‘Call it by the Name’: A researcher’s dilemma on the FGM-FGC terminology debate

by Debangana Chatterjee

Two years back when I ventured into trying to understand a culturally specific embodied practice pertaining to procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia ‘for non-medical reasons’ as a researcher, the biggest challenge for me was to ‘call it by the name’.

Disagreements regarding the usage of the term ‘mutilation’ in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), bearing a negative connotation, have surged. International organisations and agencies commonly term it FGM. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) justifies usage of the term on the basis of its previous reference in 1997 and 2008 by the interagency statements. WHO also acknowledges ‘the importance of using non-judgemental terminology with practising communities’ and some of United Nations agencies prefer adding the word ‘cutting’. Ultimately, both terms underline the violation of women and girls’ rights.

‘Mutilation’ refers to impairing a vital body part by cutting it off with an explicit intent to harm. In this context, a few other terms used to connote FGM require closer attention. Female circumcision and excision are often used identically with FGM, although these do not fully carry the information regarding the practice. Out of the four types of procedures entailing FGM as specified by WHO, female circumcision appears akin to type I and even occasionally type II FGM and appears not as physically severe as the Type III category. Yet, existing research suggests that treating female circumcision as replacements for FGM fails to take the practice into account in its entirety. Using ‘female genital surgeries’ is contested as well, as it appears to validate medicalisation of FGM or in other words implies that FGM is a medical surgery like other standard surgeries.

The term FGM received significant prominence in the 1990s. Fran Hosken coined the term in 1993 to draw international attention to the ill-effects associated with the practice as well as to distinguish it from the widely prevailing male circumcision practices. For Ellen Gruenbaum the term ‘…implies intentional harm and is tantamount to an accusation of evil intent’ and thus, entails greater chances of hurting sentiments. There are scholars like Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson who prefer Female Genital Cutting (FGC) instead of FGM. They consider ‘circumcision’ insufficient as it makes a ‘false analogy’ to male circumcision. At the same time, they disagree with the term FGM as it subsumes that all types of the procedure are an act of ‘mutilation’. Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia also choose the understanding of FGC and circumcision as to not force women to dwell on their body as mutilated. These scholars understand the sense of trauma that ‘mutilation’ might connote for some women.

In fact, the constant reference of FGM in the existing international human rights (IHR) discourse mostly remains unaware of other forms of bodily mutilation of women. ‘Mutilation’, in this sense, can mean both bodily modifications attempted through cosmetic surgeries and public sexual violence which remains under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states concerned. Needless to say, mutilation of raped bodies is one of the most common occurrences of sexual violence. When FGM as a cultural practice is emphasised over other forms of ‘mutilation’, it indicates the cultural biases of IHR discourse. It is not to dilute the abhorrence that this practice deserves, but to show how little a space it leaves for consciousness building and community learning. For both the activists and researchers alike, extreme caution is required  to not alienate people and to sustain the dialogic engagement with them.

Also, with ‘mutilation’, a popular imagery of infibulation (narrowing of the vaginal orifice)  is attached. It comes more with its representation in popular culture as is the case with the film Desert Flower. Notwithstanding the reality of the incidence shown in the movie, in most of the cases, the type I and II procedures are conducted instead of type III (infibulation). Clubbing all the procedures under the single rubric either exaggerates type I and II FGM or dilutes the gravity of Type III and some forms of Type IV (Type IV includes miscellaneous procedures like piercing, pricking, incising or stretching of the clitoris, burning or scraping of vaginal tissues. Whereas some of the type IV procedures are of greater concern, others may not necessarily appear as severe).

In the light of these debates over terminologies, how does a researcher resolve her dilemma?

My study aims to locate the practices of FGM/C exclusive to the Bohra Muslim community in India in the frame of international politics. Especially keeping in mind my position as a scholar who is outside the purview of the culture, I stand on the edge of being either called a cultural relativist/apologist (a person who believes that people’s cultural traditions can only be judged by the standards of their own culture and thus, cultural practices are to be judged relative to the understanding of its practitioners) or prejudiced against cultural particularities. My study aims to juxtapose international discourses surrounding the practice vis-a-vis its occurrences in India. Hence, while writing my thesis, I shall be using FGM interchangeably with FGM/C to reflect the larger WHO definition and its usage in the international circle. As no term seems perfect in defining the practice, academically FGM/C looks commonly acceptable reflecting the international outlook towards it. Needless to say, the term FGM/C also has received substantial backlash from the communities and Bohras are no exception to it. An objective and unbiased study of the practice seeks the right approach more than an elusive perfection in terminology. Thus, during my interactions with members of the community, while analysing the local Indian discourse, khatna as a term will be given preference respecting the cultural uniqueness that the term bears.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMore about Debangana

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

Feeling drained after talking about Khatna? Here are some resources that can help

By Priya Ahluwalia

Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. She is currently conducting a research on the individual experience of Khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series – Khatna Research in Mumbai.

