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.

 

FGM and the myth of modernity among Dawoodi Bohras

By: Anonymous

Age: 33
Country of birth: India
Country of current residence: USA

I am a male born into a Dawoodi Bohra family. My brother and I had remarkably normal upbringings in the United States. We were members of one of the more secular congregations in the in the US. My parents always pointed out to me how different we were from other Muslim sects. Our community stressed education for our sons and daughters. Many women in our community are business owners, doctors, and primary bread winners. Wahabi, we were not.  

I distinctly remember watching an episode of the news program “20/20” with my parents when I was a “tween”. One of the pieces was on female genital mutilation in Somalia. We watched the whole piece and a hush came over the room…the kind of awkwardness one experiences when a love scene comes on while you’re watching a movie with your parents. I didn’t know why my parents were squirming, but in a few days everyone forgot all about it.

Pic by Jean-Pierre Dalbera
Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera / Creative Commons

Fast forward over a decade and I’m in a serious relationship with my now wife. A Dawoodi Bohra woman. The first time we were intimate she began crying uncontrollably. She told me what had been done to her. She herself didn’t know what had been done to her until she learned about it in college. She felt an electric shock like pain down to her toes when it was done, but I was the first to be rocked by the waves of that ripple effect. She felt scarred and damaged. She wanted so bad to connect with me intimately, but it could never happen. That had been stripped away from her along with her ability to be a complete woman, against her will, as a minor. We worked through it together. I went to her counseling appointments. I reassured her that our love would only grow stronger, but she and I both knew no one could ever give back to her what was lost in that moment.

The “20/20” moment finally made sense.  With two sons, my parents never had to make the gut-wrenching decision to physically alter their children, but to be perfectly clear, had either of us been a girl, there would have been overwhelming pressure to do it. The community would feed their boilerplate lies: “it is to ensure a good marriage”, “it is to make you a better wife”. I later found out from my parents that all the girls in my family had it done to them. I couldn’t stomach the thought. Why put up the front of modernity when 50% of your offspring are subjected to a medieval practice? Stop flaunting your women’s independence when your prerequisite for them to be complete spiritually is for them to be incomplete physically.

My amazing wife has taught me so much. She has taught me forgiveness, and strength. I would certainly have been much more vindictive had I been put in her shoes. It is time for all Dawoodi Bohras to come to grips with this issue. It is a stain on the faith. It has no precedence in Islam, it irreversibly damages our women, and it runs counter to what we claim to be: modern, moderate Muslims. It’s time to bring this issue out of the shadows and into the light.  

FGM/C is neither beneficial nor relevant to modern times. Let’s end it

By Ali Asghar Akhtar

Country: Canada

Age: 33

I recently came to know about something very prehistoric (well I am not being overdramatic, but it was truly shocking for me).

We are living in a digital, global, mobilized world where everyday living dynamics are being challenged and improved. Changes in technology, social norms, cultures, historic traditions and even daily mundane rituals have been drastic and entire paradigms have shifted. We term these changes as “progress”.

However, when I recently learned that FGM/C (Female Genital Mutilation or Cutting) is still prevalent in today’s “modern era”, I was very surprised and shocked. I learned that FGC was still happening from one of my cousins living in the United States of America, who is a subject matter expert in this area. She told me that FGM is still practiced and that in fact in our community, many are very proud to keep our “traditions alive”. When I delved further on this subject, allowing for a benefit of doubt that it might be beneficial medically for women (as certain learning through religious teachings/beliefs have proved to be beneficial for mankind over the course of history), I learned that this practice has NO significant relevance medically or in terms of religion. This is simply a non-relevant practice which has traditionally been followed over the decades without any benefits.

I was again very surprised to learn that no support group had ever challenged this unrealistic tradition until recently when a small group named SAHIYO was formed. I support this group to work towards ending this irrational and illogical tradition which should be banned. Continuous progress only happens when certain traditions are constantly reviewed, challenged, and improved. Progress is not limited to tangible outcomes. Social change and progress happen when attitudes change to help end harmful practices.

I humbly request everyone who reads this snippet of information on FGM/C to become part of this organization and help Sahiyo stop this non-beneficial tradition. The existence of such bygone social norms is very perplexing to understand and relate to in today’s 21st century. Let’s together work to STOP FGM before it becomes a part of the next generation’s DNA.

Khatna among Suleimanis, from the perspective of an ‘outsider’

by Koen Van den Brande
Age: 55
Country: India

More than ten years ago, in a nikah ceremony in Karachi, I became a Muslim when I married a member of the Suleimani community.

