A vivid memory of my cut has lived through so many years that I can recall the entire act. This experience always intrigued me and it did lead me to the insights of child psychology as to how tender a 7-year-old is. Even though my personal experience was not very excruciating, I clearly remember the sense of betrayal, and it never went away.
I was never convinced with the benefits theory that was proclaimed, and honestly, nobody really knew at a deeper level the real reason to follow this practice when I sought guidance. Because of the social influence, it was apparent that herd mentality, unexposed details, unquestioned thoughts promoted this practice.
When my elder daughter was near the age, I had to figure out for myself if my daughter should also be cut. It felt as if I had Godlike power to alter something natural belonging to my daughter’s body forever, and that did not feel right. For me, the decision was a chaotic fight between the cultural beliefs and the scientific quest. I reached out to a few of my doctor family members to understand if there was any scientific aspect. All of them discouraged the practice. That is when the light in my heart beamed strong.
I chose courage and discussed this openly within my group of Bohra friends. Surprisingly, I found most of the women were also against it and this strengthened my defiance! In fact, my mother secretly regretted having the practice done to me, too.
I was sure I did not want to take away what God had bestowed on my daughters. With this clarity, I announced it to my family that we won’t be conducting this on our daughters. One additional powerful advantage was that we resided in the United Kingdom. Since it is a criminal offence here, it was an easy argument to assure a few of our noisy family members back in India. Because we as parents were strong, nobody really questioned or bothered to enforce this. It was simply about standing up for what we thought to be correct.
My husband was firm from day one that he was not willing to get this done for our daughters, yet he had given me the ownership of making this decision in case I was convinced that it had to be done. My decision scale had a chunky weight on anti-FGM, which was also a major influence in my decision to not cut my daughters.
There is absolutely no need to do this. If you are a parent struggling with the obligation to have this done, just say no to this age-old trauma-enabling practice and move on guilt- free with loud pride that you have made the right choice.
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 productionis 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.
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.
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, anEritrean 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.
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.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Female genital cutting (FGC) occurs in many countries around the world. Through my future posts, I hope to explore a few of these places by meeting with those who can speak on them. Many African countries and countries in the Middle East have been reported to have a large concentration of practicing communities. However, FGC is not limited to these areas, nor is it practiced by every single person in these regions. Recently, I spoke with Uzokau Chukwu, a registered nurse, about her thoughts on FGC.
Mrs. Chukwu is from a community in Imo State, Nigeria, where she spent her childhood until age 13, before moving to the United States. To her knowledge, FGC was not practiced in the place she grew up. Instead, her community does an alternative practice, a tradition entirely without blood or cutting, where the area above the pubic bone is massaged.
“Older women in my village says it’s to reduce the sensation of a girl being overly sexed,” she said. “They don’t cut anything.” According to her community, it still meets the security needs of those who fear raising a promiscuous daughter without cutting away at the body.
Mrs. Chukwu didn’t hear of FGC until she came to America and began her medical studies later in life. She worked alongside a student who came from a country with a high prevalence of FGC, so the topic was analyzed through an infection-control perspective.
The practice of FGC brings up health concerns, as girls may be laid directly on the ground for the procedure, and there is risk of severe injury or death. The operation may be done in a setting without sterile equipment.
“People were saying that some girls are dying after they go through that procedure,” she said. “They bleed to death or, you know, they cut so much nerve or into something, and then the places where they’re doing those things are not clean.”
Additionally, Mrs. Chukwu is left to ponder a handful of questions. How do practicing societies know if FGC works to reduce sexuality? Do they have alternatives? Did they notice a vast difference between those who are cut and uncut? Who came up with this practice? Who deemed it to be right? More importantly, who asks the girl for proper consent?
I agree with Mrs. Chukwu that FGC might be a slightly different matter if FGC was limited to consenting adult women rather than young girls. However, the idea of “cutting into someone’s body,” especially having to hold down the person as the procedure goes on, is disturbing. Although it goes without saying (I still asked), Mrs. Chukwu wouldn’t have herself, her daughters, or anyone else undergo the procedure. She wondered in passing if she was being too harsh in judging those who have their girls cut, but she also demanded concrete evidence that the cutting had any medical benefits at all. Ultimately, Mrs. Chukwu fears that FGC perpetuates the second-class status of women worldwide.