As human beings we are trained to react immediately, lessen the magnitude of pain when injured, manage our emotions when overwhelmed. We always initiate a response, however not all actions can be immediately responded to, especially when they are extremely distressing or traumatic. Often they are hidden away by our minds to prevent any major upheaval for us. However, even when hidden, they tend to seep through the cracks, leading to subtle effects such as difficulty falling asleep, distrustfulness, self doubt, among others. But sometimes, a small object, event or even a word can widen the crack, leading to a dam of emotions running out. This process is called re-traumatization. Perhaps the best description of the same would be an object, event or situation which leads to re-experiencing the emotions and physical symptoms that are associated with the initial episode of trauma.

It is essential to acknowledge that all individuals give a similar physical response to trauma, but the psychological response is never the same. For example, we are biologically programmed to give a physical response to pain, such as crying when injured. However, we are culturally conditioned to suppress the psychological pain caused by the injury, which is essentially the case with women who have undergone FGC/Khatna. Although the pain is suppressed, it cannot be avoided because it begins to manifest indirectly. For example, one of the participants, I interviewed for my research reported that although she does not remember anything from the day of her Khatna, she has been terrified of blades ever since then. This is a clear example of unaddressed psychological distress. Thus, irrespective of whether the response to trauma is immediate, delayed, drastic or subtle, all individuals must gain access to resources for assistance.

Therefore, while delving into a topic such as Khatna, which is emotionally charged and traumatic, it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that the effect of re-traumatization is minimized. As cliché as it sounds, listening is perhaps the best therapeutic tool to minimize re-traumatization. Case studies have shown that when victims of trauma are unheard they are more likely to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. Besides listening, providing an open and safe environment, choices, lists of resources and being available post the interview are also known to help. However, it is essential that a sense of independence be encouraged. Therefore survivors must be trained to look out for signs on their own and have a some set of immediate resources be available for themselves.

Some of the signs to look out for:

  1. Sudden and recurring thoughts of an unpleasant event, that may be difficult to control.
  2. Change in sleeping habits: an increase or decrease in the need for sleep, as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
  3. Change in eating habits: an increase or decrease in appetite as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
  4. Difficulty paying attention to an activity at hand, inability to remember information.
  5. Easily irritated.
  6. Not interested in participating in activities which were earlier enjoyable.
  7. Frequent crying spells.
  8. Using negative statements (“I am bad”) while addressing oneself.
  9. Having extremely negative view of the world (“everyone in the world is bad”).
  10. Regular thoughts of death or harming oneself.
  11. Distrust and suspiciousness of those around oneself.
  12. Sense of powerlessness
  13. Increased feeling of fear

Things to do:

  1. Seek out a trusted confidante and talk to them, it will allow you an emotional release as well as provide the support to overcome the current distress you feel.
  2. Arrange your day in a way that allows for at least 1 or 2 activities, such as painting or dancing among others, which give you positive emotions such as happiness. These activities could last from anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, preferably not consecutively organised.
  3. Seek out support in organizations – research has shown that women who choose to speak out about their trauma by joining organizations working against the trauma that they survived are more adept with dealing with their emotions as they are able to gather wider support of individuals with similar experiences.
  4. Perform physical activity which would allow your body to release positive hormones which would assist in overcoming some of the negative emotions you may currently feel.
  5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This can help you to you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.

Steps involved:

  • Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.
  • Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
  • Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  • When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  • Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  • Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
  • It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.

6. Mindfulness Meditation:

Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now, enabling you to be fully engaged in the present moment and thereby reduce our anxiety.

Steps involved:

  • Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
  • Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling.
  • Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and thoughts.
  • Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.

 

Asking more questions is the key to change, and to ending Female Genital Cutting

By Priya Ahluwalia

Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. She is currently conducting a research on the individual experience of Khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series – Khatna Research in Mumbai

Flexibility is a key characteristic of successful research, and it is an extremely essential component of the questions on which the research is based. Although I believe that having an exhaustive list of questions pre-prepared is essential to keep one on track, however as one reads and interacts with others, newer lines of enquiry are generated. It is crucial that all lines of enquiry be amalgamated to allow for a wholesome insight into one individual’s experience.  

Currently my interactions with women allowed me to see connections in their narratives. Accompanied by the literature I read, I found similarities as well as differences in the narratives of women across the world. Researchers have found that Female Genital Cutting (Khatna) leads to urinary problems, menstrual problems, problems in sexual functioning and difficulties during childbirth; some have even found that the psychological distress of the trauma often leads to depression and anxiety among women. A common pattern I found among studies was that all mental distress experienced by women was studied as a didactic relationship, ie, the women in relation to another individual. For example, sexual difficulties leading to marital distress among husband and wife.

However it was intriguing that in my interactions with women I found that Khatna has a great impact on the women’s relationship with themselves. For example, a participant reported that she dealt with self-esteem issues because she felt out of place while growing up, as she did not have the same sexual impulses towards boys as her other friends, the lack of which she attributed to Khatna. My area of interest was always the psycho-social effect of Khatna. However, now I am more curious than ever to explore how Khatna impacts both women’s social relationships as well as their relationship with themselves.

