Why do Dawoodi Bohras practice Khatna, or Female Genital Cutting?

by Aarefa Johari

What is the real purpose behind Khatna for girls? The Dawoodi Bohra community has been practicing this hidden ritual of female circumcision, also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), for centuries, with no public discussion on its need. It is only in the past year that the Bohra leadership has finally spoken out about why they expect the clitoral hoods of seven-year-old girls to be cut.   

In June 2016, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin issued a press statement in which he described circumcision as an act of “religious purity”. This is similar to what a senior spokesperson from the community told Sahiyo in a private conversation last year: he claimed that the main reason for female and male circumcision, according to Da’im al-Islam (a 10th century book of jurisprudence), is hygiene or taharat – not just physical but also “spiritual” and “religious”.  

Then in February 2017, a senior spokesperson for the community gave an anonymous interview to The Hindu, in which Da’im al-Islam was quoted again. Except, this time, the unnamed spokesperson said that Khatna serves to “increase the radiance on the face of the woman and the pleasure with that of her husband”.  

Now, ever since three Bohras in USA were arrested on charges of FGC, several Bohra women who support Khatna have taken to social media to defend the ritual. All of these women claim that Khatna is done to increase sexual stimulation, and that it is “scientifically” and “medically” beneficial because it is “just like the clitoral unhooding procedure done in the West”. Some of these women also claim that Khatna is done to maintain genital hygiene.

And yet, this is not how most Bohra women have traditionally explained Khatna as they passed down the practice from one generation to another. In 1991, professor Rehana Ghadially interviewed around 50 Bohra women in an article called All for Izzat, and found that the most common reasons given for Khatna were: a) it is a religious obligation, b) it is a tradition, and c) it is done to curb a girl’s sexuality.

Since then, several independent researchers, activists and filmmakers have found the same thing in their countless interactions with Bohra women: a large majority of Bohras have consistently claimed that they cut their daughters either to moderate their sexual desires, or to unquestioningly follow a religious tradition. In fact, several Bohras refer to the clitoris as “haraam ni boti” or sinful lump of flesh.

Sahiyo’s reserach study of 385 Bohra women also found the same thing: the majority of respondents claimed that Khatna is done as a tradition or to curb sexual desire, and very few Bohras cited “hygiene”, “medical benefits” or “increasing sexual pleasure” as reasons for practicing Khatna. In fact, when filmmaker Priya Goswami was researching for her 2012 documentary A Pinch of Skin, a woman teacher from a Bohra religious institution clearly told her that the purpose behind Khatna is to control a girl’s sexual urges, so that she does not have premarital or extramarital affairs.  

So why are the new social media defenders of Khatna now pushing out the opposite narrative, and claiming that female circumcision is meant to enhance sexual pleasure? What is the real purpose behind Khatna?

To understand this, let us look at what Islamic texts say about female circumcision.

There are certain Hadiths, particularly from the Shafi, Hanbali and Hanafi schools of Islam, which mention female circumcision as either permissible, honourable or as a sunnah (recommended) practice. Many Islamic scholars around the world have disputed the authenticity of these Hadiths. But even if we were to take them at face value, the main thing that these Hadiths prove is that female circumcision was already a prevalent practice in parts of Arabia at the time of Prophet Mohammed – it was not a new religious ritual introduced in Islam.  

One Hadith that is frequently cited is Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, which contains this particular story:

“Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:
A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (PBUH) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.”

This same anecdote – of the Prophet cautioning the woman against cutting too much – has been interpreted and translated in slightly different ways by different scholars: some translate it as “do not cut off too much as it is a source of pleasure for the woman and more liked by the husband”, others have translated it as “…it is a source of loveliness of the face and more enjoyable for the husband”.

In Volume 1 of The Pillars of Islam (Ismail Poonawala’s English translation of Da’im al-Islam), on page 154, a very similar sentence is translated like this: “O women, when you circumcise your daughters, leave part (of the labia or clitoris), for this will be chaster for their character, and it will make them more beloved by their husbands”. This is what the spokesperson of the community, in his aforementioned interview to The Hindu, seems to have translated as “increase the radiance on the face of the woman and the pleasure with that of her husband”. (Italics added)

I am not an Arabic scholar, but it is evident from these various translations that different Arabic and Islamic scholars have interpreted the same message in slightly different and contradictory ways. What some interpret as an increase in the “radiance” or “loveliness” of a woman’s face (which is a reference to her sexual satisfaction – not literal radiance), others interpret as something “better” or “chaster” for a woman (which could be a reference to her sexual chastity).    

