Five things you need to know about the controversial court ruling on FGM/C in USA: Sahiyo explains

by Sahiyo

On November 20, 2018, United States District Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that the US Federal Law banning Female Genital Cutting (FGC, also known as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM) is unconstitutional. With this ruling, the judge dismissed key charges of FGM against two Michigan doctors and six other people accused of practicing genital cutting on several minor girls.

However, in the same ruling, Judge Friedman acknowledged that the practice of cutting a female’s genitalia is “despicable”.

The ruling came as a shock to survivors of FGC and human rights activists advocating to end FGC, not just in the USA but all over the world. But there is more to this complex and controversial court ruling than the news headlines suggest. In order to better understand the ruling and its implications for communities that practice FGC, read Sahiyo’s comprehensive explainer below:

What is the US District Judge’s ruling on Female Genital Cutting all about?

In April 2017, the US federal government prosecuted Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, Dr. Fakhruddin Attar and his wife Farida Attar — all members of Michigan’s Farmington Hills Dawoodi Bohra mosque — for subjecting two minor girls from Minnesota to FGC. Subsequently, five other women from the Dawoodi Bohra community were prosecuted for performing FGC on at least nine girls in the Michigan area. This historic case was the first time that anyone had been charged under the US federal law prohibiting FGC — a law that had been introduced by the federal government back in 1996.

To understand the US District Court’s ruling in this case on November 20, it is important to understand the federal nature of the US government and its criminal justice system. Under federalism, some laws can be passed by Congress — the federal or central government — and are applicable to all states in the country. Some other laws can only come under the jurisdiction of individual state governments, and cannot apply to the whole country.

In his ruling in the FGC case, Judge Friedman of the federal-level district court stated that “as despicable as this practice may be”, FGC is technically a “local criminal activity”, and Congress (the federal government) does not have jurisdictional authority to regulate it. Even though the federal law against FGC has been in place since 1996, he stated that it is “unconstitutional.”       

Why is this ruling controversial?

The district judge states that the crime of FGC should be regulated by individual states. But the US does not actually have laws against FGC in every single state. At the moment, only 27 out of 50 US states have a state law banning FGC. There is currently a state law in Michigan banning FGC, but the law only came into effect in 2017 after the federal case involving Dr Nagarwala and Dr Attar came to light. The doctors cannot be prosecuted retrospectively under this state law.

Judge Friedman’s ruling declares the federal law against FGC to be unconstitutional based on a technicality. However, the ruling is controversial on at least two fronts.

First, prosecutors and other human rights advocates argue that FGC cannot be considered just a local criminal activity, because it often involves transporting minors across state borders to get their genitals cut by doctors who are paid to perform the ritual. In this case, for instance, two minor girls were transported from Minnesota to Michigan to get FGC done by Dr Nagarwala. Therefore, the federal law banning FGC — which Congress had passed in 1996 under the “Commerce Clause” — should be applicable in this case. Judge Friedman’s ruling does not consider this aspect.

Second, this ruling is insensitive to survivors of FGC and sends out a dangerous message to women from FGC-practicing communities: that their lives and bodies can be put at risk on the grounds of questionable technicalities.

Does this ruling put more girls at risk of being cut?

For the time being, yes: this ruling can put girls at risk of being but. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 513,000 women and girls have experienced or are at risk of FGC in the United States. And this figure is an underestimation. Many women and girls at risk live in one of the 23 States which have not passed laws against FGC.

Since the ruling puts the onus of regulating FGC only to individual states, many of these girls are at risk of being transported from states that have laws banning FGC to states that currently do not have laws banning FGC, so that they can be cut with impunity. Only 11 of the 27 States with anti-FGC laws have specific provisions banning the transportation of a child out of the State to perform FGC.

Since the US is a strong country with a high degree of influence on global cultures, this ruling also ends up unintentionally condoning genital cutting for FGC-practicing communities all over the world. We are already seeing this in the global Dawoodi Bohra community, where supporters of Female Genital Cutting have taken to social media to celebrate their “victory” in the US FGC case, and to claim that they will continue cutting girls.

Is this the end of the case, or can the ruling be appealed?

This District Court ruling is not the end of the case. This is a lower court decision which can and almost certainly will be appealed by prosecutors from the US Government, and it is possible that over time, this case will be taken to the Supreme Court.

Additionally, two charges remain against Dr Nagarwala, including conspiracy to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct, and obstruction of justice. Her trial is set to begin in April 2019.

What is the way forward now, for those of us working to end FGC?

Laws are an important deterrent against FGC, and help to reinforce the fact that cutting female genitals is a human rights violation. In light of Judge Friedman’s ruling, activists and communities in the United States should now urge their elected representatives to pass laws banning FGC in every single state of the country. As a global leader in human rights, the US should also do this to set a precedent in many Asian countries where there are currently no laws against FGC.

However, at Sahiyo, we believe that laws can be effective only when accompanied by social change movements on the ground. We therefore encourage everyone to engage in dialogue around FGC, to break the silence around this taboo topic, listen to women’s voices and recognise that FGC is harmful to girls and women.

 

To learn about the history of the Michigan case, click here

Read more at U.S. Court’s dismissal of FGM/C charge in Michigan case is disappointing but does not condone genital cutting.

Read the Amicus Brief for Dr. Nargawala hearing on November 6, 2018, submitted by Equality Now, WeSpeakOut, Sahiyo, And Safe Hands For Girls in support of the United States.

Read the U.S. End FGM/C Network Statement on Judge’s Decision in Michigan Case.

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U.S. Court’s dismissal of FGM/C charge in Michigan case is disappointing, but does not condone genital cutting

By Mariya Taher
Co-founder, Sahiyo

I was sitting in my office, reading a blog post submitted to Sahiyo by a woman doing research on Female Genital Cutting in India, when I received a phone call. I answered it, not thinking twice, not knowing that what I was to hear next would leave me dumbstruck.

The call was from a news reporter, who wanted my reactions to the latest news about the United States’ first legal case on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) — the Michigan case involving two doctors and six others brought up on federal charges of performing FGC on nine minor girls in the U.S. I hadn’t heard of the latest news yet. And then, the reporter dropped a bombshell.

It turns out, a U.S. District Judge has dismissed the FGC charges in the case and declared the federal legislation banning and criminalizing Female Genital Cutting in the U.S since 1997 as unconstitutional!

My immediate reaction was, “That’s crazy.” Then my mind shifted to what had happened to me on October 19th, at the inaugural screening of Sahiyo Stories, a collection of digital stories created by U.S. women who have undergone FGC or who have loved ones who have undergone it. After those videos were shown at the screening, a couple walked in, joined the audience, and began to counter the stories of the survivors. They stated that FGC was harmless, that the survivors sharing their stories must only be trying to get attention. I worry that because of what this U.S. District Judge has ruled, what happened at that screening of Sahiyo Stories, might become all too common when survivors share their FGC stories in the hope of preventing harm to future generations of girls.

As stated in the Detroit Free Press by Tresa Baldas

The U.S. District Judge concluded that “as despicable as this practice may be,” Congress did not have the authority to pass the 22-year-old federal law that criminalizes female genital mutilation, and that FGM is for the states to regulate. FGM is banned worldwide and has been outlawed in more than 30 countries, though the U.S. statute had never been tested before this case.

