Law alone cannot end the practice of Female Genital Cutting

By Sabiha Basrai

Country: California, United States
Age: 34 years old

It is important that the issue of FGC or Khatna, as known to the Bohra community, is brought out from the shadows and discussed openly. Many people do not understand how brutal the practice is and simply prefer not to discuss it because of the entrenched shame around women’s sexuality and reproductive health that is enforced through patriarchal social structures. I hope that the Detroit case in which a Bohra medical doctor was arrested on charges of performing FGC on minor girls, encourages more families to say no to the practice so that future generations of young girls will be shared.

This harmful practice is not an issue of being religious or not religious. Neither is it an issue of right and wrong. Khatna is just wrong.

The Detroit case does, however, raise concerns about the surveillance of Muslim Americans. Our mosques and community centers are already targeted by law enforcement who racially profile us and infringe upon our civil rights. It is important that all Bohras understand that law enforcement does not necessarily have our best interests in mind and could exploit the issue of Khatna to justify further harassment and surveillance of our communities. Khatna should end, but I believe the practice will only truly end through community education and organizing within the jamaats (Bohra congregations).

None of us want to see violence occur in our communities, but we must be conscious that law alone is not the answer, and in some instances, the negative action of some law enforcement officials have been detrimental to the safety and security in our communities. Therefore, I caution all Bohras living in America to never speak to law enforcement without a lawyer present. And, I encourage Bohras to also find ways to work within the community to end harmful practices such as Khatna.

Let us not vilify the Detroit doctor as we work to end Female Genital Cutting

By: Anonymous

Country: United States
Age: 34

Shortly after my seventh birthday, I went to visit my grandmother in New York. My mother told me this visit was going to be special because I turned seven and I had to have something “important done”.  “All girls have to have it done when they turn seven,” I was told, just as my older sisters had it done before me.  My mother said it was to ensure a “good marriage” when I am older. At the age of seven, this was a more than sufficient explanation for me. I just took this explanation as the norm, and even believed that women of all faiths and cultures must undergo the same experience. At the time, I had no idea that day would be life-changing for me on so many levels.  

The procedure harmed me physically. It was, unsurprisingly, botched, being conducted on a basement floor by an untrained older housewife in our community. But the message I was told that day – “this will help your marriage”, and messages I was subsequently told throughout my life “this is to make sure women’s urges are controlled”, “these things are done to make sure you are loyal to your husband”, “women need to appease their husband” – these messages are what truly did the most psychological harm. These messages have caused me to live a life in which I felt inferior to my partner and felt shame for all my natural urges/feelings.  

As I grew more aware of how that day impacted me, I became upset and resentful. I was angry about what I was forced to go through and constantly wondered what would have been if that day never happened. Thinking about other little girls, who would undoubtedly have to undergo the same thing, overwhelmed me with feelings of anger, sadness, and helplessness. I hoped people in our community would stop subjecting innocent girls to this practice. I wished people would wake up and realize they were doing more harm than good – that they were truly doing no good at all.  

A few days ago news broke of a female doctor in Detroit who was charged with illegally performing FGM on two young girls. My first reaction – like that of many who are opposed to this practice was a feeling of vindication. Someone was finally being held responsible for this practice. People might start becoming aware that this is a serious problem, not just abroad, but right here in the US. I also thought this case might act as a deterrent for many other people who are thinking of performing FGC.

After witnessing people’s reaction to the news, my vindication soon turned into disheartenment. People adamantly opposed to the practice or adamantly opposed to Islam, began to vilify this doctor as a cruel heartless sexual predator. But that is not what I saw in her. I just saw a woman, just like my mother, aunt, or grandmother. A woman – a mother who was trying to do what was best.

My mother did not take me for that procedure with some malicious intent to hurt me. She did so, in the same manner, many of us take our children for immunizations, needed surgeries, or even male circumcisions. It hurts us to subject our children to anything painful, but we do so with the firm believe that it is being done in their best interest. We put faith in our medical professional’s guidance because they are widely respected and trusted as experts in a field. Similarly, people living in a Bohra community – those constantly surrounded by those of similar faith – put their faith in the guidance of their religious leaders. In their world, these leaders are widely accepted as trusted “experts” who know what is best for each one of us. For them, the divine rules set forth by these leaders well supersede standards set by medical communities or politicians.  

