‘Girls must be circumcised or they will grow up loose’: Three Sri Lankan women talk about Female Genital Cutting

by: Bintari Hamza Zafar, a concerned Sri Lankan Muslim citizen

Country: Sri Lanka

Female Genital Mutilation is a serious problem in Sri Lanka. Almost all Sri Lankan Muslim women are circumcised. Both Moors and Malays (ethnic Muslim communities in Sri Lanka) are of the Shafi school of Islam which regards female circumcision, or “sunnat”, as compulsory. They account for 98% of the local Muslim population. The Bohras who follow an Indian leader called Syedna also practice it very strictly. Local Bohras number about 10,000 people.

The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU) which is the Supreme Council of Muslims of Sri Lanka has declared female circumcision obligatory in a fatwa in Tamil பெண்களுக்கு கத்னா செய்தல் (Pengalukku Khatna Seydal) and are very strict about it. I also heard that the Bohra leader Syedna has said it must be done.

Local Muslim girls are circumcised on the 40th day of birth or a little later. Bohra girls are cut between 7-10 years of age.

The amount of genital cutting differs from child to child. The operator is a woman called Ostha-maami. Usually, they nick the clitoris for a little blood to come and leave it at that. Educated families get it done by lady doctors who cut off part of the foreskin of the clitoris. But more severe mutilation also takes place and has been reported to us.

I give below some interviews that I recently conducted with women of my community.

Banu Mariyam (40 years, name changed)

Muslim girls must be circumcised or they will grow up to be loose. I have two daughters and got them circumcised when they were babies. The local Ostha woman came and did it. She took a large needle and pricked the clitoris till the blood came. She then wiped it and put some grey powder. I think it was ash.

She told me the blood has to come out or the girl’s clitoris will be big, and she will always touch there and grow up to be a loose woman. I don’t regret it. All our girls must be circumcised.

See Western ladies, see Princess Diana, how many men she had affairs with. Our women are much more decent. That is because we take the blood out and make it small. Then they can control themselves.

Fathima Nilufa (33 years, name changed)

I did not know of this practice till my daughter was born. My mother said she must undergo sunnat. I told her only boys undergo sunnat. She said no, girls also. Then she brought home the lady doctor, who cut my daughter. My baby cried a lot. The doctor put some kind of white powder on the wound and said it will heal.

Later I noticed baby’s clitoris was pink and swollen. I got angry and asked the doctor what she had done. She said she removed the skin over it like she did for the small boys. She said nothing to worry. It healed a little later. She is ok now, but I am still angry because my daughter was hurt. I don’t know why they do it. My mother said it must be done for Muslim people.

Sameena Begum (29 years, name changed)

I was married to an Aalim (religious scholar). A few days after my wedding night, he said he wanted to see my private part before having sex. Then he got angry and said I was not circumcised. He even shouted at my mother. My mother kept saying she had got me circumcised as a baby, but he did not listen.

He brought home an old Ostha-Maami in a taxi and ordered her to cut me. My husband held one leg and forced my mother to hold the other leg while the Ostha-Maami cut me. My mother was crying and told me not to scream as the neighbours could hear. It was very painful. I wish my mother had got it done properly when I was a baby.

‘Far from enhancing my marital bliss, khatna had all but devastated it’

by: Anonymous

Age: 30
Country: United States

I first learned that khatna had been performed on me when I was 11 years old. My mother told me, and even then the hair on my neck rose and I had a clear instinct that what had happened wasn’t right. I asked my mother why Bohra girls were cut when there was no evidence that it had the same benefits as male circumcision. She responded with the familiar refrain: hygiene, marital bliss.