There is no doubt that the decision will be appealed by the government, but this response worries me because without the law, what can we point to, when parents and families are trying to do the right thing and not succumb to the community pressure they face in having their daughter undergo FGC? And at Sahiyo, we do hear from these parents. We hear from parents who tell us they have spared their daughters as well as parents who regret not doing more to protect their daughters, but felt pressured by the community, by members of their families, believing that they had to get it done. That social pressure is real and threatening and at Sahiyo we understand the fear of being ostracised from your family or your community for speaking against what others believe is a religious necessity.

This decision also concerns me because it will be used by proponents of FGC to further suggest that they are justified in pursuing FGC because FGC has been proven harmless. Even though, the fact remains, that this is not at all what the Judge has said in his decision to rule the FGC federal law unconstitutional. To the contrary, the decision made by the Judge clearly recognizes that FGC is a terrible crime.

What the Judge has stated is the following:

“As laudable as the prohibition of a particular type of abuse of girls may be … federalism concerns deprive Congress of the power to enact this statute,” Friedman wrote in his 28-page opinion, noting: “Congress overstepped its bounds by legislating to prohibit FGM … FGM is a ‘local criminal activity’ which, in keeping with long-standing tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress.”

The Judge has ruled that the issue of FGC falls under state law jurisdiction (intrastate) versus federal (interstate). In other words, the judge’s ruling opens up a jurisdiction question and NOT a question on whether FGC is harmful or not.

If “local criminal activity” must be regulated by the state, then it goes to show just how vital it will be for all states in the U.S. to pass laws banning FGC. Currently, only 27 states in the U.S. have such laws. Massachusetts, the state I live in, does not. (See petition ‘Ban FGM/C in MA’).

Even when laws are passed, I believe that it will be important to remember that FGC will most likely still continue just as other forms of gender-based violence such as domestic violence and sexual assault unfortunately continue despite the presence of laws against them. FGC also continues because as a social norm entrenched in the culture, this harmful practice has been touted as a religious or cultural practice that is needed to control women’s sexuality.

This reality points to the importance of education and community engagement to help create social change within communities and amongst groups where FGC might be happening.

To that end, Sahiyo will continue to organize and participate in community events to educate our friends, family and community about the harms of FGC and why it should be abandoned.

Learn more about FGC in the U.S.

If you would like to write about your views on the Judge’s ruling or the Michigan case in general, send a write-up to info@sahiyo.com

 

An appeal to Maneka Gandhi: Stop the flip-flops on Female Genital Cutting in India

Sahiyo is deeply concerned about the Indian government’s repeated contradictory positions on the problem of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the country. In the span of just 13 months, India’s Ministry for Women and Child Development has flip-flopped on its stand on FGC at least twice.

Its latest u-turn came on Wednesday, June 27, when the Ministry mentioned, in the middle of a larger press release, that “Female Genital Mutilation” is “not practiced in India”. This is clearly at odds with the stand that the central government took in the Supreme Court just two months ago, when it stated that FGC is “already an offence” under Indian law and asked the Court for guidelines on how to tackle the challenge of FGC.

This is not the first time that the government has made contradictory statements about FGC, which is called Khatna or Khafz by the Bohra community and female Sunnath by FGC-practicing communities in Kerala.

Such flip-flops leave FGC survivors in the lurch, unsure of whether their government is likely to support the end of a practice that continues to harm so many women and girls in India.

The first time

Female Genital Cutting (also called Female Genital Mutilation) involves cutting parts of the female genitalia for non-medical, often religious or cultural reasons. In India, the kind of FGC practiced by the Bohras and some communities in Kerala typically involves cutting a part or all of a young girl’s clitoral hood. The practice can have a variety of physical, psychological and sexual consequences on the health of women and girls.

Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development, first publicly acknowledged the practice of FGC in India in May 2017, a month after an independent lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court asking for a ban on FGC. The Court sought a response from the government and Gandhi stated that the practice of FGC would be considered a criminal offence under provisions of the Indian Penal Code as well as the law against child sexual abuse. She also stated that her Ministry would write to the Syedna (the leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community) and ask him to “issue an edict to community members” to give up FGC voluntarily. If the community does not give up the practice, Gandhi said, the government would introduce a specific law against FGC.  

This was a welcome stand by the government, but it was contradicted seven months later. In December 2017, during a hearing of the petition against FGC, Gandhi’s ministry told the Supreme Court that “there is no official data or study” that supports the existence of FGC in India. While this is technically correct, it is dismissive of the many survivor testimonies that have been presented to the Ministry through petitions and personal meetings with survivors and activists. The statement is also ironic, because “official” data can only exist if the government actually commissions such research studies on FGC, which it has not yet done.

After this frustrating statement, the government gave FGC survivors hope again in April. At another Supreme Court hearing, the government’s attorney unequivocally acknowledged the practice of FGC in India, described it as an offence under provisions of existing Indian laws, and asked the Court itself to help issue guidelines on how to end FGC in communities.

Now, with it’s latest press release, the government is back to flip-flopping on the issue.  

The second time

The Ministry’s June 27 press release was a refutation of a new poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which found India to be “the world’s most dangerous country for women”, based on a perception survey of 548 experts on women’s issues from around the world. The survey results identified a list of 10 countries that are currently perceived to be the most dangerous for women.

The poll evaluated each country on six key parameters: health, discrimination, cultural & religion, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking. India was ranked number one (most dangerous) one three of these parameters: sexual violence, human trafficking and culture & religion. It also ranked as most dangerous overall, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and others.

It is the parameter of “culture and religion” that specifically concerns us here. This parameter includes practices such as child marriage, forced marriage, female foeticide, punishment through stoning or mutilation as well as Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

The Indian Ministry for Women and Child Development did not take kindly to the Thomson Reuters poll, and issued a defensive press release dismissing the poll as unscientific and not based on data. It is no secret that women’s rights and freedoms are regularly trampled upon in India, and the Ministry’s sour-grapes reaction to the perception poll has already been critiqued in the media.

What struck Sahiyo’s attention is this particular statement in the Ministry’s press release: “The six questions posed as part of the poll cannot fairly be applied to all countries. E.g. the age bar for defining child marriage is different in every country, mutilation as a means of punishment, female genital mutilation, stoning etc. are not practiced in India.” [Italics added]

To claim that Female Genital Cutting is not practiced in India is a blatant falsehood, and it comes from a government that has already publicly acknowledged the prevalence of FGC in India twice before.

It comes from a government whose ministry has personally met with survivors and activists in the past year and assured them that it is keen to end this practice.

It comes from a government whose minister has claimed she would appeal to the Bohra Syedna to end the practice of FGC in the Bohra community.

It comes from a government that has officially told the highest Court of this country that FGC is already a crime in India, under the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

It comes from a government that must surely be aware that FGC is practiced not just by Bohras but also by other groups in Kerala, because in August 2017, the government of Kerala ordered a probe into reports about “Sunnath” being carried out on girls in the state.

It comes from a government that must surely have read the headlines when Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor released a study that found a 75% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohras.

Why, then, is the government now claiming that FGC is not practiced in India?

It appears that the Ministry for Women and Child Development is willing to deny the existence of practices that harm actual women in the country, simply for the sake of defending an abstract notion of national pride in the face of a survey that reveals the world’s negative perceptions of India. This is a distressing betrayal of all the women and children who have suffered the harmful consequences of FGC, as well as any woman who may have hoped for support from a Ministry meant for her welfare.

Sahiyo appeals to the central government and the Ministry of Women and Child Development to retract its claim that FGC is not practiced in India. We also appeal to the Ministry to commission research on the practice of FGC in India, so that it can design sensitive policies to help communities end FGC.

(Sahiyo has been petitioning global agencies to invest in research on FGC in Asia. Support Sahiyo’s petition by clicking here.)