So I look at this woman and I don’t see a villain – I see a victim. A victim like myself who has undoubtedly also been unjustly cut as a child. A woman who was not only physically abused in the past but also continues to be mentally manipulated into acting against her better judgment. I am not completely absolving her from the choices she made – everyone must take responsibility for their actions, and she could have acted differently. I am just attempting to explain, from the perspective of her world, how it often might seem like there is no choice for her to do otherwise.  

So by villainizing her, punishing her – you may scare some other doctors from conducting the practice. You may deter some other mothers from having their children undergo the procedure. But punishing her does not punish the true abusers. As long as the male leaders continue to advocate for this practice and maintain its importance in religious doctrine, followers will continue to adhere to the guidance of their respected leaders. My worst fear is that this public case mixed with continued pro-FGC messaging from our community will drive this practice underground even more. So instead of having doctors illegally practice in their sanitized clinics after hours – our girls will be subjected to experiences similar to mine – being cut by their grandmothers on an unsanitary cold basement floor.  

#NIMBY Reactions to Detroit

By: Anonymous

Age: 32

Country: United States

(Please note #NIMBY – Not In My Backyard)

For over ten years, I have been famously or infamously known for speaking up about a taboo practice within the Dawoodi Bohra community in my social circles. I discovered I was a victim of female genital mutilation or cutting during college and was finally able to put into words what happened to me when I was seven years old.

This time in my adult life was an extremely difficult one as I worked through the five stages of grief. A part of me was missing and gone forever. A part that I had not yet familiarized myself with or experienced while everyone around me was totally unaffected.fgmc-unitedstates-share-1.jpg

As part of my healing process, I took to my social circles to tell my story, to raise awareness, to start a discourse. While I felt supported by some, I was met with apathy by most. I could never understand why others like me who had been victims of this practice didn’t feel the sense of loss that I did. They felt I was being “dramatic”, or that it was just part of our culture and it had not prevented them from living a normal and happy life. Others who agreed it was morally and ethically wrong, were hesitant to speak up about it or even show an alliance with me in my own grassroots efforts.

Until recently, there were not many formal groups in the forefront actively working to end FGM/FGC. The increase in awareness about this issue over the last ten years is astounding.  To think that the investigation of this activity had been taken up by the F.B.I. will likely be an eye-opener for those in the community who think of this as a cultural practice, not a criminal activity. When the story of the Detroit doctor being arrested for performing FGM/C first broke, I was not surprised at all. Yet I was met with several messages of shock and awe from friends and family (knowing my personal interest in this topic) asking if I had seen the news.

Just last year, a similar story broke in Sydney, Australia — have we forgotten already? This prompted several jamaats or religious congregations across the world and the U.S., in particular, to send public resolutions to their members advising them not to carry out the practice in any form or else they would be subject to the laws of the land, and thus not be held liable for any individuals’ actions.

What’s shocking to me is that the events in Sydney didn’t have a strong enough ripple effect for communities in the U.S. to comprehend the sincerity of governments to prosecute those performing this act. After a little bit of buzz, the onslaught of public resolutions, the contradictory statement made by the religious head of the community, everyone went back to being silent.

What we’ve learned in the interim through much back and forth is that the head of the community does not condemn the practice and likely sees virtue in it.  The public resolution sent by the powers that be was a liability waiver, not a condemnation of the act. Until then, devout followers wherever they are in the world will continue to follow his lead and subject their young daughters to what he deems a part of our history and “religious obligation.”

The alarm over this investigation contrasts sharply with the apathy I was met with years ago.  I was told:

“Well, it didn’t happen to me”

“Your [town] is different”

“That doesn’t happen here”

“You are exaggerating”

“I know someone who had it done, and they’re fine”

“I’ve had it done, and I’m fine”

It shouldn’t have to take someone you personally know or are connected to, to go to jail for you to start paying attention. This is something that affects all of us no matter what part of the world we live in. Whatever your personal feelings are about this practice, it is time to start caring one way or another because yes, this is happening…even in your backyard.

 

What do Australian Bohras feel about Khatna today?