Little research has been done to explore how an individual’s worldview (ie, understanding of the world and how it functions) shifts after their discovery and understanding of Khatna. My curiosity in this area was ignited when one woman reported that following her discovery of Khatna, she was extremely angry with her family and although she has now made peace with her family, her trust in them and her faith in people’s ability to make good decisions has been shattered. I am now fascinated to interview more women and see how their worldview might have shifted after their discovery of Khatna.

Furthermore, research in attitude formation shows that negative experiences with one aspect of a larger domain leads to a negative attitude towards all aspects of the domain. If the same was extended to the practice of Khatna rooted in religious obligation, it would be interesting to explore how attitudes towards Khatna and religion are interlinked.

With each conversation, the questions in my mind multiply and it is often followed by a sense of hesitation of being overambitious. However, I do not let the hesitation pull me back, and the credit for that goes to one research participant who told me that if someone before us had asked these questions, then we wouldn’t have to be here today, and unless we ask these questions, nothing will change and we will still be here five years down the line.

I have made a decision to change, have you?

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

Why the new survey on Khafz (Female Genital Cutting) among Bohras is biased and unscientific

By Mariya Taher, MSW, MFA

Last week, many Dawoodi Bohras around the world received the link to an online “research” survey with questions about Khatna/Khafz practiced in the community. Khafz refers to cutting a portion of a girl’s clitoral hood – a type of Female Genital Cutting – and this new online survey by Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T and Dr. Rakhee K claims that it aims to get feedback from Dawoodi Bohra women and men about the practice. (Link to survey is here).

As someone who has gone through the process of designing multiple research studies, I can confidently say that this latest survey on Khatna/Khafz in the Bohra community is neither a safe nor an unbiased tool for conducting proper research on female genital cutting. Other academic researchers who reviewed the Khafz survey have also pointed this out. For example, Usha Tummala-Narra, Ph.D., an associate Professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College, states:

The questions are strangely worded, and implicitly and explicitly suggest that the practice is not mutilation or traumatic. There are also no questions related to girls’ or women’s experiences of the practice. We can’t really know much about the definition of khatna/khafz without asking about the experience and its effects over time.”

While Karen A. McDonnell, an Associate Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Prevention and Community Health at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, states:

“Overall this survey presents itself as a feedback mechanism from Dawoodi Bohras about female circumcision. Taking the perspective of someone trained in objective survey development in psychology and public health, the survey actually reads in its entirety, not as a feedback, but rather as a tool for marketing a perspective. As the survey proceeds, the tenor of the questions increase in a lack of objectivity and a central cause/message is quite clear and the respondent is made to feel manipulated.” 

While all research has its limitations, the design of this questionnaire suggests that it clearly was NOT created and sent out into the world to collect empirical unbiased research on the practice FGC/Khatna/Khafz. Instead, the bias and manner of wording of this survey tool express that the authors (Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T & Dr. Rakhee K) are seeking responses that will justify their motives to prove that Female Genital Cutting (FGC) does not harm girls.

Which makes me wonder, was this research tool (the survey) even vetted before the study’s implementation?

In 2008, because of my increasing passion to end violence against women, I choose to craft and carry out research for my Master of Social Work thesis on “Understanding the Continuation of Female Genital Cutting Amongst the Dawoodi Bohras in the United States.” The issue had been in the recesses of my mind for years and I wanted to learn how a practice that involves cutting the sexual organs of a young girl could ever have been deemed a religious or cultural practice. I wanted to understand how the issue of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) could continue generation after generation without question, because if I could understand this reasoning, then I could better understand why FGC had been done to me at the age of seven.

As a graduate student, my thesis advisors walked me through every step of the research process, from consulting references and existing studies, to contacting other academics and experts who had studied FGC. In the end, I carried out an exploratory study and crafted questions that could be used to conduct ethnographic interviews. Ethnographic interviewing is a type of qualitative research that combines immersive observation and directed one-on-one interviews. In order to draft the questions, I consulted questions used in previous studies by other researchers. My thesis advisors reviewed the questions, and the San Francisco State University’s Institutional Review Board examined my question to ensure there was no hidden bias in the wording of my questions that could lead participants to answer one way or the other.

Having been through the process once, and understanding the importance of having multiple individuals review your questions for hidden biases, years later, I went through a similar process when Sahiyo designed its study on Khatna among Dawoodi Bohra women. Prior to engaging Bohra women for the study, our research tool (the survey) was vetted by many NGOs and expert researchers.  

If this newest Khafz questionnaire by Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T & Dr. Rakhee K had been vetted by other individuals and institutions, it would have recognized the following problems well before releasing the study to the public.

intro.JPG1) Participant consent

Prior to filling out a study, it is important that participants are informed of the study’s intention and are able to sign a consent form acknowledging that they understand the study’s purpose and are giving their permission for the findings to be used in a study’s report. The new Khafz -survey does not have a consent form that does such. [See Screenshot to the left]. In fact, the purpose of this survey is misleading to the reader. There is no mention of how the respondents are being recruited and if their responses will be anonymous or even held in confidence and in essence violates a respondents rights as a participant.

