Khatna within the Bohra community: A Struggle of Tradition and Modernity

By Fatema Kakal

The Bohra Muslims, who have the reputation of being modern and progressive, secretly practice khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) within India, as well as in other parts of the world. I learned about this over dinner with my family when I was 17. A woman who went by the pseudonym of Tasleem had recently filed the first public petition asking the Syedna (High Priest/religious leader of the Bohra community) to stop practicing khatna. While it shocked me, it also left me intrigued, wondering why this community continues such a harmful practice. A few years later, as I was pursuing my postgraduate degree, I had the opportunity to answer the questions that my 17-year-old self had. For my Masters dissertation, I decided to use a new lens to understand the community better, and get a deeper insight into what could be the factors influencing the Bohras to continue khatna.

As I worked on my research, I read about FGM/C – a lot. I also read about the Bohra community from an ethnographic lens. I reviewed literature, debates and discourses, narratives of survivors, and conducted interviews with activists working to end FGM/C (from Sahiyo and other organisations). 

I used French social theorist Michel Foucault’s concepts of sexuality, biopower and pastoral power to understand FGM/C. Religion and religious power can often be political, and can be woven through various forms, like the sensual, corporeal and the imaginary. Religious leaders are crucial here, who are defined by their status within religion. Thus, religious leaders have pastoral power where they lead, supervise and guide people. Pastoral power operates through the body, forming a locus for biopower, a form of control over people’s bodies. Religion uses sexuality as a mechanism for control, discipline and policing bodies. FGM/C then, is a practice used by religious leaders to control women and children’s bodies and sexuality. 

I used Tammary Esho’s framework of FGM/C as a socio-cultural-symbolic nexus. Esho has conduced extensive research on FGM/C and sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is a culturally mediated process of socialization, that transfuses gendered identity. Khatna is a cultural practice passed down through generations to socialize girls into the community. The pain felt during the cutting is considered a rite of passage and is symbolic of fertility and womanhood. It is meant to define a woman and her femininity, and her identity as a Bohra woman.

To understand how these concepts actually applied to khatna and the Bohra community, I analysed narratives of survivors collected and shared by Sahiyo and We Speak Out in their reports, and Goswami’s documentary A Pinch of Skin, I found a few overarching themes within their stories. Khatna was seen as a religious and traditional practice, and was considered to be a tool to control women’s sexuality, and maintain morality. Most of the survivors’ experiences involved traditional cutting by a dai or a midwife, in unhygienic conditions; where mothers and other women in the family played a vital role. It was a highly secretive and taboo practice, but normalized and obligatory, and passed down through generations. Many women claimed to feel anger and shame, remembered it being painful, and asserted it affected their sexual lives, and crucially, being a traumatic event in their lives.

I interviewed activists as key informants who highlighted that the silence around khatna was breaking – with Tasleem’s petition in 2012, and the arrests in the United States and Australia. Religious leaders also began addressing it through sermons and letters issued to community members. The public interest litigation in the Indian Supreme Court in 2017 and the growing anti-FGM/C movement rising from within the community were important for people to hear different voices around khatna. This in turn, led to a shift in the rationale for the practice. While it was earlier believed that it controls women’s sexuality, the Bohra clergy was increasingly scrutinized for controlling women’s bodies. The clergy changed the justification behind the practice, by claiming it is a religious practice and a marker of Bohra identity. 

The growing anti-khatna movement was also considered an attack by Westernization. Thus, continuing khatna became a statement defying Western notions of appropriate religious customs and traditions. The Bohra clergy encourages people to visit medical professionals to have their daughters cut safely, promoting medicalisation. Medical facilities are increasingly accessible for people in the Bohra community, especially in big cities, who claim to do the cutting in a safer, hygienic way, thus perceived to be potentially minimizing risk and trauma. 