By: Anonymous

Age: 32

Country: Australia

Khatna is not a topic discussed very often amongst Bohras. Maybe because there is no reason to ever bring it up. However, since the case in Sydney, Australia, in which the aamil, Shabbir Mohammed Vaziri was sentenced to jail for being an accessory to Female australian-44165.jpgGenital Mutilation, the topic has been brought up now and then amongst the ladies. Mostly, the conversation consists of a general curiosity as to what has happened in the Sydney jammat concerning the aamil saab and the midwife who was also found guilty in this case.

I have realized that in the Melbourne jammat, people do not necessarily take the law as seriously as the people in the Sydney jammat do – mainly because the people in Melbourne have no idea about the severity of the case and its effects on the Sydney jammat.

Even in Sydney, the entire ordeal was all very hushed up. People were reluctant to talk about it or even discuss anything regarding the case. So it makes sense and seems natural that people in other cities in Australia would not have much idea of what took place during the trial.

As far as most non Sydney-siders are concerned, khatna is still a religious requirement that needs to be fulfilled.

Most people in the Melbourne jammat have children who are still pretty young. They are not yet of age to have khatna performed. I do not know what parents will do when the time comes for them to decide if their daughters undergo it. I do not know whether they will abide by the legal laws of Australia or if they will still go ahead and have it carried out on their daughters.

There is no way of knowing whether they will have this ‘cut’ carried out on them. You do not ask such questions in the jammat.

The only positive outcome I can think of with regards to the case in Sydney is that it reflects the law of the land and shows that khatna should no longer take place within Australia.

But if people still want to go ahead with it for their daughters, they will still travel elsewhere to have it done. Unfortunately, I feel that unless it comes from the Syedna himself that khatna should end, this practice may still be carried on by those who do not know to question it.

I underwent Khatna but did not let it happen to my daughters

By: Anonymous

Country of Current Residence: United States
Country of Birth: India
Age: 57

It was a day in June, 1966, in India. I was seven years old and sitting with my mother, listening to a story she read to me from a newspaper. Midway through reading the story, she casually mentioned to me that we were going to Aunty R’s house the next evening with my grandmother as well. I was excited to go somewhere with my mother and grandmother, and to take a car ride to get to the place. Out of curiosity, I asked my mother why we were going over to Aunty R’s house, and she told me we were going for something very important that needed to be taken care of. On the car ride there, I heard my mother and grandmother discuss that they could not accept water to drink from Aunty R if it was offered to them, because the work she carries out is considered dirty. Being of an inquisitive mind, I asked my mother what she meant.  She shushed me and said, “You are too little to understand.”

On reaching Aunty R’s house, we were sent upstairs and sat down in a big hall. A few minutes later, she joined us and sat with us and talked for a bit. Then, she went inside another room and came back with a big white sheet which she spread out onto the floor. As she did this, I watched her movements with a lot of confusion. She then asked me to come lie down on the sheet and to shut my eyes, which I did. She covered me with another sheet and pulled my panty down. The next thing I felt was a pinch down there, and I screamed. She told me not to worry.

All was done.

On our way home I felt discomfort and my mother told me that all would be fine and that there was nothing to worry about. When we reached home I needed to use the bathroom and saw some blood oozing out of me. It scared me a bit. Again, my mother convinced me that all would be fine. I asked her what our trip to Aunty R’s was about and why I had to undergo it. She said, “all little girls go through that procedure.”

After a few days, I forgot about the incident.

As I grew older and I went into my teen years I realized that for no good reason something had been done to my private part. Something that was not very much required. After speaking to my mother about it, I realized she had gotten it done to me only because it was a tradition. She had gone through the same process. It had no religious significance.

Years went by and one day, I became a mother too. When my daughter came of age, I made the decision that I would not let her go through this mental torture, which was just a tradition and had nothing to do from a religious standpoint. When I made this decision, neither my mother nor my mother-in-law objected to it; they did not pressure me into having my girls undergo the ordeal. To conclude, I would like to add that it definitely did affect my sex life negatively and I did not want the same to be true for my girls.

Memories of a cry: A Bohra woman’s poem on her Khatna

by Sunera Sadicali
Country: Portugal / Spain

Memories of a cry

When I was eight
was too young to complain
too old to forget.

Went to a family trip
Karachi was warm, humid, overwhelming, tasty, spicy.
Had long hair and soft brown skin.
Went to Madrassa
Learnt to recite some verses by memory.
Laughed out loud, met new friends.