Sahiyo and Khatna survivors get attacked online through ‘organized trolling’

In the recent years Sahiyo has come across many dissenting views while engaging with followers on the internet on the topic of ending Female Genital Cutting. The dissenting views have come in the form of tweets, comments, emails, people personally dissuading us from our work, and more. And every time someone has tried to tell us that Female Genital Cutting is beneficial for the woman, we have tried to present a reasoned argument against it.

It is our mission to create a counter-narrative on Female Genital Cutting in the communities practicing it, through dialogue and education.

That said, we recently observed a phenomenon of ‘organized trolling’, a spate of attacks online. A few days ago, Sahiyo’s Facebook page was attacked with negative reviews from different people. It happened in a quick span of a few minutes and oddly enough every review had almost the same things to say.

The trolls gave Sahiyo one-star ratings and called us a ‘sham organization’. In some reviews, co-founders were named individually and discredited for bringing shame to the community. Furthermore, these reviews stated that Sahiyo co-founders are creating a fake narrative against Female Genital Cutting prevalent in the community for their personal gains. This kind of behaviour qualifies as online harassment, because it is an intentional attempt to attack and discredit a group and its individual members in manner that is not civil.

In 2015, Sahiyo conducted an anonymous survey with 385 respondents out of which 81% people responded that they didn’t want the practice to continue. Since its inception, the number of people supporting Sahiyo’s mission has increased manifold, as men and women from the community have come out against the practice.

Yet there is a significant number of people who fear openly coming out with their views against the practice. Online harassment through organised trolling is one among the many reason why people fear voicing their opinions publicly.

Through Sahiyo, we want to create a safe space where opinions on the practice could be heard and tolerated, not trolled and shunned. By attacking online and publicly shaming, the pro-khatna supporters have displayed their intolerance against any view that counters or challenges the practice.

FGC is illegal in many parts of the world including United States and Australia, where people from the Bohra community have faced legal action for practising Female Genital Cutting. Furthermore, the jamaats (congregations) in US, UK and Australia came up with notices asking members not to practice FGC because it is against the law of land.

Yet pro-khatna supporters continue to defend the practice, and in doing so, some of them resort to  trolling or online harassment through foul language and personal attacks of those why they disagree with. While claiming that they have personally not had negative experiences with FGC, they attack, discredit and dismiss the personal experiences of others who have had negative experiences with FGC and have taken the courage to share their stories.

While we disagree with pro-khatna rhetoric which has been passed down since generations within the community, we — and the FGC survivors who share their stories with us — want to create room to have a dialogue and debate around it without being personally attacked.

Many women who have undergone FGC already have a challenging time talking about their experience openly. There is a fear and shame associated with sharing their stories — shame that it happened to them and perhaps feelings of not wanting to be viewed as victims. There is also a very real fear of backlash and of not being believed, and online trolling validates these fears. Trolling makes it more difficult and dangerous for people to come forward, and for community members to feel supported because of something they feel.

Furthermore, it is only a clear exhibition of intolerance prevalent in the community, which quells voices of the people who don’t agree with their mandate.

Sahiyo strongly condemns online trolling of those who have voiced their views against the practice. Online harassment or trolling leaves no room for debate or dialogue.

 

Building the data on Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra Community

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the findings of the first ever large scale global study on Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra community in order to gain insight into how and why this harmful practice continued. A year later, this February 2018 saw the release of a second large-scale research study entitled “The Clitoral Hood – A Contested Site”, conducted by Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shabana Diler and Natasha Menon in collaboration with WeSpeakOut and Nari Samata Manch. The study explored the practice of FGM/C in the Bohra community specifically in India and added findings about the sexual impact of FGC on Bohra women. Substantial overlap between the two studies can be found and parallels can be drawn.

Firstly, both studies explored the type of FGM/C that was carried out on the participants. The study by Sahiyo discovered that out of the 109 participants who were aware of the procedure that was carried out on them, 23 reported having undergone Type 1a – the removal of the clitoral hood. Research carried out by Anantnarayan et. al. found that although proponents of FGM/C in India claim that Bohras only practice Type 1a and Type 4 FGM/C (pricking, piercing or cauterization of the clitoral hood), participants reported that both Types 1a and 1b (partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or clitoral hood) are most often practiced.

Sahiyo and Anantnarayan et. al. both found that the majority of participants had undergone FGM/C and therefore, among both samples, FGM/C was widely practiced. Sahiyo found that 80% of 385 female participants had undergone the practice, whereas Anantnarayan et. al. found that of the 83 female participants in the study, 75% reported that their daughters had undergone FGC. Both studies found that FGM/C was performed at around the age of seven.

The impact of FGM/C on participants was also reported to be similar among participants of both studies. In exploring this further, Anantnarayan et. al. found that 97% of participants remembered FGM/C as a painful experience. Participants who had undergone the practice reported painful urination, physical discomfort, difficulty walking, and bleeding to be the immediate effects after having undergone FGM/C. In the long-term, some women reported that they suffered from recurring Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and incontinence, which they suspect could be linked to their khatna.

Both studies also explored the effect of FGM/C on participants’ sex lives. Anantnarayan et. al. found that approximately 33% of participants believe that FGM/C has negatively impacted their sex life. Similarly, Sahiyo reported findings of 35% of participants who believed that FGM/C has negatively impacted their sex lives. Some of the problems identified by several participants included low sex drive, the inability to feel sexual pleasure, difficulty trusting sexual partners, and over-sensitivity in the clitoral area.

Physical consequences of FGM/C in both studies also revealed psychological consequences. Similar to Sahiyo’s findings, Anantnarayan et. al. found that many participants reported feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, anger, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting people as some of the psychological repercussions of their FGM/C experience. Sahiyo found that 48% of participants in their study reported that FGM/C had left them with a lasting psychological impact.

Both Sahiyo and Anantnarayan et. al. also explored the main reasons for the the continuation of FGM/C within the Bohra community. Several common reasons were found, including the continuation of an old traditional practice, the adherence to religious edicts, and to control women’s promiscuity and sexual behaviour.

Interestingly, Sahiyo’s study found that 80% of women had earned at least a Bachelor’s degree, no relationship could be determined between education level and having undergone FGC. Meanwhile, the study by Anantnarayan et. al found that a strong connection existed between a mother’s education level and her decision to continue FGC on her daughter.

Sahiyo’s study, however, did note that more important than education level was the question of a person’s ideological preference (stated religion) as it might influence a person’s decision to continue FGC on their daughter. In fact, Sahiyo’s survey found that those who were most likely to continue ‘khatna’ were also more likely to still identify as Dawoodi Bohra in their adult life. Anantnarayan et. al also determined that the more diverse personal networks and economic independence from the Bohra religious community a woman had, the more likely they were to discontinue FGM/C and renounce it.

Finally, both studies examined the relationship between men and the decision/involvement for a girl to undergo FGC. Both studies did allude to the idea that the decision leading to a girl undergoing FGM/C may not strictly be confined to women. Sahiyo’s study revealed that 72% of respondents believed that men were aware of the practice, but only 27% believed that men were told of the practice when the girl underwent it in their family. Anantnarayan et. al. concluded that men played an integral role in the maintenance and propagation of the practice, both at the personal and political level, whether passively or more actively. However, Sahiyo’s data collection was completed in 2016, prior to the large-scale movement to end FGC in the Bohra community. The last few years have shown that with an increase in awareness of FGC amongst the public, Bohra men’s own knowledge of FGC has also naturally increased, and thus the traditional idea that men are unaware of FGC may in fact be changing with the current generation, as pointed out by Anantnarayan et. al.