The Bohra clergy is an important agent in the continuation of khatna. People’s lives are heavily influenced by the Syedna and the clergy due to their pastoral power over the community. They are deeply involved in people’s lives, and their pastoral power has political power. Khatna is a form of control over girls’ bodies and sexuality, which is considered aberrant. Thus, the clergy enforces biopower through khatna, to ensure women uphold values of fidelity and morality. People in the community however, look at khatna at a socio-cultural-symbolic nexus. Khatna is significant for forming a girl’s identity as a Bohra woman, and has cultural and symbolic significance as a rite of passage. Women are bearers of culture, and it is a tradition passed down through generations. 

Thus, khatna continues to be practiced in the Bohra community, due to social, cultural and religious norms of womanhood, purity and sexuality. The clergy has significant influence over the community and the family. Law can play a crucial role in discouraging people from continuing khatna. Thus, in order to end the practice, it is important to engage the various stakeholders in the community who protect the practice, especially women who are often primary decision-makers for children to undergo khatna. 

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.

The movement to end FGM/C: Looking back at the 2010s and looking forward in 2020

By Sahiyo

2020 is here, and we at Sahiyo are excited. 2020 brings with it not just a new year, but the dawn of a new decade of hope and hard work for our global movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). This is the decade in which we must give it our all, because we have pledged to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting by 2030

As we look forward to the 2020s, we cannot help but look back at the 2010s for inspiration. The last decade has been game-changing, not just for Sahiyo or the movement against FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras, but for the anti-FGC movement in Asia as a whole. 

At the start of 2010, FGC was still considered an “African” problem, and Asian countries were barely on the map of the places where FGC is prevalent. Today, we know that FGC is truly and disturbingly a global phenomenon putting 3.9 million girls at risk every year,  as you can see in this map created by Orchid Project:

Nearly half the countries on the map above are not yet included in the UN’s official list of 30 countries where 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC. In the 2020s, let us work to ensure that this information gap is bridged, so that Asian survivors of FGC are officially recognised. 

In fact, you can start now by signing Sahiyo’s petition asking the global community to invest in research on FGC prevalence and advocacy and support services to end FGC in Asian countries. 

But first, let’s take a look back at the biggest milestones of the 2010s from Sahiyo’s perspective.

The birth of Sahiyo:

In late 2011, ‘Tasleem’, an anonymous Dawoodi Bohra woman from India, started a Change.org petition asking the Syedna,  the religious leader of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, to call for an end to FGC in the community. Although there had been scattered attempts to call out the secretive practice of FGC among the Bohras in the 1980s and ‘90s, they drew limited attention and the practice continued to be shrouded in silence. 

Tasleem’s petition, however, received nearly 3,500 signatures, triggered a spate of media reports on FGC in India, and inspired a few Bohra women, like Aarefa Johari and Farida Dariwala, to speak out publicly about their experiences of FGC. 

The media reports on FGC at the time also inspired Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami to make A Pinch of Skin, the first documentary film on FGC among Dawoodi Bohras in India. As Goswami’s film won the 2013 National Award for the best documentary in India, the taboo topic of FGC remained alive in the media, sparking private conversations between like-minded Bohra women all over the world who were keen to see an end to FGC.

In late 2014, five of those women banded together to create a formal platform that would work to end FGC among Bohras and Asian communities at a transnational level. That platform — Sahiyo — was eventually founded in mid-2015. 

Breaking the silence, once and for all:  

In 2015, the private conversations on FGC among Bohras also burst into the public sphere with the launch of WeSpeakOut (known as Speak Out on FGM at the time). 

WeSpeakOut started as a private women’s WhatsApp group spearheaded by Masooma Ranalvi. In October 2015, the group launched a Change.org petition addressed to the Indian government, seeking a legal ban on FGC in India. Seventeen Bohra women publicly put their name to the petition, and the response was huge and immediate: media all over India began writing about FGC among Bohras, community leaders were forced to respond, and the silence about FGC among community members was broken for good. More than 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.  

