Is legal action against female genital cutting enough to end the practice?

Understanding the impact of a Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, in India

by Priya Goswami

In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court referred a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC) in India to a five-judge constitution bench. My documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, was quoted as evidence by the Supreme Court of India to establish the prevalence of the practice. As the filmmaker, I was overjoyed with what my film had managed to do and become – the first audio visual evidence on the practice of FGC in India. 

There is no law in India against FGC. The PIL had been filed in 2017 by a Delhi-based lawyer seeking a ban on the practice of FGC in India. While other survivors of the practice joined in the petition against FGC, they were opposed by a counter-petition filed by a pro-FGC group within the Dawoodi Bohra community. That group claimed that FGC is not harmful and should be considered a part of their constitutional right to religious freedom. Accordingly, they demanded that the practice be scrutinized through this lens by a larger constitution bench of the court – an appeal that the court finally granted

With that said, a small part of me shrank hearing the news. I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change. As an activist on the ground, I understand change requires sustained conversation. A law against the practice of FGC may become a mandate, but may also end up hindering the progress made by activists on creating a room for dialogue by years. 

“I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change.”

A broad evidence base for this is how some Dawoodi Bohra community members in the United States (U.S.) and Australia have hushed the practice, pushing it further underground, as the community members were charged in both countries with practicing FGC, or khatna as it is known in the Bohra community, and publicly spoke about it in the media. A federal judge dismissed all of the FGC-related charges in the U.S. case; whereas Australia’s High Court ruled all forms of FGC are illegal. While the cases against the community members in the U.S. and Australia have opened up the dialogue on the issue and more survivors have come forward, it has also instilled fear in the minds of some community members. This has, in turn, supported the movement toward medicalization of khatna, which is an equally dangerous trend. As an activist and a communication designer, I ask myself often – is pushing people to abandon the practice because the law says so ever a complete solution? 

Nine years ago, if you would have asked me what my goal with A Pinch of Skin was, I would have said to convince people to abandon the practice. Today, I say the same, except with the awareness that change requires time and persistent and effective communication, which involves the community from within.

Key points to understand the situation in India:

  • The conversation of female genital cutting in Asian communities is a relatively new one, as it is still largely believed to be an African problem.
  • The subject was brought to public attention in India as an anonymous petition under the pseudonym ‘Tasleem’ was launched in 2011 or 2012. This was followed by media attention to A Pinch of Skin in 2013.
  • In 2015, two collectives were formed to speak about the subject: Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, both being the only organizations worldwide working on the subject of khatna prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
  • In 2017, the two organizations, Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, were invited by the National Commission of Women and Child Development to speak with Menaka Gandhi.
  • The Indian government, after gathering first-hand evidence from survivors (also the co-founders of the two organizations), did a u-turn denying the evidence against the practice until this landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. Read this detailed report.
  • The Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom continue to discount efforts against FGC under the umbrella of religious freedom. 
  • Following the PIL, the Supreme Court of India ruled that FGC could be charged under The POCSO Act.

How female genital cutting is portrayed in television series

By Hunter Kessous

Female genital cutting (FGC) is an international human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence. As the public becomes increasingly aware of this harmful practice, survivors of FGC are being portrayed in media and pop culture. FGC involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries for non-medical reasons. Producers of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), Call the Midwife, and The Good Doctor have incorporated FGC into their storylines. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Orange is the New Black Season 7, Episodes 9 and 10

OITNB’s most compelling season brought in Shani, an asylum seeker from Egypt. While in the detention center, she becomes intimate with an inmate, Niky. When their sex life begins to struggle, Shani opens up to Niky about the FGC she underwent at 11 years old. Her mother said she needed to get rid of a bug, a common justification for FGC that girls hear around the world. There are many aspects of Niky’s story that real-life survivors of FGC share. I was very impressed with the writers of OITNB for addressing the struggle with sexuality that FGC survivors face. FGC comes with a multitude of psychological impacts which harm survivors’ emotional and sexual functioning. Yet, too little attention is given to these consequences. Even research is lacking in this area. 