The conversation on FGC is definitely opening up to the general public on a worldwide scale as awareness grows. Admittedly, it’s hard to convince others to abandon FGC, as to do so is to challenge their beliefs, especially since it’s a practice that has persisted for generations. Hopefully, increased advocacy against FGC will spike awareness of its detriment to women and society.
More on Brionna:
Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.
Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences– Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography, and writing. She is currently conducting research on the individual experience of khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series: Khatna Research in Mumbai.
The proverb, “It takes a certain courage to raise children,” rings true, especially since much of the responsibility for a child’s development rests solely on the parental system. The parents significantly influence a child’s development, since the social connection formed with them serves as the prototype for all their future interactions. Through this parental interaction, the child learns values, traditions and learns to understand the culture. Within the cultural context of India, much of this responsibility shifts onto the shoulders of the mother. Due to the proximity and consistent presence of the mother, the child is naturally attuned to her and views her as their primary caregiver responsible for providing love, warmth, and protection. Any adversity experienced by the child may be seen as the mother’s inability to fulfill her responsibilities.
Similarly, in the case of khatna, which is a custom among the Bohri Muslims in India which involves partial or total removal of the clitoris, girls may subconsciously blame their mother for failing to “protect” them, although women understand that culture and tradition are responsible for the pain they experience. In my own research, when I conversed with participants I found that even when another female member takes them to be cut, the blame rests upon the mother alone. Initially, I found myself puzzled on this discrepancy in attribution. But during in-depth conversations with my participants, I found that all of them “trusted” their mothers to love them and to protect them. They stated that their mothers had “broken my trust” by continuing a practice without even attempting to understand its implications. Thus, the participants were angry because they had been betrayed. This experience has been discussed significantly in other research, as well. However, I wondered about the kind of emotions elicited in the mothers who were at the receiving end of their daughter’s anger.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk to mothers. Through conversations with them, I found that even the mothers have been significantly impacted by the revelation that they had done wrong to their daughters. From a mother’s perspective, her world is crashing down as well. Through all these years she has developed a belief that khatna is good. It may make her daughter belong to their community. it may keep her safe. She acts on this belief with good intentions of protecting her daughter and doing what she believes is her motherly duty. As her child grows up, she does many such acts with good intentions to protect and love her daughter. Throughout her life, the mother forms the belief that I am a good mother who has checked off all the boxes. Several years later, she may find herself in a situation where she is now bearing the brunt of her daughter’s anger because she has failed to protect her child from harm, particularly of khatna. This revelation shatters a belief in khatna she may have fostered for more than half of her life.
In therapy, we always say that beliefs are the most difficult psychological construct to work with because all beliefs are interconnected. These interconnections form the self of a person. When one belief is broken, it causes a chain reaction where the other beliefs begin to be questioned. The same happens with a mother. Post-revelation she begins to question every aspect of her life, her identity, and her essence. A mother may then feel an overwhelming sense of failure and inadequacy. Biologically speaking, whenever we are overpowered, our fight or flight responses kick in. Therefore, the mother may respond to her pain with anger and denial. It is helping her keep her sense of integrity intact.
When the mother responds in anger and denies having done anything wrong, the impact it has on the survivor is severe It heightens her emotions. It’s important to remember that both the mother and the survivors are fighting their own battles. Both parties need time to process this shock. Thus, it is essential that the space for change is provided by both sides.
Some of the pointers to remember during this time that are applicable to both the survivors and the mothers:
Remain empathetic. Both of you may be struggling.
Be kind. Do not raise your voices while talking. Do not accuse each other.
Listen when the other person talks. Both of you have the right to say your part.
Have conversations outside the purview of khatna.
Establish some routines with each other: eat together or go for walks together.
Respect each others’ decisions.
The dynamics of a relationship are bound to change once such an intense conversation takes place. It is essential that during this time of transformation, a sense of support for each other is established. At the same time, it may be difficult to do so, but it is imperative that this be done if the new dynamics are to mimic the love, warmth, and comfort that may have been present in the previous relationship. My participants themselves mentioned that although the dynamics between them and their mothers have changed, with time and space their bond has only become stronger.
A message to the survivors, you have the right to be angry. You have the right to be heartbroken. Give yourself time to feel all these emotions. Take care of yourself. Access some helpful resources.
For mothers who regret their decisions but do not know what to do, apologizing always helps. Not only would it heal you, but it may heal your daughter, as well.
For mothers in the dilemma of whether they should perform khatna on their daughters, please don’t do it. A life full of pain and regret is no way to live, neither for you and nor for your daughter.