From 2015 to 2019, we have watched the movement against FGC snowball into a global force that communities have not been able to ignore. There are now dozens of Bohra women fearlessly speaking out about their FGC experiences, signing up as Sahiyo volunteers, attending our events and pledging not to cut their daughters. Women and men have faced backlash from their families and communities for speaking out, but the movement has only grown stronger. 

Research and investigations:

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the results of the first-ever research study on FGC among Bohras: an online, exploratory survey that found an 80% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohra women respondents. Among those who were cut, 98% women reported feeling pain when they underwent the ritual. Interestingly, 81% of respondents did not want FGC to continue in the community. 

In 2017, a Sahiyo investigation also revealed that FGC is being practiced by some communities in the South Indian state of Kerala, leading to furore in the region. Before this, it was believed that the Bohras are the only community in India practicing FGC. 

In 2018, WeSpeakOut published a seminal field study on FGC among Indian Bohras. The study found FGC prevalent among 75% of the daughters of the respondents. At least 33% of the respondents who were cut reported that FGC negatively impacted their sexual lives. 

More research on the FGC in Asian communities is the need of the hour, and we are aware of several studies that are currently underway in various parts of Asia. Continuous research can help us better understand not only the prevalence and impact of FGC on women and girls, but also the needs of survivors and trends towards abandonment of the practice. 

Developments on the legal front:

The 2010s were a landmark decade for FGC on the legal front, particularly for the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Australia: In 2015, three Bohras — a mother, a nurse and a community leader — were convicted for performing FGC on two minor girls in Australia. This was Australia’s first case under its 1997 law banning FGC. However, the legal ups and downs did not end with the conviction in 2015. 

In 2018, an appeals court overturned the convictions and acquitted the three accused Bohras, on the grounds that the girls’ genitals did not show any visible scarring after the ritual, and because the Australian law did not clearly define what kind of rituals qualify as FGC. In 2019, however, an Australian High Court once again flipped the verdict, overturning the acquittals, convicting the three Bohras again, and asserting that all forms of genital cutting are illegal. 

India: In 2017, an Indian lawyer filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking a legal ban on the practice of FGC. Other FGC survivors also joined in the petition and to counter it, a pro-FGC group called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom filed a petition defending the practice of FGC on the grounds of religious freedom. 

The Indian government responded to the petition by stating that FGC would be considered a crime under Indian laws dealing with child sexual abuse. However, the Indian government has made several contradictory statements about FGC since then. 

The Supreme Court has now referred the FGC case to a larger bench that will look into matters of gender equality versus religious freedom. Will 2020 be the year in which India’s highest court picks women’s right to bodily integrity over religious freedom? We will have to cross our fingers, wait, and see. 

United States: In 2017, two Bohra doctors from Michigan were among eight Bohras prosecuted for carrying out FGC on several minor girls. This was the first prosecution under the U.S.’s 1996 federal law banning FGC. In 2018, however, a U.S. district court judge ruled that even though the practice of FGC is “despicable” the federal law itself is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be regulated by individual states rather than by the federal or national law. 

Currently, 35 out of 50 U.S. states have laws against FGC. Among them, 17 states introduced anti-FGC laws in the 2010s, including Arkansas, Florida and Iowa.

In the 2020s, we must campaign for laws against FGC in every U.S. state, as well as in countries across the world. 

Community engagement in 2020: 

It is now globally acknowledged that laws alone cannot be effective in ending FGC. A deep-seated social norm can be changed only if law enforcement is preceded and constantly accompanied by rigorous community engagement, education and dialogue. 

At Sahiyo, we have launched various campaigns and platforms to nurture this dialogue: the Each One Reach One campaign, the I Am Bohra photo campaign, our storytelling blog, Thaal Pe Charcha, Sahiyo Stories, Faces for Change, the Male Ally campaign, and of course, our annual Activists’ Retreats in India and the U.S. to train community members on effective methods of engaging with the community. 