Niky does an excellent job of portraying how partners of FGC survivors should react. Niky researches alternative ways to make Shani feel good that don’t involve clitoral stimulation. In their next sexual encounter, Niky ensures Shani is relaxed and moves slowly. When pain arises, Niky stops immediately and promises that they will keep communicating until they find what works. The relationship between Niky and Shani is truly heart-warming. The actress who played Shani, Marie-Lou Nahhas, is a Lebanese American anti-FGC activist, who traveled with the UNFPA to meet with FGC survivors in Ethiopia, and uses her social media platforms to share information on FGC. Nahhas recently hosted the launch of Farzana Doctor’s newest novel, Seven, about women’s relationships, marriage, infidelity, religion, tradition, and sensitively exposes the practice of khatna or FGC among the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Call the Midwife Season 6, Episode 6

Call the Midwife painted the story of a pregnant woman, Nadifa, from Somaliland in the 1960s in England. At a young age, she was infibulated, meaning her outer labia were sewn together in order to form a seal, which narrows the vaginal opening. Like Shani, Nadifa thought what had happened to her was typical. The doctor and midwives had never seen FGC before, but handled her case graciously. When Nadifa went into labor, the midwife realized the panic she was experiencing was a result of a flashback to having been cut, and helped calm her. Mental health consequences are another component of FGC that are rarely discussed.

Nadifa gave birth en-route to the hospital, and the midwife had to cut her open in the ambulance. The day after her baby was born, Nadifa’s little sister was sent back to Somaliland by her mother’s orders to be cut. The midwives were enraged at this news and asked Nadifa how she could allow her sister to be held down and cut by a man, the same procedure that could have killed her. Nadifa informs the midwives, to their shock, that it is a woman, not a man, who performs FGC. She says her sister must be cut to ensure she is respected, clean, and able to find a good husband. The reasons Nadifa gave for her sister to undergo FGC are common justifications in many communities around the world. The midwives are unable to prevent Nadifa’s sister from leaving, as her boat for Somaliland leaves before they can reach her. The redeeming factor of this sad ending is that Nadifa decides not to allow her own daughter to be cut. 

The Good Doctor Season 2, Episode 2 

In this episode of The Good Doctor, a patient named Asha goes to the emergency room seeking vaginal rejuvenation. She says at the age of two she was tied down and cut. According to a research study on FGC, for survivors who sought reconstructive surgery, repairing the visual stigma of their genitals was a major motivator. Asha, whose real name is Mara, is of African ancestry, but her story highlights that FGC is occurring in the U.S. 

The surgeons create an elaborate plan to make her an outpatient so she can be home at the end of the school day. The plan goes awry when Mara awakes from surgery in pain. This signals that she has nerves that may be used to reconstruct the clitoris. Her parents and surgeon argue over whether Mara should undergo the reconstructive surgery or have the remaining nerves killed. The safer option would leave Mara permanently unable to experience clitoral stimulation. Mara chooses not to undergo the reconstruction. The surgeon awakes her once more without her parents present and tries to convince her to undergo the clitoral reconstruction. The surgeon goes ahead and performs the clitoral reconstruction without Mara’s consent. When Mara wakes up and realizes what happened, she thanks the surgeon. For the second time in her life, Mara’s body was altered without her consent. For many FGC survivors, this would be psychologically distressing.

Another major flaw we see in this episode, is that the doctor repeatedly calls FGC “butchering.” This language is very harmful and is demeaning to communities that practice FGC. This word choice is alienating, and can promote discrimination and reinforce stereotypes. Language such as this is counterproductive to the movement to abandon FGC.

Overall, I was very impressed with the portrayal of FGC in these TV shows. FGC is a complex issue, and I was happy to see facets such as sexuality, mental health, culture and treatment being addressed. When I embarked on this project, I was preparing myself for stereotypes and myths. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. In fact, some common misconceptions were addressed. I believe the media is great for increasing public awareness.

To my surprise, my friend defended khatna

By Anonymous

Having decided to pursue law at the age of 15 years old, I was excited yet unprepared to know about the society that we live in. For the past four years, I have gathered enough evidence through lectures, presentations, and discussions over coffee about the horrors of which any society is capable. One such day one of my professors decided to speak about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and asked two of my peers to give a presentation on it.