At that time, I had no idea what a clitoris was supposed to look like. My mother described it to me, never using that word, but saying that it was a “long thread of flesh” that hung out of the vaginal hood. It had to be cut because it would otherwise rub constantly against my underwear. For the Potterheads out there, the image that sprang to my mind was of an Extendable Ear in my panties, a long flesh-colored string that had to be snipped to curb continuous arousal. I had never seen a picture of a clitoris, nor could I. I’d grown up in a country where the Internet was heavily censored and the chapter on reproduction was ripped out of our Biology textbooks. That image of the clitoris as a long flesh-colored string stayed with me until I looked at cartoon pornography as a teenager in the United States. But let me be clear, because this detail about my education is a gateway to Orientalism: I had an excellent primary education, and I was far better prepared for graduate school than many of my US-educated peers. The fact that schools in that region refused to include human reproduction in the curriculum was shortsighted and foolish, but not unlike the abstinence-only curriculum I’ve learned about since moving to the US.

But let me return to that moment my mother told me I’d been cut: since it never crossed my mind that I would or could be sexually active before marriage, I only thought about khatna once or twice a year until I was married. And that’s when I realized that sexual intercourse was extraordinarily difficult for me. My vagina would convulse, and even the thought of using a tampon triggered these convulsions. My condition went undiagnosed until years later, when my OB/GYN attempted to do a pelvic exam. She had no warning because I did not tell her about my difficulty with intercourse. Peering over the stirrups, she apologized for causing me pain, and asked me to breathe deeply while apologizing rapidly: “Just one finger, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry almost done almost done and relax.” I learned that I had vaginismus, and needed physical therapy.

As I talked through my condition with my wonderful doctor, I learned that an early childhood trauma was likely the cause for my vaginismus. The symptoms pointed towards a psychological trigger rather than physical limitations, and the more I reflected on my condition the clearer it became that I had always been unable to tolerate even the idea of penetration from around the age khatna had happened to me. Any kind of insertion seemed laughable to me as a teenager, whether I was washing myself in the shower or attempting to masturbate. This points to the idea that women who don’t consider themselves victims – and I certainly didn’t and don’t – can experience long-term effects of khatna that we may not even (or ever) be aware of.

When I eventually saw a picture of a healthy and anatomically accurate clitoris for the first time, what I’d already suspected was confirmed: there was no hygiene-related reason to snip it, and far from enhancing my “marital bliss” it had all but devastated it.

But learning about khatna revealed something about me to myself: even as a child, I recognized the value of empirical research when it came to making decisions about altering bodies – particularly female bodies, which have historically always been more vulnerable. Even as an 11 year old, I knew the benefits of male circumcision – I had just learned about trench warfare during World War II, and the infections that raged among uncircumcised men living in those filthy conditions. And as I reflect on that moment when I was 11, it makes perfect sense to me that I chose a career in research.

Another thing I recognized is that not only is the term “victim” disempowering when referring to women who have experienced khatna, but also entirely inaccurate. Activists have argued against the term “victim” for decades, particularly when it comes to describing women and gender-queer survivors of physical abuse. However, the term is misleading too. It is an easy label assigned by the status quo, and a particularly effective way for those in power to demonstrate their investment in “women’s issues.” It is a gateway to continued imperialism, where the narratives of marginalized groups are stripped of nuance, or hidden entirely.

It has been incredibly easy, even comforting, to vilify Dr. Jumana Nagarwala for performing khatna in the US. But let us not buy into the clash-of-civilizations narrative. Each time a US news outlet says the practice will not be “tolerated in the US,” there is an implied comparison to those “backward” countries that tacitly endorse it. Additionally, it implies a wounded nationalism, where (White, male) individuals are almost more outraged that it is happening in the United States than that it is happening at all. And so we are forced to view the practice through an imperial lens. We must not let khatna become a political talking point for US politicians to show how they have “zero tolerance” for “brutal” practices while forwarding a facile concern for women’s rights.  We must not forget that khatna is endorsed by the largely male leadership of the Bohra jamaat. While Dr. Nagarwala is culpable, and there is no question that she must face legal action, she has been turned into a scapegoat by both US discourse and the Dawoodi Bohra leadership.

