Population Council hosts second webinar on FGM/C research

By Hunter Kessous

The Population Council recently hosted a fascinating webinar, “Using Research to Understand and Accelerate The Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).” It was the second of two webinars from a series titled, “Evidence to End FGM/C: Research to Help Girls and Women Thrive.” The most recent webinar reported some of the findings of a research consortium that began in 2015 and culminated this year. The research spanned eight countries, studying FGM/C, and researched how initiatives to end the practice may be optimized. 

Speakers included Bettina Shell-Duncan, University of Washington Seattle (Moderator); Nada Wahba, Population Council, Egypt; Dennis Matanda, Population Council, Kenya; P. Stanley Yoder, Medical Anthropologist; and Nafissatou J. Diop, UNFPA.

Dr. Matanda spoke on the use of data to inform programming. His research spanned Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal, and sought to map hotspots for FGM/C. The data pinpointed the areas of each country in which FGM/C is most prevalent. Dr. Matanda’s findings also reveal how factors relating to a girl’s mother influence the likelihood that she will be cut. The results varied by region, but some of these factors included the mother’s ethnic group, her beliefs surrounding FGM/C, and if she herself was cut. The most important takeaway from Dr. Matanda’s research is that considering only national data masks local variations. He recommends linking regional data to subnational policies and efforts to prevent FGM/C from occuring to future generations of girls. 

Medical anthropologist Dr. Yoder responded to Dr. Matanda’s research, remarking that Kenya was the only country of the three where the level of education of the mother was found to have an effect on the risk of a girl being cut. He proposes modernization, the shift from traditional and rural to secular and urban, as an explanation for Dr. Matanda’s findings. I believe that Dr. Yoder’s theory illuminates a need for ongoing research on this subject that correlates the changes in Kenya’s social, economic, and political growth to changes in the continuation of FGM/C. 

Following Dr. Yoder’s analysis, Nada Wahba presented her research on the intersection of FGM/C and gender in Egypt. Hers was a qualitative study with multiple intriguing findings. One discovery that I found especially important was that conflicted mothers have been turning to doctors to decide on their behalf whether or not their daughter should be cut. This could be a result of increasing medicalization of FGM/C in Egypt. Another interesting finding was that if either one of the parents, whether it be the mother or the father, does not want their daughter to be cut, then she will not undergo FGM/C. While many programs working to end FGM/C target the mother as the decision maker, Wahba’s research clearly shows that mothers are not the only influential group. For this reason, more anti-FGM/C programs should shift their efforts to also educate fathers and doctors, particularly in regions with high rates of medicalization. 

Nafissatou Diop followed Wahba’s presentation to provide analysis of the research. Diop feels strongly that FGM/C is rooted in gender inequalities, yet not nearly enough programs acknowledge this fact. She claims many programs that address cutting are gender blind, focusing too much on the consequences of FGM/C in their approach rather than the root causes for why FGM/C continues in the first place. Diop’s comments were a strong call to action for all advocates to take a gender transformative approach in order to achieve abandonment of FGM/C. 

More information about this research project can be found here.

The webinar can be viewed here.

 

Intern Spotlight: Sahiyo Social Media Intern Farhan Zia

Farhan Zia joined Sahiyo’s team as a social media intern in 2019. He is an undergraduate student reading the law at Jindal Global Law School, in O.P. Jindal Global University, India. He researches the intersections of law with human rights, gender and religion, and has a deep interest in engaging with theology and religion from a feminist and modern perspective. He is a student researcher at the FGM Project which seeks to draft and present a bill against female genital cutting in India, a member of the Legal Aid Clinic of Jindal Global Law School.

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

While I had heard bits and pieces about female genital cutting (FGC) in college, I was not exposed to the full magnitude of the issue. In August 2019, my friend Kavya Palavalasa, who was an intern at Sahiyo, told me about the organization. Following this, when I went through the Sahiyo stories and resources, I came to understand the extent and nuances of FGC. I decided that I must work on this issue, and joined Sahiyo in October 2019. 

What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a social media intern, I help create, schedule and manage content for the social media handles, for the daily feed, as well as specific campaigns. I also watch out for any news about FGC that Sahiyo should write on.