The projector was switched on, lights were switched off, and my two peers took center stage to introduce the class to the topic. At the end of the presentation in a class where several hands routinely raise eager to question presenters, there was pin-drop silence. The professor smiled at the horrid, silent expressions of my classmates and broke the silence to facilitate a discussion. Gradually, all of us formed a consensus that FGM/C is harmful and needs to stop.

After class, I went home and started researching the practice and ended up watching a documentary, The Cut: Exploring FGM by an Al Jazeera correspondent. I read various articles where I learned FGM/C was practiced widely among the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, and this practice was known as khatna. 

My heart sank as I realized that a very close friend by the virtue of being from the community must have undergone FGM/C. As a concerned friend, but with pre-conceived notions and as a judgmental being, I went on to tell my friend that I would always be there to support her through the injustice inflicted upon her. To my surprise, (but should have seen it coming) my friend defended it, stating the various reasons that she had been fed through the years of why it was important for girls to undergo it in the Bohra community. I was shattered. However, I tried not to force my opinions about the practice on her. 

While speaking to a few more (girls and boys) I concluded that the reason behind the practice not being spoken about is because it mainly revolves around female sexuality and religion. The reason that men/boys in the Bohra community did not talk about it or oppose it was that they thought it’s a girl’s issue; whereas the girls who went through it might have felt the need to defend it. And to speak of it publicly, would mean that they would be betraying their religion, especially if they talk about it to an outsider, a Jain like myself. 

Gradually, I started reading stories about FGM/C through initiatives by organizations such as Sahiyo. Fortunately, it made me realize that as an outsider to the community,  it is easy for me to be outraged and criticize any practice which is detrimental to the well-being of girls and women. However, when one grows up with the practice being justified, it takes a lot more than common sense to defy and disobey the practice that has been ingrained in the community for generations

Now my friend has condemned the practice and shared her plight due to khatna, which is when I decided to write my dissertation on harmful practices like FGM/C, where women need to be uplifted without antagonizing the communities which uphold these practices.

How I learned female genital mutilation is happening in India

By Thirupurasundari Sevvel

Country of Residence: India 

How do I start? How do I explain my first realization that there is a practice called female genital mutilation? It was a typical day. During my master’s program in France, I was working with a couple of my friends talking about so many different random things. The topic shifted to sexuality, human rights, and how the female body is viewed. I said as long as the female body is looked at as property or a commodity, the problem won’t be solved. Everyone wants to take ownership. Anyone can talk about bodies or sexuality. They can try to shut us inside the doors of the world. But what we as women do with our bodies is in our hands. 

“What if that essense of your body is taken from you?” a friend asked. “What if there is a sense of ugliness thrusted inside your mind about being sexual, and your sexual organ is scrapped and sewed up?”

Silence filled the room.

That’s how I learned about female genital mutilation. It was shocking to realize it is happening in India. I realized it has actually happened to someone I personally know, but someone who was defending the practice and saying, this is our culture and it’s not wrong. It was shocking that something I thought was happening in different parts of the world, has happened in the state I lived in. The friendship with her became strained because she felt I was talking against her religion, her faith, her family, and her community. For a second I thought–am I doing something wrong, am I intruding on someone’s faith? But her sister gave me another point of view of how it affected her emotionally, and I started meeting other women. That’s when I understood. It was social conditioning at play–being made to believe it is right and has to be done. There has been a lot of backlash, but even if one child could be spared or saved–the struggle would be worth it. 

My friend has a daughter now and has taken a stand that she won’t do it to her. Our friendship isn’t public anymore since her family feels I am the reason for her becoming a rebel. When will they understand that it is a human rights violation? 

In 2015, I started doing storytelling for adults and children on the topics of body positivity, FGM, the human body, understanding the body, and consent in the Tamil language. This is a very small way to create awareness and a basic step to change the social construct and mindset. The storytelling resonated with a lot of participants. We realized many wanted some time to talk to someone who could listen without judgment.

When we have a discussion, we start with this quotation from the book Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, who is a Somali model, author, actress, and human rights activist in the fight against FGM, and let each participant share points on what they feel about it. I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple. My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them? I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain. It will become a thing of the past. People will say, “Did you hear, female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Somalia?” Then the next country, and the next, and so on, until the world is safe for all women. What a happy day that will be, and that’s what I’m working toward. In’shallah, if God is willing, it will happen.