 

શા માટે દાઉદી બોહરા ખતના પ્રથા અથવા ફીમેલ જેનિટલ કટિંગને અપનાવે છે?

છોકરીઓ માટેની ખતના પ્રથા શા માટે અપનાવવા આવે છે? દાઉદી બોહરા સમાજ સદીઓથી જાહેરમાં વાતચીત કર્યા વિના છૂપી રીતે બૈરાનીખતનાપ્રથા અપનાવી રહી છે, જે ફીમેલ જેનિટલ કટિંગ (એફ.જી.સી.) તરીકે પણ જાણીતી છે. ફક્ત પાછલા એક વર્ષથી, બોહરા આગેવાનો બોલી રહ્યાં છે કે શા માટે તેઓ સાત વર્ષની છોકરીના ક્લિટોરલ હૂડ ને કાપવાની પ્રથા અપનાવે છે. (બૈરાઓને સેક્સ્યૂઅલ આનંદનો અનુભવ કરવામાં મદદરૂપ થતા યોનિ અને મૂત્રમાર્ગ ની ઉપર આવેલ સંવેદનશીલ નસોવાળા ચામડીના બટન જેવા બંડલને ક્લિટોરિસ કહે છે અને ક્લિટોરિસને નુક્શાન થતું અટકાવવા તેના પરના આવરણને ક્લિટોરલ હૂડ કહે છે.)

જુન 2016માં, સયૈદના મુફદ્દલ સૈફુદિને એક પ્રેસ સ્ટેટમેન્ટ આપ્યું હતુ જેમાં તેમણે ખતનાને “ધાર્મિક શુદ્ધતા”ના કાર્ય તરીકે જણાવી છે. જે,પાછલા વર્ષે સહિયો સાથેની એક અંગત વાતચીતમાંસમાજના એક વરિષ્ઠ પ્રવક્તાએ આપેલા સ્ટેટમેન્ટ જેવું છે, તેમણે દાવો કર્યો હતો કે દાઈમ અલ ઈસ્લામ (10મી સદીનું ન્યાયશાસ્ત્રનું પુસ્તક) અનુસાર બૈરા અને મરદનાખતના પાછળનું મુખ્ય કારણ ફક્ત શારિરીક જ નહિં પરંતુ, “આધ્યાત્મિક” અને “ધાર્મિક” સ્વચ્છતા અથવા તહારત પણ છે.

ત્યારબાદ ફેબ્રુઆરી 2017માં, સમાજના એક વરિષ્ઠ પ્રવક્તાએ ધી હિન્દુસમાચારપત્રને એક અનામી મુલાકાત આપી હતી, જેમાં ફરી દાઈમ અલ ઈસ્લામ ની વાત કરી હતી. તે સિવાય, આ વખતે અનામી પ્રવક્તાએ જણાવ્યું હતુ કે ખતના “બૈરાના ચહેરા પરના તેજમાં અને તેણીના મરદ સાથેના સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખમાં વધારો કરવાનું” કાર્ય કરે છે.

હવે, જ્યારથી અમેરિકામાં ત્રણ બોહરાઓની એફ.જી.સી.ના આરોપ હેઠળ ધરપકડ થઈ ત્યારથી કેટલાક બોહરા બૈરાઓ જે ખતનાનું સમર્થન કરે છે તેમણે આ પ્રથાના બચાવમાં સોસિયલ મીડિયાનો સહારો લીધો છે. આ બધાબૈરાઓ દાવો કરે છે કે ખતનાસેક્સ્યૂઅલ ઉત્તેજના માટે અપનાવામાં આવે છે અને તે “વૈજ્ઞાનિક” અને “તબીબી” રીતે લાભદાયક છે કારણ કે તે “પશ્ચિમ દેશોમાં કરવામાં આવતી ક્લિટોરલ અનહૂડિંગ પ્રક્રિયા” જેવી જ છે. તેમાના કેટલાક બૈરાઓ એમ પણ દાવો કરે છે કે ખતનાજનનેન્દ્રિય (જેનિટલ) સ્વચ્છતા માટે અપનાવામાં આવે છે.

વધારે પડતા બોહરા બૈરાઓએ એક પેઢીથી બીજી પેઢીને ખતના પ્રથા આપતીવખતે, હજી સુધી આ રીતે તેનું પારંપરિક વર્ણન કર્યું નથી. પ્રોફેસર રેહાના ઘડિયાલીએ 1991માં, ઓલ ફોર ઈઝ્ઝત નામના એક આર્ટિકલમાં આશરે 50 બોહરા બૈરાઓના ઈન્ટરવ્યૂ લીધા હતા અને તેમાં ખતના માટેના સામાન્ય કારણો આ મુજબ જોવા મળ્યા હતા. ક) તે એક ધાર્મિક ફરજ છે. ખ) તે એક પરંપરા છે અને ગ) તે છોકરીની સેક્સયુઆલિટીને કાબુમાંરાખવા માટેઅપનાવામાં આવે છે.

ત્યારથી, કેટલાક સ્વતંત્ર સંશોધનકર્તા, કાર્યકર્તાઓ અને ફિલ્મ નિર્માતાઓને બોહરા બૈરાઓ સાથેની તેમની અસંખ્ય વાતચીતો દરમિયાન તેવા જ કારણો જોવા મળ્યા. બોહરા સમાજના મોટા ભાગના લોકોએ સતત દાવો કર્યો છે કે તેઓ તેમની છોકરીઓનું ખતના, તેમની સેક્સયુઅલ ઈચ્છાઓને કાબુમાં રાખવા અથવા તો ચૂપચાપ ધાર્મિક પરંપરાને અનુસરવા માટે અપનાવે છે. ઘણા બોહરા લોકો તો ક્લિટોરિસને “હરામ ની બોટી” અથવા પાપી માંસના ટુકડા તરીકે બતાવે છે.

સહિયોએ કરેલા 385 બોહરા બૈરાઓના રીસર્ચમાં પણ તેવા જ કારણો જોવા મળ્યા હતા. વધારે પડતા જવાબ આપવાવાળાઓએ દાવો કર્યો કે ખતના પ્રથાને પારંપરિક રીતે અથવા સેક્સયુઅલ ઈચ્છાઓને કાબુમાં કરવા માટે અપનાવામાં આવે છે, જ્યારે બહું ઓછાબૈરાઓએ “સ્વચ્છતા”, “તબીબી લાભ” અથવા “જાતીય સુખમાં વધારા”ને ખતના પ્રથાના કારણો બતાવ્યા હતા. 2012 માં ફિલ્મ નિર્માતા પ્રિયા ગોસ્વામિ, જ્યારે તેણીની ડૉક્યુમેન્ટરી પિંચ ઓફ સ્કિન નું રીસર્ચ કરી રહી હતી ત્યારે બોહરા ધાર્મિક સંસ્થાની એક મહિલા શિક્ષકે તો તેણીને સ્પષ્ટ રીતે જણાવ્યું હતુ કે ખતના પ્રથા પાછળનું મુખ્ય કારણછોકરીઓની સેક્સયુઅલ ઉત્તેજનાઓને કાબુમાં કરવાનો છે જેથી, તેણી શાદી પહેલાં અથવા પછી અન્ય કોઈ વ્યક્તિ સાથે સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સંબંધો ના રાખે.