All Muslims would agree that old Islamic Arabic is not easy to interpret, because its words are often ambiguous or have multiple connotations. But this ambiguity could help us understand why many generations of Bohra women have believed that Khatna is done to control a woman’s sexual desires, and why other Bohras can possibly use the same text to claim that Khatna is done to increase sexual pleasure.

In fact, this very argument was made recently by a fervent Khatna supporter and Sunni Islamic scholar Asiff Hussein. In a comment on the Facebook page of Speak Out on FGM, he explained the connection between “increasing pleasure” and keeping a woman chaste. He said:

“This [removal of the clitoral hood] necessarily leads to a satisfactory sex life among women, thus ensuring their chastity. The classical jurists were not such parochial men after all. They deduced from this one statement of the prophet what it really meant.”

In other words, by ensuring that a woman is sexually satisfied in her marriage, Khatna will ensure that she does not stray out of marriage. This connection between the multiple interpretations of the Prophet’s words does sound plausible, and if it is to be believed, then Khatna does boil down to sexual control of women!

But do we really need to control or enhance women’s sexuality in any way?  

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what reason you choose to believe in, because no reason can justify the practice of cutting a girl’s genitals, however “minor” the procedure.

No one has the right to curb or control a woman’s sexual desires, or to tell her to be chaste. These are patriarchal ideas that have no place in today’s world. Similarly, no one has the right to try and enhance the future sexual life of a young girl by altering her genitals. Seven-year-old girls should not be sexualised at all; they don’t even understand sex or the functions of various genital organs. Why can’t we leave their genitals alone, untouched, the way they were naturally born?  

Remember, the clitoral hood serves an important purpose: it protects the clitoris from over-stimulation, abrasions and injury, and it naturally retracts during sexual arousal to allow exposure to the clitoris. It does not need to be cut in order to expose the clitoris. We must understand the natural functions of our body parts before artificially altering them with a blade.

Instead of blindly claiming that Khatna is the same as “Western” clitoral unhooding, we must understand that clitoral unhooding is not performed on unconsenting minor girls. It is chosen by some adult, sexually active women only if they have problems such as too much prepuce tissue coming in the way of orgasms.

And finally, if you think that the purpose behind Khatna is taharat, then remember: physical hygiene can be maintained very well with soap and water, and the key to achieving “spiritual” or “religious” purity lies not in a person’s genitals, but in their thoughts, words and deeds.

We need a Bohra Revolution

By: M Bohra

Age: 23
Country: United Kingdom

The ongoing investigation into Dawoodi Bohra doctors engaging in khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), and the community leadership’s ambivalence regarding this practice, have once again brought up unanswered questions. What message is the leadership in India sending to the Bohra community when it disowns the doctors’ acts, not for their irreligiosity, but for their illegality in the West? Must the Bohra leadership accept the legal and moral responsibility of promoting khatna, especially since they advocate travelling to countries without FGM laws to continue this practice? Or can we expect them to continue throwing their misinformed, fanatical and grovelling followers under the bus to save themselves?

Many Bohris, in the privacy of their friends and families, will complain about the strict social norms that regulate every act of our lives within the community: where we pray, what we wear, who we do business with, what our family roles are, who we befriend, what we say, how we dissent, how we think. These criticisms are kept out of the community arena by the authoritarian diktats of the leadership. They hold the power to socially boycott (which, for many community-linked businesses is linked to economic loss), extort money for officiating religious ceremonies (including permitting travel to the Hajj pilgrimage), and even denying burial in Bohra cemeteries. While we continue to chafe under this authoritarian religious regime, however, we must acknowledge our own prejudices.

Bohris, despite all evidence, believe that we are God’s chosen people. We consider ourselves not only superior to non-Muslims (which is a broader Islamic problem), but even non-Bohra Muslims. We call our own community “mumineen” (the believers), and the others “musalmaan”. Even other Shia groups are generally only respected during the first ten days of Muharram, when we enthusiastically join our “Shia brothers” in the Ashura processions and sermons, only to exclude them from our lives on the eleventh day. We consider our mosques cleaner, our prayers more spiritual, and even our cemeteries as somehow more special. We are “blessed” to be ruled by tyrants, who guarantee us a heavenly afterlife in exchange for worldly money.