The impact of organizations, books, movies, videos, social media campaigns, study materials, and awareness posters is huge. The problem is that it’s a secretive ritual. As children, they may also think that it happens to every girl, or they may try to block the painful memory.

Sahiyo, which means female friend, started to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution toward ending FGM. The materials, information, and stories shared created a lot of change and awareness. A video that came out in 2018 of three firsthand accounts of khata in India created an impact on social media. The work of Masooma Ranalvi, an FGM survivor and activist from India, founder of WeSpeakOut, has also created a lot of ripples and change. In February 2019, a group of women from the community urged political parties in India to take steps to end FGM in their community and made the issue part of their poll manifestos. 

The collective works of these organizations and individual voices can put an end to this practice. There may not be many official records about FGM in India, but that does not mean it is not happening. It is a practice everyone should be against so that the girl children from the next generation do not undergo FGM. Speaking up is the only way forward.

Why are we doing this? A Thaal pe Charcha participant questions female genital cutting

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: India

Age: 32

I have been part of the Sahiyo Thaal Pe Charcha group meetings for a while and have found it an eye-opening concept. The more I’ve been involved, I’ve become more aware of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In the first meeting, I came to know it as a social stigma that we women face due to misguided traditions. Knowing that more people support the cause made me feel a bit more confident to talk about it. Hearing about the issue of FGM/C made me more aware that people blindly do it because their familes do it. Some of them may do it out of fear and for the approval of society.

During the recent February meeting we were shown a movie, A Girl from Mogadishu, based on the life of a Somalian FGM/C survivor and activist, Ifrah Ahmed. Her whole life she believed the tradition of FGM/C needed to be followed, as her ancestors did the same, so she never questioned it. But migration opened her eyes to the fact that what happened to her was not right. She did not deserve to suffer pain just because her society carried this practice for centuries blindly.

I, myself, find a lot of people like my family and friends who are afraid to ask the questions: Why are we doing this? Is it necessary to hurt a girl in childhood? That psychological wound is so deep and may never be healed.

No one can remember their childhood memories perfectly, but when something painful happens for some, it’s impossible to forget. I really want more people to share their experiences, come out of denial and support the cause to pledge to not let the next generation or anyone undergo the same pain they, themselves, might have undergone.

Locating female genital cutting through films and documentaries

By Debangana Chatterjee

Though films and documentaries related to female genital cutting (FGC) promise to uphold the realities surrounding the subject, there are undeniable strings of subjective interpretations attached to them. Thus, rather than becoming ‘real’, these films and documentaries transpire as the reel portrayal of realities. Desert Flower, a 2009 German production is the most pertinent feature film on the subject based on Waris Dirie’s 1998 autobiographical account of the same name. In the realm of popular culture, the film relegates the practice of FGC being coterminous to infibulation, whereas infibulation is one of the most extreme variations of the four types of FGC, as has been classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Rather than providing the holistic imagery of the practice, this film portrays a partial picture of it.

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Desert Flower

The documentaries on FGC are majorly driven for either anti-FGM awareness campaigns conducted by various international organizations, or for journalistic ventures of finding and documenting facts by renowned media houses from across the globe. Some of these major documentaries include Warrior Marks (1994), The Cut (2009), The Cutting Tradition (2009), ‘I Will Never Be Cut’: Kenyan Girls Fight Back against Genital Mutilation (2011), A Pinch of Skin (2012), The Cruel Cut – Female Genital Mutilation (2013), True Story – Female Genital Mutilation in Afar, Ethiopia (2013), Reversing Female Circumcision: The Cut that Heals (2015), The Cut: Exploring FGM (2017), Jaha’s Promise (2017), Cutting the Cut (2018). Another talked about documentary of 2018, Female Pleasure, though does not solely deal with FGC, features the renowned activist against FGC Leyla Hussain to shed light on the practice as a mode of controlling female sexuality. With the exception of A Pinch of Skin and Cutting the Cut that focuses on the particularities of the practice in India and Kenya, respectively, from an internal vantage point, others make cultural commentaries on the practice from the perspective of anti-FGM advocates.