2) Confidentiality

The new Khafz survey form requires participants to provide information that will NOT allow their information to remain private. The study requires that participants add their Community ID (ITS52/Ejamaat) Number. As reported in Mumbai Mirror, the ITS number keeps track of a Dawoodi Bohra’s personal details, including the number of times a person visits the mosque. By requiring an individual to enter this information, already the researchers have directly violated a person’s right to privacy. The question also limits respondents to only those who have signed up for such an ITS number. This, therefore, rules out the participation of many individuals born into the Bohra community or to a Bohra parent who may not have signed up for the ITS card for a variety of reasons, but who have had to undergo FGC as children because of a decision made by a family member or community member.

The mandatory requirement of disclosing one’s ITS number can also discourage an individual from filling out the survey for fear of backlash from the religious community for disagreeing with the practice of Khafz Such backlash occurs on a regular basis against advocates speaking against FGC as can be viewed on Sahiyo’s social media accounts. (See Sahiyo Activist Needs Assessment to learn more about the challenges individuals face when they speak in opposition to FGC).

3) Biased questions Khafz survey Q2

Besides the problematic ITS number, the wording of subsequent questions on the new Khafz survey is biased and considered to be leading questions that prompt survey respondents to answer in a specific manner.  Khafz survey Q5

For instance, Questions 2, 5, 9, and 10 make assumptions about religious freedom, media, and activists, rather than posing the questions and response choices in a more neutral, open-ended form.

Khafz survey Q9n10

Questions 12 and 13 are perfect examples of problematic, leading questions: Question 12 Khafz survey Q1213offers a definition of the word “mutilation” without any context to why the word is being asked. Question #13 then frames the question in a manner that can minimize or under report a participant’s level of distress associated with khatna/khafz, and also automatically suggests to the participant that the practice is not mutilation. 

Question 14 is confusing for another reason. The introductory paragraph by the researchers suggests that male participants can take part in the study, however, Question 14 is written and geared towards female participants who undergo Khatna/khafz. Khafz survey Q14Yet, because of the asterisk (*), the question is mandatory for all respondents, meaning men would have to submit a response to Question #14. This inclusion of information would automatically invalidate the data collected as men have NOT gone through khafz. The wording of the question also infers that all Dawoodi Bohra women have undergone khatna/khafz, which, from anecdotal reports and previous research on FGC in the Bohra community, we recognize is not the case. In fact, we do see a trend in the Bohra community of people wanting to give up the practice on future generations of girls. Yet, the survey makes no mention of this trend or suggests that it is even an option amongst survey respondents.

Overall, the Khafz/Khatna study is problematic for an entire milieu of reasons, not only the ones I have listed here. However, as a researcher, a social worker, and a woman who has undergone FGC because I was born into the Bohra community, what saddens me the most about this survey is that it is yet another attempt to discredit and disbelieve the numerous women and girls who have spoken up and stated that FGC was harmful to them. These women have spoken up for no other reason than to be believed, and instead of comforting them, the researchers of this new Khfaz/Khatna questionnaire are trying to silence them.

How I found out Khatna exists and why I choose to speak out

By Priya Ahluwalia

Snugly sitting on my bed on the wintry night of December, a cold chill ran down my spine as I read through the Change.Org petition against Female Genital Mutilation also known as Female Genital Cutting or Khafz.  I failed to recognize the magnitude of this practice because of the lack of knowledge of my own genitalia, but reading the petition created dread in my mind. The dread transformed into anger, anger towards the society that violated its own daughters, anger towards all those who let the practice continue and anger towards the ignorance of my own immunity. In anger I signed the petition but it was the vicarious traumatisation I went through while reading the petition in the first place that made me speak out.

An implicit responsibility of those choosing to speak out is to create more awareness. However, to my amazement I found that despite the multitudes of women affected by it, the information on FGC was little. Therefore I never understood the true roots of the practice and its implications on the community until this February at Sahiyo’s activists retreat in Mumbai. The retreat was perhaps the most comprehensive and genuine source of information about the Bohra community, the practice of Khafz and its implications. The retreat was also responsible for breaking one of the biggest barriers I had while talking about this practice: intellectualization. I had honed the tendency to talk about FGC mechanically, removing all speck of emotion from my voice as a way of protecting myself from further distress and also to prevent any secondary opinions or personal bias colouring my narrative. However emotions are fundamental to those who choose to speak out including myself, and therefore ignoring them would be a grave injustice to us all. A one-toned discussion has never led to any change, therefore it is integral that while holding a discourse on Khatna, the emotions be incorporated within the facts.

While presenting FGC as a topic in my school and college years, I often noticed the discomfort that many people feel as soon as the term genitalia was introduced. I couldn’t help but wonder that if verbalizing the word caused so much distress to an adult, then imagine the fear felt by the seven-year-old girl whose legs were held apart and her rights stolen away. I can feel the anguish, I can feel the anger and I can feel the betrayal she must have felt, because I could have easily been that girl, but here is where my immunity lies; I come from a community where this form of gender violence does not exist. However, the immune must support raising those who have undergone FGC which is why I chose this as a topic for my master’s thesis.

