Part II–Medicalising khatna within the Bohra community: A Struggle of Tradition and Modernity

By Fatema Kakal

(This is Part II in a series about female genital cutting within the Bohra community. Read Part I here.)

While religion and religious leaders, along with culture and tradition can be drivers of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), law can play an additional critical role in disincentivizing khatna. The arrests in the U.S. and Australia due to the medicalisation of FGM/C, led to the reiteration of laws in countries that prohibited FGM/C. Laws in many countries around the world critique FGM/C as a human rights violation and child abuse. While some consider these laws to be racist, this leads to a feeling of marginalization and alienation due to the attack on traditional and cultural value systems. People became more conscious of the laws, and began reconsidering khatna, because of the risks involved. These laws helped initiate dialogue and discourse.

The Bohras are a fairly progressive and modern community, where traditions are not separate from their modernity, but play a crucial role in consolidating their Bohra identity. Continuing khatna defies Western notions of modernity and embraces tradition. Instead of abandoning tradition, the Bohras are renegotiating the traditional practice and embrace modernity through medicalising khatna. Medicalisation is a tool to modernize and legitimize khatna, but also serves as a technique for social control. By supporting medicalisation, validated by modernity, and establishing khatna as a safe and religious practice, the clergy is reinventing and perpetuating khatna as a traditional practice, responding to external pressures that threatened to marginalize or alienate the Bohras. The clergy is thus reiterating and reinforcing Bohra identity as being one of modernity and tradition.

Thus, khatna was no longer taboo, and a growing discourse has led to people taking increasingly different positions, and making more conscious decisions about continuing the practice. While mothers and women of the family used to be primary decision-makers of continuing khatna for the daughters of the family, fathers are increasingly involved in making the decision. It is no longer an extremely hidden practice, and parents do research before making the decision whether or not to cut their daughters. While some people follow mandates by religious leaders, others find it important to follow the law. People are conscious of the potential harm. For the devout, tradition must be followed, but by ensuring that harm is minimized. They choose to visit medical professions for khatna. For others, the risks of khatna outweigh its religious importance, and they have decided to abandon the practice. For others, consent is crucial, and believe khatna requires a girl’s consent. Since children are incapable of giving informed consent, people believe their daughters can choose to undergo the procedure as an adult, thereby making an informed decision.

Thus, the religious clergy’s pastoral power plays an important role in influencing people’s decision to continue khatna. Medicalisation of FGM/C can help negotiate embracing tradition and modernity. However, law also plays an important role in helping end the practice. The growing discourse around the practice has led to people making informed, conscious decisions about following khatna. FGM/C is conceptualized as a health and human rights issue, and a children’s rights issue, which is universal.

Thus, efforts against FGM/C should be focused on balancing universalization of children’s rights, human rights, and multiculturalism. Additionally, law plays a crucial role, because legislation can provide a universal stance against the practice, which can be used as a strong justification against it. Thus, community-wide change is required for individual families to abandon FGM/C, through education and activism from within the community, backed by law.

How I learned female genital mutilation is happening in India

By Thirupurasundari Sevvel

Country of Residence: India 

How do I start? How do I explain my first realization that there is a practice called female genital mutilation? It was a typical day. During my master’s program in France, I was working with a couple of my friends talking about so many different random things. The topic shifted to sexuality, human rights, and how the female body is viewed. I said as long as the female body is looked at as property or a commodity, the problem won’t be solved. Everyone wants to take ownership. Anyone can talk about bodies or sexuality. They can try to shut us inside the doors of the world. But what we as women do with our bodies is in our hands. 

“What if that essense of your body is taken from you?” a friend asked. “What if there is a sense of ugliness thrusted inside your mind about being sexual, and your sexual organ is scrapped and sewed up?”

Silence filled the room.

That’s how I learned about female genital mutilation. It was shocking to realize it is happening in India. I realized it has actually happened to someone I personally know, but someone who was defending the practice and saying, this is our culture and it’s not wrong. It was shocking that something I thought was happening in different parts of the world, has happened in the state I lived in. The friendship with her became strained because she felt I was talking against her religion, her faith, her family, and her community. For a second I thought–am I doing something wrong, am I intruding on someone’s faith? But her sister gave me another point of view of how it affected her emotionally, and I started meeting other women. That’s when I understood. It was social conditioning at play–being made to believe it is right and has to be done. There has been a lot of backlash, but even if one child could be spared or saved–the struggle would be worth it. 