A Pinch Of Skin-Still 2 (1)
A Pinch of Skin

Cutting the Cut was produced in 2018 under the aegis of The Health Channel in Kenya. Winnie Lubembe, a Kenyan herself, is the narrator, producer, and writer. With a special focus on the Maasai community of Kenya, the documentary presents both against and for narratives of the practice. On the one hand, it discusses the hazardous aspect of the practice. On the other, views supporting legalization of the practice are also presented, as it arguably promotes medicalization as well as cultural preservation. The non-alienation of the community and the need for complementing legal banning with adequate awareness programmes and cultural redressal are the two main takeaways of the documentary. It also highlights the political nuances operating through the legal state apparatus.

A Pinch of Skin, on the other hand, is a 2012 Indian production directed by Priya Goswami. This can be designated as one of the maiden attempts to shed light upon the practice among the Bohra women in India. The maker, despite not belonging to the cultural community, makes honest attempts to put herself into the shoes of the believers, and thus, brings out voices both pro and against the practice. In fact, the naming of the documentary is indicative given that it does not merely portray the practice as ‘gruesome’ and ‘barbaric’. Rather it highlights the practice of nicking the tip of the prepuce of the clitoris, prevalent among the Bohras.

A Pinch of Skin film Poster (1)
A Pinch of Skin

Barring these two, representations through visuals of the cultural ‘other’ from an external vantage point appear to lack intricacies and layers. For example, The Cut: Exploring FGM, The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation, and The Cutting Tradition are produced respectively by Al-Jazeera, Channel4 and SafeHands for Mothers in collaboration with the International Federation of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (FIGO), respectively. The Cut, directed by  American-journalist Linda May Kallestein, has also been funded by multiple Norwegian agencies. Most of these representations are located beyond the cultural purview and thus, lack empathy in their cultural portrayal. Though The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation and Jaha’s Promise feature Somali activist Leyla Hussein and Gambian activist Jaha Dukureh respectively, it is to be reminded that the onus ultimately lies at the hands of the creative teams of these documentaries. Even Jaha’s Promise uses one of the clips from Barack Obama’s speeches where he is referring to the practice as ‘barbaric’ which as a term is discredited for its blatant cultural insensitivity. It is problematic to assume that the mothers always put their daughters through the practice intentionally being fully aware of its consequences. Fatma Naib, the presenter of The Cut: Exploring FGM, an Eritrean immigrant to Sweden, showcases details of the state of the practice in Somalia and Kenya with substantial subtlety so far as it highlights campaigners against the practice from within these cultures. As a whole, it is not merely about the geographic positioning of the creative teams but about the outlook that they share while describing cultural specificities.

Nuances and variations of the practice are not adequately showcased in many of these films. For example, out of all the countries with reported cases of FGC, African countries especially, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt are highlighted out of proportion. It is largely because of the rampant prevalence of the practice mainly in these countries. It is to note that only 10 percent of reported cases worldwide are the most severe and may fall into the category of infibulation- even in Africa. Notwithstanding the need to highlight the regions with a higher percentage of the practice, these documentaries seem to make convenient choices so far as the cases are concerned. This comes hand in hand with exoticization of pain. For instance, the documentary True Story – Female Genital Mutilation in Afar, Ethiopia, starts with the representative audio of excruciating scream of a newly-wed girl who dies out of profuse bleeding due to forced penetration of her infibulated vagina. This scream is followed by figurative graphics of a splash of blood accompanied by a heart-wrenching narration of the incident. The Cutting Tradition with its explicit emphasis on four African countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso, uses substantial, real visuals of the practice. The cultural orientation of these representations is reflective of a cultural aversion toward the unintelligible culture. The visual knowledge of the matter, thus, gets constructed from a position of power going in tandem with the existing Western liberal discourse.

Though there are well-intentioned attempts to bring out hard-hitting facts regarding such sensitive subjects, in many cases such intentions get mired with preconceived prejudices. Notwithstanding the possibilities of becoming judgemental even after belonging to the same culture, it is important to understand the outlook of the makers. Needless to say, the making of films and documentaries are driven by factors of storytelling or awareness-raising and are thus, difficult to be objectively oriented. Attempts to bring out different sides of various cultures, giving voices to women of these communities who break the shackles of conformity may pave the way for a ‘real’ and relatively balanced depiction of realities in regard to FGC.