In 2020 and in the years to follow, we have many more advocacy campaigns planned. The first among them will be launching next month, in February 2020: Digital Stories from the Global Voices to End FGM/C program. 

Follow @sahiyovoices on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay updated about the movement to end FGC and to join in our efforts.

And so, here is wishing all of you a happy and hopeful 2020!  

Asia Network to End FGM/C calls for your participation

Malaysian NGO Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and British charity Orchid Project are jointly developing a new Asia Network to End FGM/C, to strengthen movements to end the practice of FGC in Asian communities.

To shape this network and its priorities, all interested organisations, activists, and stakeholders working in the region on FGM/C or related issues in Asia are invited to fill out this consultation survey. The closing date for this survey will be 22nd December 2019.

Utilizing Participatory Storytelling to Educate – A session at APHA 2019

1On Nov 4, 2019, Sahiyo’s co-founder Mariya Taher took part in a round-table session at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss the Voices to End FGM/C project. Participants were able to view a sample of the digital stories created by survivors. They were also able to learn how by utilizing participatory storytelling methods, we can educate communities, health professionals, and policymakers on female genital cutting. For more information, visit APHA’s website.

The complexities of female genital cutting in Singapore: Part IV

Concluding thoughts on the practice in Singapore

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This fourth installment provides a final analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here

In this research, I have contextualised the type of cut, stakeholders involved, on-going discussions on FGC locally and internationally, and FGC’s hiddenness. I hope this allows for a deeper understanding of the specific and unique type of FGC and the situation surrounding it in Singapore. My discussion of the reasons for FGC in Singapore is also non-exhaustive, but to my interlocutors, cleanliness, religion, tradition, and the control of female sexuality, are some of the most pertinent to their lived experiences. To the best of my ability, I have tried to represent fairly the perspectives and opinions of the various people with whom I spoke. In her book, The Twilight of Cutting, Saida Hodzic accurately pointed out that “differently positioned women take a variety of political positions toward cutting/anti-cutting campaigns, and the larger governance of their lives.” In these concluding paragraphs, I will further explore the continuity of this practice, ways to encourage productive and meaningful discourse about it, as well as policy implications.

Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

FGC has been an unquestioned tradition in Singapore for centuries. I believe we need to place a critical lens on FGC and question the motivations of this practice. While taking into account the possible individual, family and social meanings that have been attributed to FGC, it is also important to question its necessity and impact on a young girl. I end most interviews by asking interlocutors if they think FGC will continue, and 70% of my interlocutors answered in the negative. Conversations about FGC and debates on it have been ignited, and more young parents are questioning the cut’s necessity. Once parental pressure is no longer a factor and this procedure has skipped a generation, FGC will be much harder to revive or continue. Sometimes the type of FGC done in Singapore does not leave visible scars or markings. Those against FGC have said that they know of young parents who choose to say their daughter has been cut even if she hasn’t, and no one is any wiser.

It is also important to take note of the vernacular languages that are used when discussing FGC, and determining the appropriate ways to debate FGC in the Malay community. Currently, the debates on FGC happen amongst specific circles of young Malays who are highly educated. It is important to engage with the older generation and those who may not have access to tertiary education about this practice. It is only in sincere conversations, which aim to listen, engage in dialogue, and not necessarily debate that perspectives will shift. 

When I first found out about the FGC performed on me when I was a baby, and questioned my parents about it, they insisted that it was mandatory and that they did it for my own good. They said FGC was necessary for “religious and health reasons, and so I won’t be adulterous.” These are similar to the reasons my interlocutors shared as well. As I went about my research, and interviewed religious leaders, medical practitioners, and feminist activists, I slowly clarified my parents’ beliefs, and today they no longer see it as mandatory (“though still good to do”), but I do think chipping away at their long-held beliefs has been successful. Similar to my interlocutor’s sharing that the language of female sexuality, children’s rights and consent is foreign or even “Western,” I think it is important that we find the right language and vocabulary to discuss these issues in Malay so that it is more readily accessible.