My friend has a daughter now and has taken a stand that she won’t do it to her. Our friendship isn’t public anymore since her family feels I am the reason for her becoming a rebel. When will they understand that it is a human rights violation? 

In 2015, I started doing storytelling for adults and children on the topics of body positivity, FGM, the human body, understanding the body, and consent in the Tamil language. This is a very small way to create awareness and a basic step to change the social construct and mindset. The storytelling resonated with a lot of participants. We realized many wanted some time to talk to someone who could listen without judgment.

When we have a discussion, we start with this quotation from the book Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, who is a Somali model, author, actress, and human rights activist in the fight against FGM, and let each participant share points on what they feel about it. I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple. My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them? I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain. It will become a thing of the past. People will say, “Did you hear, female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Somalia?” Then the next country, and the next, and so on, until the world is safe for all women. What a happy day that will be, and that’s what I’m working toward. In’shallah, if God is willing, it will happen.

The impact of organizations, books, movies, videos, social media campaigns, study materials, and awareness posters is huge. The problem is that it’s a secretive ritual. As children, they may also think that it happens to every girl, or they may try to block the painful memory.

Sahiyo, which means female friend, started to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution toward ending FGM. The materials, information, and stories shared created a lot of change and awareness. A video that came out in 2018 of three firsthand accounts of khata in India created an impact on social media. The work of Masooma Ranalvi, an FGM survivor and activist from India, founder of WeSpeakOut, has also created a lot of ripples and change. In February 2019, a group of women from the community urged political parties in India to take steps to end FGM in their community and made the issue part of their poll manifestos. 

The collective works of these organizations and individual voices can put an end to this practice. There may not be many official records about FGM in India, but that does not mean it is not happening. It is a practice everyone should be against so that the girl children from the next generation do not undergo FGM. Speaking up is the only way forward.

Forced Clitoridectomies on Athletes

By Masuma Kothari

(Several female athletes have been coerced to undergo partial clitoridectomies to participate in competitive sports. Read about female genital cutting (FGC) in sports here.)

“Let me try to feel this, as if I was you.

As a child I am embellished a rosy world of toys
which could draw up to any passerby without a doubt
what I am.

I grow fast and in symphony my speed at running, too,
adapts, I lean toward the world of athletics and
fitness treats.

I am changing, there are things happening to me,
fine hair shows up where they never were,
softer and fuller I feel,
I start to menstruate.

I definitely know what I am.

My emotions attract me toward wonderful boys,
They lure me into fantasies rolling up my eye.

I definitely know what I am.

All along I perform well, I score medals
after medals, I get noticed with victory bells

I get trained, I sit among the best runners,
my mind shifts into a resilient achiever with thick endurance,
representing every honour, I win all my fears
and I run like a cheetah after his dinner.

I still definitely know what I am.

What more evidence do you need,
I may be gifted
I may look testerone high
but how can you disregard
all that I have?

I am faced with a choice at
the time of my youth
the time when I am bleeding
to reach my dreams from root
Simply put, I have more courage
than being wise
so
I sit under the knife
And now you tell me if that is nice?”

FGM/C in sports: Why some female athletes are being coerced into partial clitoridectomy

By Zahra Qaiyumi 

Imagine you are a professional female athlete who is told that you must agree to undergo a partial clitoridectomy in order to continue participating in your sport. This might sound like a far-fetched scenario, but due to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy, this is a reality for some hyperandrogenic athletes. Partial clitoridectomy falls under the classification of female genital mutilation/cutting (FMG/C), a practice that is recognized internationally as a violation of the rights of girls and women. 

Hyperandrogenism is characterized by high levels of testosterone in females. Individuals with hyperandrogenism often present with an enlarged clitoris, excess hair growth, acne, and decreased breast size, among other characteristics. High testosterone levels can be caused by many different conditions, including polycystic ovarian syndrome and androgen-secreting tumors. 

Testosterone levels have caused long-standing controversy in the realm of professional athletics. Many believe that higher than average testosterone provides some female athletes with an unfair competitive advantage. One olympian, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, has been at the center of this debate in recent years. Semenya, 29, has attempted to appeal a new policy regulating the testosterone levels of female middle-distance runners by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) with little success thus far. The policy mandates that female athletes with differences in sex development (hyperandrogenism) must demonstrate a testosterone level of less than 5 nmol/L. This value must be maintained for a period of time before and during international competition in order to remain eligible. 