This was not a decision I took lightly or quickly, because I know the responsibility that lies with me. I had felt reluctance because I wondered if I, an outsider with little understanding of the community and the practice, would be able to do justice to the women and their stories. I do not know how the thesis will turn out but I know that I will do my best to do right by the women who choose to speak to me. They will not be just data but people with stories to tell that need to be protected and preserved. My aim is to understand the practice as a whole and therefore, I do not want to have a hypothesis of the results I will get, rather I wish to incorporate in my research as many voices as I can, both those who are pro-khatna and those who oppose it.

My job as a researcher will be to be open to all narratives and record them as authentically as I can.

All of us have a voice and therefore have the responsibility to use it wisely. Thus, I choose to use my voice for myself and all those women who have been silenced under the burden of tradition.

(Priya Ahluwalia is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. To participate in her research, contact her on priya.tiss.2018@gmail.com )

Sahiyo Activist Needs Assessment: Learning How To Support FGC Activists

Research Summary & Implications

Background

Sahiyo is dedicated to ending Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the Bohra community, a small global Shia Muslim community. Sahiyo focuses its efforts on public education about the prevalence and impact of FGC, community outreach initiatives, and supporting survivors and activists, with the ultimate goal of driving positive social change around gender violence. Sahiyo recently partnered with a healthcare market research consultancy to conduct primary market research with activists speaking out against FGC, in an effort to better understand activists’ challenges and hopes for the future.

In this article, we hope not only to summarize the key findings from our primary research and draw implications for the broader gender violence activist community, but also to underscore the importance of conducting primary research with activists.

Research Methodology

Research entailed two phases: first, a quantitative, online survey was sent to anti-FGC activists across the globe. Second, follow-up interviews were conducted with activists from the online survey sample, who expressed their willingness to further participate in the research.

Sample & Demographics

All activists who took part in this research grew up in the Dawoodi Bohra religious tradition, and are now self-described as active in speaking out against FGC (‘khatna’).

Phase 1 Quantitative Sample:

  • Between 40-50* activists took the online survey, 91% of whom were female.
  • Activists’ ages varied, though 56% were under the age of 35.
  • The majority (~3/4) of activists reside in either the United States or India and were highly educated, with 96% having at least some graduate degree.
  • Although respondents were raised Dawoodi Bohra, only 43% still identify as Dawoodi Bohra, while 37% are non-practicing. However, 67% of respondents socialize with Dawoodi Bohras at least sometimes (every couple of weeks).
  • 69% of respondents personally underwent FGC, while 94% had a mother who was cut.

Phase 2 Qualitative Sample: 7 activists were interviewed in follow-up telephone conversations. These 7 activists had variable ages, countries of residence, and genders.  

Key Findings

Although each activist’s story is unique, they all shared the drive to end FGC in their community and more broadly. Their activist journey typically started with a realization about the prevalence of the practice: whether this be through a family member speaking out, a documentary, or media coverage; the realization sparked further investigation. Although some activists had memories of their own experience of being cut, many did not. For the latter individuals, the realization as adults about the practice’s prevalence occasionally came with a realization that they too had been cut, triggering an intense emotional response. For all activists, the initial anger and shame upon learning of the practice’s prevalence often led them to ask family and friends about FGC in their community, but they were met with a culture of secrecy and silence. Even when activists did open conversations with family and friends, they found the practice was often justified as a longstanding tradition, necessitated by religion.

This culture of secrecy and acceptance, paired with painful body or narrative memories of their own cutting, were said to be key drivers to speaking out. Many activists feel that not only does FGC have long-term physical and psychological health impacts, but that it is also a form of child sexual assault and/or abuse given the lack of consent. Furthermore, activists acknowledge that FGC’s underlying misogynistic and patriarchal factors make it part of a larger movement to control women. In short, activists feel that FGC does only harm with no benefit and must therefore be ended.

Challenges to speaking out:

Overlap of religion and community

The most significant challenges activists face when speaking out stems from the high degree of overlap between religion and community in the Bohra community. Although most activists are fairly open with their families and friends about their activism, they feel only moderately supported by their loved ones, largely due to concerns with the activism’s social repercussions. These concerns are linked to the social characteristics of the Bohra community, which include long-standing traditions of loyalty and closeness, in which the religious community often dictates social circles, romantic partners, neighborhood housing, cemetery sites, and more. This overlap causes speaking out against FGC to be seen as an attack on the community and faith at large. As a result, activists fear that speaking out would lead to discontinued social and professional bonds and ceasing of access to religious privileges. For some, these potential social repercussions bar them from speaking out publicly, so they pursue more private means of activism, such as anonymous writing and supporting organizations like Sahiyo.

PublicvsPrivateActivism-page-001

Religious authority

Concerns with speaking out are further driven by the authority of the Bohra religious leaders. Considering that there is no clear religious justification for FGC, its continuation relies upon the leaders’ mandates and interpretations. Questioning of the religious leaders is deeply discouraged and potentially dangerous—causing many activists to not only fear speaking out, but also sometimes demotivating them, making them feel that without the support of religious leaders, their activism is a ‘lost cause.’