I hope to see more people and stakeholders engaging in these conversations. In particular, I hope this blog post would encourage medical practitioners, religious leaders, religious bodies and health ministries to enter the conversation about FGC in Singapore. From my ethnography, there are various undercurrents and rumors of the perspectives and policy positions engaged by these stakeholders. For instance, a medical practitioner said that there is a register of doctors who perform it and who have informally agreed to abide by a set of guidelines in order to standardize the procedure. However, neither this guideline nor register is publicly available. Having them come out with actual statements would clear various misconceptions about FGC’s necessity and its health and religious implications. 

I would urge the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to replace the fatwa it removed with a new one, so that religiously, the Muslim community can be assured of the ruling for FGC. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association (MHPA) also have a responsibility to the larger Singapore community to ensure our safety and health. Because all doctors are registered and regulated under MOH, it is up to MOH to determine if FGC is aligned with the medical oath to do no harm. At the same time, it would be interesting to find out the positionality of medical practitioners performing FGC. Do they believe it to be necessary? Do they abide by the guidelines stated, especially given the spectrum of FGC that my interlocutors underwent? What are their specific reasons for performing FGC? Silence only breeds confusion. It is definitely time for the religious and health authorities to step up and clearly state their positions on FGC in Singapore. There is the very real fear that if FGC were banned in Singapore and practitioners disallowed from practicing it, this would lead to FGC being performed underground, where conditions are much less hygienic and can be more harmful. But, if the relevant authorities can counter the health, religious and female promiscuity reasons given for FGC, this practice will be regarded as unnecessary and might no longer be practiced here.

According to Hodzic, “Hahn and Inhorn testify to the persistence of one of the founding principles of applied medical anthropology, which is the notion that anthropology can and should provide cultural knowledge necessary for improving public health and health care.” I hope this research has provided a holistic, balanced, and informative understanding of the reasons for FGC in Singapore, and will be useful for religious leaders, medical practitioners, activists, and especially Malay women as we continue to critically analyze and discuss this practice.

Saza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations. 

The complexities of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore: Part III

Tradition and patriarchal elements of FGC  

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the third in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This third installment explains some of the reasons the interlocutors provided for practicing FGC, including tradition and the control of female sexuality within patriarchy. Read part one here. Read part two here.

Reasons for FGC: Tradition

Many of my interlocutors allude to adat or Malay tradition when asked for reasons they practice FGC. They view it as a normalised and long-established cultural tradition, which is often performed without question. There are also some interviewees who believe this leads to the unity of the community and is intrinsic to the Malay identity. However, those who are unsupportive of FGC question the premise of this tradition and that if there is no rational or logical reason behind it, “it doesn’t make sense to blindly follow it.”

macro photography of purple flowers
Photo by Carissa Bongalosa on Pexels.com

According to Gabriele Marranci, “FGC is transmitted generation after generation as an ordinary act of Malay Muslim identity. It can be considered an integral part of Malay Muslim birth rituals and is linked to a specific Malay Muslim identity. Malay Muslims often say, “We do this because it is our tradition. It is something that all Malay Muslims share both here in Singapore and in Malaysia.” Indeed, many of my interlocutors also agree that this practice has been very much normalised in Singapore. “This is tradition: sisters, granddaughters, daughters all do it, said Fauziah, an interviewee. “This is a strong Malay tradition, we can encourage it, but don’t force. It’s a natural next step.”

This tradition is usually passed down a matrilineal lineage, with the grandmothers and mothers of the family encouraging and sometimes even forcing their children to cut their granddaughters. This could be due to the division of labour in Malay families, where women usually take care of matters concerning the children’s development and well-being, while the father provides the economic means to raise them. As such, many men would leave the decision-making regarding the execution of FGC to their wives. They might not even want to know anything about it. It is considered too insignificant for fathers to have a stake or say in the issue.