This is a brief account of how khatna shapes my personal narrative, but I want to complicate some of the stereotypes that public discourse about khatna is attempting to forward: that it is an Islamic practice (it is not), that it is a result of poor formal education (again, no), or that it is a violent and barbaric practice that consumes the victim – the answer to that is more complicated than a yes or a no, should someone actually care to engage those who have experienced khatna.

To those who say that Sahiyo is not their voice…

By: Anonymous

Country: United Kingdom

The past few days have been an emotional rollercoaster for me.  I deeply believe in the values that Sahiyo espouses and wholeheartedly wish for the practice of FGC to end. To my dismay, I have witnessed a hate campaign against not only Sahiyo, but the brave people who have been vocal against this practice.

To those who say that Sahiyo is not their voice, I would like to clarify what Sahiyo is. Sahiyo is a cacophony of voices, a roar from a collective of activists whose voices unite. We are individuals who speak for ourselves and on behalf of minors, who have tried and continue to try to engage in dialogue to end this practice. In return, we have received silence and now slander. Our character, faith, morals and intentions have been questioned and attacked.

I, along with the community of activists who share my sentiments, do not speak on behalf of Sahiyo, or indeed any other adult. I speak on behalf of young girls who are forever altered without their consent; I speak on behalf of the innocent young girls across the world who have undergone this procedure or who will do so in the future; I speak on behalf of the girls who do not have a voice and are not old enough to understand what is happening to them and I speak on behalf of my 7 year old self, who did not choose to undergo a procedure that has affected me for decades, and will continue to do so.

Now that I have a voice, I am being attacked for using it. I gain nothing from speaking up. No amount of campaigning will ever undo the permanent emotional, psychological and physical damage that resulted from a procedure that was deceptively forced upon me. To those who slander me, this is what I have to say to you: You are right to an extent – I do speak on behalf of others. I speak on behalf of your daughters, sisters, cousins, children’s friends, and every young girl who will undergo this invasive procedure, so that they don’t suffer the way that I have.

I hope that you remember this the next time you say laanat on me.

FGM before the Indian Supreme Court

By: Koen Van den Brande

Age: 55
Country: India

It was to be expected…

The Indian Supreme Court has been asked to look at the practice of ‘khatna’ – commonly known as FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) as a result of a Public Interest Litigation filed by Sunita Tiwari, a Delhi based advocate.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Suleimani community was known for people who showed great wisdom and leadership. For example when the educator, jurist and author Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee  advocated “the need to incorporate modern reforms in Islamic law without compromising on the ‘essential spirit of Islam’.”

FGM has been in the news of late in India as well as the US, the UK and Australia, as a result of legal action taken against practitioners of ‘khatna’ and discussions on how to make existing legislation more effective.

In the Mumbai-based Suleimani community, which I belong to, we have also been having some discussions on how to address this practice, which remains prevalent albeit more and more in what I would call an ‘intellectualised’ form. After all, we are not talking here about primitive tribal communities as in some countries in Africa, where in 10% of the cases, we can talk about ‘mutilation’ in the fullest, most horrific, sense.

The community is well accustomed with the Islamic principle that the law of the land is to be respected. In the Prophet’s (PBUH) words ’Love of one’s country is a part of one’s faith” So at one level, the introduction of a new law would be the easiest way to address the issue… Or would it?

In the UK such a law has been on the statute books for many years without ever leading to a single case in court and yet it is well-known that the practice continues there for thousands of girls.

Or take the case of Egypt, where despite a law which declares the practice a crime, 98% of women continue to be cut. As an Egyptian government official comments in the highly informative as well as emotional documentary The Cutting Tradition, soberly narrated by Meryl Streep, you cannot put the entire population of a country in jail…

A study in Senegal concluded that the introduction of specific legislation can be helpful, where it complements other efforts to educate and gain support for abandoning such a practice. However the study also observed that such legislation without the necessary work on the ground can build resistance if it is primarily seen as interference in a religious practice.