By enacting this policy, the IAAF is equating elevated androgen production with athletic advantage. The reality, however, is that there is no universally agreed upon scientific evidence that establishes a relationship between excess endogenous androgen production, or androgens that are produced naturally by the body, and athletic advantage in female athletes.

The IAAF’s policy, although controversial, does not require or recommend any surgical alteration of the bodies of female athletes. However, similar regulations enacted in years past have lead to unintended consequences, such as coercion into FGM/C. In 2014, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also established a policy to regulate hyperandrogenism in female athletes. The IOC’s policy mandates that national Olympic committees “actively investigate any perceived deviation in sex characteristics.” This investigation includes observation of the athlete’s genitals by doping officers while providing a urine sample. If an enlarged clitoris is observed, this counts against the athlete as a perceived deviation in sex characteristics. 

The IOC policies surrounding hyperandrogenism have caused unintended outcomes as countries attempt to comply with the rules. Most notably, medical procedures were performed on four young female athletes who were found to have hyperandrogenism. The procedures performed included a partial clitoridectomy and gonadectomy (in this case given the underlying condition, removal of the testes). The gonadectomy procedure resulted in the removal of a part of the body that produces androgens, thus technically serving the IOC’s goal to regulate hyperandrogenism. However, the partial clitoridectomy did not serve any medical purpose, and in no way related to actual or perceived athletic advantage. 

As stated earlier, partial clitoridectomy is a form of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Performing the procedure on these four young women is antithetical to the decades-long mission to end FGM/C globally, which has been addressed by the World Health Organization. In terms of its impact on the individual, partial clitoridectomy has the potential to cause life-long biological and psychological consequences, including damage to sexual sensation and function for these athletes. Notably, the athletes were perfectly healthy before this procedure was performed and were in compliance with the IOC’s policies regarding cheating and doping. 

The IOC and IAAF policies regarding hyperandrogenism, though not meant to undermine medical recommendations, have put some female athletes in danger of undergoing unnecessary clitoridectomy. Many countries take the loosely-worded policy and create country-specific guidelines for compliance. This leads to the policing of young female athletes and placing pressure on them to undergo unnecessary procedures such as the partial clitoridectomy, which is a human rights violation.

Unspoken

By Naima Dido

I wish I could finally say to you the words stuck in my throat, 

Behind my teeth and scattered on my tongue,

With you, I live on eggshells,

I don’t know how to tell you that I noticed that your days were filled with half-veiled insults,

I was praised serving tea the right way, 

Preparing to be a wife,

Soon the ear will be pierced. 

I don’t know how to find the words to tell you,

Away from you everything is new,

Painted with memories of you and beautifully tainted with old ways, 

And yes, the missing parts.

And if I could, 

I would say to you that the missing parts of me aren’t the only parts of my body that are hurting, 

That sometimes when I sit and watch my daughter play, 

And my throat starts to constrict, 

While my tear ducts prepare for the warm flight of my pain, 

I still remember the sound of the razor blade leaving its paper cover,

And I still feel the moment the blade cuts my flesh,

How my blood sparkled against the light as it raced between my legs, 

Escaping my body, 

You watched as I wept. 

I wish I could say to you that I fantasize about telling you these words,

that are years overdue, 

And no, I’m not okay, 

I still don’t know how to find the words to tell you of my inherited sorrows, 

Of the joy of my new life, 

The last time we spoke, 

You said I didn’t care about you, 

You’re mistaken,

I do; I just don’t know how to show it. 

Maybe I’m not making any sense, 

The real words have morphed themselves into metaphors, 

Suppressed too long, 

To the root of this mess, 

I want to say that I’m sorry I wasn’t stronger for you 

And for me, 

Now as I roam the world, 

I carry with me our pain 

Crafted into tools for my success, 

They find a way—the thorns life may throw to the next in line,

My sweet B.

(Naima Dido participated in Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C workshop. You can read her reflection piece here and watch her video below.)