Considering the challenges above, many activists feel torn between wanting to end the practice and wanting to maintain a close connection to their faith and/or community. Even activists who are no longer involved in the Bohra community still fear risking the social wellbeing of their loved ones. Activists present this as a ‘catch-22’: loyal Bohra members are well respected by their community; however, speaking out against a taboo practice might oust them from it, rendering their authority no longer valid.

Conversation challenges

When activists do speak out publicly or privately, they find the conversation about FGC particularly challenging. The lack of robust, publicly available information about the practice’s prevalence in the Bohra community, as well as about its physical and mental consequences on the girls’ health often result in other Bohra members undermining the impact of khatna. Many community members present khatna as ‘not as bad as other types of FGC’. These arguments are particularly difficult for activists who do not have a clear memory of their own experience or believe that it has not had a negative impact on their life. They therefore risk feeling further invalidated and oftentimes doubt themselves. These factors, paired with the importance laid on tradition and religious authority, poses a serious difficulty for the activists in communicating the need for open conversation about FGC eradication.

Islamophobia

Lastly, the challenges faced are not limited to considerations within the Bohra community. Some activists in America fear that public attention to FGC in a Muslim community might fuel pre-existing islamophobia, ultimately risking the wellbeing of their community. Additionally, given that the practice is illegal in many of the countries of active Bohra communities, some activists fear legal repercussions for people in their family, who they tend to also see as victims of the practice’s broader normalization.

Hopes for the Future:

Activists acknowledge that the unique social and religious considerations surrounding FGC make alleviating many of their challenges difficult. However, they hope that with continued conversation and increasing public awareness more people will learn about and, eventually, question the practice. Many activists feel that every conversation matters, even just 1:1 conversations with loved ones: each person who chooses not to cut their child is ultimately making broader change. They hope that personal stories are shared by name and anonymously, with the facilitation of active support groups, which allow a safe space for women to discuss, ask, and learn. Additionally, crucial information about FGC in the Bohra community and about its overall impact on women’s health and position in the society is expected to provide useful tools to activists and new opportunities for community discussion. Considerate presentations about the practice by the media will further support this dialogue. Although they acknowledge that broader, more formal change spearheaded by religious leaders is unlikely in the near future, community-level change is both possible and valuable. Through a combination of both public and private activism, activists hope that they can continue to build compelling arguments against FGC as they spread awareness.

Implications & Conclusion

Implications on FGC activism

Resources that reinforce the argument for eradicating FGC would significantly support FGC activists: information on the prevalence of FGC, research on the physical and mental health impacts of Type 1 FGC, useful guidance on legal repercussions of publicly sharing experiences and on arguments concerning child sexual abuse and gender violence, and religious arguments against the requirement of FGC for the Muslim tradition. Additionally, activists acknowledge the need for resources on how to strike a balance between empathy and understanding and anger and frustration in a conversation about FGC, especially with active members of the community, who might feel threatened or offended by activists. Activists require such guidance so that they can effectively encourage women to share their experiences and both women and men to listen and learn about FGC.

Implications on research methodologies

This study evidences the critical nature of conducting research directly with activists to better understand their needs. The use of both quantitative and qualitative primary research techniques facilitated both breadth and depth in the findings, therefore increasing existing evidence about FGC prevalence in the Bohra community and activists’ greatest challenges. These findings are crucial in drawing attention to FGC within and outside the community, especially considering the secretive nature of the practice: such evidence can empower activists, who are often met with doubt about their cause. Discussing directly with some of those activists about their own experience and the impact of their activism contributed to further understanding the reasons behind their worries and identifying ways to overcome the challenges. We believe that such methodology can be a robust way for any activist organization to increase evidence, draw attention, and help their members.

Implications on broader gender violence activism

Although the religious and social considerations are certainly unique to the Bohra community, many of the concerns expressed by these anti-FGC activists were resonant of concerns from people speaking out against any form of gender violence: concerns about social repercussions against themselves or their family. Although these repercussions orient more around the close-knit nature of the Bohra community, the underlying anxieties exist for any form of anti-gender violence activist: fear of potential discrimination in the workplace, isolation from family/friends, etc. The fear of negatively impacting one’s community prevalent among anti-FGC activists could be analogized to the fear of negatively impacting loved ones seen in many forms of anti-gender violence activism that results from the perpetrator of the violence often being part of one’s own immediate social circle. We believe that research, like the presented one, which allows gender violence victims and activists to voice their worries of speaking out, especially in terms of the activism’s immediate impact on their life, is crucial in order for organizations, like Sahiyo, to understand how these victims and activists can be best supported.

To view this report as a PDF, click here.

If you are interested in learning more about this study, its results, and their impact for FGC activism, please see the attached presentation, which includes detailed findings and implications.

Announcement: A new research project on Khatna in Mumbai

by Keire Murphy and Cleo Egli

An exciting new research project is being undertaken in Mumbai and its environs this summer which hopes to bring a new perspective to the international discussion of khatna. The project, which is a cultural study on khatna, the Bohra community, and the current activist movement against the practice, is being carried out by Keire Murphy from Trinity College Dublin and Cleo Egli from University of North Carolina, who have been awarded the Mahatma Gandhi Fellowship in order to complete the project.

