Why female genital cutting still continues: Exploring the reasons behind its sustenance

By Debangana Chatterjee

The reasons why female genital cutting (FGC) continues are multifarious and overlapping. Complex and interconnected sets of reasons for FGC are woven into the faiths of the communities. Thus, faith becomes the genesis of these reasons, making FGC considered to be beneficial by the communities. These reasons can be broadly grouped as traditional, socio-cultural, sexual and hygienic, but are also closely connected with each other:

• Traditional: According to Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, authors of Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, for a number of communities FGC is considered a rite of passage to womanhood and is driven by traditional beliefs. This womanhood is often believed to add to the marriageability of the circumcised women. The practice is carried forward by the women belonging to these communities for generations. Though there is no direct mention of the practice in the Quran, hadiths became a traditional source of its justification. At this juncture of faith, tradition paves the way for the socio-cultural reasons behind the practice.

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Dogon people of Mali / Photo by Jenny Cordle

• Socio-Cultural: Among practicing communities, the practice in many ways becomes a hallmark of communal identification, as it garners acceptability and induces social conformity within communities. Some communities are also believed to have adopted FGC due to contiguous cultural influences. Considerable communal pressure for performing FGC involves the threat of social ostracism. Local structures of authoritative forces ensure the continuation of the practice by implementing these measures on the basis of their social norms. As the practice remains one of the sole sources of income for traditional cutters, economic reasons as a corollary to the socio-cultural ones also drive the practice.

• Sexual: FGC is believed to control women’s sexual behaviour. There are claims of it restricting women’s sexual urges. Extreme procedures, such as infibulation, are used as mechanisms to keep women’s premarital virginity and marital fidelity in check. Due to the extreme pain that intercourse typically causes in infibulated women, women do not get sexual pleasure. FGC is frequently claimed to be used as an impediment toward the “promiscuous” nature of women.

• Hygienic: Many believe the removal of a part of female genitalia amounts to cleanliness. In this regard, cleanliness in the hygienic sense results in physical purity, which is ultimately believed to pave the way for spiritual purity. This understanding of purity becomes closely entangled with the cultural beliefs of femininity and modesty.

Despite creating this broad rubric of prominent reasons, the reasons noticeably overlap and are distinct in manifestation when it comes to the customs of specific communities. In certain cases, there are multiple driving factors, whereas in other cases the manifestations of these reasons are even more particularistic. For example, as Laurenti Magesa, the author of African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, explains among the Kikiyu people of Kenya, FGC is celebrated as a mark of womanhood. Among the Bambuti and Thonga community, during the procedure girls are shown no mercy and are treated with ruthlessness as a sign of their gallantry and bravery. Among certain groups in Tanzania and Somaliland, infibulation is believed to form a “chastity belt” around the skin of female genitalia.

Magesa underlines a few reasons for FGC specific to diverse African communities. Primarily, it is conceived as a mark of valour and of enduring physical pain within the community. This pain is thought to teach girls about sacrifice for the community as well as a sense of belonging. Finally, many believe that the practice strengthens the community bond among generations and knits the community together. Among many communities, girls are prepared for the practice through an initiation ceremony. But among the Zaramo people of Tanzania, the girl is secluded for a substantial period after circumcision. During this particular period, girls are trained and informed about obedience in general, conformity to social norms, fertility, and childbirth. According to Kouba and Muasher, the Dogon and Bambara people of Mali believe that a child, born with both male and female souls, is also possessed by wanzo. Wanzo is believed to be evil residing in both the male and female genitalia and thus, cutting as a process helps in getting rid of wanzo.