I was an ‘outsider’, born in Europe and baptised a Christian, but it was clear from  the questions I was asked to answer, in order to become a Muslim, that there isn’t such a big difference between the three religions of Abraham.

Since that time I have been adopted by the Suleimani community in Mumbai and elsewhere as ‘one of them’ and I have been embraced as a member of the family and a friend.

I have naturally taken an interest in the teachings of the Prophet – Peace be upon Him – and I have listened with great concern, when those fundamentally sound teachings have been abused and misrepresented, in the interest of men who seek to dominate others, especially women.

Listening to Karen Armstrong and Lesley Hazelton and having read their biographies of the Prophet (PbuH), I have learned to consider the historical context, when trying to understand what the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) was saying and doing.

And I think that what he was saying about women was nothing short of revolutionary, considering that women in those days were in effect ‘chattels’, the property of men. The Prophet (PbuH) himself married a businesswoman and gave women the fundamental rights to inherit property and to seek a divorce.  And when it came to beating women – a commonly accepted practice then – he asked men to try and resolve disputes lovingly and to tone it down in order not to hurt their wives.

It is with that background that I first saw this ‘Hadith’:

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

Such recollections of what the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) is believed to have said, but did not record in the Quran, are often used to resolve disputes. This Hadith may be considered poorly supported by the academics, but it seems to me to be in tune with Prophet Mohammed’s (PbuH) gentle approach to teaching men how to treat women in a different manner to what they had been accustomed to and to progress gradually in the right direction.

The tradition of ‘circumcising’ not just boys but also girls, predates Islam and continues to be practiced by adherents to other religions, for example by Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Today the world calls this practice FGM, ‘female genital mutilation’. It is – rightly in my view – considered a crime against the human rights of a girl under the laws of many countries.

I myself was circumcised as a six-year-old boy and I still remember the pain afterwards when I had to pee… But in my case and to some degree that of all Jewish and Muslim boys, there was at least a medical justification for the procedure.

There is no such justification for girls and women. Quite on the contrary. The WHO – World Health Organisation – publishes a long list of potential health issues, associated with FGM.

I first became aware that girls were subjected to having their genitals cut – a practice called ‘khatna’ in our community – when my wife told me how she remembered the sharp pain, when an auntie in the community did it to her as a child.

I was enraged and worried and immediately took a closer interest in the anatomy of the clitoris, in order to try and understand the implications.

It turned out we were fortunate. The damage done was not complete. We figured it out together and have no problems.

The answer given most often by women, when asked the reason for this practice, is that it is intended to reduce a woman’s libido and thus make her less likely to be promiscuous.

I wholeheartedly recommend a book, which helped me gain a much better informed perspective on the anatomy of the female sexual organs and the very different ways in which women experience the pleasure of lovemaking.

The title of the book is ‘She comes first – the thinking man’s guide to pleasuring a woman’ and it was written by Ian Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist and well-known counselor on sexuality.

I challenge the Muslim men, who are my family and friends, to become ‘thinking men’ and embrace what this book tries to teach.

Since the time I learned that my wife had been cut, I sort of assumed that this, otherwise rather liberal Suleimani community, must have left this practice behind and that younger generations of women were likely no longer affected…

But there is a problem of course … You cannot really walk up to a woman and ask outright, can you? It is considered a deeply private matter. So it seems many men in the community are unaware.

It was news from Australia that a religious leader of the (Dawoodi) Bohra community had been jailed for FGM, which first made me realise that, if the Bohra community still practiced ‘khatna’, it might be true for the Suleimanis as well.

And so I gently broached the subject during a gathering with friends and family. I was astonished to see that at least one male member of the group was putting up a strong defense for this practice, by justifying it as somehow ‘required’ by Islam.

I read out to him and the group what Dr Ahmed Talib, the then Dean of the faculty of Sharia – Islamic law – at the renowned Islamic university of Al-Azhar in Egypt, had said in 2005…

“All practices of female circumcision and mutilation are crimes and have no relationship with Islam. Whether it involves the removal of the skin or the cutting of the flesh of the female genital organs… it is not an obligation in Islam.”

But to no avail.

So I decided to take on this challenge.

Here, surely is a good example of the sort of thing that brings Islam into disrepute and causes the younger generation to turn away.

We no longer live in the eighth century and mankind has evolved since that time.

Women have acquired rights, just as the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) had intended they should.

And surely, children cannot be abused like this, in his name.

I propose a few ‘thought experiments’, to try and bring home the need for all religions to evolve over time and to recognise modern standards of what is acceptable and what is not.