In India there is no lack of existing legislation under which FGM would be seen as a criminal offence, as Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development recently spelled out in no uncertain terms, in response to a referral by the Supreme Court.

In addition, supra-national bodies like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation take a clear stand on the subject. India is a signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it was not even on the radar of the UN until a group of women submitted a petition to recognise India as one of the countries where FGM is still practiced…

In India there is the additional problem that the Muslim minority is always likely to find a new law addressing ‘khatna’, considered by some a ‘religious practice’, an imposition by a Hindu-dominated government – even if the law makes perfect sense. Such resentment could result in the practice being driven underground and once again reverting to the earlier back-alley horrors, which so many women have attested to.

In fact, following the successful efforts of Sahiyo and others, a new site has recently been set up protesting ‘interference’, as expected. It would of course be much better if the two sides agreed to sit together to work out a sensible way forward.

Sunita Tiwari is quite clear. She wants ‘khatna’ to be made an offence which is ‘cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable and offenders to get maximum punishment and penalty’.  

In reality, and for many Suleimani families today, ‘khatna’ has become what a father of two daughters called ‘a minor procedure’, when I asked him about it. That is to say that the ‘intellectualised’ form of the practice already insists on a medical procedure which simply removes a small bit of skin — the clitoral hood. Such a procedure may be justified and carried out legitimately to assist a grown-up woman. Which still leaves the question how one can justify making that decision for a child.

As a result of my initial conversations and a bit of research, I wrote an article a while back in which I advocated a possible approach which would respect the view of those who consider this a spiritual matter and the rest of us. I believe this approach would also address the urgent need for reform and recognise that a large majority of the world has deemed this practice, for some time already, a crime against a girl child.

What I proposed was that the community leaders could simply teach and mandate that a woman had to be of the age of consent to allow what should then be a largely symbolic ‘cut’ and that it should always be performed under medical supervision.

At least one of the Bohra community’s spiritual leaders seems to have taken a similar view. He was reported in the media recently as saying ‘FGM should be by choice for adults’. Unfortunately this statement has become somewhat ‘politicised’ due to the succession struggle which is currently before the court in Mumbai.

This proposed approach would also address another ‘law’. It could help resolve the current dilemma for any medical practitioner who would prefer not to break his or her Hippocratic oath. This oath – ‘do no harm’ – insists that a doctor can only perform a procedure on a patient which is actually in that patient’s interest. It must be difficult for any doctor to argue that ‘khatna’ is really in the interest of a young girl from a medical perspective in the face of clear warnings from the WHO about associated health risks.

The initial response from the Suleimani religious leadership was encouraging. I learned that it is a long-standing principle in our community, to first understand why something should be done and then – only if there is a good reason – to commit to doing it.

I was also told that there is no compulsion for this practice.

I had already found out that many women were unsure of why this practice is considered ‘required’ and trusted that the leadership knew and would clarify.

Our spiritual leader felt, when we met, that a bit of research was required to get to the bottom of where this practice originated, why it was considered necessary at that time and why it is still considered relevant today.

In due course it became clear that the source of the common belief that this is required, is a book known as the Daim al-Islam.

Sadly, AA Fyzee is no longer with us, so we cannot ask him for his view on ‘khatna’ as an influential author, jurist and devout Muslim. But my guess is that if we could, he might have suggested that there is a way to align with modern international norms and to protect the rights of a child, without abandoning the spiritual ‘cleanliness’ angle.

The time has come for the Suleimani leadership to lead…

Make ‘khatna’ haram, prior to the age of consent.

I trust the Supreme Court will.

The story of my start to the holy month of Ramzan

by Insia Dariwala, Sahiyo

Ramzan — the time of peace, love, and prayers; a time for family gatherings, breaking fasts together and collectively praying for individual good, and the good of all in this world.

Unfortunately, this Ramzan is showing me exactly the opposite, as I see the entire Bohra community (well almost), rising up to bring us down, in the guise of reinstating religious freedom.