Are we surprised that the leadership continues to promote a domesticated and desexualised ideal for our women, when it promotes a passive and unintellectual ideal for our men? It is important to remember that their power comes from our submissiveness, which is the result of our own prejudices. We need to introspect and question the foundations of our own biases. What is unclean about a non-Bohra mosque? What is inappropriate about performing the Hajj without being led by a Bohra priest? What is the problem with marrying outside the community? Can Bohra women question the religiously-sanctioned ideal of making rotis and handicrafts confined to their homes? Why do we have to control women’s sexuality through physical means, but not men’s? If the current system is broken and cannot be reformed, are we ready to create new religious and social spaces with other disillusioned Bohris? Can we create new inclusive and non-hierarchical spaces to end religious dogmatism, bring financial accountability, provide spiritual healing and engage in progressive social reform without prejudice?

Here’s a little history lesson to conclude this piece. The office of Dai Al-Mutlaq, which is currently held through hereditary means by Mufaddal Saifuddin, is not the same as the position of the Imam, who is considered as the rightful spiritual and political successor of the Prophet in all Shia traditions. The first Dai was appointed by Arwa Al – Sulayhi, a long-reigning queen in Yemen, as a vicegerent (deputy) for the young Imam At-Tayyib. The succession of Dais was not always hereditary, and was likely based on spiritual and political merit. Increasing persecution drove the leadership to settle in Western India, where they were welcomed by a community of religious converts. Note how the position of the Dai was created by a powerful woman ruler (who probably wasn’t told to make rotis and handicrafts), not as a hereditary office, and owed its continuity to the goodwill of the new community of Bohris in India. Over the centuries, the leadership has forgotten who was in charge. It’s time for a reminder.

 

The Detroit doctor arrests are an opportunity to talk about Khatna

By: Anonymous

Age: 33
Country: Pune, India

Even though I clearly remember when ‘khatna’ was performed on me, it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first started to question this practice within the Dawoodi Bohra community. It always felt wrong, but if my mother, sister, and seemingly everyone else in the community embraced it, who was I to question?

I had been an obedient little Bohra girl – attending the mosque, fasting, and doing everything exactly as it was expected of me. As I reached my teens, however, the restrictions I had as a Bohra woman grew ever more oppressive. My curiosity led me to start looking for any information I could find about ‘khatna’ – but to be honest I didn’t even know what to type into Google! When I finally figured it out, gory pictures of female genital mutilation in Africa filled my computer screen, but there was little or no information about it being practiced within the Bohra community. Talking about it within the community was obviously taboo, but I did have a college friend, a Bohra girl my age, who I confided in. “I think we may have some problems when we grow up, and we may never be able to enjoy sex,” she said. That was the limit of her knowledge and she was as confused as I was. My anger continued to grow – many rules within the community, especially for women, were illogical, outdated and absolutely unnecessary. And ‘khatna’ was the cruelest of them all.

More than my own experience, the hardest time for me was when my older sister’s daughter turned seven (the age when ‘khatna’ is performed), and it was clear that my sister and mother were planning to continue the tradition. I felt helpless and hopeless seeing my little niece in fear. Seeing her in pain the night after she was cut saddened me to the core. This cruel ritual was so deeply rooted in religious and cultural beliefs that it would be very difficult to break. If any change had to happen, it had to happen from within the community – but how, when no one was even willing to talk about it?

As news about the three doctors getting arrested for performing ‘khatna’ on young girls in the US spreads far and wide, it becomes urgent and extremely important for us within the community to talk about it. I am sure that there isn’t a single woman in the community who hasn’t questioned this practice at one time or another. After all, how can a mother willingly subject her daughter to this torture? Instead of hiding our heads in the sand and pretending that what is happening in Michigan does not concern us, we need to use this opportunity to talk and question.