તો, શા માટે આજકાલના ઓનલાઈન ખતનાવિરોધીઓ તેની ઉલટી હકીકત આપીરહ્યાં છે અને દાવો કરી રહ્યાં છે કે બૈરાનુંખતના તેણીના સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખમાં વધારો કરવા માટે અપનાવામાં આવે છે? ખતના પ્રથા પાછળનું સાચુ કારણ શું છે?

આ બાબતને સમજવા ચાલો આપણે, બૈરાના ખતના વિષે ઈસ્લામિક પુસ્તક શું કહે છે તે જોઈએ.

ખાસ કરીને ઈસ્લામના શફી, હનબલી અને હનફિની કેટલીક ખાસ હદીથો છે, જેમાં ખતનાને સ્વીકાર્ય, ઈજ્જતવાળુ અથવા તો એક સુન્નત (સલાહભર્યું) તરીકે બતાવી છે. વિશ્વના ઘણા ઈસ્લામિક વિદ્વાનો વર્ષોથી આ હદીથની સચ્ચાઈ પર પ્રશ્નો ઉઠાવી રહ્યા છે. પરંતુ, આપણે તેને સાચુ માનીએ તો પણ, આ હદીથ એ મુખ્ય સચ્ચાઈને પાકી કરે છે કે પેગંબર મહમ્મદના સમયમાં પણ અરેબિયન પ્રદેશોમાં પહેલાંથી જ ખતના પ્રથા ચાલુ હતી, ખતનાઈસ્લામમાં દાખલ કરેલી કોઈ નવી ધાર્મિક પ્રથા નથી.

એક હદીથ, સુનાન અબુ દાઉદ પુસ્તક 41, જેમાં વારંવાર સુનાન અબુ દાઉદની વાત કરવામાં આવી છે. તેમા નીચેની એક ખાસ બાબત સમાવિષ્ટ છે :

ઉમ્મ અતિય્યાહ અલ-અન્સારિયા માંથી:
એક સ્ત્રી મદિનામાં ખતના કરતી હતી ત્યારે પેગંબરે (પી.બી.યુ.એચ.) તેણીને કહ્યું હતુ કે વધારે કાપીશ નહિં કારણ કે તે બૈરા માટે વધારે સારૂં હોય છે અને મરદ ને વધારેગમે છે.

પેગંબર, સ્ત્રીને વધારે કાપવા અંગે સાવચેત કરે છે તે ઘટનાનુંઅલગ-અલગ વિદ્વાનોએ અલગ-અલગ રીતે અર્થ અને ભાષાંતર કર્યું છે. અમુક વિદ્વાનોએ તેનું ભાષાંતર એમ કર્યું છે કે “વધારે કાપશો નહિં કારણ કે તે બૈરાઓના સેક્સ્યૂઅલસુખ માટે છે અને મરદ દ્વારા તે વધારે પસંદ કરવામાં આવે છે”, જ્યારે અન્ય વિદ્વાનોએ તેનું ભાષાંતર એમ કર્યું છે કે “…તે ચહેરાના સૌંદર્યનું કારણ છે અને મરદ માટે તે વધુ આનંદદાયક છે.”

ધી પિલ્લર્સ ઓફ ઈસ્લામ (દાઈમ અલ-ઈસ્લામનું ઈસ્માઈલ પુનાવાલાએ કરેલુ અંગ્રેજી ભાષાંતર) ના વોલ્યુમ 1ના પેજ નં. 154 પર એક આવા જ વાક્યને એ રીતે ભાષાંતરીત કરવામાં આવ્યું છે કે “હે બૈરાઓ, જ્યારે તમે તમારી દીકરીઓનું ખતના કરો ત્યારે થોડો ભાગ છોડી દો (લેબિઆ અથવા ક્લિટોરિસનો ભાગ), તે તેણીના શુદ્ધ ચરિત્રનેબતાવશે અને તે બૈરાઓ તેમના મરદોને વધારે વહાલા લાગશે.” ઉપર બતાવેલ ધી હિન્દુ સમાચાર પત્રના એક ઈન્ટરવ્યૂમાં સમાજના એક પ્રવક્તાએ તેનું આવુ જ કંઈ ભાષાંતર કર્યું હતુ કે “બૈરાના ચહેરા પરના તેજમાં અને તેણીના મરદ સાથેના સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખમાં વધારો કરે છે”. (ઈટાલિક્સમાં આપેલ ભાગ ઉમેરવામાં આવ્યો છે.)

હું કોઈ અરેબિક વિદ્વાન નથી પરંતુ, આ અલગ-અલગ ભાષાંતર પરથી એ સ્પષ્ટ છે કે અલગ-અલગ અરેબિક અને ઈસ્લામિક વિદ્વાનોએ આ સંદેશનું થોડા તફાવત અને વિરોધાભાસ સાથે એક સરખો અર્થ કર્યો છે. અમુક લોકો તેને બૈરાના ચહેરાના “તેજ” અથવા “સૌંદર્ય” માં (જે તેણીના જાતિય સંતોષનો સંદર્ભ છે, અક્ષરશઃ તેજ નહિં) વધારો કરવાના રૂપે ભાષાંતરીત કર્યું છે, તોઅન્ય લોકોએ તેને બૈરા માટે “વધારે સારૂં” અથવા “શુદ્ધ” (જે તેણીની જાતિય શુદ્ધતાના સંદર્ભમાં હોય શકે છે) રૂપે ભાષાંતરીત કર્યું છે.

બધા મુસ્લિમો સહમત થશે કે જુની ઈસ્લામિક અરેબિકના શબ્દો વારંવાર અચોક્કસ અથવા ઘણા બધા અર્થોવાળા હોવાના કારણે તેને સમજવી સરળ નથી. પરંતુ, આ અચોક્કસતા આપણને એ સમજવામાં મદદરૂપ થઈ શકે છે કે, શા માટે બોહરા બૈરાની ઘણી પેઢીઓ માને છે કે ખતના બૈરાઓની સેક્સ્યૂઅલ ઈચ્છાને કાબુમાં કરવા માટે અપનાવામાં આવે છે અને શા માટે અન્ય બોહરા આ જ શબ્દોનો ઉપયોગ, એવો દાવો કરવા માટે કરી શકે છે કે ખતના સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખમાં વધારો કરવા માટે અપનાવામાં આવે છે.

હાલમાં જ ખતનાના ઉગ્ર સમર્થકો (સપોર્ટર) અને સુન્નિ ઈસ્લામિક વિદ્વાન આસિફ હુસૈન દ્વારા આ વિષય પર ચર્ચા કરવામાં આવી હતી. સ્પીક આઉટ ઓન એફ.જી.એમ.ના ફેસબૂક પેજ પરની એક ટિપ્પણીમાં તેમણે “સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખના વધારા” અને સ્ત્રીની શુદ્ધતા બન્ને વચ્ચેના સંબંધનો જીકર કર્યો છે. તેમણે કહ્યું છે કે :

તે [ક્લિટોરલ હૂડ કાઢવું] સ્ત્રીને અવશ્ય સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખનો સંતોષ આપે છે અને તેથી, એ તેણીની શુદ્ધતાની ખાતરી કરે છે. પ્રાચીન કાયદાશાસ્ત્રીઓ એવા સંકુચિત લોકો નહોતા. તેમણે પેગંબરના આ એક વાક્ય પરથી તેના સાચા અર્થનું અનુમાન કર્યું છે.