Over the past few days, as this circus on social media unveiled, I have been inundated with text messages, phone calls and emails about how Sahiyo is being talked about at every community gathering. We are being called names, our personal lives are being attacked, our religious loyalties are being questioned, and anyone who speaks for us is being targeted with a lot of viciousness.

Many of those who speak for us have come back to us feeling saddened and helpless. Helpless because they want to stand up to the bullying, but are very afraid of the verbal attacks on their parents, on their relatives, and other family members. They are afraid of the humiliation, of the subtle ostracism, and the backlash from their jamaats, so they choose to stay anonymous.

Anonymity has its own comfort. It allows you to speak up. It allows you to have a voice, and that’s exactly why we have so many girls and women who have chosen to let go of their right to be visible, only to stand up against this practice. They choose to live the duality of having a voice, and yet pretend they are voiceless, because that is the only way they will be accepted into the fold.

For these very reasons, when I am asked why I, or my other Sahiyo girls, are not responding to the ‘Sahiyo is not my voice’ campaign against us, my answer to them is very simple — we never ever claimed to be anyone’s voice. We just made space for the women who wanted to have a voice. Why then are all these people feeling so threatened?

It amuses me to see how a few voices of dissent could become such a big threat to an entire community. I am also amused to see the kind of efforts put into creating content to beat us up, acquiring social media handles, blocking our social media handles, and going to such great lengths to reinforce their identity.

It’s sad to see how our attackers are just dismissing what so many women went through after they were cut. This backlash is exactly what prevents survivors of any trauma to share their stories. The pain endured may or may not have been the same for all, but the shame which they are being put through for speaking up about it, is the same.

Unfortunately, it also reminds me of what so many survivors of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and rape go through. It’s always the fault of the one who went through it.

“She should have shut up.”

“She should have been clothed more appropriately.”

“She should have never disobeyed her husband.”

And so the cacophony of society’s empty culture and tradition continues.

Would it be safe to then say this has nothing to do with ours or anybody else’s religious beliefs? Would it also be safe to say that it’s disheartening to see, how an entire community’s faith rests on what’s cut between a girl’s legs? Is faith so weak, that it requires to be enforced through archaic and harmful traditions carried out thousands of years ago? Is it so weak that one needs to resort to bullying, and exploitation, in order to sustain its own existence?

This message is for all the women who want this practice to continue — You can hate us all you want, and trick yourself into believing that you are doing this for your religion. But no religion practices hate. No religion asks you to put someone down to look good. No religion asks you to hurt, humiliate, threaten, and isolate someone who has a different point of view. Religion is what you ‘are’, not what you ‘pretend’ to be. It is about forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and the ability to reach out and accept.  

Today, as you pray while breaking your fast, do ask yourselves, Am I all of this? Then and only then, will it truly be the month of Ramzan.

I underwent Female Genital Cutting in a hospital in Rajasthan

(Trigger Warning: Below is the account of one woman’s experience with FGC. We thank her for being brave and sharing her story with us)

By: Jamila Mandsour

Age: 25
Country of Residence: Kuwait
Country where Khatna took place: Banswara in Rajasthan, India

That day, I was taken to the hospital to see my newborn cousin. Although the mom, my aunt, and her baby boy were already discharged, my mom told me they were still there. I was five and so very excited to see the baby. My excitement crashed when I was thrown into a dark room and a nurse put me on a stretcher. I screamed and was slapped on my face. My voice was silenced. After ten minutes, I came out of the room wounded and in tears.

I had no idea what happened to me in those ten minutes because I fainted. I was partly aware that a knife had been held towards my genitals, but a five-year-old does not have the guts to ask the adults why she was thrown into a dark room. My brain did not have the ability to understand that my legs were spread to cut some skin from my clitoris. After coming out of the room, I was not aware of that injury and could not understand why I was bleeding.