Voices Series: How I learned to tell my FGM/C story

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Saza Faradilla

Creating this digital narrative alongside other women from all around the world was a great journey! I learned how to tell my story in pictorial ways. Never having seen a visual version of my story, it was almost a serene experience watching it unfold. Working with Sahiyo, and especially my designer, Esther Elia, was an amazing experience, as she took my vision and put it into a video form that represented my experience with female genital cutting. Processing and reliving the scenario of finding out about the cutting performed on me helped me process it further.

Voices Series: Why I keep sharing my personal khatna story, again and again

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Aarefa Johari

I have shared my story of undergoing khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), dozens of times in the past seven years. I have written about it in blogs, described it to journalists during interviews, shared it on camera and also narrated it on stage, before live audiences. 

For each medium of storytelling, the first time has always been difficult. But with each retelling, I have grown more confident and articulate, not because I am now used to talking about the day I was cut, but because I have seen the tremendous positive impact of sharing my deeply personal story. 

Talking about one’s khatna publicly involves describing an invasion of one’s own person, in the most intimate part of one’s body. It requires opening oneself up to vulnerability before one can become strong. It involves bracing oneself for criticism, dismissal and vicious trolling from those who seek to defend the cutting of little girls’ genitals. It is difficult, and contrary to what our detractors often claim, it is never a means of getting “publicity”. 

When I chose to share my khatna story, it was triggered by sheer rage. I was angry about being violated and I wanted to voice it, in the hope that it would somehow prevent other seven-year-old Bohra girls from being cut. I did not know, at the time, how powerful storytelling can be. I did not know that each story told is like a pebble tossed into unknown waters, creating ripples that continue to radiate long after the pebble has settled down. 

Speaking out helped me realise that I was not alone in my rage and indignation about being cut. It helped me connect with others who shared my feelings—fellow sisters who also wanted to end the practice of khatna—and soon, a group of us founded Sahiyo. 

At Sahiyo, we created safe spaces to enable others to share their own khatna stories. For many, the experience of story-sharing has been cathartic, liberating and empowering. Women have told us they feel less isolated when they read or hear the stories of other survivors. Because storytelling focuses on emotion, self-reflection and the nuanced complexities of personal experience, it has been far more effective at inspiring parents to abandon khatna than didactic advocacy. 

This is why Sahiyo constantly seeks to create new platforms for storytelling, and teaming up with StoryCenter for the Voices to End FGM/C workshop has been one of them. Despite having shared my story several times over the years, I chose to participate in Voices to End FGM/C’s global webinar-based workshop because this time, I wanted to share the story of my journey so far, and the role that my decision to speak out has played in it. 

Through my video story, created with the help of designer Esther Elia, I hope that I can inspire viewers to keep sharing their own stories, because their voices are needed more than ever today. Every voice counts, and the more our stories rain down on the world, the more we are likely to prevail in our efforts to end khatna.

Voices Series: Why silence is our enemy

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Jenny 

It was a five-hour drive for me to get to the Sahiyo storytelling retreat. Within those five hours I struggled with whether I was doing the right thing. I struggled with the idea of sharing my story with people I didn’t know. I wondered if I would be accepted. I wondered what part of my story I should share, if I could find the right words. There were so many thoughts and worries that played in my mind. So many times I almost turned the car around. But I knew I needed to say something, not just for me, but for a sister that would never get to. 

Some of my fears came from the knowledge that I am probably the last picture anyone imagines when discussing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)–the feeling that even among survivors and family member affected by FGM/C, I did not belong. 

When I begin to discover websites and groups devoted to educating and ending FGM/C, there were no images of little girls that resembled the younger version of me, no pictures of Caucasian, American girls, raised in the Christian faith. How could I ever belong at this retreat? Would my story even be remotely like other survivors or those affected by FGM/C? 

The first day at the conference, we each took turns sharing a part of our story. We worked together at helping each other find that piece we should talk about. As I listened to each story, after we shed many tears, it hit me: tragedy is blind. The tragedy and impact of FGM/C does not see one ethnic group, one culture, one religion, one country, one social class or one generation. 

FGM/C has a lifelong impact on anyone touched by this act; anyone who survives, anyone left behind by the one’s that don’t, anyone that loves the survivor, anyone that treats or supports survivors, anyone that advocates for change, and anyone trying to protect those still at risk. Silence is one of our biggest enemies. Silence hides the truth, silence removes responsibility. Silence allows for limits and boundaries to be placed on the issue. Silence allows ignorance to prevail. Silence encourages those that believe in this practice to continue the abuse or threaten it. Silence puts chains on people who are suffering. Silence prevents change. Silence prevents healing. 