Imagine I came to you and declared that I was a follower of the religion of the Aztec people and that my religion requires me to perform a human sacrifice …Would you let me?

Or imagine a group of women decided to create a new religious sect which, recognising that men have a strong sexual urge which often leads them astray, decided to castrate all male children at birth. Would you let them?

What about child marriage. We know Aisha joined the Prophet (PbuH) as his wife at age nine. So, does that mean that child marriage should be allowed today? Surely not!

So I decided to invite the strong women of the Suleimani community, to speak up and show that they can bring about a change to the benefit of their faith.

I firmly believe that the younger generation will increasingly turn its back on the religion, if it is seen as out of step with modern day reality.

I propose to bring a petition or request to the elders of the community and ask them to outlaw this practice, by recognizing it as ‘haram’ and declaring a ‘fatwa’ against it.

My discussions with a cross-section of the community – invariably warm and constructive – have made me cautiously optimistic that there is a way forward, which respects the different views.

Already the leadership of the community has made it clear that there is no compulsion. Also, there is an established principle that where there is no good reason to do something, it is better not to do it. My intervention has generally been welcomed as an opportunity to get to the bottom of this question.

I have no objection to a ‘sophisticated’ and sensitive approach to addressing this issue. There are, after all, women in the US and Europe, who decide to undergo cosmetic surgery or others who choose to even have piercings in that part of their body.

For those who continue to believe ‘khatna’ is a religious duty, let it be practiced only by women who have reached the age of adulthood and consent, without coercion, under medical supervision and as a largely symbolic act – as the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) is reported to have said – not ‘severely’.

The Daim al-Islam is for the Suleimani community, as it is for the Bohras, the authoritative rulebook on what to do and how to do it.

With the help of the person who told me initially that the practice of ‘khatna’ was mandatory for girls, I discovered that what I am proposing as a change is –- to my reading and with a bit of goodwill – fully supported by this book of rules.

First of all, one paragraph appears to echo the earlier-quoted hadith, by recognizing that it is better to ‘leave part’ in the interest of both the woman and her husband. In other words, a token cut should be sufficient to show commitment to the associated spiritual objective of ‘cleanliness’ of thought.

Also, it is recommended that a girl should not be cut before age seven, without saying anything to prevent the decision being postponed until the age of consent.  For boys on the other hand, where the issue is associated with physical cleanliness, the recommendation is to get it done as soon as possible.

The alternative to the community addressing this issue in its own manner, is that we wait until the government outlaws it, because adherence to the law is a long-standing principle in Islam, which everyone is already committed to.

I have learned that in our community, responsible parents have already progressed to limiting the damage to the removal of the ‘clitoral hood’ and that these days this – what they consider a ‘minor’ cut – is performed under local anesthetic and by a medical practitioner.

Other families have quietly banned the practice, from my generation onwards.

However, even with a medically safer approach, there is still the question as to whether it is right or necessary to subject a young girl to this procedure and it is increasingly unclear to me to what end. ‘Clitoral unhooding’ is a procedure chosen by adult women in the West, who seek higher sensitivity in that area and I really doubt this is what parents are seeking to achieve for their daughters …

Ultimately it may still be necessary, to implement a legal framework to protect girls in communities who are in danger of being harmed, without the benefit of a more liberal and informed society around them.

But would it not be much better if the community itself tackles this problem, rather than being forced to do so by law?

In the UK, FGM has been illegal for many years. When it recently became clear that it continued to be practiced and that there had been no convictions to date, Parliament proposed to strengthen the law to include as ‘guilty’ those who know about it and don’t do anything to prevent it.

That is, I believe, our moral duty – to do something to stop this practice – or be ‘guilty’ of a crime if we, knowing it is happening, do nothing about it.

I firmly believe this is the way the Prophet (PbuH) would have wanted it.

After all. He is also reported to have said …

“Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”

My daughter is the joy of my life. There was no way I could have her cut.

by Ashraf Engineer

Age: 41
Country: India

Picture this if you can without your heart racing and eyes welling up. A girl, let’s say she’s seven years old, is dressed up by her mother and told she’s being taken for a walk and an ice cream. She clings to her mother’s arm in glee and follows her, secure and happy. She is led to a house in the neighbourhood where her mother undresses her and holds her down. A strange woman removes a razor blade and in a single, heart-stopping motion cuts the child’s clitoral hood.

The pain will ebb, the flowing blood will stanch but the scars will remain for life. A child has been damaged and her trust broken.

ashraf-5

I hail from the Dawoodi Bohra community where female genital cutting (FGC) is prevalent but the thought of subjecting my little girl to it never once entered my mind. She is the joy of my life, she gives it meaning. There was no way I could do that to her.