અન્ય શબ્દોમાં કહીએ તો, બૈરાના લગ્ન જીવન દરમિયાન તેણીના સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખની ખાતરી કરીને ખતના એ બાબતની ખાતરી કરશે કે તેણી સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખ માટે લગ્ન જીવનની બહાર જતી નથી. પેગંબરના શબ્દોના અલગ-અલગ અર્થ વચ્ચેનો આ સંબંધ સાચો લાગી રહ્યો છે અને જો તેને માનવામાં આવે તો, ખતના બૈરાના સેક્સ્યૂઅલ કાબુ મેળવવાસંબંધી બાબતપર કેન્દ્રિતછે.

 પરંતુ, શું ખરેખર આપણે બૈરાઓની જાતિય ઈચ્છાઓને કાબુમાં કરવાની કે વધારવાની જરૂર છે?

છેલ્લે તમે કોઈપણ કારણ આપો તો પણ, છોકરીના અંગછેદનની પ્રથાને વાજબી ઠેરાવી શકાય નહિં, ભલે તે કેટલી પણ “નાની” પ્રક્રિયા હોય.

કોઈપણ વ્યક્તિને બૈરાની સેક્સ્યૂઅલ ઈચ્છાઓ પર કાબુ રાખવાનો અથવા તો તેણીને શુદ્ધ બનવાનું કહેવાનો અધિકાર નથી. આ બધા પુરુષપ્રધાન વિચારો છે જેનું આજના વિશ્વમાં કોઈ સ્થાન નથી. તેજ રીતે, કોઈ પણ વ્યક્તિને એક નાની છોકરીનું અંગછેદન કરી તેણીના ભવિષ્યના સેક્સ્યૂઅલ જીવનને સારૂં બનાવવાનો પ્રયત્ન કરવાનો અધિકાર પણ નથી. સાત વર્ષની ઉંમરની કન્યાઓ સાથે સેક્સ્યૂઆલિટી સંબંધી છેડછાડ બિલકુલ થવી જોઈએ નહિં, તેમને સેક્સ્યૂઅલ સુખઅથવા અલગ અલગ જનન અંગોના કાર્યોની પણ સમજ હોતી નથી. શા માટે આપણે તેમના જનનાંગોને સ્પર્શ કર્યા વિના જન્મથી કુદરતી રીતે જેવા છે તેવા જ રહેવા દેતાનથી?

યાદ રાખો કે ક્લિટોરલ હૂડ શરીરનો એક મહત્વનો ભાગ છે, તે ક્લિટોરિસને વધારે ઉત્તેજન, ઘર્ષણ અને જખમ સામે રક્ષણ આપે છે અને સેક્સ્યૂઅલ ઉત્તેજના દરમિયાન ક્લિટોરિસને ખુલ્લું કરવા તે સ્વાભાવિક રીતે જ પાછું ખેંચાય છે. ક્લિટોરિસને ખુલ્લું કરવા તેને કાપવું જરૂરી નથી. આપણા શરીરના અંગો સાથે બ્લેડથી છેડછાડ કરતા પહેલાં આપણે તેના સ્વાભાવિક કાર્યોને સમજવા જોઈએ.

જાણ્યા-વિચાર્યા વિના ખતનાને “પશ્ચિમ દેશોના” ક્લિટોરલ અનહૂડિંગ સાથે સરખાવાનો દાવો કરવાના બદલે, આપણે એ સમજવું જોઈએ કે પરવાનગી વિના નાની છોકરીઓ પર ક્લિટોરલ અનહૂડિંગ કરવામાં આવતુ નથી. કામોત્તેજના દરમિયાન પ્રીપ્યુસ ટિસ્યુ (ક્લિટોરલ હૂડ) અવરોધ પેદા થતો હોય તેવી સમસ્યા ધરાવતી, જાતિય સુખમાં એક્ટિવ (સક્રિય) અમુક જબૈરાઓ તેને પસંદ કરે છે.

છેલ્લે, જો તમને લાગતું હોય કે ખતના પ્રથા પાછળનું અસલી કારણ તાહરત છે તો યાદરાખો કે, શારિરીક સ્વચ્છતાને સાબુ અને પાણી દ્વારા સારી રીતે જાળવી શકાય છે અને “આધ્યાત્મિક” અથવા “ધાર્મિક” શુદ્ધતા પ્રાપ્ત કરવાનો મુખ્ય સ્ત્રોત વ્યક્તિના જનનાંગોમાં નહિં પરંતુ, તેમના વિચારો, શબ્દો અને કર્મોમાં હોય છે.

(This article was first published in English on May 19, 2017. Read the English version here.)

Working Together To Address FGC: Michigan Roundtable

On October 9th, Sahiyo, along with Equality Now, Tahirih Justice Center, and forma came together in a roundtable discussion with Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to engage in cross-discipline dialogue on the challenges and best practices regarding how to respond to FGC in the United States. The roundtable discussion helped attendees to increase their knowledge base on FGC, understand the medical circumstances associated with FGC, and identify strengths, gaps, and policy/law implications that could improve outcomes for children and families. Sahiyo’s Mariya helped to facilitate this initial roundtable, and continues to work with DHHS on next steps to ensure that we work to address the issue of FGC, and how to support survivors,  in a holistic manner.

Why do Dawoodi Bohras practice Khatna, or Female Genital Cutting?

by Aarefa Johari

What is the real purpose behind Khatna for girls? The Dawoodi Bohra community has been practicing this hidden ritual of female circumcision, also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), for centuries, with no public discussion on its need. It is only in the past year that the Bohra leadership has finally spoken out about why they expect the clitoral hoods of seven-year-old girls to be cut.   

In June 2016, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin issued a press statement in which he described circumcision as an act of “religious purity”. This is similar to what a senior spokesperson from the community told Sahiyo in a private conversation last year: he claimed that the main reason for female and male circumcision, according to Da’im al-Islam (a 10th century book of jurisprudence), is hygiene or taharat – not just physical but also “spiritual” and “religious”.  

Then in February 2017, a senior spokesperson for the community gave an anonymous interview to The Hindu, in which Da’im al-Islam was quoted again. Except, this time, the unnamed spokesperson said that Khatna serves to “increase the radiance on the face of the woman and the pleasure with that of her husband”.  

Now, ever since three Bohras in USA were arrested on charges of FGC, several Bohra women who support Khatna have taken to social media to defend the ritual. All of these women claim that Khatna is done to increase sexual stimulation, and that it is “scientifically” and “medically” beneficial because it is “just like the clitoral unhooding procedure done in the West”. Some of these women also claim that Khatna is done to maintain genital hygiene.

And yet, this is not how most Bohra women have traditionally explained Khatna as they passed down the practice from one generation to another. In 1991, professor Rehana Ghadially interviewed around 50 Bohra women in an article called All for Izzat, and found that the most common reasons given for Khatna were: a) it is a religious obligation, b) it is a tradition, and c) it is done to curb a girl’s sexuality.

Since then, several independent researchers, activists and filmmakers have found the same thing in their countless interactions with Bohra women: a large majority of Bohras have consistently claimed that they cut their daughters either to moderate their sexual desires, or to unquestioningly follow a religious tradition. In fact, several Bohras refer to the clitoris as “haraam ni boti” or sinful lump of flesh.

Sahiyo’s reserach study of 385 Bohra women also found the same thing: the majority of respondents claimed that Khatna is done as a tradition or to curb sexual desire, and very few Bohras cited “hygiene”, “medical benefits” or “increasing sexual pleasure” as reasons for practicing Khatna. In fact, when filmmaker Priya Goswami was researching for her 2012 documentary A Pinch of Skin, a woman teacher from a Bohra religious institution clearly told her that the purpose behind Khatna is to control a girl’s sexual urges, so that she does not have premarital or extramarital affairs.  