It was hard, sometimes…
the crowd, the men just staring on the streets
all the compulsories.

One day
went to a certain doctor, a woman.
I was eight and healthy
My sister, my cousin and me
remember an old building, the peculiar smell…
A sliding door.
I loved the street food, the pani puri, the colourful shalwar kameez.
We waited in the hall, wooden chairs.

My cousin was first,
after some time, don’t remember how much
heard a scream, sharp sound of pain…
my cousin’s cry.

I was next
I was afraid, hesitating, felt insecure
My mother and my khala were there with me.
There was a small room,
It was hot
I was sweating.
A weak-lit room, yellowish, humid.
I was put on a gurney
then everything just went very fast, in my memories…
They told me that I had a “worm” between my legs that must be cut,
sliced
My mother and my aunty grabbed my legs strongly
I remember freshly the pain
sharp and bloody-pain.
I felt shame and did not realize what happened.

Then, my sister’s turn
and again the cry…
I still feel a knot in the stomach.
Not for the pain, rather the yell.

I was thirteen when I realized
that “the worm”, was a bit of my flesh,
The sinful bit-of-clit
and yet I was not guilty at eight,
nor my mother at 28.

We are not good enough
if we do not bow
if we do not obey
if we do not have it cut properly
if we are not modest.
If we speak too much
if we enjoy too much
if we question too much.

My brain decides who I sleep with, not my clitoris

by Sabahat Jahan

Age: 24
Country: India

I am sitting in a cafe and thinking about whether I would ever make my daughter go through the painful ritual of genital mutilation, the way my mother did it to me in the name of religion.

I am 24 years old, studying journalism, a Muslim girl from a community that blindly follows Female Genital Mutilation even today. All my life I believed that FGM is good for my health, and that all the urinary problems I am facing are other unconnected problems. I didn’t realise that the bigger problem was that my clitoris was removed when I was seven.

I don’t even remember how it was done, or whether it was painful for me. And I never gave it a thought because I trusted my mother when she said that it was good for my health. I don’t blame her but I do blame the ritual. Not many Muslim sects follow it but my community does.

I first came to know about FGM when I read the work of author Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I then read about Sahiyo in the Hindustan Times. I was in a state of shock and I called my mother. With a calm mind, I asked her, “Maa, why did you do that to me?” She said, “Beta because it will control your sexual urges, you won’t sleep around and your virginity will be maintained.” I thought, so much for this virginity! Is this why I have to suffer from urinary problems from time to time?

Sleeping with someone or not is my problem, my consent. It’s my brain that will decide, not my clitoris! I had no words to say to my mother, I just said “okay” and disconnected the call. I am not angry with her, she just followed what her culture and religion taught her. Yes, I do face problems when I make love. It is painful and it is problematic. The ritual didn’t stop my sexual urges but it made sex difficult for me.

I am a literate person and I am standing against FGM. I will try my best to make people realize that it is wrong. I am thankful to Sahiyo for standing up and talking about it. I am glad the taboo around talking about it is removed and I can share my experience as a victim of FGM.

(A version of this post was originally published on the blog Wanderlustbeau on February 23, 2017.)

Khatna among Suleimanis, from the perspective of an ‘outsider’

by Koen Van den Brande
Age: 55
Country: India

More than ten years ago, in a nikah ceremony in Karachi, I became a Muslim when I married a member of the Suleimani community.

I was an ‘outsider’, born in Europe and baptised a Christian, but it was clear from  the questions I was asked to answer, in order to become a Muslim, that there isn’t such a big difference between the three religions of Abraham.

Since that time I have been adopted by the Suleimani community in Mumbai and elsewhere as ‘one of them’ and I have been embraced as a member of the family and a friend.

I have naturally taken an interest in the teachings of the Prophet – Peace be upon Him – and I have listened with great concern, when those fundamentally sound teachings have been abused and misrepresented, in the interest of men who seek to dominate others, especially women.

Listening to Karen Armstrong and Lesley Hazelton and having read their biographies of the Prophet (PbuH), I have learned to consider the historical context, when trying to understand what the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) was saying and doing.

And I think that what he was saying about women was nothing short of revolutionary, considering that women in those days were in effect ‘chattels’, the property of men. The Prophet (PbuH) himself married a businesswoman and gave women the fundamental rights to inherit property and to seek a divorce.  And when it came to beating women – a commonly accepted practice then – he asked men to try and resolve disputes lovingly and to tone it down in order not to hurt their wives.