Since childhood, I have been an active person, always running from here to there. But on that day, after leaving the hospital, I was totally exhausted from the crying and yelling because of the pain that knife had caused me. I went home and slept, not waking until the evening. Upon awaking, I saw that blood on my mattress and finally, I asked my aunties (my mother’s sisters) why I bled. I don’t remember any of them answering me. They told me not to wear my underwear for the rest of the day. Even at that young age, I felt awkward about going without my underwear. I wanted to rise from my bed, to run around and do my daily somersaults, but I could not because of my injuries. For the next few days, I couldn’t even walk properly.

That day left a mark on my memory forever. After a few days, I returned to my regular daily routine. Not thinking about that day until eight years had passed and my sister suffered through the same thing I did. I was thirteen then, and I can recall her sad face, filled with pain, asking me the question, “Why was I cut?”  

What could I say to her? I had no answer to give her and it broke my heart. For the second time in my life, I went through the same emotional pain and felt helpless, keeping mum on the subject. An invisible hand had slapped me once again with the reality of what I and my sister had undergone. Even now at this moment, while I write this story of mine, chills run down my spine.

In my 20s, for the first time in my life, I really tried to find answers to my question of why we were cut. I got no answers. One thing I was sure about: it shouldn’t have happened to me in the manner that it did, even if the religious authorities had deemed it valid.

Even today, not many want to talk about this hideous act, but every pain has a scream and on some days the pain reaches out and my scream is loud. In time I did get answers, but I still wonder why the community practices this ritual when there is nothing reasonable about it. Out of a hundred women, I think ninety-eight would either not know of any scientific or religious reason to perform it, or would say they do not want to discuss it with others. If some women are adamant about being silent and feel guilty about speaking about khatna, then I wonder why they make sure their kids undergo it?

I don’t know how, to sum up this article. One thing I know is that khatna is painful, it is harsh, torturing, shattering, and heart-breaking. It affects the sexuality of women and causes emotional and mental suffering (this is true in my case).

While writing this piece, I couldn’t control the tears flowing down my face, as it expressed my pain. I request all of you who read this story of mine, please stop practicing khatna. One piece of skin should not decide the character of your daughter. Please be sensible about what happens to your baby girl.

 

To cut or not to cut? Let our daughters grow up and decide

By: Insiya

Age:34
Country: Mumbai, India

As I belong to a well-known and educated family, I was always given a chance to think outside the box. My parents were always supportive irrespective of what our community norms were. I was educated and given the same rights as my brothers and my voice was never unheard and my opinions were also considered. I was a daughter but treated as a son.

But as our community was a little more tightly knitted, everyone had a say in what happened to me, and with all the women in my family influencing us, my mom agreed at the age of seven that I would have to go through the ceremony of Khatna.

I still remember that day clearly. My mom and masi (aunt) took me to this woman’s house in Pune to get the job done. I might not remember the pain now, but the fear, the sadness and distrust from that day remain. I know many of my cousins still ask me, “Why are you so upset about what happened? Has it changed us in any way?”

I agree Khatna might not have changed my desire towards sex, but it has changed my outlook towards our mothers who told us that anyone who touched us forcefully was wrong, especially in our private areas, but then they, themselves, took us to an unknown woman, a stranger who pulled down our pants and touched us. How is what this stranger did any different from sexual abuse? Why don’t our mothers or grandmothers or aunts think that seven is not an age where children are old enough to understand what is happening to them? Why don’t they realize that this may leave an impact on us that might make our parents regret their decision later on?

I don’t remember the pain of childbirth, but I remember the emotions I felt. That’s the same for these little girls. I don’t think I can decide if Khatna should be abolished or not for adult women, but, I am sure Khatna shouldn’t happen to young kids. Childhood is about making sure your kids are safe and that they trust you to not scar them. Let our girls grow up. Inform them of any changes that we might plan to do to their bodies. Let’s educate our kids about our religion, not scare them into practices.