Having grown up in the community, I completely understand the nuances of this problem – no Bohra wants to talk about it because it involves a private part, a sexual organ of a woman, and talking about sex is taboo. But we can get together in small groups of family and friends to reexamine this outdated ritual. There are now non-profit organizations, like Sahiyo, committed to creating awareness and educating the community. There is enough scientific data to prove that there is nothing beneficial about this ritual. Those of us that feel strongly need to find avenues to share our experiences, whether it is through schools and colleges, other community organizations, or signing petitions. We need to voice our anger with a system that threatens its people and brainwashes them to believe that gruesome acts like ‘khatna’ are for their betterment.

I have so many Bohra friends across the world who have little girls and others who will have children in the near future. Of course, they love their daughters, and would rather not subject them to this cruelty, but the pressure to conform is stifling and very few have the power to stand up to it. Our right to think independently has been stripped away from us, and we don’t dare to question our religious leaders. Every single day, several girls suffer this torture all over the world – and it affects their lives forever. Time is passing quickly, and we need to rise up and demand that community leaders put an end to this practice NOW.

A letter to Syedna, by a Bohra woman

(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.)

By: Anonymous

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.

Last year, on Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s death anniversary – a day when you knew that people around the world were watching – you spoke out about “keep[ing] our things strong, stay[ing[ firm. Even the big sovereign states [i.e. United States], whatever it is they say, if it makes any difference to our things, then we are not prepared to understand!…The act has to happen! If it is a man, then it is right, it can be openly done, but if it is a woman then it must be done discreetly, but then the act has to be done. Please understand what I am trying to talk about…”

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.

 

 

We must find culturally sensitive methods to end FGC and protect girls from further trauma

Picture an innocent, 7-year-old girl being led to an unfamiliar room.  She is made to lie down, her underpants removed, and a piece of her cut away; familiar hands around her upholding an age-old tradition.

Perhaps she is in pain. Perhaps she is not. She might feel betrayed, scared, angry, or upset. She might want to run away from the people who are albeit familiar to her, but who have put her in an extremely traumatic situation.

Now picture this same girl once again, made to lie in a an equally unfamiliar room, her underpants removed, her private parts probed by a doctor, who is looking for the scar from the piece that was cut away from her; these concerned hands are trying to build a case to condemn the ones who caused her the original pain.

The girl is once again in pain, but this time it may not be just a physical pain. She is again angry, scared, and confused. And this time, she probably wants to run back to those who are familiar to her, to save her from the trauma of reliving that memory.

The above two scenarios sadly highlight the unfortunate situation that innocent Bohra girls in the US are reportedly in. The girls are possibly feeling trapped, fearful, and vulnerable, because once again they are being forced to relive their trauma of undergoing Khatna.

Recently, Female Genital Cutting or Khatna prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community came onto the federal radar in the US because of the arrest of a doctor associated with the practice in Detroit, Michigan. This arrest was followed by a few more arrests leading to subsequent intervention by Michigan’s Child Protection Services who reportedly picked up children for further questioning.

While we need law to make clear that FGC is a human rights violation, and we need legal aid to further efforts towards preventing FGC from occurring in the first place, subjecting a child to a double scrutiny of sorts may not be the best practice if we keep the interests of the child in mind.

For instance, one has to understand that Bohra-style Khatna can be difficult to establish in a medical examination, because Type 1 or Type 4 (which Bohras typically perform) do not necessarily leave physical scars. The girl may have lost a thin layer of her prepuce, or she may have been pricked, slit or rubbed, in which case subjecting them to medical check-ups is not going to prove anything, and may, in fact, cause them trauma when previously they may not have been particularly traumatized.

Additionally, carrying out a witch hunt on all the mothers, possibly separating the girls from their parents, and asking for a ‘permanent termination’ of rights to parenting, are all methods that might force the Dawoodi Bohra community into believing that they are being targeted unfairly, and these actions might make them distrustful of law enforcement officials.

Moreover, the child might view the authorities trying to protect her as her worst enemy, because they separated her from her parents and everything that is comfortable and familiar to her. She might also feel pangs of guilt if her testimony leads to her mother’s arrest. After all, no child wants to be the reason for a family’s disruption.

There is no doubt that the US government is doing exceptionally well in investigating the case, and ensuring that the laws of their land are rightfully upheld. Nevertheless, Sahiyo does feel that there are certain realities, which if understood and implemented correctly, could make the process of serving justice less painful for the child. For instance, what could be explored is how to gain insight around culturally appropriate and sensitive forms of outreach from the people and agencies who are knowledgeable in working with the community.