It is with that background that I first saw this ‘Hadith’:

“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.”

Such recollections of what the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) is believed to have said, but did not record in the Quran, are often used to resolve disputes. This Hadith may be considered poorly supported by the academics, but it seems to me to be in tune with Prophet Mohammed’s (PbuH) gentle approach to teaching men how to treat women in a different manner to what they had been accustomed to and to progress gradually in the right direction.

The tradition of ‘circumcising’ not just boys but also girls, predates Islam and continues to be practiced by adherents to other religions, for example by Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Today the world calls this practice FGM, ‘female genital mutilation’. It is – rightly in my view – considered a crime against the human rights of a girl under the laws of many countries.

I myself was circumcised as a six-year-old boy and I still remember the pain afterwards when I had to pee… But in my case and to some degree that of all Jewish and Muslim boys, there was at least a medical justification for the procedure.

There is no such justification for girls and women. Quite on the contrary. The WHO – World Health Organisation – publishes a long list of potential health issues, associated with FGM.

I first became aware that girls were subjected to having their genitals cut – a practice called ‘khatna’ in our community – when my wife told me how she remembered the sharp pain, when an auntie in the community did it to her as a child.

I was enraged and worried and immediately took a closer interest in the anatomy of the clitoris, in order to try and understand the implications.

It turned out we were fortunate. The damage done was not complete. We figured it out together and have no problems.

The answer given most often by women, when asked the reason for this practice, is that it is intended to reduce a woman’s libido and thus make her less likely to be promiscuous.

I wholeheartedly recommend a book, which helped me gain a much better informed perspective on the anatomy of the female sexual organs and the very different ways in which women experience the pleasure of lovemaking.

The title of the book is ‘She comes first – the thinking man’s guide to pleasuring a woman’ and it was written by Ian Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist and well-known counselor on sexuality.

I challenge the Muslim men, who are my family and friends, to become ‘thinking men’ and embrace what this book tries to teach.

Since the time I learned that my wife had been cut, I sort of assumed that this, otherwise rather liberal Suleimani community, must have left this practice behind and that younger generations of women were likely no longer affected…

But there is a problem of course … You cannot really walk up to a woman and ask outright, can you? It is considered a deeply private matter. So it seems many men in the community are unaware.

It was news from Australia that a religious leader of the (Dawoodi) Bohra community had been jailed for FGM, which first made me realise that, if the Bohra community still practiced ‘khatna’, it might be true for the Suleimanis as well.

And so I gently broached the subject during a gathering with friends and family. I was astonished to see that at least one male member of the group was putting up a strong defense for this practice, by justifying it as somehow ‘required’ by Islam.

I read out to him and the group what Dr Ahmed Talib, the then Dean of the faculty of Sharia – Islamic law – at the renowned Islamic university of Al-Azhar in Egypt, had said in 2005…

“All practices of female circumcision and mutilation are crimes and have no relationship with Islam. Whether it involves the removal of the skin or the cutting of the flesh of the female genital organs… it is not an obligation in Islam.”

But to no avail.

So I decided to take on this challenge.

Here, surely is a good example of the sort of thing that brings Islam into disrepute and causes the younger generation to turn away.

We no longer live in the eighth century and mankind has evolved since that time.

Women have acquired rights, just as the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) had intended they should.

And surely, children cannot be abused like this, in his name.

I propose a few ‘thought experiments’, to try and bring home the need for all religions to evolve over time and to recognise modern standards of what is acceptable and what is not.

Imagine I came to you and declared that I was a follower of the religion of the Aztec people and that my religion requires me to perform a human sacrifice …Would you let me?

Or imagine a group of women decided to create a new religious sect which, recognising that men have a strong sexual urge which often leads them astray, decided to castrate all male children at birth. Would you let them?

What about child marriage. We know Aisha joined the Prophet (PbuH) as his wife at age nine. So, does that mean that child marriage should be allowed today? Surely not!

So I decided to invite the strong women of the Suleimani community, to speak up and show that they can bring about a change to the benefit of their faith.

I firmly believe that the younger generation will increasingly turn its back on the religion, if it is seen as out of step with modern day reality.