However, those who are against FGC view the unquestioning nature of this practice as symptomatic of a larger problematic trend of traditionalism within the Malay community. “People do not question or discuss this, and it is a problem that it is not critically discussed,” said Ermy, another interviewee. “People just do it blindly, and so this might cause harm and injury.” Many Malay families continue this practice in an inadvertent manner, and one that is continued not because it is “actively better” but because it is just not worse. As such, FGC is simply passed down and accepted rather than its rationale being questioned or challenged.

At the same time, I noticed that amongst those interviewed, younger people (around the ages of 20-40 years old) are unwilling to perpetuate FGC if the sole reason is tradition. “If it’s just based on tradition, it doesn’t make sense to do something like that,” Hanisah, a 38-year old teacher, said. “Culture is not important to keep if it is causing pain.” Many younger Malay Singaporeans do not view FGC as something that possesses active benefits, and therefore, they do not see the point or logic in continuing it.

Control of female sexuality within patriarchy

Seven out of my eight interlocutors who support FGC readily admit that the cut is important to control women’s sexuality. According to them, FGC is to “cut down on the girl’s sexual desires (nafsu).” They suggest that “by nature, women have a higher sex drive, and so this is to lower chances of sex before marriage.” When asked to explain precisely how FGC leads to lowered sexual desire, or how this relationship can be measured, most interviewees are uncertain. In fact, I had a rather drawn-out conversation (complete with drawings on both our ends), about how the removal of the clitoral hood actually reveals the clitoris more, and so that logically follows that it is more easily stimulated, and therefore, might lead to higher sexual satisfaction. Even though supporters of FGC might be unsure how FGC affects sexual desire, the principles they hold for that view is important to acknowledge.

Believing that FGC is important to control female sexuality might be reflective of the prejudices and biases against women in the Malay community. These traditional values may have arisen because women are traditionally seen as the bearers of morality in societies. As such, it is important within the Malay community to ensure that women uphold important societal values and any potential for deviance is weeded out as soon as possible.

(The fourth and final installment will provide an analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels.)  

Indiv - SazaSaza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations as much as possible.

 

Here’s what a new study says about female genital cutting in Malaysia

By Zahra Qaiyumi

Female genital cutting (FGC) is prevalent among Muslim women in rural Malaysia, and many of them believe the practice is a religious obligation. Ironically, several religious leaders in the country insist that female genital cutting is not an Islamic requirement at all.

two women in white hijab veils
Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

These are some of the major findings of a new research study on FGC in Malaysia, conducted by Abdul Rashid and Yufu Iguchi in 2018.

The study was conducted in two rural majority Muslim areas of Kedah and Penang in the Northern region of Peninsular Malaysia. The study consisted of survey data collected from 605 participants, focus groups held with a smaller subset of the participants, and interviews with 8 traditional practitioners who perform or performed FGC. Additionally, 2 interviews were conducted with Muftis, who are religious scholars or jurists qualified to issue Islamic legal opinions in Malaysia.

The major findings of the study are below.

Prevalence and type of FGC:

    1. Almost all participants (99.3%) had undergone FGC at an early age and wanted FGC to continue.
    2. The predominant form of FGC practiced in Malaysia is type IV. The paper defines this as the tip of the clitoris being nicked using a pen-knife or razor.

Age at which FGC was conducted:

    1. The median age of the participants at the time of FGC was 6 years old, which is also the median age the participants felt was the suitable age FGC should be performed. However, the authors suggest that children as young as 2 months old undergo FGC in Malaysia.

Medicalization of the practice:

    1. In general, older participants had FGC performed on them by traditional practitioners as compared with younger participants.
    2. Younger participants were of the opinion that doctors should conduct FGC as compared with older participants who preferred traditional practitioners.
    3. More participants from the younger group would permit doctors to perform FGC on their children as compared with the older group.
    4. More of the practice is being conducted in clinics by physicians because of the scarcity of traditional practitioners.