It will be interesting to see how an entirely external perspective engages with the Bohra culture and cultural specificities of khatna, which is so distinct from the practice portrayed in Western media. The stated goal of the project is to explore and understand not just the practice but also the culture (or cultures) of the Bohra community. The researchers hope that this will enable them to make recommendations to activists coming from outside of the community hoping to work on this issue on how to engage with this issue in a culturally sensitive and culturally specific way.

Murphy and Egli claim to have undertaken this project because of the lack of research that has been engaged in not only on the subject of khatna but also on the Bohra community itself, which they believe is an essential step to effecting lasting social and cultural change. For them, “In order to change, we must first understand”. The women want to explore the identities of the members, particularly the female members, who comprise the Dawoodi Bohra community, how the community defines itself, the tensions and divisions within the community as well as its unifying factors. They want to explore the “beauty and pride of the community in order to better understand its controversial underside.” They are particularly interested in exploring the current movement within the community, led by SAHIYO and Bohra women; how the movement is perceived by the people it is aimed at and what factors are integral for a woman deciding whether to continue the long-standing tradition or face the possible repercussions of breaking with the ancient mould; and what distinguishes a woman who simply doesn’t continue the practice from a woman who goes further and actively campaigns against it.

This project will hopefully be a significant stepping stone to bringing global humanitarian and academic attention to this issue that has often been overshadowed by African practices that, although put in the same category globally, so little resemble the experience of the Dawoodi Bohra. This project is also hoping to act as a precursor and guide for the more comprehensive studies that this issue deserves. This is an incredibly important time for the Bohra community both within India and Pakistan and abroad, with media attention being dramatically drawn to the issue by the highly publicised arrests of practitioners of khatna in the United States. The community may be facing a large amount of media attention in the coming years and it is the aim of this project to provide the members of the community with an opportunity to set the story straight from the beginning about who they are.

The study will take place in Mumbai from the June 24 to July 23, 2017, and researchers are calling for research participants, both in Mumbai on these dates, or in other parts of India from July 24 to the August 7. They also have an open call without date restrictions for participants who would like to engage in interviews over Skype. Participants can be male or female, and do not have to speak of their experience of khatna if they would prefer not to.

All Bohras are encouraged to participate, so that the research will be representative of all groups and opinions in the community. Submissions are also welcome, but interviews will be given more weight. All interested parties should contact mgfmumbai@gmail.com.

A part-time translator job opportunity is also available. To view job description, click here

Part-time Translator Job Opportunity in Mumbai

Looking for an individual willing to assist in translation between Gujarati and English, with a preference for those also able to speak Lisan al-Dawat, for the month of July in Mumbai and surrounding provinces.

Translator will be working closely with two student researchers from the University of North Carolina and Trinity College Dublin who will be conducting research on the Dawoodi Bohra community via interviews with different members of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Familiarity with the community and culture of Dawoodi Bohras is strongly preferred, as ideally the translator would help the student researchers by helping coordinate interviews and acting as a liaison between community members and researchers.

Pay will start at ₹ 250 / hour, with an average of 10-15 hours per week of work available. Pay and hours very flexible.

To express interest or for further information, please email CV to: mgfmumbai@gmail.com

 

81% want Khatna to end: results of Sahiyo’s online survey of Bohra women

On the occasion of International Zero Tolerance Day for Female Genital Cutting, Sahiyo is proud to present the complete findings of the first large-scale, global research study on the subject of Khatna as practiced by Dawoodi Bohras.

The report of the study, titled ‘Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra Community: An Exploratory Survey’, was officially released at a press conference in Mumbai on the morning of February 6, 2017. The report contains the full results and analysis of a detailed online survey of 385 Dawoodi Bohra women from around the world. This survey was conducted over a period of six months from July 2015 to January 2016.

READ THE FULL SURVEY REPORT HERE

What did the Sahiyo survey find?

We encourage you to read the full report to understand the methodology used in the survey, the complete statistics and findings, the analysis of the data and the stories of women who provided personal accounts of their experience. However, here are some key findings at a quick glance:

Demography:

q1

  • 385 Dawoodi Bohra women participated
  • Majority from India and USA
  • 67% between 18-25 years old
  • 76% married
  • 80% women working or running a business from home

Experience of Khatna:

80% survey participants had been subjected to Khatna as children. Out of those women,

q14

  • 66% were 6 or 7 years old when they were cut
  • 74% were cut by an untrained traditional cutter
  • 15% were cut by a health professional
  • 65% were not sure about which part of their genitals was cut

Impact of Khatna:

q24a

  • 51% of those who were cut felt fear immediately after Khatna
  • 21% of those who were cut felt anger
  • 98% of those who were cut described experiencing pain immediately after the Khatna.
  • 35% of those who were cut claimed that Khatna affected their sexual life. Out of those women, 87% said Khatna had a negative impact on their sexual life.