How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

As a student of law interested in religion and gender, I often notice how activists and authors trying to bring about legal or social reforms end up alienating the very people they seek to help by not understanding their culture and values. It is very difficult to speak against institutionalized cultural practices like FGC. But at Sahiyo I noticed how their advocacy is respectful and compassionate in its language and not condescending in any manner. The Sahiyo resources were a great help for me to grasp how effective reporting of an issue as nuanced as FGC must be done.

I am always in awe of the solidarity and bravery of the many women involved with Sahiyo and who share their stories in its various storytelling campaigns. It really brings into clear focus how patriarchal practices harm women and how too few men try to understand this or contribute to the feminist cause. It has prompted me to read and explore FGC more and work toward contributing to legal reforms in India.  

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Sahiyo is a wonderful organization to work and learn since the people here are incredibly helpful and understanding. I believe that fighting for equality is not just women’s responsibility. I implore more men to support Sahiyo’s cause against FGC. If you are passionate about working toward gender equality, I really encourage you to get involved.

We should all speak up against female genital cutting

By Hatim Amiji

As a man, I found myself extremely nervous sitting in a circle of ten women at Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C workshop. I had entered what I would consider a sacred space, to share my story related to female genital cutting (FGC), but more importantly, to listen to their stories. The air was dense and it was obvious that what was about to be shared would be opening up deep and unhealed wounds. I took part in Sahiyo’s storytelling workshop because I wanted to make a point that FGC is an issue males should be willing to stand against. My story highlighted how the practice alienated the relationship I had with my sister. Only by listening to her story, were we able to recreate a bond we once had as innocent children. 

IMG_7437.JPGAs the women told their stories, I listened to their descriptions of the pain they underwent both during the practice and throughout their lives. The metaphorical microphone had been passed, and I could hear what these women had kept inside for most of their lives. As a man, and therefore, in many ways an observer, I was situated in a derivative of social voyeurism. I was listening to stories that had weighed these women down for decades, but I myself never went through such experiences. And yet, I was accepted into their circle; I was given the chance to listen because they felt it was important for me to listen. In turn, the story I told was important for them to hear as well. It was one of solidarity, one that depicted a mutual understanding that this practice needs to end no matter one’s biological sex.

It is common knowledge in the community in which I was raised that this issue is one males are not to get involved in. As I have learned from women in the workshop, it’s the same for many communities around the globe. I had learned of the practice tangentially by skimming through an online pamphlet, and only learned of the prevalence of the practice by doing research on my own. It was never brought up in religious congregations, Sunday school, or in conversations with my parents. I had to bring it up to my mother in order to learn more about it, and I have yet to even speak with my father because I know he is likely as shielded from the issue as I once was.

Aside from the fact that males are less informed on the issue, it is also apparent that males turn a blind eye even in light of exposure to the practice. We are expected to let the issue stay a female issue: one that we shouldn’t meddle in because we don’t understand. It is true that I will never understand the actual manifestation and perception of pain and lifelong suffering that comes with the practice, but I do understand that this practice is a source of trauma that affects our daughters and sisters and mothers, and this is enough for men to stand up and speak out against it. Around the globe, females are robbed of their innocence in the form of genital cutting and there is absolutely no good reason why. We must speak up because this issue affects us all.

 

#MenToEndFGC: Sahiyo’s Male Ally Campaign Launches

The issue of female genital cutting (FGC) is usually told from a woman’s perspective – for obvious reasons. Women around the world have spoken up against this practice that has gone on far too long, and we commend those who have made their voices heard. At Sahiyo, we know that while a lot of progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that girls and women no longer undergo FGC. We know that more voices need to be heard, and that’s why we launched our male ally campaign.3-2

Last month (July 2019), we issued a call-to-action for men to speak out against FGC. We know a lot of misinformation exists about FGC, and that men may not be aware of what goes on, or they may be misinformed about what FGC does to a child or a woman. We asked men to submit short videos, audio files, quotations, or blogs that share one thing in common: taking a stand against the practice of FGC and denouncing it.

The response we received was amazing. Dozens of men across the globe from Ghana and Kenya to multiple regions of India and the US stepped up to answer our call. Many shared their personal experiences with FGC, involving their wives, daughters, sisters, or friends being cut. Others described why FGC needs to end and how harmful it is. Each one made their thoughts known and told us and everyone why the practice of FGC needs to end for girls and women worldwide. This took place in several formats, such as quotes, audio entries and videos (see examples below). In addition, we took this campaign to highlight the thoughtful blog pieces written by our male allies over the past few years, such as this powerful letter from a father.