I know many people who will disagree and they are welcome to do so, as I only want to share my point of view. I am a mom of two girls. I know I can make their lives better by not forcing them into my or our elders’ beliefs. I want to educate them that our community is a progressive community where we are confident, educated women, who are taught to be entrepreneurs, and who have the right to choose the path we desire.

For all the mothers of daughters in our community, please take the time to think about what I am saying. Let our daughters grow up and make their own choices. Let’s not decide on their behalf.

‘I want Bohras to wake up and stop practicing Khatna’

By: Anonymous

Age: 32
Country of current residence: Bahrain

I’m a victim of FGM and this is my story. It’s the same as every other FGM survivor. India. A dingy house. An old woman. A blade. Pain. Blood. Being given chocolate. And then being yelled at to stop crying.

And the thing that hardly anyone talks about is how ANGRY it makes you and how you can’t find ways to release the anger. It’s been 25 years and I’m still so, SO angry. Why was a piece of me cut off for an unnecessary reason? Why was psychological trauma inflicted on me at such a young age? Why am I suffering from horrible period pain every month just because my mother blindly followed what was expected of her to do? Why do I have to feel the pain of seeing the guilt and shame on my mother’s face now whenever this topic is raised because she hates herself for what she did? And why is it STILL being done to little girls who don’t have the power to stop it? It makes me mad, mad, MAD!

And this always makes me wonder how others follow this religious leader or even stay in this community. Why don’t more Bohras question the teachings? Why don’t they protest? Does the dream of heaven make them so blind that they approve of abuse on young girls?

I’m so, SO happy to see FGM get media traction and be publicized for the world to see. I want to see FGM STOP. Let the leader declare that khatna needs to be stopped so the Bohras who follow his every command will stop mutilating their daughters. I want Bohras to realize they CAN decide for themselves what is right and wrong. Cutting off a part of girl children’s genitals without their consent, for no medical reason, is completely, and unequivocally wrong.

 

A Mother’s Brave Choice about Female Genital Cutting

By: Anonymous

Age: 30
Country: United States

Khatna is a term and a practice I learned about when I was about 15 years old. I was chatting with a friend over AOL instant messenger and she asked me if I had ever had Khatna done to me. At the time, I was completely unaware of the practice or that it was performed on young girls within the Bohri community, to which I belonged. I was unsure of how to respond to my friend. Like other practices performed on children at the time of their birth, such as a Chhatti which is a naming ceremony for the baby or an Aqiqah which is the sacrificing of a goat on the occasion of a child’s birth, I assumed that Khatna was probably also done to me but I was just too young to remember.  

I immediately asked my mother about Khatna and if she ever had it done to me. She responded “No beti, I did not have it done to you.” And in a more hushed and slightly worried voice, she went on to say, “But do not ever tell anyone.” I probed further, asking what it was exactly. My mother was unable to completely explain what it was or why it was done. All she was able to say was that girls are cut within their “private parts”. She went on to say that yes, she had undergone it herself at the age of seven, but that she could not subject her daughters to it because of the physical and emotional pain it had caused her at the time of the cutting and the pain that it has caused her since then.

At the time, I did not realize the significance of my mother choosing not to have the practice performed on me and my sisters or furthermore, why she explicitly asked me not to say anything to anyone, especially within the community.

A few years after my initial inquiry about Khatna, I was at an all-women meeting at my local mosque. Someone asked the wife of our priest, known as a Behnsaab, about Khatna. The Behnsaab responded that it was done to enhance sexual pleasure in women and that it is required for all women within the community. Having heard conflicting information from my mother years earlier, the Behnsaab’s comments confused me. However, the fact that the Behnsaab stated that the practice was required helped me to understand why my mother asked me not to talk to anyone about my lack of Khatna. My mother feared the backlash she or her family might face for going against the word of the community and therefore, she kept her bold choice a secret.