So why are the new social media defenders of Khatna now pushing out the opposite narrative, and claiming that female circumcision is meant to enhance sexual pleasure? What is the real purpose behind Khatna?

To understand this, let us look at what Islamic texts say about female circumcision.

There are certain Hadiths, particularly from the Shafi, Hanbali and Hanafi schools of Islam, which mention female circumcision as either permissible, honourable or as a sunnah (recommended) practice. Many Islamic scholars around the world have disputed the authenticity of these Hadiths. But even if we were to take them at face value, the main thing that these Hadiths prove is that female circumcision was already a prevalent practice in parts of Arabia at the time of Prophet Mohammed – it was not a new religious ritual introduced in Islam.  

One Hadith that is frequently cited is Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, which contains this particular story:

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

This same anecdote – of the Prophet cautioning the woman against cutting too much – has been interpreted and translated in slightly different ways by different scholars: some translate it as “do not cut off too much as it is a source of pleasure for the woman and more liked by the husband”, others have translated it as “…it is a source of loveliness of the face and more enjoyable for the husband”.

In Volume 1 of The Pillars of Islam (Ismail Poonawala’s English translation of Da’im al-Islam), on page 154, a very similar sentence is translated like this: “O women, when you circumcise your daughters, leave part (of the labia or clitoris), for this will be chaster for their character, and it will make them more beloved by their husbands”. This is what the spokesperson of the community, in his aforementioned interview to The Hindu, seems to have translated as “increase the radiance on the face of the woman and the pleasure with that of her husband”. (Italics added)

I am not an Arabic scholar, but it is evident from these various translations that different Arabic and Islamic scholars have interpreted the same message in slightly different and contradictory ways. What some interpret as an increase in the “radiance” or “loveliness” of a woman’s face (which is a reference to her sexual satisfaction – not literal radiance), others interpret as something “better” or “chaster” for a woman (which could be a reference to her sexual chastity).    

All Muslims would agree that old Islamic Arabic is not easy to interpret, because its words are often ambiguous or have multiple connotations. But this ambiguity could help us understand why many generations of Bohra women have believed that Khatna is done to control a woman’s sexual desires, and why other Bohras can possibly use the same text to claim that Khatna is done to increase sexual pleasure.

In fact, this very argument was made recently by a fervent Khatna supporter and Sunni Islamic scholar Asiff Hussein. In a comment on the Facebook page of Speak Out on FGM, he explained the connection between “increasing pleasure” and keeping a woman chaste. He said:

“This [removal of the clitoral hood] necessarily leads to a satisfactory sex life among women, thus ensuring their chastity. The classical jurists were not such parochial men after all. They deduced from this one statement of the prophet what it really meant.”

In other words, by ensuring that a woman is sexually satisfied in her marriage, Khatna will ensure that she does not stray out of marriage. This connection between the multiple interpretations of the Prophet’s words does sound plausible, and if it is to be believed, then Khatna does boil down to sexual control of women!

But do we really need to control or enhance women’s sexuality in any way?  

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what reason you choose to believe in, because no reason can justify the practice of cutting a girl’s genitals, however “minor” the procedure.

No one has the right to curb or control a woman’s sexual desires, or to tell her to be chaste. These are patriarchal ideas that have no place in today’s world. Similarly, no one has the right to try and enhance the future sexual life of a young girl by altering her genitals. Seven-year-old girls should not be sexualised at all; they don’t even understand sex or the functions of various genital organs. Why can’t we leave their genitals alone, untouched, the way they were naturally born?  

Remember, the clitoral hood serves an important purpose: it protects the clitoris from over-stimulation, abrasions and injury, and it naturally retracts during sexual arousal to allow exposure to the clitoris. It does not need to be cut in order to expose the clitoris. We must understand the natural functions of our body parts before artificially altering them with a blade.

Instead of blindly claiming that Khatna is the same as “Western” clitoral unhooding, we must understand that clitoral unhooding is not performed on unconsenting minor girls. It is chosen by some adult, sexually active women only if they have problems such as too much prepuce tissue coming in the way of orgasms.

And finally, if you think that the purpose behind Khatna is taharat, then remember: physical hygiene can be maintained very well with soap and water, and the key to achieving “spiritual” or “religious” purity lies not in a person’s genitals, but in their thoughts, words and deeds.

What can Bohras learn from a new report on the global status of female genital cutting?

by Aarefa Johari

This August, the Population Council and UK Aid published a unique, comprehensive report on Female Genital Cutting around the world, to serve as a valuable resource for anyone working to bring the practice to an end. Titled ‘A State-of-the-Art Synthesis on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting – What do we know now’, the report provides a zoomed-out analysis of all the recent available data on FGC from the 29 countries that have done national surveys on the subject. Although India does not feature in this list, the report offers plenty of food for thought for those of us in South Asia in general and the Dawoodi Bohra community in particular.

In hospitals or in homes?

The 29 countries studied in the Population Council report are all from Africa, except for Yemen and Iraq. But the report also acknowledges the prevalence of the practice in other countries like India, Pakistan, Oman, Malaysia, Iran and Colombia, where no national surveys have been done yet. Indonesia, where the widespread prevalence of FGC has only recently been given official recognition, has been featured prominently in the report.

Types I and II are the most common forms of FGC around the world, and in the 29 countries studied in the report, it was found that the cutting is still overwhelmingly performed by traditional cutters. In the Bohra context, we do not know if that still holds true.

We know for sure that in India, in big cities like Mumbai, nearly all Bohras who still choose to get their daughters cut end up going to Bohra-run hospitals or clinics. Based on anecdotal information, we also know that Bohras in smaller towns are increasingly choosing to have it done by a local doctor. For instance, one woman from a Bohra housing colony in Jamnagar told a Sahiyo founder that khatna for girls is now performed in clinics because with the traditional untrained cutters, there had been many instances of “cases going wrong”.

This is disturbing for two reasons: One, khatna is now increasingly getting medicalised among Bohras, creating the entirely false impression that it is a medically sanctioned and beneficial practice. In truth, khatna has no proven health benefits at all. And two, we cannot help but think of the girls behind the many “cases that went wrong”. The word “case” is a medicalised euphemism for an actual girl, now probably a grown woman, who must have been cut more than intended, who might still be experiencing physical, psychological and/or sexual trauma that has probably never been addressed, because we are taught to be silent about these matters and because our country does not have adequate mental health resources to help those in need.

How many such “cases gone wrong” have we had in the Bohra community? No one knows, because for centuries, the voices of those girls and women have been silenced. Supporters of khatna often claim that only a “small number” of Bohra women have suffered negative consequences. But if just one town in Gujarat has seen “many” cases that went wrong, perhaps it is time to drop our defenses, create a positive space for all women to share their stories, and truly listen to their voices.

Why is khatna practiced anyway?  

The Population Council report also makes an interesting point about the reasons different communities give for practicing FGC. Across cultures, there are a variety of reasons given, which can be broadly classified into certain basic themes: marriageability, chastity, social status, religious identity, transitioning into womanhood, maintenance of family honour, beauty and hygiene. But unlike popular belief, the reasons given by a particular culture or community do not remain static “as with other social norms or practices, they are dynamic and subject to change and influence over time”.