Among the many ugly manifestations of patriarchy, I believe FGC is perhaps the most horrific. We see everywhere how society feels the need to control every aspect of a woman’s life – from whether she can live after she is born and whether she can get an education to whom she can marry and when. This attitude often extends to controlling her sexuality – through FGC.

FGC is one of the most serious human rights issues before us today. It is an ongoing practice rarely talked about even by those who have undergone it, and it is not part of the public consciousness. Like marital rape and abuse, it exists around us but is rarely thought about.

According to UNICEF data, there are at least 200 million girls and women across 30 countries who have been cut. If they were to form a country, it would be the sixth most populous in the world. We are looking at an alarming crime against humanity that needs our urgent attention.

FGC is illegal in many countries – a United Nations resolution against it was signed by 194 countries in 2012 – but its abandonment will require more than a law.

Since the root of the problem is patriarchy, a social system in which males are all-powerful and wield great authority over women, men must become an integral part of the solution. FGC is perpetrated on women, but I believe it’s done to satisfy the male craving for control of female sexuality. Indeed, societies in which FGC is practised tend to be dominated by men.

It’s time for men to speak out against this harmful practice. It’s their duty, and their collective voice will matter. If they wish to, they can make a difference. Men need to stand up and be counted – primarily as fathers of girls in danger.

This will help men too. Secure, happier women are necessary for stronger, fulfilling relationships and a progressive society.

Here are a few steps that can be taken immediately by individuals and governments:

  • Pass a law that criminalises FGC in India. The movement against this practice is gaining momentum and it’s time for the government to act.
  • Start a nationwide awareness and education initiative – targeting men especially – that underscores FGC’s psychological impact as well as the danger to societal health.
  • Make awareness about FGC a part of sex education in schools.

As the father of a young girl, even the thought of FGC creates a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. That such cruelty can be wreaked on anyone, let alone a child that has no clue of what is happening to her, breaks my heart.

As a father, your primary instinct is to protect your daughter and help her grow. You can’t do that by mutilating her body and shattering her trust.

(Ashraf Engineer, a former journalist, is a communication and marketing consultant. He recently released his first book, a Kindle-only release titled Bricks of Blood.)

(Note from Sahiyo: As an individual, another immediate step you can take to help bring an end to FGC is to sign this petition by Sahiyo and 31 international organisations. Click here.)

Why the khatna conversation needs men’s voices too

(First published on June 7, 2016)
by Ammar Karimjee
Age:24
Country: Pakistan
I found out when I was 19. I’d just heard about the practice of female genital mutilationAmmar (FGM) in an Anthropology class, and had dismissed it as something that simply happens in rural African villages. After class, I’d expressed disgust to a friend about it, something along the lines of “Can you believe people still do things like this?” The friend was a fellow member of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who in this moment realized I must not have known.
After she spoke to me about it, I remained in disbelief. I was sure she must be wrong. I reached out to my mom and sister, and after a few in-depth conversations with them, it settled over me. A mix of emotions – anger, frustration, humiliation – all overcame me simultaneously. I didn’t do anything at first, I just needed some time to let it all sink in. After I’d had time to process, I realized I needed to do something.
At first, most of my involvement in my personal anti-FGM campaign came through conversations with people I knew, primarily men. Even in this initial stage, I realized how essential it would be to effectively engage men as part of this movement. Over time, I became involved in a few more formal networks that were also working on this issue, and through these, I’ve had the chance to speak at the United Nations on this issue as well as be a small part of the This American Life podcast a few weeks ago. It’s been an amazing journey to be a part of.
Below, I’ve shared some of the major learnings/thoughts I’ve developed over the last 5 years. I hope it can serve as a way for some of you to help think through this topic. If you have questions, there are a ton of us here to help guide you to the answers. If you’d simply like to talk further about this, please do not hesitate to reach out. You can always contact Sahiyo at info@sahiyo.com to become connected to others working on ending FGM.
Some men don’t want to even engage in the conversation about FGM. Part of this is because they dismiss it as an unimportant issue on face value, but I believe a larger part of this may have to do with the discomfort that comes with talking about the female body and the lack of knowledge that it results in.
As men, we do not intuitively understand the female body and biological processes that occur within it. Of course, we never will be able to truly know what being a woman feels like, but by gaining an understanding of how their bodies work, we can begin to have an idea. Naturally, we compare things that happen with a woman to its closest direct male counterpart. As such, we associate FGM, or circumcision as many people chose to incorrectly refer to it as, as the equivalent of male circumcision. This is a dangerous fallacy for men to turn to in their justification. The function of the male penis and a woman’s clitoris are not identical – not even close. Further, the benefits that come from male circumcision are simply not present in FGM. Please, please, please, do your research and understand the impact of this practice. It is terribly important for men to be aware of women’s bodies – not just specifically to be able to understand FGM, but for so many other reasons, health and otherwise.
For the men who were willing to talk about it, one constant held true – they had never talked about it before. Creating a space to have these conversations became an important part of the larger effort to engage men. But the snowball effect definitely holds true. Individual conversations I was leading turned to group conversations I was just a part of. Soon after, conversations started happening without me there at all. Awareness of FGM in the Bohra community has increased exponentially since I started speaking about this issue, especially in the last few months. However, the conversations happening are still dominated by women. It is of course amazing that so many women have started sharing their stories and thoughts. But we still live in a patriarchal context. Religious leaders are still men. Decision makers in families are still largely men.
We – the men – MUST start caring. We don’t have the option to be silent or ambivalent anymore. We can not keep pretending that it isn’t our problem. These are our friends, our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, and our wives. Read their stories. Understand what FGM is and how it affects them. Once you do, you’ll be as angry as I am. You won’t want it ever happening to anyone you’re close to. We can’t undo what has already happened to hundreds of thousands in our community – but we CAN prevent it from happening from this day forward.
To men everywhere – Start reading. Start talking. STOP FGM.