 

To watch more video entries of this campaign, check out this Youtube playlist. 

We greatly appreciate all of you who took the time to send in a blog post, video, quotation, or audio file.

We will be posting these submissions throughout August and September on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages. If you missed the deadline for submissions or would like to add more of your thoughts, we will be using the hashtags #MenToEndFGC, #SahiyoMaleAllies, and #MenEndFGM in our posts. If you use these hashtags or tag @sahiyovoices in a post, we may repost it!

We know that we must stand together and unite to end FGC. These men stepping up and speaking out against FGC is a step in the right direction, and we hope it inspires more men to use their voices to help end FGC for all girls and women.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Work of the devil?

By: Koen Van den Brande
Age: 56

Country: India

I rarely speak of the devil.

In Germany they have a saying:

Du sollst den Teufel nicht an die Wand mahlen
Literally this translates to ‘Don’t paint a picture of the devil on the wall’.

Loosely translated it means that you should not invite evil by talking about it.

But maybe there are times we have a duty to alert others to the devil’s work.

What I mean by that is not that anyone in particular is a devil but rather that maybe at times the devil has a hand in misleading people.

My efforts to get to the bottom of the origins of the practice of ‘khatna’ – what the rest of the world calls ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM) – in the Suleimani community, recently led me to the inevitable conclusion that the devil has had a hand in twisting the words of the Prophet PBUH, to mean the opposite of what He was saying.

My attention was drawn to some research carried out by learned members of the Muslim community. Let me present the facts to you so that you may come to your own conclusion.

Early on in my own research I came across a Hadith – a reported saying of the Prophet – which was being quoted as evidence of tacit approval of this ancient practice, which predated Islam and may have been initiated in the distant past to subdue the sexual urges of female slaves.

My discussions with members of the Suleimani community had made it clear that the Daim-ul-Islam is the rulebook to which many show an unquestioning allegiance.

Of course such blind faith can have dire consequences. The Daim-ul-Islam does indeed refer to the Hadith in question. Following is an extract from a paper published on www.alislam.org, with the title ‘Female circumcision and its standing in Islamic law’.

Al Islam quote

But it turns out this is not the full Hadith.

In full, the Hadith seems to leave little doubt as to where the Prophet stood on this matter. The authors of the report quote from Al-Kafi, a respected Shiite book of traditions.

Koen article quote

Was the Prophet endorsing, encouraging or even mandating that women should be cut?

Or was he signaling his disapproval and in the face of a long-established tradition, trying to limit the harm done to women? Given what he says, is it correct to claim, as some do, that he should have forbidden it, if he really felt it was wrong?  

I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusion.

For me these words of Mohammed, now in full view, are consistent with other issues where he championed the rights of women in the face of a culture which at that time saw no reason to do so.

Who decided to shorten the hadith and to what end? And at which point did a woman who ‘used to circumcise women slaves’ become a woman who ‘used to circumcise girls’? There is a substantive difference is there not?

Just as with the modern day suggestion that Mohammed condoned wife-beating, when in fact he counseled restraint and suggested several alternative ways of resolving marital disputes or the insistence by some on the validity of ‘triple talaq’ divorce, where in fact careful mediation over a period of time is prescribed, one can only conclude that the devil himself has repeatedly sought to undermine the Prophet’s cause as champion of the rights of women!

Today we call this ‘fake news’ and we are learning day by day, how it is used to mislead those who believe without questioning.  

Witness how the young parents of our community are systematically fed disinformation, building on that same principle of blind faith. But blind faith in whom?

I quote from the website www.islamqa.com.

Koen article quote2

Search for the term ‘khatna’ and the following question is addressed, among others:

Koen article quote3

This is how the scene is set:

Koen article quote4

I wonder what a properly qualified medical practitioner would make of some of the advice given.

Koen article quote5

Need I say more ?

How do we tackle such blatant attempts at misleading parents of young girls?

Surely the best strategy must be to focus on facts and truth. So I am attempting to find a consensus across the Suleimani community around the following statement.

“I as a member of the Suleimani Jamaat, in the interest of young parents and their girls, want to reflect what I believe to be the truth about the practice of khatna. 