In India, Bohra Muslims are evidentially the most significant community practicing FGC, which is termed as khafz. As per the believers of the community, Da’i al-Mutlaq, also known as Da’i, hold an authoritative, infallible status in the community. Da’i or Syedna (as referred to by the Dawoodi Bohras) is considered to be the sovereign leader, spiritual guardian and temporal guide of the community. As Da’i considers Daim-ul-Islam as the binding religious text for the Bohras, diktats of the text are taken as truth by the community members. It is a text written by Al-Qadi al-Nu’man who served from the 11th to the 14th Imam of the Shia lineage. In this text, the Prophet is believed to advise for a simple cut of women’s clitoral skin as this assigns purity on women and may make them more “beloved by their husbands”. The community mostly puts forward religious reasons based on their faiths in support of the practice. There are multiple narratives justifying the practice among the Bohra community members. A substantial number of community members believe that the practice tames women’s sexual urges and preserves modesty. Many claim that the nicking of the prepuce helps increase women’s sexual pleasure by exposing the tip of the clitoral hood. In this regard, it is often put forward in the same breath as the genital altercation procedures of clitoral un-hooding. Similar narratives espouse that the practice induces purity among women. For them, if it is well within the rights of Muslim men to be spiritually pure by performing circumcision, it is unjustifiable to prevent women from attaining equivalent purity. In fact, in certain cases, there are convictions by the pro-FGC Bohras toward the futuristic scientific revelations about khafz’s perceived benefits.

When faith becomes a part of people’s everyday life, life needs to get enlightened from its core not by denying faith but by striving for incorporating elements of rationality to it. Although these reasons for the continuation of the practice may not seem justifiable to some in the present context, the incomprehensibility of these reasons may not be countered with outright rejections. In fact, forcefully drawing the private matters of women into a public spectrum may be a source of those women feeling alienated. Rather, holistic approaches and educational campaigns may be useful tools to win the trust of the communities. The chasm between the opposing sides (those who believe FGC to be harmful and those who claim it is a religious right) can only be bridged by generating mutual respectability and building conversational engagement.

 

More about Debangana:

Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com. 

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A mother’s side of the story on female genital cutting

By Priya Ahluwalia

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.

Mother daughter hands

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.  

A response to the letter written by Tasneem Yunus Burhani, Mubaraka Tambawala, Farida Mustafa Hussain, Fatemah Hussain, and Shakera Bohra published in Detroit News

By Umme Kulsoom Arif

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.

Wikimedia commons

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.

Read also “Other Views on FGM.”

The Legal Side of Khatna or Female Genital Cutting

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By Priya Ahluwalia

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.

Female Genital Cutting or khatna or khafz, as it is also called in the Bohra community, involves cutting or removal of the external female genitalia. Khatna has no known health benefits, but does have well-documented complications, which range from severe pain, excessive bleeding, and scar tissue to frequent infections.

The movement against khatna in India perhaps began in the early 1990s with Rehana Ghaidally’s paper, “All for Izzat”, which attempted to identify the key reasons for why khatna was performed in India. However, the movement only gained momentum in 2011, when the first online petition was filed against it anonymously. The online campaign triggered a barrage of women coming forward with their own stories of trauma caused by khatna. It further fueled both online petitions as well as an onground movement.

Within the Indian context of the Dawoodi Bohra community, the majority of the cases of khatna constitute Type 1, also referred to as clitoridectomy, which involves either partial or full removal of the clitoris, or the fold of skin known as the prepuce, covering it. Interestingly, there are many men and women who support khatna. From a psychological viewpoint, it may be rooted in the cognitive dissonance theory. Men and women of the Dawoodi Bohra community have been indoctrinated to believe that khatna is an essential religious obligation, and the will of God is not to be questioned. The online campaigns provide women in the Bohra community an alternative narrative, which may be in direct conflict with their existing beliefs. This conflict has created a lot of anxiety and conversations which have led to the movement gathering momentum, eventually catching the attention of the Indian government.

The uphill legal battle saw the government oscillating between supporting and opposing the movement. In May of 2017, the Ministry of Women and Child Development declared full support for survivors, deeming the practice a criminal offence with prosecution possible under the guidelines of POCSO (2012). The ministry requested the community to voluntarily take action to stop it. If it failed, the government would seek to implement a law to end it. In December of 2017, the ministry withdrew from its position, citing lack of empirical evidence despite proof from Sahiyo’s landmark study, which revealed that 80% of Bohri women globally have undergone khatna. Although the rejection from the government was disheartening, the momentum of the movement has not faltered. Organizations such as Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut continue to provide crucial support for survivors to rally in solidarity.