Dear daughter, I am sorry you were circumcised

(First published on May 24, 2016)

A heartfelt letter from a Bohra father, who wished to remain unnamed, to his grown-up daughter. Read the Gujarati translation of this letter here.

Dear Daughter,

Many years ago, I made a mistake. Your mother came to me and said “I’m going to have our daughter circumcised”. I knew nothing about this procedure, assuming that your mother knew best. My ignorance is no excuse for what you went through.

I’ve asked your mother many times since this occurred, why an educated woman who resides in a country where this is illegal subjected her daughter to this practice? I never received a valid reason. Simply saying that “it’s in our religion” is not a good enough answer for me to accept that my daughter went through this.

When I read your account of what happened, my eyes filled with tears. For all of these years I was oblivious to the trauma that you underwent. You were an innocent child. I wonder how many other fathers are in the same position as me – finally learning about this heinous practice and unaware of how their daughters have silently struggled with this for so many years.

I remember the first time I held you in my arms and thought to myself “she’s perfect”. You were my little miracle, after years of wanting a daughter, you finally arrived. I’m sorry that something was removed from you, because there was nothing wrong with you to begin with. I know that it is your upbringing and your strong values that prevent you from sinning and nothing else.

To think that you were only 5 years old, completely oblivious to what was happening to you and frightened, I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to protect you.

Ignorance is never an excuse. Nor is it acceptable to turn a blind eye. I promise you that I will do everything in my power to support the noble cause of finally putting an end to this practice – and ensuring that other fathers become aware of what goes on behind closed doors. A crime against girls, committed by those who love them due to incorrect beliefs and reasons.

One day, when you become a mother, I will stand behind you, like I should have done years ago and ensure that this family’s next generation never has to suffer the way that you did.

All my love,

Dad

A letter on khatna by a young Bohra man

by Anonymous

Age: 28

Country: United States

Hello All,

Firstly, I would like to start by telling you how ashamed I feel of being so ignorant about the issue of female khatna and how honored I am to be a part of a family whose women are spearheading the fight against FGM.

I am from an Islamic Dawoodi Bohra family that comprises mainly of women. I have six beautiful sisters. They have all undergone khafd (khatna). Back then, there was no awareness and there was tons of social pressure. Everything was done quietly and no one spoke about it. At least in my community, it was a given that a girl child had to have her khatna done. Not doing it would be condemned.

Women who have gone through FGM have started talking about their experiences. Openly speaking about this issue has done great good for the community as it has helped build awareness and made folks like me, who were ignorant about it, read and learn more about it. I salute the women who have been bold to talk about this. Thank you!

Listening to these experiences makes me really sad. Sad because this has been going on since so long and this practice has absolutely no foundation. It makes me sad that educated people never questioned it and were so socially engrossed that they just did what they were told to do. It makes me sad because it just proves how sexist the world is (which I do not want to believe).

It saddens me because parents are still putting their daughter through this.

For my religious friends: the Quran does not even mention khatna. So please do not put a religious aspect to this practice. This practice only has side effects. For those who are not aware – please please read here.

More importantly – it is her body, please respect it.

This issue is important and it must be dealt with. It needs support from each and every member of the community including the men.