Fact is …

  1. It is a tradition which predates Islam 
  2. It is not mentioned in the Quran at all 
  3. It is not practiced by all muslims 
  4. It has been declared a crime in several Muslim majority countries 
  5. It is considered a health hazard by the World Health Organization
  6. It is considered a crime against a child by the United Nations

Truth is, in my humble opinion, that the Prophet Mohammed PBUH frowned upon this practice and sought to prevent harm from being done to women.

I believe that these facts should be endorsed by our leadership and communicated to all of the Jamaat ‘s young parents. 

The Daim-ul-islam states that ‘khatna’ is not obligatory and that it should not be performed before a girl is 7-years-old. 

I believe that it would be in line with this rule to recommend to parents that any decision to proceed with this practice should be postponed until the age of consent. 

And in line with the Prophet’s guidance, at a time when it was a more common practice, I believe that when and if it is performed, it must be done symbolically only and cause no harm.”

I hope you can join the effort by endorsing this statement.

And if you cannot, I invite you to propose an alternative.

At least let’s start by banning the use of http://www.isllamqa.com

Let us work together to undo the work of the devil.  

 

Why men too must speak out against Khatna

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 a research on the individual experience of Khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series – Khatna Research in Mumbai.

Khatna, by virtue of being related to female anatomy, is often categorized as a women’s issue. However, one must also remember that it is a practice performed on uninformed and unconsenting children. We must move beyond defining it as a child or a woman being violated and look at it as a human being who is being wronged, and therefore the most comprehensive way to describe it would be a human rights violation.

Despite it being a human rights issue, it appears as if not many people are willing to speak up against it, even though all people, especially men, need to do so. Within the structure of the Indian patriarchy, men enjoy power not only by virtue of their gender but also by their sheer number in our country. Therefore men can use their position of power to effectively tilt the weights in favor of women who are speaking against Khatna.

Although, ideally we expect all men to support us in the endeavour to end Khatna,  we should also attempt to understand their hesitancy. Within the Indian patriarchal family structure, the woman is seen as the mistress of the house, in charge of children, while men are seen as masters for all things outside the domain of the house. Therefore any attempt by men to venture into the discussion concerning women’s bodies is seen as ill-mannered and a gross violation of clearly demarcated gender roles.

During my research, I met a father who became aware of Khatna and its consequences because he had daughters and therefore vehemently opposed it. He narrated the daily struggle of convincing his own mother against this practice. However, like many other men before and many after him, he was unsuccessful in dissuading the women in his family from continuing it on his daughter. He was blindsided by his mother and given the blanket argument that she knows better for a woman by virtue of herself being a woman.  

Yet research has shown that with increasing education on khatna, more men are willing to campaign against it. Still, the onus of initiating a conversation on khatna among others lies with the women. Communication between men and women, especially husband and wife, is crucial for the discontinuation of Khatna. A woman I interviewed who had undergone Khatna took this initiative and began a conversation with her husband, which gave her immense strength and helped her protect their daughter from falling into the clutches of tradition. Research too corroborates the same: if more men are are part of the decision making process, the less the likelihood that Khatna would be performed on the girl.

The research linked above shows that men who wish to speak up are held back by their limited knowledge on the effects of Khatna.They are unaware of what is removed and what are its ramifications. The primary reason for this ignorance is the lack of conversations about women and their health among family members. This hesitancy to talk about women in front of men comes from the idea that women are equivalent to the family’s honour, therefore talking about aspects of their sexuality may be seen as a violation, thereby a disgrace to the family’s honour.  However, we must move beyond the archaic concept and understand that creating awareness about the ill effects that Khatna has on a woman’s body in no way defiles a family’s honour. After all, what honour can reside in pain?

Conversations about Khatna must begin, questions must be asked and collaborative measures between men women must be taken to put an end to this practice. There are several ways to oppose this practice. You may choose to speak out or you may to choose to silently protest;  however, if active measures are not taken to resist it, then there is passive consent for the continuation of khatna, and we must understand that every time such consent is given, it means another child is being harmed. Therefore, let us come together for the children and do whatever we can, wherever we can.