Since its inception, Sahiyo’s philosophy has been to engage the members of the community and seek their help to end this harmful practice. So we ask now, could an alternate approach be found that acknowledges Khatna as a harmful tradition that must be discontinued, but simultaneously recognizes that parents’ intentions for continuing it are not necessarily malicious? Or, could there be a more educative, community-involved approach to tackling FGC which recognizes it as a social norm that unfortunately has been passed down through generations of a community? Could state-organized counseling sessions for the parents and children be an alternative to punitive punishments?

We ask these questions because we acknowledge that to truly end FGC in the Dawoodi Bohra community, we must find methods that will not cause further trauma for the child, but at the same time, continue to move the community forward towards abandoning this undesirable and harmful practice.

Female Genital Cutting: Religion has nothing to do with it

By: Anonymous

Country: United States
Age: 34

Around the age of seven, unbeknownst to me at the time, extended family members asked my parents when they would be taking me to have khatna done. In the country we lived in at the time, it was the norm for girls in our community to get it done when they hit that age. My dad opposed this practice vehemently and refused to let it happen to his three girls. In the 1980s, opposing khatna was completely shocking and unconventional, let alone having a father speak his mind. Close family members were told to lie and hide our “secret”.

I myself didn’t uncover this secret until much later as a teenager, when I heard women discussing this thing called ‘khatna’ within family walls. These talks occurred within women-only audiences, where they spoke in code if their 7-8 year-old daughters were in the room with us. Later, I asked mum what this hush hush topic was about and that is when she revealed the secret to me. She also informed me that I should not let anyone know that my sister and I hadn’t been ‘cut’. In those days, my parents would have been social pariah if the truth came out.

Fast forward a few decades later and it hit me that my sisters and I were the only ones, in our entire Bohri side of the family (that I am aware of), who were spared the horror of undergoing what I now know as FGM. Thankfulness and gratefulness isn’t enough for what my father did for us back in the day when he stood up for our rights when no one else would have. I have cousins who regret that it happened to them and a few aunts who regret doing it to their daughters. I now live in the United States and see that this practice still lives on, whether it’s against the law or not, and it hurts me knowing that it is still easy to find a cutter, that mothers of my generation will still ‘cut’ their precious girls because the highest religious office in the community still preaches that it’s the right thing to do.

The Detroit case gives me a glimmer of hope that maybe people within our communities living in the United States will think twice about performing FGM on minors, and that parents will think hard and long before subjecting their girls to this practice. I’m hoping it creates a ripple-effect throughout communities that live here. On the other hand, I know that as long as this practice is encouraged by the leadership, it will continue. Parents will take their children out of this country in an effort to ensure this practice lives because they still think it’s the right thing to do as it is prescribed by our religion and by the leadership of this community. Most seem blinded by the clergy and won’t go against what they prescribe no matter the risk, as this case highlights.

As we speak of religion, this case also gives me shudders because if the legal defense of the doctor who was charged is using religion as a justification to continue and allow FGM, then to the wider world, Islam is to blame. I cringe at the thought of FGM being tied to Islam because there is nothing Islamic about circumcising young girls to curb their sexual desires. If there was anything in Islam about khatna, it would be stated in our Holy Qur’an, which is every Muslim’s ultimate guide to the way we live our lives. If khatna was prescribed by God and mentioned in His book, billions of Muslims around the world would be doing it. There are only a fraction of Muslims around the world that practice FGM, and it stems from a cultural and ritualistic base. I hope that the magnitude of khatna, what it does to a young girl’s psyche and the fact that there is no basis in Islam for khatna, does not pass the ‘religious freedom’ excuse in our court system.

 

Law alone cannot end the practice of Female Genital Cutting

By Sabiha Basrai

Country: California, United States
Age: 34 years old

It is important that the issue of FGC or Khatna, as known to the Bohra community, is brought out from the shadows and discussed openly. Many people do not understand how brutal the practice is and simply prefer not to discuss it because of the entrenched shame around women’s sexuality and reproductive health that is enforced through patriarchal social structures. I hope that the Detroit case in which a Bohra medical doctor was arrested on charges of performing FGC on minor girls, encourages more families to say no to the practice so that future generations of young girls will be shared.

This harmful practice is not an issue of being religious or not religious. Neither is it an issue of right and wrong. Khatna is just wrong.

