ‘khatnawhereas others believe it is required and characterize it as only a minor operation. Women accept it as a religious requirement, often without being able to give a reason for it.

Shaheeda: What is the commentary from the religious order in the Suleimani community regarding the practice?

Shabnam: From our conversations, we have learnt that it is not considered an obligation and that parents are free to decide. We were told that, as a rule, if there isn’t a good reason then it is not necessary to do something. We have also learnt from conversations in our community that some believe that there are ‘spiritual’ reasons behind the practice, which are beyond comprehension for the average person.

Shaheeda: What is your hope for the future of the practice amongst your community? How do you see it coming to an end?

Koen: I think there is a real opportunity to look again at this practice and to find a way forward that is respectful of people’s beliefs whilst also protecting young girls from something they cannot possibly expect to understand at a young age.

Shabnam: I would very much like for the practice to be stopped and the hope is that better sense prevails.