Reasons for the practice and its continuation:

    1. The most common reasons for FGC among the participants surveyed are hygiene (25.0%), health (24.0%) and religious obligation (23.0%).
    2. A majority of the participants believe FGC is a requirement in religion (wajib), whereas the traditional practitioners and Mufti’s who are responsible for issuing edicts related to religious matters say it is not a religious requirement.

Future directions:

It is encouraging that traditional practitioners and Mufti’s believe FGC is not a religious requirement. Perhaps this can be used as a tool to better educate the community about the practice of FGC and ultimately bring an end to the practice.

Read the complete study on FGC in Malaysia here.

The complexities of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore: Part II

Part II: Cleanliness and religious reasons for FGC

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the second in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This second installment explains two of the five reasons raised by my interlocutors about FGC in Singapore: cleanliness and religion. (Read part one here.)

While medical practitioners confirmed that the cut has no effect on cleanliness, Muslim interlocutors believed it still helps with cleanliness, which was pivotal to their religiosity. Religiously, FGC is expounded upon in a hadith (record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), but there have been various interpretations of this hadith. Institutionally, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) has avoided releasing any official statements on the religious mandate of FGC for the Muslim community.

grayscale photography of woman kneeling on area rug
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

This second installment explains some of the reasons the interlocutors provided for practicing FGC – cleanliness and religion.

Reasons for FGC

Cleanliness

The first reason some interlocutors (especially those who support FGC) shared is that of cleanliness. They believe a part of the vagina traps dirt and needs to be removed, which makes for easier cleaning. To them, this high hygiene standard is particularly crucial for prayer. The evocation of religion is significant here because it shows that my interlocutors actually view religion as the reason for FGC, and that cleanliness happens to fall under that umbrella. However, the practitioner I spoke to disagreed and said that there are no medical benefits to FGC because the “cut is so small, it doesn’t affect anything”. I believe the perceived idea of cleanliness and purity arises out of a misunderstanding of the cut and its specificities (amount cut, area cut etc).

Religion

According to Amnesty International, “FGC predates Islam and is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, but has acquired a religious dimension”. For most of my interlocutors, their belief in Islam is an extremely important reason for FGC.

I will first explore the ways my interlocutors linked FGC to Islam through the evocation of several hadiths and mazhab (Islamic jurisprudence, usually referring to specific Islamic teachers), and then go on to engage with different readings of these hadiths, and also discuss the position that religious authorities and leaders have taken with respect to FGC in Singapore. One of the hadiths that was alluded to by many of my interlocutors is the one told by Al-Baihaqi:

“There are a group of people who allow cutting for women by referring to the hadith where Um Habibah was cutting a group of women. On one day, Prophet Muhammad visited her and found a knife in her hand (for cutting). Prophet asked and confirmed that the function of that knife is really for cutting. Um Habibah asked, “Is cutting for women haram (forbidden)?” Nabi (Prophet) Muhammad said, “Oh women of Ansar, do the cutting but be sure to not cut too much.”

My interlocutors who support FGC said this hadith provided a clear approval of FGC from Prophet Muhammad, as he did not try to stop Um Habibah from cutting other women, but actually endorsed it. Not all my interlocutors were able to provide exacting details of this account, and they mention the details to varying extents. Most know of this as hearsay.

On the other hand, protestors of FGC interpret the hadiths and religious instructions differently. With reference to the same hadith above, Dalia said, “The fact that Prophet Muhammad came across this proves that it was already an Arabic tradition that was pre-Islamic. A lot of things that were already happening, the Prophet did not stop. He was trying to win over the Qurayshi people and so he could not exactly stop them. But the fact that he said to not take much means he already disapproves of FGC”.

I was keen to interview someone from MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore). Although repeated emails to them went unanswered, I found a past fatwa  where MUIS strongly endorses FGC as part of the Islamic tradition.

“According to the majority of ulama, circumcision is compulsory for men and women. It should be done early in life, preferably when still an infant, to avoid complications, prolong [sic] pain and embarrassment if done later in life. Any good Muslimah doctor can perform circumcision for women.”