In response to your letter published in The Detroit News, “Dawoodi Bohra Women of Detroit speak up,” I write to you as a woman who grew up in a part of the Dawoodi Bohra community, just like you. I am also a woman of faith and education, a woman who loves her country as well as her Dawoodi Bohra community, who balances religion and patriotism in a trying, divisive time. And just like you, I am frustrated and saddened by the propaganda and misinformation that has spread surrounding the case of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala because I too am a survivor. A survivor of a harmful practice that violated my human rights, robbed me of my personal integrity, and — in punishing me for my own femininity — left me permanently scarred, both mentally and physically: khaftz.
You claim that khaftz “in no way can be defined as female genital mutilation,” but do you know what FGM even is? The World Health Organization defines FGM/C as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” So educate me, then — what is the medical reason for khaftz? Why must it be done? Why must a girl be lied to, held down, or drugged so that a blade can be taken to her genitals and a part of her clitoris sliced away?
You call the procedure “harmless,” so I ask you — where does the harm begin in your minds? Where do you draw the line between the “ritual” you defend and the “more barbaric practices from around the world” you claim to condemn? Is it not harmful to deny your daughter the right to her own bodily autonomy? Is it not harmful to violate her right to be free of torture and degrading treatment and to teach her that her body is “wrong” and must be surgically altered based on the words of religious men?
The Quran does not ask this of us, so I ask you — who does? When countries around the world — including the United States — have signed human rights treaties both condemning and outlawing all forms of FGM, who demands that our daughters be subjected to a cutting or scraping without their consent and with no medical reasoning behind it?
Though you claim to be patriotic Americans who follow all the laws of the land, you challenge a law meant to protect the most vulnerable members of the country’s population — its children. How can you in good conscience, claim that khaftz is “much more akin to a body piercing” when a child would never consider getting a piercing in such a sensitive area?
Many of you are lucky to have suffered no consequences — physically or mentally — from khaftz, but your experiences are far from universal. You lie to yourselves when you purport to be representative of all the survivors of the khaftz. You lie to your daughters when you claim that there are no negative effects to the practice. You do a disservice to your community when you hide the truth of this harmful form of gender-based violence behind pleas for tolerance and claims of political persecution. By claiming that your experiences are universal and by defending this harmful practice, you have a direct hand in perpetuating violence against women.
Is that the future of the Dawoodi Bohra community? A future where we must look our children in the eyes and tell them that they have no ownership of their bodies? A future where our daughters must be subjected to sexual trauma and placed at risk for future infection, for future complications in childbirth, or for chronic pain in a most sensitive area? The Dawoodi Bohra community cannot adhere to archaic violence in the name of tradition. The world around us has changed, and today we know more about our bodies and the consequences of our actions than we ever did. We must grow as people, as a community. We must come together to help, not harm.
You may be educated women, but you blind yourself to the true nature of khaftz and its harm. You beg for tolerance and understanding but you do not try to understand the pain you inflict on your daughters when you have them cut. I beg you to take the time to listen to women the world over who have been harmed by khaftz.
The Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA), a civic and community organization committed to promoting individual freedom and diversity, and to celebrating Muslim American heritage, honored Sahiyo Co-founder, Mariya Taher with the first annual MALA Human Rights Storytellers Award. This award recognizes Mariya and Sahiyo’s outstanding contribution to defending human rights through storytelling, in particular, working to protect women’s bodies from cutting – and bringing together women who have been cut on a journey of healing and empowerment. The award was given in recognition of the U.S. Sahiyo Stories project and the Human Rights Storytellers Award was presented to Mariya at MALA’s Third Annual Gala at the Chicago History Museum on November 6, 2018.
Upon hearing about female genital cutting and what it entails, it seems that one of the first facts you hear about it has to do with its prevalence in Africa and the Middle East. While it is true that these continents have a high prevalence (which has been decreasing according to a recent study by BMJ Global Health), it may contribute to the misconception that these are the only places in the world where females undergo FGC. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This practice reaches Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. Its presence on multiple continents leads FGC to be an international issue that needs to end with the support of all the nations involved.
As part of my senior project, I have been bestowed the opportunity to do volunteer work with Sahiyo. They work specifically with the Dawoodi Bohra community, whose members mainly reside in India, Pakistan,Yemen and East Africa. FGC is also prevalent in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. There have even been reports in Colombia, South America. This puts FGC on every continent in the world!