The Detroit case does, however, raise concerns about the surveillance of Muslim Americans. Our mosques and community centers are already targeted by law enforcement who racially profile us and infringe upon our civil rights. It is important that all Bohras understand that law enforcement does not necessarily have our best interests in mind and could exploit the issue of Khatna to justify further harassment and surveillance of our communities. Khatna should end, but I believe the practice will only truly end through community education and organizing within the jamaats (Bohra congregations).

None of us want to see violence occur in our communities, but we must be conscious that law alone is not the answer, and in some instances, the negative action of some law enforcement officials have been detrimental to the safety and security in our communities. Therefore, I caution all Bohras living in America to never speak to law enforcement without a lawyer present. And, I encourage Bohras to also find ways to work within the community to end harmful practices such as Khatna.

Let us not vilify the Detroit doctor as we work to end Female Genital Cutting

By: Anonymous

Country: United States
Age: 34

Shortly after my seventh birthday, I went to visit my grandmother in New York. My mother told me this visit was going to be special because I turned seven and I had to have something “important done”.  “All girls have to have it done when they turn seven,” I was told, just as my older sisters had it done before me.  My mother said it was to ensure a “good marriage” when I am older. At the age of seven, this was a more than sufficient explanation for me. I just took this explanation as the norm, and even believed that women of all faiths and cultures must undergo the same experience. At the time, I had no idea that day would be life-changing for me on so many levels.  

The procedure harmed me physically. It was, unsurprisingly, botched, being conducted on a basement floor by an untrained older housewife in our community. But the message I was told that day – “this will help your marriage”, and messages I was subsequently told throughout my life “this is to make sure women’s urges are controlled”, “these things are done to make sure you are loyal to your husband”, “women need to appease their husband” – these messages are what truly did the most psychological harm. These messages have caused me to live a life in which I felt inferior to my partner and felt shame for all my natural urges/feelings.  

As I grew more aware of how that day impacted me, I became upset and resentful. I was angry about what I was forced to go through and constantly wondered what would have been if that day never happened. Thinking about other little girls, who would undoubtedly have to undergo the same thing, overwhelmed me with feelings of anger, sadness, and helplessness. I hoped people in our community would stop subjecting innocent girls to this practice. I wished people would wake up and realize they were doing more harm than good – that they were truly doing no good at all.  

A few days ago news broke of a female doctor in Detroit who was charged with illegally performing FGM on two young girls. My first reaction – like that of many who are opposed to this practice was a feeling of vindication. Someone was finally being held responsible for this practice. People might start becoming aware that this is a serious problem, not just abroad, but right here in the US. I also thought this case might act as a deterrent for many other people who are thinking of performing FGC.

After witnessing people’s reaction to the news, my vindication soon turned into disheartenment. People adamantly opposed to the practice or adamantly opposed to Islam, began to vilify this doctor as a cruel heartless sexual predator. But that is not what I saw in her. I just saw a woman, just like my mother, aunt, or grandmother. A woman – a mother who was trying to do what was best.

My mother did not take me for that procedure with some malicious intent to hurt me. She did so, in the same manner, many of us take our children for immunizations, needed surgeries, or even male circumcisions. It hurts us to subject our children to anything painful, but we do so with the firm believe that it is being done in their best interest. We put faith in our medical professional’s guidance because they are widely respected and trusted as experts in a field. Similarly, people living in a Bohra community – those constantly surrounded by those of similar faith – put their faith in the guidance of their religious leaders. In their world, these leaders are widely accepted as trusted “experts” who know what is best for each one of us. For them, the divine rules set forth by these leaders well supersede standards set by medical communities or politicians.  

So I look at this woman and I don’t see a villain – I see a victim. A victim like myself who has undoubtedly also been unjustly cut as a child. A woman who was not only physically abused in the past but also continues to be mentally manipulated into acting against her better judgment. I am not completely absolving her from the choices she made – everyone must take responsibility for their actions, and she could have acted differently. I am just attempting to explain, from the perspective of her world, how it often might seem like there is no choice for her to do otherwise.  