However, this fatwa was removed from the website  in recent years, and MUIS has not since provided a reason for the removal or replaced it with another fatwa.

From my research, it is evident that religion is a significant reason for those who practice FGC. Indeed, religion is used to justify FGC around the Muslim world. It is notable that the same hadith is interpreted very differently by both proponents and opponents of FGC. In my concluding paragraphs, I will discuss the policy implications of MUIS taking an ambiguous stance toward FGC and urge them to produce a clear directive.

Part III of this series will focus on more reasons for the justification of FGC, including tradition and the control of female sexuality within patriarchy. 

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Saza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations as much as possible.

Learning new methods of data analysis to conduct research on female genital cutting

By Cameron Adelman

A major finding of the research project I have been conducting on the social and emotional correlates of female genital cutting (FGC) is that in communities that are more supportive of FGC, there are more reasons to support the practice. Some reasons in support of FGC include the practice as a coming of age ceremony, being promoted by religious/spiritual/community leaders, and being used to preserve a girl’s virginity and to promote her marriageability. Additionally, women are more likely to suffer social and emotional consequences such as having less social support and more negative feelings surrounding the community’s beliefs.

purple and white orchid in shallow focus lens
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In my last blog post, I talked about the conception of my research project on risk factors for female genital cutting and social/emotional issues related to the practice, and the divergence of the project from what I had originally envisioned. The majority of my data and the statistical analyses I ran were from the Demographic Health Surveys Program (DHS). The analysis of the DHS data pointed toward a number of social, emotional, and physical issues that appeared to be more common in women who had experienced FGC, as well as a number of beliefs that were more common in women who had experienced FGC, and some socioeconomic factors that appeared to be related. From this information, I was able to go through my own data and select the information that could help support a working theory of increased stress and emotional concerns for women who had experienced FGC. My data was also helpful for establishing a link between community attitudes and social/emotional wellbeing.

My analysis of the data Sahiyo led to a few key findings:

  • First, the number of cultural reasons supporting FGC was positively correlated with how supportive a community is of FGC. With a positive correlation, this means that as one factor increases, the other does as well, so the more reasons a participant selected for why FGC was a part of her culture, the more supportive her community was likely to be of FGC.
  • Second, the number of cultural reasons for why FGC is practiced was negatively correlated with how the community attitude toward FGC made a participant feel. With a negative correlation, this means that as one factor increases, the other decreases. The more reasons a participant selected for why FGC was a part of her culture, the more negatively she felt about her community’s supportiveness of FGC.
  • Third, how supportive a community is of FGC was negatively correlated with how a participant felt about the community attitude, and how many personal sources of support a participant listed that she had available to her.
  • Finally, the number of personal sources of support a participant had was positively correlated with how a participant felt about her community’s attitude toward FGC.

Despite the immense help of Sahiyo, I had only 11 participants of my own after sending out a survey to gather data, which was insufficient for a full research paper. This limit is what led me to the DHS. After seeing how significant the findings from the DHS data were it became clear that the best route forward was to take the aspects of my data from Sahiyo members about community attitudes and use that to supplement my findings from DHS.

With my data analysis completed, I’ve begun the work of writing the paper that will hopefully be submitted for publication in a research journal at the end of the semester. The results so far suggest unique challenges to supporting women in communities that still actively promote and support FGC. I hope with the work I have done that it can lead to improved services for women in areas both supportive and unsupportive of female genital cutting.

More on Cameron:

IMG_5046Cameron Adelman is a senior neuroscience major and women and gender studies minor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He has been working on his research project about social and emotional effects of FGC since last year. The findings of his research among women who have experienced FGC suggest a number of sociocultural confounds in trying to develop and deliver support systems for women living in practicing communities. Cameron’s hope is to help advise best practices that take these factors, as well as additional risks to wellbeing, into account.