The greatest gift we all have is our story. No two stories are completely the same. Every story matters. Every story needs to be shared. With each story, we began to break the wall of silence. We shatter the limits and the boundaries in place. Stories allow for truth to be seen, allows for awareness that there are so many more affected by FGM/C than is recognized, an awareness that we may never really know all affected until that wall is completely gone. Each story prevents this tragedy from being ignored, demands for change to be discussed. With knowledge comes responsibility.

Most importantly, each story provides an open door for others to share their story, too. An open door for those suffering to loosen their chains and begin to heal. Not a day passes that I don’t wish my sister had been given that open door.

So I sat in a room of men and women that were different in so many ways, but the differences didn’t matter, we were each bound by our stories. As I sat there I could hear my chains hit the floor. That room was my open door. On the other side, I found acceptance, I found healing, and I found hope. 

Voices Series: The power of naming

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

by Comfort Dondo

As an African immigrant, I come from a place of oral historians and storytelling. Sharing of community experiences is an integral part of our culture, and yet, over the decades and centuries, there are some subjects where silence persists.

Attending the Sahiyo Voices to End FGM/C storytelling workshop was a powerful and spiritual experience. I connected with women from across the world. It enabled me to name a source of my pain, confront it and acknowledge it.

Having other women with a shared narrative helped me place a balm on my wound and finally begin to heal.

Survivor: Why labia elongation is female genital mutilation

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

By Jenny Cordle

When Comfort Dudzai was 9 years old, her father’s two sisters and her nanny took her and her cousins to her family’s rural home in Chipinge, in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe outside of Harare. In six long weeks the three women taught the girls a combination of lessons on hygiene, virginity and marriage. 

Each morning the group would gather in the forest near hot springs off the Save River for a lesson. One morning the 9-year-olds were taught how to elongate their labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, arguably one of the most sensitive parts of female anatomy. 

“The men in our culture expect that you have your labia the (length) of your middle finger,” Comfort said. “For the first few sessions, the older ladies actually pull on the labia minora for you.”

Her aunts used their hands and secret herbs for the elongation. “It was a holistic teaching about womanhood, and the labia pulling is just one of the components.” 

There is a myth about the herbal mixture being made of bat wings. 

“It is painful,” Comfort said. “You cannot cry. You endure.” 

Comfort had an allergic reaction to the herbs. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong until I started facing complications,” she said. “I felt safe because these are women I trust and love, and women I know who love me and want the best for me.” 

Comfort’s pain didn’t end with the initial allergic reaction. She had complications with the delivery of her first son as a result of the labia elongation, and eventually had a surgical operation due to many infections. 

Although there are various forms of female genital mutilation/cutting and different classifications in terms of severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) stops short of explicitly listing labia elongation as Type 4, which “includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”

Labia elongation is encouraged to enhance sexual pleasure not only for men, but for women as well. Whether the prior WHO classification, which actually included “stretching of the clitoris and/or labia,” was altered after two researchers published a study suggesting that Rwandan women experience labia elongation as positive is unclear. 

Types 1-3 classify what can be construed as reductive types of female genital mutilation/cutting. But labia elongation is not considered reductive since nothing is cut away. Instead the labia is pulled during a series of sessions, in what some deem as modification because the process appears to be devoid of violence. Consent is key.

For Comfort, the idea that girls are coerced into altering their genitals for the pleasure of men, and even for themselves, can be psychologically damaging. She is sharing her story to bring awareness to the process and to protect girls in the future. 

“Psychologically, it tells a girl that you’re not enough,” she said. “You need to alter something and there’s something deep about telling a young lady that age that you need to make yourself this way for a man. You’re not good enough. There’s even stories about women who get returned from their marriage — that they need to go and pull that labia longer. It’s very damaging to women. It places the value of the man over the woman.”

Labeling elongation, pulling or stretching as labia modification undermines the harmful effects on girls and connotes agency, whereas in many girls experiences, they aren’t given a choice.

Labia elongation is or has been practiced among groups in several African countries including Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the BBC, it is reportedly happening in the United Kingdom among diaspora communities. 

Comfort (Dondo) Dudzai participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop led by StoryCenter and Sahiyo, and funded by the George Washington School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.