I propose to bring a petition or request to the elders of the community and ask them to outlaw this practice, by recognizing it as ‘haram’ and declaring a ‘fatwa’ against it.

My discussions with a cross-section of the community – invariably warm and constructive – have made me cautiously optimistic that there is a way forward, which respects the different views.

Already the leadership of the community has made it clear that there is no compulsion. Also, there is an established principle that where there is no good reason to do something, it is better not to do it. My intervention has generally been welcomed as an opportunity to get to the bottom of this question.

I have no objection to a ‘sophisticated’ and sensitive approach to addressing this issue. There are, after all, women in the US and Europe, who decide to undergo cosmetic surgery or others who choose to even have piercings in that part of their body.

For those who continue to believe ‘khatna’ is a religious duty, let it be practiced only by women who have reached the age of adulthood and consent, without coercion, under medical supervision and as a largely symbolic act – as the Prophet Mohammed (PbuH) is reported to have said – not ‘severely’.

The Daim al-Islam is for the Suleimani community, as it is for the Bohras, the authoritative rulebook on what to do and how to do it.

With the help of the person who told me initially that the practice of ‘khatna’ was mandatory for girls, I discovered that what I am proposing as a change is –- to my reading and with a bit of goodwill – fully supported by this book of rules.

First of all, one paragraph appears to echo the earlier-quoted hadith, by recognizing that it is better to ‘leave part’ in the interest of both the woman and her husband. In other words, a token cut should be sufficient to show commitment to the associated spiritual objective of ‘cleanliness’ of thought.

Also, it is recommended that a girl should not be cut before age seven, without saying anything to prevent the decision being postponed until the age of consent.  For boys on the other hand, where the issue is associated with physical cleanliness, the recommendation is to get it done as soon as possible.

The alternative to the community addressing this issue in its own manner, is that we wait until the government outlaws it, because adherence to the law is a long-standing principle in Islam, which everyone is already committed to.

I have learned that in our community, responsible parents have already progressed to limiting the damage to the removal of the ‘clitoral hood’ and that these days this – what they consider a ‘minor’ cut – is performed under local anesthetic and by a medical practitioner.

Other families have quietly banned the practice, from my generation onwards.

However, even with a medically safer approach, there is still the question as to whether it is right or necessary to subject a young girl to this procedure and it is increasingly unclear to me to what end. ‘Clitoral unhooding’ is a procedure chosen by adult women in the West, who seek higher sensitivity in that area and I really doubt this is what parents are seeking to achieve for their daughters …

Ultimately it may still be necessary, to implement a legal framework to protect girls in communities who are in danger of being harmed, without the benefit of a more liberal and informed society around them.

But would it not be much better if the community itself tackles this problem, rather than being forced to do so by law?

In the UK, FGM has been illegal for many years. When it recently became clear that it continued to be practiced and that there had been no convictions to date, Parliament proposed to strengthen the law to include as ‘guilty’ those who know about it and don’t do anything to prevent it.

That is, I believe, our moral duty – to do something to stop this practice – or be ‘guilty’ of a crime if we, knowing it is happening, do nothing about it.

I firmly believe this is the way the Prophet (PbuH) would have wanted it.

After all. He is also reported to have said …

“Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”

A conversation on Khatna with Suleimani Bohras

Sahiyo co-founder Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane talks to Shabnam Muqbil and her husband, Koen Van den Brande, who give us an introduction to the Suleimanis and throw light on the practice of ‘khatna’ amongst their community.

Shaheeda: Please share with us the history of the Suleimanis and where they come from?

Shabnam: The Suleimani Bohras (Suleimanis) are a sub-sect of the Musta’lī Bohra community of the Ismā’īli branch of Shia Islam. They belong to Tayyibi Ismā’īlis, which bifurcated into various Bohra sects including the major group Dawoodi Bohra.  Akin to Dawoodi Bohras, the twin communities follow the same religious tenets and practices. The Suleimanis belong mainly to Yemen and in India are a minority of only 10% of the total Bohra population. There are many Suleimani families who are spread across the world, including the Middle East, Pakistan, Europe, South-east Asia, North America and Australia. The community has now dropped the ‘Bohra’ from its name so we just call ourselves Suleimanis.