This rings true for Dawoodi Bohras around the world, where the reasons given for practicing khatna can change from one family to another. Two of the most commonly cited reasons are “it is in the religion” and “it moderates sexual urges and prevents promiscuity”. “Cleanliness and hygiene” is cited far less frequently, even though it is the “official” reason as per the Bohra religious text Daim al-Islam. This is most likely because khatna is carried out secretly, Bohra religious leaders have never publicly discussed or advocated for the practice and women have typically passed down the reasons for it as an oral tradition within their families.

And some Bohras are now rationalising khatna in ways that their grandmothers probably did not – some compare it to male circumcision and claim that it prevents urinary infections and/or sexually transmitted diseases; others have started equating it with the medical procedure of clitoral unhooding and claim that the removal of the hood enhances sexual pleasure.

This just goes to show that it really doesn’t matter what religious texts like Daim al-Islam or the Sahifo may say about khatna for girls. Most community members don’t seem to even be aware of what these texts say, and they have been cutting their girls for entirely different reasons. One of my own aunts once told me that girls who are not cut will turn into prostitutes – a preposterous idea that she not only believes in, but also attributes to the Prophet! The sad truth is, her daughter was cut for this reason – to prevent her from becoming a prostitute – and not for any “official” reason. Similarly, other girls are being cut to keep them chaste, and I was cut for no reason at all, because my mother just didn’t think of questioning the practice.

Hope for the future

The Population Council report also points out that FGC often continues within a community because the individual preferences of girls or even their mothers are “often superseded by those of elder women in the family”. Among Bohras, we keep hearing from scores of women who have experienced the same dilemma: they didn’t want to have their seven-year-old daughters cut, but eventually had to cave in to pressure from their own mothers or mothers-in-law. Many Bohra women are currently facing the same problem and are unsure of what to do.

The most promising fact emerging from the report, however, is that in several FGC-practicing countries, the majority of already-circumcised women are now opposed to the practice or are unsure of whether to continue it. The graphs are similar for men in many FGC-practicing countries – the majority of these men do not support the continuation of the practice.  

And we know for sure that this is very true for the Bohras all over the world. In the past year itself, the number of Bohra women and men speaking out about khatna, and asserting that they will not cut their children, has exploded. Some have spoken out openly, but many more are reaching out to us privately, on a regular basis, to offer their support to this unprecedented movement.

Sahiyo’s online survey of Dawoodi Bohra women – which you will be hearing more about in the coming months – also revealed a positive trend in women wanting khatna to stop:

chart

So we can be sure that a generation from now, we will be a lot closer to building an FGC-free world than we were ever before!

No, even ‘symbolic’ or ‘mild’ female genital cutting is NOT okay

Should mild forms of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) be legalised? Should supposedly “harmless” nicking or slicing of clitoral tissue be medicalised, simply because getting communities to completely stop FGC happens to be a very difficult task?

There has always been some support for mild, medicalised FGC, chiefly from communities that claim to practice female “circumcision” and see it as completely different and divorced from any form of genital “mutilation”. And for years, this view has been firmly refuted by survivors and activists who don’t want any girl to experience the trauma, betrayal and potential harm that even the least severe forms of FGC can cause.

But recently, support for mild, “symbolic” genital cutting came from the most unexpected source – The Economist, a prestigious weekly news magazine headquartered in London.

In an editorial on June 18, titled ‘An agonising choice’, The Economist presented a baffling argument: since global campaigns to bring about a “blanket ban on FGM” have been unsuccessful for 30 years, it is “time to try a new approach”, in which governments could ban the “worst forms” of genital cutting and instead “persuade” parents to choose the “least nasty version”.

“However distasteful, it is better to have a symbolic nick from a trained health worker than to be butchered in a back room by a village elder,” the article says.

As was to be expected, The Economist has since faced some much-deserved backlash from indignant survivors and activists. Several NGOs and media publications have termed The Economist’s stand as irresponsible, and UK-based NGO Orchid Project has also started a petition to get the magazine to withdraw the article.

But a disturbing response – in praise of the irresponsible article – has emerged from some quarters of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

The Bohras predominantly practice the “mild” forms of FGC that The Economist has advocated for – slicing off the prepuce or clitoral hood, and in some cases, nicking or pricking of the prepuce. And in the past few days, some Bohras began to circulate Whatsapp messages amongst themselves claiming that “for the first time, a prestigious paper writes something in our favour, and has challenged WHO and the anti-FGM lobbyists”. (Even The Guardian has mentioned this response from conservative Bohras in its report on the negative impact of The Economist’s article.)

In this context, it is more vital than ever for us in the Dawoodi Bohra community to speak out against such misguided views. Should activists like us agree to “compromise” for the sake of respecting cultural traditions? Should we condemn female genital “mutilation” – the severe forms that involve cutting the whole clitoris and more – while condoning female “circumcision”? Should we say it is okay for Bohras and other communities to let medical professionals snip off a mere little pinch of skin from a little girl’s clitoral prepuce?

Our answer is a resounding NO.

Even the mildest, most “symbolic” type of female genital cutting is a form of gender violence. A significantly large number of Bohras cut their 7-year-old daughters because they believe it is a means of controlling a woman’s sexuality. If a girl is not circumcised, they say, she will have stronger sexual urges and she is likely to have pre-marital or exra-marital affairs. What is this if not blatant patriarchy, which denies women a right to their own bodies and attempts to police her “character”?

Then there is a growing section of Bohras who claim that the circumcision they practice is merely “clitoral unhooding”, a procedure that they claim enhances sexual pleasure by exposing the clitoral glans. There are many things wrong with this argument. One, clitoral unhooding is a medical procedure that some adult, sexually active women can choose to undergo if they have excessive prepuce tissue that happens to interfere with orgasms, whereas “circumcision” is done on all young, sexually inexperienced girls, without their consent,even if their prepuce tissue is not excessive. Unnecessary removal of the clitoral hood could leave the clitoris vulnerable to abrasions or over-stimulation.

But the other major issue with promoting “unhooding” is the supposed reason behind it. Altering a little girl’s genitals in order to “enhance” her adult sexual life is also a form of trying to control a woman’s body without her consent. Once again, it amounts to gender-based violence.

Of course, there are also Bohras who claim female circumcision is done for religious “purity” and cleanliness. This is laughable. In a community that places so much emphasis on taharat (hygeine) and washing one’s genitals thoroughly during “istinja”, do we really need to cut off a little bit of natural skin tissue simply in the name of cleanliness? The argument simply doesn’t stand.

If The Economist and its supporters believe that “mild” FGC is so harmless, then why do it at all? What is so repulsive about that little tip of God-given skin that entire communities are willing to fight the tides of progressive change in order to retain their culture of snipping it off? Why do these communities choose to dismiss the voices of the women who have suffered physically, psychologically and sexually because of these very “mild” cuts? Why do communities insist on getting into a girl’s underpants instead of staying out of them?

Ultimately, one cannot escape the fact that any form of FGC is an attempt to control women’s bodies and, by extension, their minds and beings. Allowing supposedly symbolic FGC to continue will not solve this problem.

And finally, a word on The Economist’s defeatist attitude: did anyone really expect a deep-rooted practice like FGC to come to a complete halt after just 30 years of campaigning? If social change were possible that quickly, America wouldn’t be struggling with racism 50 after the Civil Rights movement, India would not be seeing rabid casteism nearly 70 years after Independence, and women wouldn’t still be fighting for their most basic rights.

If we opt for compromise simply because the fight for an FGC-free world is so exhausting, we would be failing future generations of little girls who will continue to be violated without their consent.

Call to action: You can make your voice heard by signing Orchid Project’s petition against The Economist’s irresponsible stand. Sign the petition here.