Several countries in Africa, as well as the United States and Australia, have made consistent and successful attempts to end female genital cutting. To understand how this has been possible, we must examine how the socio-economic structure of these countries has played an integral role in their success. Several of these countries may have high literacy rates, greater awareness of their rights and a more conducive environment for survivors to speak out.

The Bohra community aspect is crucial to understanding the Indian government’s hesitancy to pass a law. Although India is a signatory to several of the United Nations and World Health Organization conventions which view khatna as a human rights violation, it comes under the purview of existing Indian legislation, such as article 319 and 320 of the IPC and POCSO. No separate law has been passed against FGC until now. Things looked hopeful when the PIL filed against FGM/C was to be heard by the five-judge bench in the India Supreme Court. The decision initially seemed to swing in favor of banning the practice, as the judges referred to it as a violation of the rights of the girl child. The judges questioned how the violation of the “bodily integrity” of the child could be an essential practice of a religion, asserting that right to religious freedom does not negate other fundamental rights of the individual. Despite overwhelming support, the judges later backtracked, deferring to a constitutional bench to decide on the matters of religious rights and freedom. It was the most crushing setback for the movement.

Initially, I wondered what the hesitancy was in declaring khatna as a human rights violation. Later, I realized that the hesitancy was due to the political context and not the practice itself. Family and religion are the founding threads of our Indian community, and khatna is so intricately woven within these threads. Family and religion are our sources of identity, and since India is a collectivist society our ideas, beliefs in practices such as khatna are rooted in a collective experience, rather than an individual’s. Thus, attempting to end khatna risks unraveling the whole moral power structure of the country. Initially, it will begin with the Bohra community, but it may create a ripple effect across the country within other communities and religions. The moral thread of India is religion, and religion dictates our gender roles. If khatna is being questioned, we are unraveling this power structure by questioning the clergy’s teachings, and instead seeking the truth for ourselves by reading the religious scriptures whose access has unduly only been given to men for so long. Perhaps, with this newfound knowledge, our perception of the world will shift, leading to a destabilization of the existing structure and establishment of a new order with women in power. Change is just around the corner.

Although the law is the first concrete step toward ending khatna, it is also a double-edged sword with unintended consequences. The law has the potential to push the practice further underground. The more discreetly cutting is done, the more difficult it would become to track it. Furthermore, the law would bring into question the perpetrators of the crime. Is it parents, midwives, community as a whole, or religious leaders? What would be the quantum of punishment? Would the 7-year-old child be responsible for registering the complaint? Who would protect the child from further psychological harm?

Despite it all, I too believe law is essential in our work toward abandonment of khatna, since it may create awareness and generate conversation. But a law in itself will not stop khatna. Khatna will only end when we realize we are hurting our daughters. Once we realize that no religion, no God and no love is founded on pain, that is when the struggle against khatna will finally end.

 

Examining Female Genital Cutting and Intersectionality

By a Bohra

The recent dropping of charges against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who is accused of performing female genital cutting on underage girls in the United States, on a constitutional technicality rather than perceived criminality, solidified my thinking about the relationship between power and oppression.   

This thought was first introduced to me by Irfan Engineer, the son of Asghar Ali Engineer, a prominent activist who engaged in a decades-long battle with the Bohra orthodoxy over community reform. Irfan, a successful activist in his own right, described to me the relationship between the Indian state and the Bohra clergy. As long as the clergy declared electoral allegiance to the government, the state would turn a blind eye to the clergy’s authoritarian rule over the Bohra community. This relationship was made visible by the government’s reversal of its support for a national law against FGC, shortly after Prime Minister Modi (dis)graced the stage at one of this year’s Bohra Ashura sermons.

Modi extolled the virtues of the economically and educationally advanced Bohras, who were allegedly setting a great example for their impoverished and persecuted Muslim countrymen. Seeing Modi on stage, Bohra Muslims could almost forget the carnage inflicted in Gujarat in 2002, and Modi’s rampant Islamophobia since. The Bohra community has probably been shielded from Islamophobic violence because of the clergy’s close relationship with the ruling right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideological parent, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

Even I was willing to overlook the fact that the Indian government’s attempt at criminalising FGC was based more on criminalising Muslims rather than empowering women. Yet, I thought, maybe the ends will justify the means. I was wrong. Modi’s relationship with the Bohra clergy makes it clear that we cannot rely on the Indian government to end FGC in our community. Even if the Supreme Court rules in favour of criminalising FGC, we can be certain that the government will do nothing to enforce the ruling.