So by villainizing her, punishing her – you may scare some other doctors from conducting the practice. You may deter some other mothers from having their children undergo the procedure. But punishing her does not punish the true abusers. As long as the male leaders continue to advocate for this practice and maintain its importance in religious doctrine, followers will continue to adhere to the guidance of their respected leaders. My worst fear is that this public case mixed with continued pro-FGC messaging from our community will drive this practice underground even more. So instead of having doctors illegally practice in their sanitized clinics after hours – our girls will be subjected to experiences similar to mine – being cut by their grandmothers on an unsanitary cold basement floor.  

Detroit FGM/C case: Why two more arrests have left me feeling bittersweet

By: Anonymous

Country: United Kingdom
Age: 32

Today is a bittersweet day.

The news of two more arrests linked to the first FGM case in the US has left me torn between elation and sadness; while a part of me feels like justice is being served to those who perform, aid and abet FGM, another part of me is saddened by the effect that these arrests have had on the perception of the community and Islam.

Gone are the days when I would tell people that I belonged to the Dawoodi Bohra community and would receive the response, “Oh, the women who wear the colourful clothes with embroidery?” Now, I hear “Oh, isn’t that the community that practices FGM? I read about them in the paper.”

I scroll down after reading an article online about the current FGM cases and read horrible comment after comment. Heinous things are being said about not only the Dawoodi Bohra community, but also about the wider community of Muslims, the majority of whom condemn FGM. These prosecutions are being used as the fuel to fire Islamophobia, and hurtful attacks are being made on the religion that over a billion people worldwide adhere to.

Other Muslims are distancing themselves from the Dawoodi Bohra community, calling us insular and saying that we stick to ourselves. I feel a further isolation from people who believe in the same God as me and also pray towards Makkah.

While I think of all of the girls and women, including myself, who suffered through this barbaric procedure, I also think of the girls who are now in protective custody, or whose mother is currently behind bars. Those children were and are innocent, and are now suffering due to the criminal actions of their parents.

I question who is at fault here. While the authorities are prosecuting those who are performing, covering up and facilitating FGM, those who endorse and encourage the procedure, both privately and publicly, remain unaffected. There are still articles being posted that defend the Dawoodi Bohra community as being comprised of law-abiding citizens, yet murmurs of FGM fill the walls of masjids throughout the US and other countries where FGM is categorically outlawed. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that a problem exists in the first place, and it seems that there are some in the community who are not prepared to take this step.

I feel a tenseness in the air; I quietly discuss this case among close friends and relatives who share my sentiments, frightened to openly voice my happiness that there is yet another breakthrough in ending this practice. I feel the heavy hand of the community leaders bear down upon me, and feel stifled to openly express my feelings. This is the fear that prevents others to come forward. It is real and it is suffocating.

 

Detroit arrest: It is time for Bohras to get serious about ending Female Genital Cutting

Sahiyo is shocked and truly saddened by the news that a Bohra doctor in Detroit, USA, has been arrested on charges of performing Female Genital Cutting (FGC) on minor girls in the community. While the allegations in this particular case are yet to be proven, we believe it is a serious breach of medical ethics for any doctor to perform this non-medical procedure that is categorically recognised as a form of gender-based violence and a violation of human and child rights. In countries like the USA where FGC is a criminal offence, we believe that parents, too, cannot be absolved of the responsibility to follow the law.

In the light of this Detroit case, Sahiyo would like to call on the entire Bohra community to make a concerted effort to bring an end to this unnecessary and potentially harmful tradition. We believe it is also imperative for the community leadership to call for a clear, unambiguous, world-wide end to the practice of khatna, khafz or female genital cutting.

What is the Detroit case all about?

On April 13, 2017, a Detroit emergency room doctor was arrested and charged with performing FGC on minor girls in the United States. This is believed to be the first time someone was brought up on charges under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGC. According to the U.S. Federal complaint, Jumana Nagarwala, M.D., 44, of Northville, Michigan performed FGC on 6 to 8 year old girls out of a medical office in Livonia, Michigan. Some of these girls’ families reportedly traveled inter-state to have the doctor perform FGC. At this time, the complaint is merely an allegation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The federal complaint states that phone call records and surveillance video show that in February 2017, two Minnesota girls and their parents came to Detroit for a “special girls trip”. They stayed at a hotel in Farmington Hills and ended up visiting Nagarwala, thinking they were seeing the doctor because their “tummies hurt”. Instead, the girls underwent FGC. The complaint also indicates that other children, including children in Detroit, might have undergone FGC by Nagarwala between 2006 and 2007. To see the official press release, click here.