To participate in Priya’s research, contact her on priya.tiss.2018@gmail.com

 

Khatna: A mother’s pain and a son’s search for retribution

By: Anonymous

Age: 31
Country: United States

My mother is a woman of faith. The innate cultism of the Bohra community has never dissuaded her from being a part of it, attending every function on the bright, colorful Hijri calendar. For decades, that bright calendar has served as a façade to hide inexcusable darkness. I’ve been distant from this community for some time. I’ve often voiced some of the blatant ironies of our sect, particularly with the Hijri calendar. Lailutal Qadr, the holiest night in Ramadan, is now a minor blip on it, largely overshadowed by the birthday of his holiness, Mufaddal Saifuddin, which falls on the same day. She does not take my criticisms lightly and always tells me to have an open mind. She pleads with me to forget the cultism for a minute and focus on the community, the spirituality, and the power of prayer. She’s always been pious to a fault, ignoring the many uncomfortable truths of a community that has so many.  

It made it shocking a couple months ago when she expressed her anger and hostility towards Khatna. Sahiyo has cast a large spotlight on this tribal and destructive practice. Growing up in a household of all boys and in a community that’s kept Khatna so hidden, I only learned of the practice through Sahiyo and the articles by so many women who have had the courage to discuss its indignities and the havoc it has caused in their lives.

But it hit home when my mom told me about her own experiences. This deeply religious woman, who has been an advocate for the Bohra community her entire life and encouraged her children to look past certain practices, was not willing to overlook this one. She told my brother and me that if she had a daughter she would never have them undergo this procedure. She told us in excruciating detail about her own experience at the tender age of seven, when she was taken to a dark basement at a neighbor’s home in India. The pain, anger, and sexual frustrations she has suffered since then were self-evident from the tears building up in her eyes. I couldn’t hold back the tears in my own. The anger I felt when reading the stories of other women, rose to a fever pitch when I realized how much it hurt the woman that brought me into this world. A woman I have loved my entire life. She forgave this community and encouraged me to be a part of it. Because, for her generation, the community is everything and the thought of becoming an outcast – that fear of being shunned from family and friends – makes you swallow your pain, frustration, and anger and accept the status quo.

No more.

The only beauty in the ugly underbelly surrounding Khatna, is the powerful options we have to confront it and other injustices of the Bohra community. For the first time in thirty years the powers that be are scared to the core. And it’s not just the fear of legal repercussions they will inevitably face in facilitating and encouraging genital mutilation. Their real fear lies in losing the plethora of financial benefits they have always valued – the envelopes filled with bundles of cash, the millions of dollars in Ziyafats, the houses, the cars, and financial control over thousands of small Bohri businesses. The more these injustices are pointed out, the more Bohris – specifically millennials – will go elsewhere for spiritual enlightenment. And with that financial loss, they can never sustain the lavish lifestyle they’ve grown so accustomed to.

But actions always speak louder than words. The first step, and it is imperative, is to find a special woman in your life affected by this practice. Sit down with that woman, talk to her, and understand what she’s been through. It will fill you with the same rage it filled me.

And that’s what we need – a whole lot of rage. We need people in our generation to be angry and to boycott this community unless it returns to serve the spiritual needs of the people it’s tasked with serving. That’s what a religious community can and should be.

I will never forget the pain I saw in my mother’s eyes the night she told me about her experience with Khatna. I will carry it with me moving forward and fight to make sure this practice ends. If we all do our part, it will stop, along with the other immoral practices of a community that has so many. All millennials should exercise the same vengeance. They can’t threaten to destroy our lives like they did to our parents. We hold all the cards here. We shouldn’t be afraid to play our collective strong hand.

How I learned that FGM happens in India

By: Anonymous journalist whose friend underwent FGM

Age: 26
Country: India

“It was supposed to stop me from me doing ‘those things’. I’m not sure if it served the purpose,” M told me.

I would have known about this practice much later if I hadn’t met someone who underwent it.

As we were getting to know each other, one day M drew my attention to the fact that she was different from other girls. That was when I heard the term female genital mutilation for the first time.

“You should read about genital mutilation”, she said.

Later that night, I learned about this horrible practice meant to oppress women. I had so many unanswered questions for her.

~ How did she become a part of this?

~ Explaining what happened to you to all your companions must be tiring…

~ Was everyone as sensitive as me when she told them about what had happened to her?

~ Why does a well-educated family still practice it?

I called her. That’s when I heard her story.