This violent relationship between the state and vulnerable women is not restricted to the Indian context. I am reminded of the first FGC case to be prosecuted in Australia, where three people were sent to jail after being proven guilty. An appeals court, however, acquitted them all after new evidence was released that showed that “the tip of the clitoris was still visible in each girl”. The reduction of the emotional, physical and ideological violence of FGC down to a visual assessment of a pinch of skin shows the weakness of even Western legal systems in protecting marginalised women. It is similar to the victim blaming that is still a routine in rape trials, and the inability of the state to protect women who report honour-based violence. Whether through negligence or structural misogyny, Western and non-Western governments have failed women.

If the government is not an ally, could I turn instead to ‘reformists’ within my own community?

I am in contact with certain Bohras who are not part of the mainstream community, and reject the leadership of the current clergy. They believe that the current leaders have deviated from the true message of the Imams,  and that we must educate ourselves by going back to the original sources of our tradition. I thought that this group of people (mostly men), espousing rationality and critical inquiry, would immediately be against FGC. I was wrong. The emphasis on going back to the original sources means that they accept, uncritically, the infamous book by Qadi Numan (Da’im Al Islam) that advocates for girls to be ‘circumcised’ once they are older than 7 years old. Any debate, often started by the few women in the WhatsApp group, about the necessity of this practice in our modern context, or even about the issue of consent, is shut down. I thought that a shared experience of living under a tyrannical religious clergy might force these men to be more critical of existing power structures and hear the voices of marginalised women. Once again, I was wrong. I learned that the patriarchy, embodied by these ‘reformist’ men, can never be leveraged to end violence against women.

I learned that it is not worth compromising my core values in order to ally with fickle powers that do not center marginalised voices and their struggles. Real change can only happen from the ground up. This is why the work done by organisations such as Sahiyo is vital. By reaching out to individuals, and creating a space to share our stories, Sahiyo creates sustainable change within the community, and rebalances the power structures that exist within.

 

Aarefa Johari and Masooma Ranalvi discuss FGC at We the Women Bangalore

On October 7, Sahiyo co-founder Aarefa Johari and We Speak Out founder Masooma Ranalvi participated in a panel discussion on Female Genital Cutting in India, at the We the Women summit organised by veteran journalist Barkha Dutt in Bangalore. Prominent human rights activist Srilatha Batliwala moderated the discussion.

The event was attended by more than 200 people in Bangalore and was streamed live on social media. Ranalvi and Johari shared their personal experiences of being subjected to FGC and discussed various aspects of the problem from the need to engage with the community to end the practice and the significance of a law against it.

You can watch the complete video of the discussion here.

The event was a follow up to a similar We the Women summit in Mumbai in December 2017, when Sahiyo co-founder Insia Dariwala spoke about the practice along with Mubaraka and Zohra, two survivors of FGC. You can watch last year’s video here.

Sign the #EndFGM petition on change.org

A new change.org petition calling for an end to Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra community was started in September by Ranjana Sehgal and Umi Saran.

The petition is addressed to Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohra community, and was started in response to the Syedna’s visit to Indore to give sermons during the first ten holy days of Muharram.

As the petition mentions, “Although the matter is already in the Apex Court if the directive to end FGM comes from the spiritual head of the Bohra community, it will be easier to put an end to this violent practice. The Government of India’s WCD Ministry has said that FGM is in clear contravention of our laws, the Indian Penal Code and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO).”

Over 16,000 supporters have already signed, and the campaign’s next goal is reaching 25,000 signatures.  If you would like to support by signing, click here.

Not all damages are physical. Not everyone religious is morally ethical

Name: Xenobia (name changed)

Age: 27
Country: India

Today, social media is raging with thoughts and opinions on empowering women, being pro-choice, violating someone’s privacy and their body, and the role of consent, among others. Some say rapists must undoubtedly be hung to death, while some talk about punishing molesters and eve-teasers as well, so that the right patterns are set at the grassroots level and so that they think twice before taking advantage of girls again.