As previously mentioned, FGC occurs among diaspora communities. When families from countries that practice FGC move into new areas, they inevitably bring along the instilled need to continue the social norm. This leads to FGC being present in ‘receiving countries’, which can include places bordering practicing countries. Despite the handful of receiving countries that ban and criminalize FGC, the practice is still inflicted on girls in an effort to maintain their cultural identity. However, diaspora community members may send their daughters to their home country for ‘vacation cutting’. FGC is not a practice that is restricted by borders. Decades ago, FGC was practiced in some of the same countries that worked to prevent it.
In Victorian Era England, FGC ushered its way into the medical field as a cure for nervous diseases, masturbation, and any other infliction that doctors/surgeons related to the female organs. Gynecological surgeon Isaac Baker Brown popularized the idea of using clitoridectomy, or removal of the clitoris, as a solution for ailments in medical circles. After some time, Isaac Brown and those who followed this method were eventually condemned. Yet, it was not so readily removed from American medical textbooks. Doctors in the U.S. also continued with this treatment to cure female ailments and the last documentation of this practice dates as far back as 1947. It is the year Renee Bergstrom received a clitoridectomy at the age of three in “white, midwest America” (The Guardian). People with good intentions may harm others irreparably, even the ones who trust them the most.
While the practitioners may mean well, it still doesn’t excuse the continual physical and psychological harm of women and young girls. These mistakes have been made before, and are still being made by participating societies and people who perpetuate the practice. With FGC being so close to home, the problem cannot be ignored any longer as someone else’s problem. This practice affects women and girls on every continent. It must be dealt with using the full support of every global citizen to end the practice of FGC for the sake of women and men. You can help advocate against it too. Research is crucial in understanding a multifaceted issue such as this to ensure and reaffirm what you’re advocating for. That’s when you can volunteer your time or voice to organizations working to end FGC and keep up to date on the topic. Also, you can inquire about the laws in your state if they regulate or have anything in place pertaining to the practice. If there’s not a law already, then you can advocate for one being created.
More on Brionna:
Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.
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.
Last December I participated in a Sahiyo activist retreat where I learned the unique power that storytelling has to teach, stimulate, and inspire audiences while offering the storyteller a sense of empowerment and catharsis. That’s why I was excited to reunite with some of the brave women I met on that retreat for a three-day storytelling workshop this past May. Since I didn’t have a clear memory of my own khatna, I decided to focus on the aspect of it which did have a profound effect on me: my relationship with my mother and my struggle to understand her decision.
Although I am and always have been opposed to the practice of FGC, I was nevertheless upset by the ways in which the women who practiced it were portrayed as “heartless monsters” or “unforgiveable child abusers” by the media and by anti-Muslim bigots who were using it as an excuse to justify their stance against immigration. In an effort to change this perception, I agreed to sit down with my mother to discuss FGC with a local radio news reporter. I hoped this would encourage people to see her as a person and try to understand her motivations for doing what she did even if they didn’t agree with it.
I love my mother dearly, but I think the interview left me with more questions than answers, and I wanted to explore a little bit of those conflicting emotions in the story I told in the workshop. I hope my story helps other women who might be going through the same emotions as I did to know that they aren’t alone and that it is OK to not have everything figured out. Everyone needs to decide for themselves what they want or need from the relationships in their lives and if a relationship is worth keeping. Sometimes forgiveness is important – not for the other person, but for yourself.
At first I was really nervous about sharing my story with everyone, but all the women in the workshop were incredibly supportive and encouraging and made the workshop truly worthwhile. I also felt honored to be able to experience each of their incredible and unique stories. In three short days we had bonded over shared experiences, (and incredible food) so even though I only had two sisters when I first arrived at the workshop, by the time I left, I had eleven.
Maryah Haidery is a medical writer from New Jersey. She graduated from Temple University with a doctorate in pharmacy and completed her post-doctoral fellowship in medical communications at a medical communications company in Princeton. Her interests include writing about oncology, pain management and rare diseases and mentoring students at the University of the Sciences where she served as Adjunct Clinical Instructor. Maryah only recently became aware of the Sahiyo movement through a family member. Although she is new to activism, she believes that it is vitally important to shine light on the long taboo subject of female circumcision in hopes of encouraging real and lasting change. She thinks this is only possible if we can confront the complicated mix of ideas surrounding khatna and critically appraise the practice without necessarily denigrating the people who practice it.