She told me that men don’t take part in ‘matters of female’. She was only six or seven when her maternal grandmother took her for khatna. She thought they were going for afternoon prayers until the point when an old lady laid her on a table and pulled her pants away. But the real terror struck when her legs were pulled apart. All reasoning was silenced just like her protest and this memory was repressed. What does a child know about right or wrong? If the elders do it, it must be for good. Right?

“Where was your mother when all of this was happening, did she even know?” I asked her.

M said, “I don’t know. She hadn’t joined me when it was done to me. I can’t imagine her watching me go through something like that.”

Her mother probably didn’t want to inflict the pain on her, and at the same time, her mother could see there was a flawed reasoning behind the practice. Her mother accepted that the tradition had to continue in silence.

Life went on as usual until M turned twenty. She was no longer a little girl. After she had sex for the first time, the repressed memories came up. She could no longer hide. She wondered, are my genitals different, am I different because of it?

M often felt she was not normal and even felt she was asexual.  It was not just the altering of her genitals that made her feel different, but the lack of understanding of her body as well.  

“Remember I would often wonder if I was asexual because of it? Well, those doubts are gone. I finally know I have the urge to have sex like anyone else,” M said to me to explain the doubts she had around her ability to orgasam.

She still remembers the first time her family openly talked about khatna. M was in college and an aunt was visiting from abroad. She heard her aunt speaking to her parents about the “mindless practice of female circumcision.” She joined the conversation, speaking publicly for the first time about her anger for having undergone it. But the conversation ended with her parents saying the following words “Daughter, you will understand later. It has to be done so that the girl doesn’t go out of hand.”

Like within most families in India, parents and their children do not speak about sexuality. She couldn’t let her family know she was sexually active. I sense that because parents see pre-marital sex as wrong, this idea has a very big role in the continuation of the practice. Therefore, while addressing FGM we can’t separate it from the need for sex education. Sex education must also include sensitizing the emotional and psychological aspects of sex as well.

“How can we bring an end to all this?” I asked her the last time we spoke.

“One thing is for certain,” M said. “I am not making my daughter go through this.”

Her decision is significant. Pledging not to continue it on the next generation is important, particularly when perhaps twenty years ago, many women never made this pledge.

“Will you ever talk publicly about it?” I asked her.

“I don’t know”, she said, “It’s not like I’m not trying to make any difference. I just feel I’m not ready to be public and deal with the attention I would get afterwards.”

Her answer made me realize that the people who are affected by the reckless act are not the only anchors of social change. We needed to focus equally on institutions that allowed such harmful traditions to continue.

Speaking to the religious heads about FGM is important. The most crucial aspect of reforming this age-old practice is educating people. Simply banning it by law is not the solution because this may lead some families to carry out khatna in secret, on their own.

She said, “Today’s young priests who get more educated think like us. I’m sure if they are encouraged to bring about changes, it will have a larger impact on the community.”

As a journalist, I’m sharing the story of my friend, because I believe media’s role is critical in achieving social justice, and helping to get those larger institutions to think about creating change.

FGM before the Indian Supreme Court

By: Koen Van den Brande

Age: 55
Country: India

It was to be expected…

The Indian Supreme Court has been asked to look at the practice of ‘khatna’ – commonly known as FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) as a result of a Public Interest Litigation filed by Sunita Tiwari, a Delhi based advocate.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Suleimani community was known for people who showed great wisdom and leadership. For example when the educator, jurist and author Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee  advocated “the need to incorporate modern reforms in Islamic law without compromising on the ‘essential spirit of Islam’.”

FGM has been in the news of late in India as well as the US, the UK and Australia, as a result of legal action taken against practitioners of ‘khatna’ and discussions on how to make existing legislation more effective.

In the Mumbai-based Suleimani community, which I belong to, we have also been having some discussions on how to address this practice, which remains prevalent albeit more and more in what I would call an ‘intellectualised’ form. After all, we are not talking here about primitive tribal communities as in some countries in Africa, where in 10% of the cases, we can talk about ‘mutilation’ in the fullest, most horrific, sense.

The community is well accustomed with the Islamic principle that the law of the land is to be respected. In the Prophet’s (PBUH) words ’Love of one’s country is a part of one’s faith” So at one level, the introduction of a new law would be the easiest way to address the issue… Or would it?