But what happens when the people taking advantage of a helpless 7-year-old girl are none other than her own family and community? Who, then, takes accountability for that? I’m not going to cry about my personal story here, but present some basic facts for you to consider. I am a Bohra Muslim raised in India. While the world sees us as a non-confrontational, peace-loving, business-thriving community, we have a secret tradition of circumcising 6-7-year-old girl children that we call khatna.

There are plenty of arguments about how this is “needed” from a health point of view for males and how it helps them in their sex life eventually, but the most educated and civilised people agree that this practice is harmful to a woman’s physical, psychological and emotional health, especially since it is not supervised or is often performed by untrained aunties in basements. This practice is officially termed as “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM) everywhere else in the world and it is increasingly treated as a crime committed on helpless female children.

Why? What’s the reason?

Some say purity, some say patriarchy. Some do it because it’s a mandatory tradition and if the priest says so, who dares to refuse? Some do it out of peer pressure, some do it to avoid being blacklisted or labelled rebellious. The popular conclusion for those seeking out answers has been, to moderate or curb a woman’s sexual desires. Sure, this might have worked well in an era when we lived in deserts and tribes were always on the lookout for stealing another’s woman.

Irrespective of the reason today, does it even matter? However good your reasons may be, you still don’t have the right to decide what to do to a woman’s body without her consent. Whoever you may be. No matter what your intentions, the damage is done and you are still no different from a criminal.

So what does this mean for the victims?

The custom practiced by us is allegedly ‘Type 1’ and is different from that practiced by some African communities – Type 2 and Type 3 (based on levels of severity). As recognised by the World Health Organization, Type 1 FGC is described as the cutting of the clitoral hood and/or the clitoris, which poses a range of physical and emotional consequences such as infections, excessive bleeding, burning sensations while urinating, etc. The practice can adversely affect mental health as well since many young girls feel personally betrayed, helpless and confused. The child can also experience fear of sexual intimacy and mistrust of community members later in life as a result of the trauma. Sounds familiar?

But aren’t there thousands of other women who have gone through the same thing, and claim they are not facing sexual problems?

Just like most people don’t talk to others about what happens in their bedrooms, there are FGM survivors who don’t talk about their sex lives in public either. Some of them scream in pain through the night or are unable to have a healthy “bedroom life”. Plenty of these women are regular patients of doctors, sexologists, counsellors, and therapists. Yes, they manage to get pregnant (which is not very hard to do, with or without a man) but is the process peaceful and pain-free? No.

Everyone talks about divorce rates going up but nobody realises why. They don’t see that in general, women are subject to a lot of curbing throughout their upbringing. Things have always been decided for them and whatever the gender might be, it’s not like we are brought up in a community that breeds leaders or independent decision makers. We are a herd of brainwashed followers. And with the recent #metoo revolution, women have just started discovering their voice.

My personal take

Yes, I was ‘cut’ too. I don’t remember the details, but I remember flashes. I was taken to meet “some aunty” and I remember not having a very good feeling about it, but you do what you’re asked to do anyway. We went to her gloomy house in Calcutta and she asked me to stand over an Indian-style toilet with my legs apart and I remember seeing blood fall. That’s all.

I definitely remember having a hard time peeing for a week after that. Since this clearly does not qualify as a regular dinner conversation, it was just never spoken of after that. At age 16, I came across this ‘Muslim practice’ in Jean Sasson’s book – Princess. Among other terrible things done to women in Saudi Arabia, this was described in detail and that awoke something in my memory.

At first, I was scared and terrified because I didn’t know what to do with that information. It didn’t make any sense. Why would something that awful be done to me? What was the purpose? Was this religious? Was this medical? Gradually, I started asking other people of my age about it. Thanks to the internet, I started understanding a lot more of this ‘barbaric’ practice and how it is just another side effect of our patriarchal world, where random men decide how we must lead our lives and what is good for us.

What I couldn’t wrap my head around was how parents would let that happen to their own kids. When your daughter is at the peak of her innocence and brimming with nothing but pure love for you, you violate that basic trust. And then you actually hand her over to the monster who does that to her?