Shaheeda:  What about the religious structure and hierarchy of the Suleimanis – can you give us some information on this?  

Shabnam: The religious and spiritual leader of the Suleimanis is called the ‘Da’i’ and he is still based in Yemen, unlike the Dawoodi Bohras, who moved the seat of power to India many generations ago. The present Da’i is an Arab, residing in Yemen.

Koen: The regional/local leader who is representative of the Da’i is called the ‘Hazrat’ and, currently, Hazrat Gulam Husain Husami and Hazrat Ibrahim Ziaee jointly lead the Suleimani community in India and all over the world; Mullahs guide smaller diaspora communities.

Shabnam n Koen
Shabnam Muqbil and Koen Van den Brande

Shaheeda: Tell us some more about the Suleimanis – their customs, education and trade, their way of life?

Shabnam: The Suleimanis are an enterprising and well-educated community that has produced some incredibly talented individuals who have offered much to Indian society, in their own unique ways. As ‘Bohras’, also known as ‘vohras’ or traders, the Suleimani community has traditionally engaged in business. However, there are many notable leaders who have excelled in other professions like law, medicine and education.

Some well-known members of the community are:

  • MF Husain – internationally acclaimed modern artist, founding member of The Progressive Artists Group of Bombay; recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour
  • Badruddin Tyabji – the third President of the Indian National Congress and the first Indian to hold the post of Chief Justice in Mumbai
  • Dr Salim Ali – ornithologist and naturalist, sometimes referred to as the ‘birdman of India’; recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour
  • Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee – Indian educator, jurist, author, diplomat, and Islamic scholar; considered one of leading pioneers of modern Ismaili studies; recipient of India’s third highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan
  • Dr Shamsuddin Mohamedi – physician to the Maharajah of Baroda
  • Zafar Saifullah – cabinet Secretary to India’s ninth Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao

Koen: Suleimanis may not be identifiable on the street, per se, as they don’t have a unique dress code like the Dawoodi Bohras. But they have their community mosques in which the women pray on a separate floor. It must be noted that the women, however, are treated as equals and not restricted from getting an education or practicing a profession, though they are encouraged to marry within the community.

Shaheeda: Most Dawoodi Bohras have never heard of any other sect engaging in the practice of Female Genital Cutting in India. Can you elaborate on the prevalence of the practice amongst the Suleimanis?

Shabnam: I have written about my personal experience on your blog, and I am aware that it continues to be practiced by some. It is typically performed between 6 to 9 years of age and, like the Dawoodi Bohra practice, female genital cutting or female circumcision amongst the Suleimanis is called ‘khatna’.

I know of at least one 20-year-old who underwent ‘khatna’ as a child, but at that time already it was being done under an anaesthetic. It is typically performed by a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community in a hospital; ten years ago, the cost for the procedure was Rs 15,000.

I don’t know about the extent of cutting, but more recently, parents are considering this as ‘clitoral unhooding’ and as a minor procedure.  

Also, I cannot comment with certainty on the prevalence or how widely it is carried out today by members of the community, but it is practiced in some families; I do know that several leading families banned ‘khatna’ a generation ago. I strongly believe that research must be conducted to ascertain the extent of the practice today.

Shaheeda: What are the reasons that are given for the practice?

Shabnam: To prevent promiscuity by suppressing sexual desire is what most women believe to be the reason for carrying out the practice. The leadership denies that as a reason, though. Religion and tradition are other reasons given for the practice.

Shaheeda: Is ‘khatna’ considered obligatory or is it considered a religious requirement? What do your religious texts say on the subject?

Koen: It is the parents’ choice, as per our religious leadership. But it is also considered a religious requirement by some members of the community.

From my research, this is what I have gathered and I believe the book used to justify it is the same as the one used by the Dawoodi Bohras for validating the practice.

From the Da’a’im al-Islam, Vol 1, Book of Ritual Purity, pages 154-55:

  1. The Messenger of God (ﷺ) said: “Circumcision is (a feature) of natural religion (al-Fitra)”. He also said, “No Muslim should be left uncircumcised even though he has reached the age of 80”.
  2. Ameer al-Mu’mineen also said: “O women, when you circumcise your daughters, leave part (of the skin), for this will be chaster for their character, and it will make them more beloved by their husbands”.
  3. He also said, “Hasten with the circumcision of your children, for indeed it leads to greater Purity.” He said that a girl should not be circumcised until she is 7 years old.