Reasons given for Khatna:

Survey participants had heard of multiple different reasons for why Khatna is practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra community. The most common reasons were:

 

  • For religious purposes – 56%
  • To decrease sexual arousal – 45%
  • To maintain traditions and customs – 42%
  • For physical hygiene and cleanliness – 27%

Hope for the future:

Perhaps the most important finding of the Sahiyo survey is that a huge majority of the participants do not want the practice of Khatna to continue.

q35

 

  • 82% said they are unlikely or extremely unlikely to continue Khatna on their daughter

 

  • 81% said they are not okay with Khatna continuing in the community

This indicates an opportunity for the prevalence of Khatna to reduce among Dawoodi Bohras a generation from now.

Why is Sahiyo’s Khatna Survey significant?

Because there has been almost no research on Khatna among Bohras before this.

Female Genital Cutting (known as Khatna or female circumcision in the Bohra community) is recognised as a form of violence against women and children. It is illegal in many countries, has no mention in the Quran and is in fact considered un-Islamic by many Islamic scholars.

Dawoodi Bohras have been practicing Khatna as a secretive ritual for centuries, and the silence around the practice has broken only recently, in the past four or five years. Even though many women from the community are now speaking out about their personal experiences of Khatna and pushing for an end to the practice, there has been little to no scientific research on the subject.

Without research and representative data, it is difficult to determine the degree of prevalence of Khatna and to understand the complex social norms and cultural value systems that shape the practice of Khatna within the community. The lack of research also makes it difficult to pass legislation and policies, and to design outreach and education programmes to push for an end to the practice. As the first large-scale research study on FGC among Bohras, Sahiyo’s Khatna Survey aims to fill this gap in knowledge and data.

The Sahiyo online survey is a preliminary and exploratory study of Khatna. The survey results point to the need for much more in-depth field research, both qualitative and quantitative, on the practice of Khatna among Bohras. In the future, surveys of Bohra men’s attitudes towards Khatna are also needed. We hope that this pioneering survey becomes a base for future research on Khatna.

(Conducting large-scale scientific research on FGC requires funding and other resources, which are currently lacking in India and other Asian countries where FGC is practiced but not widely known. To encourage the United Nations and other international agencies to invest more towards research and advocacy to end FGC in Asia, please sign and share this Change.org petition by Sahiyo and 32 other global organisations!)

(If you are a media professional interested in covering Sahiyo’s survey or other aspects of Khatna among Dawoodi Bohras, do read Sahiyo’s detailed Media Resource Guide on how to sensitively report on Khatna – we created it especially for you!) 

Invest in ending FGC in Asia: Why Sahiyo and 33 organisations are petitioning the U.N.

(TO READ AND SIGN THE PETITION, CLICK HERE

According to the United Nations, at least 200 million women in 30 countries have been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). However, these statistics are largely restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and ignore the global scope of the issue. Indonesia, where half the girls under age 11 have undergone FGC, was included in the U.N’s list of 30 countries as recently as 2016. This official data still leaves out a large number of women from other countries – particularly in Asia – where FGC has been reported.

FGM/C is known to occur in India, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Maldives, Brunei, Russia (Dagestan), Bangladesh, and IranYet, Asian countries fall outside the scope of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme to Accelerate the Abandonment of FGM/C.  As a result, almost no resources have been invested to collect data and provide support services to women and girls who are affected by this violation of their human rights in these countries.

For the first time ever, the United Nations has prioritized the elimination of FGM/C under the goal of achieving gender equality as part of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) a 15-year plan to help guide global development and funding in the “areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet”.

But how can this particular SDG be met by 2030, if no resources are devoted to understanding the nature and prevalence of FGC amongst Asian communities both in Asia and amongst diaspora populations migrating from these countries all over the world? How can we advance gender equality if we are not inclusive of every country where FGC is reported, even if it is only anecdotally?

Currently, no national or representative data exists in these countries, meaning that potentially millions of girls and women are being left out of the statistic. Millions of little girls are being forgotten. This oversight has, unfortunately, has also led to a lingering misconception that FGC takes place only in Africa and certain parts of the Middle East.

Yet, in 2015, when Sahiyo pursued a small scale online study to understand the extent of FGC amongst the Dawoodi Bohras, we found that FGC was practiced amongst 80% of the community’s women. 

FGC in Asian communities has largely been ignored by the international agencies primarily because there is minimal research and evidence to show the extent of the practice. Without this vital data collection, it is difficult to pass legislation and policies to end FGC, to design outreach and education programmes and also to train social workers, health professionals and child welfare personnel on how to recognize, respond to and intervene sensitively in cases of FGC.   

This is why Sahiyo and 33 other civil society organisations from across the world are now petitioning the U.N. to take the issue of FGM/C in Asia more seriously.

This Change.org petition calls upon the global community, particularly the United Nations, international foundations and donor countries/agencies, to put in more funding, support, and resources towards research, data collection, advocacy and survivor-centred support facilities in the above-mentioned Asian countries.  

As we begin 2017, we believe it would be wonderful if the international community can take this up as a New Year’s resolution in our collective journey towards ending FGC.

TO READ AND SIGN THE PETITION, CLICK HERE

The coalition of organisations that have co-signed the petition are:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.