So your religion asks you to cut her body. And you see nothing wrong with that. And what about the repercussions and damages – physical, mental and emotional? She deals with those all her life. And if this is something you truly feel isn’t wrong, then why the hush-hush? Why the secret? Tell everyone about it, celebrate it, like you do for a misaaq ceremony? Why stop there? Of course, there are always exceptions too. Plenty of well-wishers keep trying to tell me that’s it’s not my fault and I shouldn’t worry about it, and I say, “Yes I know, and yet, I’m the one paying the price.”

What is really sad is that so many girls out there probably still don’t even know or remember this incident taking place. They are living under the impression that sex is bad and painful, and perhaps the problem is with them. Like most of our teachings. All the more reason why I am grateful to Sahiyo for this amazing platform for women to share their stories, to empathise, to let girls like me know that I am not the only damaged one and that I don’t need to see myself as a victim. Empowering women through storytelling seems like a glorious part of our culture that they are taking forward!

 

Sahiyo co-founders win Laadli and ShoorVeer Awards in India

Sahiyo’s investigative report on the previously unknown prevalence of Female Genital Cutting in the Indian state of Kerala won the prestigious Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity for the year 2017. The report was authored by Sahiyo co-founder Aarefa Johari and independent writer and activist Aysha Mahmood.

Johari received the Laadli award on behalf of both authors at an event in Delhi on September 14 by Laadli’s founding organisation, Population First. Eminent journalist P Sainath was the chief guest at the event.

Johari and Mahmood’s investigation uncovered, for the first time, that FGC was being practiced covertly by two doctors in a clinic in the city of Kozhikide (Calicut) in Kerala. The doctors admitted to cutting girls and women of all ages from various Sunni Muslim sects in Kerala. Previously, it was widely believed that the Bohras were the only community practicing FGC in India. (Read the Sahiyo investigation report here.)

The Sahiyo investigation caused a furore in Kerala after Mathrubhoomi, a prominent Malayalam newspaper, conducted a follow-up exposé of the same clinic, and published a first-person account of a young woman from Kerala who had undergone FGC as a child. The exposés led to a temporary shut down of the clinic in Calicut where girls were being cut and prompted several religious leaders to publicly condemn the practice. The health minister of Kerala also ordered the state police to take strict action against anyone found practicing FGC.

ShoorVeer Awards

Sahiyo’s co-founders Insia Dariwala and Aarefa Johari won the ShoorVeer Awards 2018 in Mumbai on August 10. The awards, given by the organisation Ample Missiion, were instituted to honour the bravery and courage of “common men and women who have done uncommon things”. The word “ShoorVeer” is Hindi for a brave warrior.

A total of 14 individuals from across India were awarded ShoorVeer awards this year, including two police officers who have excelled in their duties, two children who saved their friend’s life, an amputee sportsman and several women and men working in the fields of education, health, and human rights.

Aarefa won the award for her work as a Sahiyo co-founder to end the practice of Female Genital Cutting. Insia’s award was a recognition of not just her work to end FGC, but also her work to raise awareness about child sexual abuse through her organisation, The Hands of Hope Foundation.

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Insia Dariwala receiving her ShoorVeer Award.
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Aarefa Johari receiving her ShoorVeer Award.

WeSpeakOut spearheads two-day workshop on ending FGC in India

In a unique event bringing together activists working to end Female Genital Cutting and various stakeholders from civil society organisations, WeSpeakOut organised a two-day symposium at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai on August 1 and 2. The symposium, titled “Strategy-building Workshop on FGM/C in India”, was organised in partnership with TISS, Nari Samata Manch and Sahiyo.

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More than 40 activists, survivors, and researchers participated in the workshop, including women and men from various sub-sects of the Bohra community from different parts of India, feminists, academicians, and heads of several women’s rights and human rights organisations in the country. There were also international participants from Equality Now, a US-based organisation working to end FGC globally and Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, an NGO working to end FGC in Kenya.
Over two days, the workshop nurtured stimulating and productive discussions on various aspects of FGC and discussed strategies to advocate against the practice from the perspectives of law, health, community engagement and working with the youth and with men. The workshop was also an opportunity for activists from the community and those from outside the community to learn from each other.