Bohras have been aware that FGC is illegal in USA

Among Bohras, khatna or khafz, involves cutting a part of the clitoral hood or prepuce of a 7-year-old girl. Many Bohras have argued that this mild, ritual “nick” is not the same as the supposedly “African” practice of FGM, which can involve severe cutting of the clitoris and labia (classified by the World Health Organisation as Types II and III of FGM/C).

However, the Bohra form of khatna very definitively falls under Type I FGM/C, for a good reason. However “mild”, khatna still involves the cutting and altering of female genitals for non-medical reasons. No health benefits of the practice have been recorded, and in fact several Bohra women have been increasingly speaking up about the negative physical, emotional and sexual consequences they have faced.

For the past one and a half years, particularly after three Bohras in Australia were convicted under the country’s anti-FGM laws, there has been increasing awareness in the community about the fact that khatna is considered a violation of human rights by the United Nations. In countries where the practice is illegal, including the US, UK, Australia, Canada and other parts of Europe, Bohra jamaats have themselves issued clear resolution letters, asking community members not to practice khatna or khafz on girls anymore.

In fact, the Detroit jamaat issued such a resolution letter to all its members on May 11, 2016.

So despite all this awareness, why are some Bohras — like the parents of the girls in Minnesota — still choosing to break the law and subject their daughters to FGC?

A deeply-entrenched social norm

The main reason, according to Sahiyo, is that female genital cutting is a deeply-entrenched social and cultural norm for Bohras and all other communities practicing the ritual. A variety of reasons, often contradictory, are cited for following the practice: many say that khatna curbs a girl’s sexual desire and prevents promiscuity, some claim that cutting the clitoral hood enhances sexual pleasure, others claim it is done for hygiene or health.

However, a recent online survey conducted by Sahiyo found that among Bohra women, the most common reason cited for khatna is “religious purposes” or tradition: most people simply continue the practice without questioning, because they believe it is a necessary cultural requirement.

Sahiyo is concerned that these beliefs might be getting compounded by certain mixed messages conveyed by the community leadership.

In April 2016, even as several Bohra jamaats were issuing resolution letters against khatna, community leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin covertly endorsed the practice during a public sermon in India without mentioning the word khatna. He said that “the act” must be done discreetly for girls irrespective of what people say.

Then in June 2016, the Syedna issued a statement to clarify his official stand on khatna. It stated that the resolution letters issued in various international jamaats were still valid for Bohras living in those nations. However, in the same statement, Syedna also endorsed khatna as a “religious obligation” necessary for “religious purity”. These ambiguous messages can be confusing to community members who may then be caught between abiding by the laws of their land and abiding by their leader’s wishes.  

Sahiyo therefore strongly urges the community leadership to unequivocally and unambiguously ask all Bohras across the world to now stop the practice of khatna for girls.

A law is not enough

Overcoming deeply-ingrained social norms like FGC is difficult, but not impossible. Sahiyo recognizes that laws are important to help reinforce that a particular practice is against human rights. However, we also recognize that to truly find sustainable change within a community and to end this form of violence, we must seek ways to change mindsets around this social norm.

First, it is important to recognize that FGC occurs to women and girls coming from all kinds of different backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, country. FGC does not just happen to girls in small villages in Africa as is often mistakenly believed. The US State Department recently came out with a video highlighting American Survivors of FGC to counter this misconception (See American Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Speak Out). In fact, up until the 1950s, clitoridectomy was performed by physicians in the US and in Europe to treat hysteria and mental illness.

It is also important to empower civil society activists and organizations working to end FGC around the globe. Today there is a lack of resources dedicated to preventing FGC in all parts of the world. Sahiyo is working to bring awareness to the fact that FGC occurs in several Asian communities, and has even launched a petition urging the UN to invest in more research and support to survivors from these backgrounds, particularly since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (Goal #5) call for an end to FGC by 2030.

To truly end FGC, we need to educate the general community and collectively let go of this ancient and unnecessary practice. It is heartbreaking that the girls in Minnesota, those in Australia and several other Bohra girls have been subjected to khatna. However, we hope that the indictment of the doctor in Detroit will lead to more awareness and education about the need to end FGC both within the community and globally.