Today, as a grown adult, having learned about the physical and emotional harm it causes, I realize and appreciate what my mother did for me and my sisters. I cannot begin to understand what women who have undergone Khatna must face in their day to day lives. It continues to shock me that this practice still goes on (though it is more underground) and apart from “tradition” most people have no legitimate medical reason for why Khatna is still part of the community’s practices or really even know why it is practiced. I hope that as more and more people become aware of the practice and its harms, efforts from within the community become stronger to stop this harmful practice of violating young girls for the sake of tradition.

We need a Bohra Revolution

By: M Bohra

Age: 23
Country: United Kingdom

The ongoing investigation into Dawoodi Bohra doctors engaging in khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), and the community leadership’s ambivalence regarding this practice, have once again brought up unanswered questions. What message is the leadership in India sending to the Bohra community when it disowns the doctors’ acts, not for their irreligiosity, but for their illegality in the West? Must the Bohra leadership accept the legal and moral responsibility of promoting khatna, especially since they advocate travelling to countries without FGM laws to continue this practice? Or can we expect them to continue throwing their misinformed, fanatical and grovelling followers under the bus to save themselves?

Many Bohris, in the privacy of their friends and families, will complain about the strict social norms that regulate every act of our lives within the community: where we pray, what we wear, who we do business with, what our family roles are, who we befriend, what we say, how we dissent, how we think. These criticisms are kept out of the community arena by the authoritarian diktats of the leadership. They hold the power to socially boycott (which, for many community-linked businesses is linked to economic loss), extort money for officiating religious ceremonies (including permitting travel to the Hajj pilgrimage), and even denying burial in Bohra cemeteries. While we continue to chafe under this authoritarian religious regime, however, we must acknowledge our own prejudices.

Bohris, despite all evidence, believe that we are God’s chosen people. We consider ourselves not only superior to non-Muslims (which is a broader Islamic problem), but even non-Bohra Muslims. We call our own community “mumineen” (the believers), and the others “musalmaan”. Even other Shia groups are generally only respected during the first ten days of Muharram, when we enthusiastically join our “Shia brothers” in the Ashura processions and sermons, only to exclude them from our lives on the eleventh day. We consider our mosques cleaner, our prayers more spiritual, and even our cemeteries as somehow more special. We are “blessed” to be ruled by tyrants, who guarantee us a heavenly afterlife in exchange for worldly money.

Are we surprised that the leadership continues to promote a domesticated and desexualised ideal for our women, when it promotes a passive and unintellectual ideal for our men? It is important to remember that their power comes from our submissiveness, which is the result of our own prejudices. We need to introspect and question the foundations of our own biases. What is unclean about a non-Bohra mosque? What is inappropriate about performing the Hajj without being led by a Bohra priest? What is the problem with marrying outside the community? Can Bohra women question the religiously-sanctioned ideal of making rotis and handicrafts confined to their homes? Why do we have to control women’s sexuality through physical means, but not men’s? If the current system is broken and cannot be reformed, are we ready to create new religious and social spaces with other disillusioned Bohris? Can we create new inclusive and non-hierarchical spaces to end religious dogmatism, bring financial accountability, provide spiritual healing and engage in progressive social reform without prejudice?

Here’s a little history lesson to conclude this piece. The office of Dai Al-Mutlaq, which is currently held through hereditary means by Mufaddal Saifuddin, is not the same as the position of the Imam, who is considered as the rightful spiritual and political successor of the Prophet in all Shia traditions. The first Dai was appointed by Arwa Al – Sulayhi, a long-reigning queen in Yemen, as a vicegerent (deputy) for the young Imam At-Tayyib. The succession of Dais was not always hereditary, and was likely based on spiritual and political merit. Increasing persecution drove the leadership to settle in Western India, where they were welcomed by a community of religious converts. Note how the position of the Dai was created by a powerful woman ruler (who probably wasn’t told to make rotis and handicrafts), not as a hereditary office, and owed its continuity to the goodwill of the new community of Bohris in India. Over the centuries, the leadership has forgotten who was in charge. It’s time for a reminder.