In the UK such a law has been on the statute books for many years without ever leading to a single case in court and yet it is well-known that the practice continues there for thousands of girls.

Or take the case of Egypt, where despite a law which declares the practice a crime, 98% of women continue to be cut. As an Egyptian government official comments in the highly informative as well as emotional documentary The Cutting Tradition, soberly narrated by Meryl Streep, you cannot put the entire population of a country in jail…

A study in Senegal concluded that the introduction of specific legislation can be helpful, where it complements other efforts to educate and gain support for abandoning such a practice. However the study also observed that such legislation without the necessary work on the ground can build resistance if it is primarily seen as interference in a religious practice.

In India there is no lack of existing legislation under which FGM would be seen as a criminal offence, as Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development recently spelled out in no uncertain terms, in response to a referral by the Supreme Court.

In addition, supra-national bodies like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation take a clear stand on the subject. India is a signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it was not even on the radar of the UN until a group of women submitted a petition to recognise India as one of the countries where FGM is still practiced…

In India there is the additional problem that the Muslim minority is always likely to find a new law addressing ‘khatna’, considered by some a ‘religious practice’, an imposition by a Hindu-dominated government – even if the law makes perfect sense. Such resentment could result in the practice being driven underground and once again reverting to the earlier back-alley horrors, which so many women have attested to.

In fact, following the successful efforts of Sahiyo and others, a new site has recently been set up protesting ‘interference’, as expected. It would of course be much better if the two sides agreed to sit together to work out a sensible way forward.

Sunita Tiwari is quite clear. She wants ‘khatna’ to be made an offence which is ‘cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable and offenders to get maximum punishment and penalty’.  

In reality, and for many Suleimani families today, ‘khatna’ has become what a father of two daughters called ‘a minor procedure’, when I asked him about it. That is to say that the ‘intellectualised’ form of the practice already insists on a medical procedure which simply removes a small bit of skin — the clitoral hood. Such a procedure may be justified and carried out legitimately to assist a grown-up woman. Which still leaves the question how one can justify making that decision for a child.

As a result of my initial conversations and a bit of research, I wrote an article a while back in which I advocated a possible approach which would respect the view of those who consider this a spiritual matter and the rest of us. I believe this approach would also address the urgent need for reform and recognise that a large majority of the world has deemed this practice, for some time already, a crime against a girl child.

What I proposed was that the community leaders could simply teach and mandate that a woman had to be of the age of consent to allow what should then be a largely symbolic ‘cut’ and that it should always be performed under medical supervision.

At least one of the Bohra community’s spiritual leaders seems to have taken a similar view. He was reported in the media recently as saying ‘FGM should be by choice for adults’. Unfortunately this statement has become somewhat ‘politicised’ due to the succession struggle which is currently before the court in Mumbai.

This proposed approach would also address another ‘law’. It could help resolve the current dilemma for any medical practitioner who would prefer not to break his or her Hippocratic oath. This oath – ‘do no harm’ – insists that a doctor can only perform a procedure on a patient which is actually in that patient’s interest. It must be difficult for any doctor to argue that ‘khatna’ is really in the interest of a young girl from a medical perspective in the face of clear warnings from the WHO about associated health risks.

The initial response from the Suleimani religious leadership was encouraging. I learned that it is a long-standing principle in our community, to first understand why something should be done and then – only if there is a good reason – to commit to doing it.

I was also told that there is no compulsion for this practice.

I had already found out that many women were unsure of why this practice is considered ‘required’ and trusted that the leadership knew and would clarify.

Our spiritual leader felt, when we met, that a bit of research was required to get to the bottom of where this practice originated, why it was considered necessary at that time and why it is still considered relevant today.

In due course it became clear that the source of the common belief that this is required, is a book known as the Daim al-Islam.

Sadly, AA Fyzee is no longer with us, so we cannot ask him for his view on ‘khatna’ as an influential author, jurist and devout Muslim. But my guess is that if we could, he might have suggested that there is a way to align with modern international norms and to protect the rights of a child, without abandoning the spiritual ‘cleanliness’ angle.

The time has come for the Suleimani leadership to lead…

Make ‘khatna’ haram, prior to the age of consent.

I trust the Supreme Court will.

We need a Bohra Revolution

By: M Bohra

Age: 23
Country: United Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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