And from the Da’a’im al-Islam, Vol 2, Book of Wills, page 346:

  1. Ameer al-Mu’mineen, Hazrat ‘Ali ibne Abi Talib wrote the following words as a part of his will, exhorting the people: “Be expeditious in the circumcision (khitaan) of your children, for verily, it is cleaner for them.”

Taharat-1  Taharat-2  Taharat-3  Taharat-4

Shaheeda: Do the men in your community know about this practice? Does it still find much favour amongst the younger generation?

Koen: From my conversations, some men did not know about it… or claimed not to know. As for the opinion amongst the younger generation, I discussed it with young parents and got pledges not to do it to their daughters. I am uncertain about the attitudes of the younger generation, but I want to try and get more information and find a way to protect young girls.

Shaheeda: If it ‘khatna isn’t performed, is that considered acceptable?

Koen: Some feel it is the choice of the parents.

Shaheeda: If it is not performed then is there a fear of social boycott or other repercussions?

Shabnam: Probably. There would be fear, especially when it comes to the right to use to community burial grounds. That fear appears to be real for many, even though the religious leadership has clarified that there would be no compulsion to perform it.

Shaheeda: What is the general community view on the subject?

Koen: Dialogue has only just started, but we have come across some men from the community who are willing to oppose ‘khatnawhereas others believe it is required and characterize it as only a minor operation. Women accept it as a religious requirement, often without being able to give a reason for it.

Shaheeda: What is the commentary from the religious order in the Suleimani community regarding the practice?

Shabnam: From our conversations, we have learnt that it is not considered an obligation and that parents are free to decide. We were told that, as a rule, if there isn’t a good reason then it is not necessary to do something. We have also learnt from conversations in our community that some believe that there are ‘spiritual’ reasons behind the practice, which are beyond comprehension for the average person.

Shaheeda: What is your hope for the future of the practice amongst your community? How do you see it coming to an end?

Koen: I think there is a real opportunity to look again at this practice and to find a way forward that is respectful of people’s beliefs whilst also protecting young girls from something they cannot possibly expect to understand at a young age.

Shabnam: I would very much like for the practice to be stopped and the hope is that better sense prevails.

Is there only a little piece of flesh between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, asks a Suleimani Bohra

by Shabnam Muqbil
Age: 52
Country: India

It has happened to me too……….

When I was 6 years old, I came from abroad to India with my mother to spend a two-month long summer vacation in Badr Bagh, the seat of the Suleimani community in Mumbai, where I was born.

We had a lovely little cottage within the compound of the community, where my mother had spent her childhood. I can still remember every minute detail of that house, the furniture and its placing in the rooms, the rooms themselves, the little well-tended garden outside, the children who came to play with me, who became friends and who still are to this day……..and a lot more.

Badr Bagh

 

At six one can have indelible memories of one’s childhood and so it is that amongst the happy memories that I remember one of pain as well….

I remember being sat up against the wall, legs splayed out and this old lady taking a knife to me and then the searing pain…. I probably cried a lot, strangely I don’t recall, I also don’t remember leaving those premises – hobbling out would probably be the more appropriate term. But I remember the pain and the burning sensation and the bloody underwear every time I had to visit the toilet. I remember not wanting to go to the toilet because it would hurt so much. And I remember not being able to run and play, which I loved so much to do.

Eventually, I healed. Years have gone by. The fact that I write this article indicates that I survived it. Has it affected me sexually, I don’t think so. In fact, I didn’t even realize that I was a victim of FGC until I read about it, purely by chance, and that unpleasant, painful memory from long ago came hurtling back to the fore and realization struck.

I don’t think that it has affected me adversely, in my relationship or as a person, but why should an unsuspecting little girl of 6 have to undergo this nightmare? Has it really accomplished its goal, that of making me a good Muslim, or pure or holy as the claims go? Is is only a little piece of flesh that stands between ‘being good’ or ‘bad’?

So, traumatized I probably am not, but that pain I will never forget. I do not blame my mother for what happened, because I understand the pressure of her relatives and the community upon her, but today she wholeheartedly joins me in condemning this practice which has no health benefits whatsoever, whether physical or spiritual, and only serves to cause immense pain.