WHO ARE THE DAWOODI BOHRAS?
The Dawoodi Bohras are a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Islam, who trace their roots back to the Fatimid dynasty of Yemen in the 11th century. The Dawoodi Bohras believe that the religious or spiritual leader of the community is the Dai-al-Mutlaq, referred to with the title of ‘Syedna’. The post originated in Yemen but moved to Gujarat, India, in the 1500s.
Today, the Dawoodi Bohras are predominantly a Gujarati-speaking business community with their own distinct culture and a population estimated to be between 1 and 2 million. It is commonly said that around half of the community lives in India and Pakistan while the rest are spread out around the world, including United States, United Kingdom, Australia and various Arab and African nations. The administrative headquarters of the Dawoodi Bohras as well as the office of the current (53rd) Dai are in Mumbai, India.
The Dawoodi Bohras differ from other Shia Muslims in certain beliefs and practices, but also stand out because of their distinct attire, their food and their reputation as a largely-wealthy and well-educated community. In western India, Dawoodi Bohras are known for having a more “progressive” attitude towards women – most Dawoodi Bohra women are educated, work in various professional fields and are also known to run home-based businesses even if they do not work outside.
But Dawoodi Bohras are the most well known Muslim community in India who practice “khatna” or female genital cutting – a ritual that many Islamic scholars around the world do not endorse. Moreover, it is reported that FGC is prevalent among Bohra sub-sects i.e Sulemani Bohras and Alavi Bohras. It is likely that the practice came down to the Dawoodi Bohras from Yemen, where Dawoodi Bohras trace their roots and where female circumcision is widely practiced in several provinces.
WHAT IS FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING?
Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the practice of removing parts of a woman’s external genitalia for various ritualistic purposes. This could range from cutting the tip of the clitoris to removing the inner and outer labia, and in some communities, stitching the labia closed.
There is no standard age at which the practice is performed on girls or women – some ethnic groups cut girls at birth or in early childhood, some communities wait for puberty or just before a woman’s wedding. Typically, amongst Dawoodi Bohras, FGC is performed sometime between the ages of 6 to 9 years old.
The exact origins of the practice are not known, but it is widely believed that FGC originated in Eastern Africa, and predates the beginning of Christianity. Today, various types of FGC are known to be practiced in a large number of African countries, in many Gulf/Arab countries and Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and to a small extent in Pakistan and India. Reports of the practice being performed in South America have also occurred. It is also practiced by immigrant populations in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia.
FGC is a custom and tradition and different groups give various reasons for the continuation of the practice. However, the overarching theme behind the continuation of the practice is that it preserves the cultural identity of the group. Various justifications are given for why this preservation is needed – such as to control a woman’s sexuality by reducing her ability to obtain sexual fulfillment, which helps maintains the purity of women by keeping her a virgin until marriage and faithful to her husband once married. A third commonly cited justification by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other indigenous religions is that FGC is a religious requirement. Social pressure by family and friends can also create an environment in which the practice is known as an informal or formal requirement for social acceptance, and/or is a marriageability requirement. Researcher Gerry Mackie suggests that in some communities FGC may have become a marriageability requirement because they view female genitals are offensive to men and being infibulated is considered more beautiful. These justifications of aesthetics also relate to the notion that female genitals lack cleanliness and must, therefore, be cut. Some communities also claim it is necessary to help girls become complete women, and some also claim it promotes fertility and/or enhances a woman’s sexuality.
WHO PRACTICES FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING IN INDIA?
Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in India has so far been associated only with the Dawoodi Bohra community and other smaller Bohra sub-sects. However, a 2017 investigation by Sahiyo found that FGC is also being practiced by some Sunni communities in parts of Kerala in south India. Sahiyo’s investigation revealed that doctors at a medical clinic in Kozhikode (Calicut) were performing the procedure of “sunnath”, or circumcision, on both boys and girls. After that investigation, mainstream media publications in Kerala have also wrote about the practice, a survivor spoke out about her own experience, there was a furore in the state’s Muslim population and and the state’s health ministry issued a statement against the practice. More research into the nature and prevalence rates of the FGC in Kerala is now required.
HOW DOES THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATIONS CLASSIFY FGC?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers FGC to be a violation of women’s rights, and has classified the practice into four different types:
- Type I (Clitoridectomy): Cutting of the clitoral hood or prepuce, or the partial or complete cutting of the clitoris.
- Type II (Excision): Partial or total removal of the inner labia, which could include removal of the clitoris and a part of the outer labia
- Type III (Infibulation): Cutting away the inner and/or outer labia, which may or may not include the clitoris, and then sewing up the wound to leave just a small hole for urinating and menstruating. The stitches are then opened at the time of marriage.
- Type IV (Other): This includes all other harmful practices performed on a woman’s genitalia, such as piercing, incising, burning the genitals or even inserting substances into the vagina to tighten it.
WHY DOES SAHIYO REFER TO IT AS FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING (FGC)?
Officially, the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed all forms of female genital cutting as “mutilation”, and the term FGM has grown familiar amongst activists and communities around the world. However, a number of activists prefer to avoid the term “mutilation” and use the more neutral term, “cutting”, instead. This is because communities that practice FGC do not believe they are mutilating or harming their girls, and are likely to be suspicious of – or even hostile–toward other people who label their tradition as mutilation. The term “mutilation” comes with the connotation of ‘intending to harm’ and as activists engaging in dialogue with communities to abandon the practice, we must use language that does not convey that we believe the community is intending to harm their daughters.
Dawoodi Bohras use the word “khatna” or circumcision to refer to the removal of the prepuce from the genitalia of both boys and girls. There is a sentiment amongst some in the community, that the form of “female circumcision” practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra community is in no way related to “FGM” as recognized by WHO or as practiced in many African countries.
We (our group) believe, however, that “female circumcision” does not acknowledge the dangers and the harm caused by the act of cutting the clitoris or its hood. We choose, therefore, to use the terms “khatna” and Female Genital Cutting (FGC) while referring to the ritual practiced by the Dawoodi Bohras.
Additionally, in 2016, Islamic Relief Canada released a study indicating that specific terminology can lead to retraumatization of survivors. The quote from the study below demonstrates this aspect:
The terminology of Female Genital Cutting has been the subject of debate in recent years – mainly around differing approaches amongst those opposing the practice in contrast to those who may condone certain types of FGC. While Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) appears to be the term used most frequently by international agencies, experiences from community-based interventions may indicate that the term ‘mutilation’ can, in some instances, actually add to the traumatisation of an individual. Girls and women who have undergone FGC can feel victimised, stigmatised and offended by the word ‘mutilation’ and its derogatory connotations. In general, it is important that any intervention strategies do not actually add to the trauma already felt by females who have had to undergo the practice, and referring to people as ‘mutilated’ – while correctly identifying the severity of the practice – has the potential of traumatising sufferers even more.
WHAT TYPE OF FGC IS PRACTISED BY THE DAWOODI BOHRAS?
Dawoodi Bohras practice Type I FGM/FGC: In the majority of cases, part of the prepuce or the clitoral hood is cut. But in some cases – particularly when the “khatna” is performed by a midwife – women have had either a part of the clitoris or all of the clitoris cut.
It is typically performed when a girl is between 6 to 9 years of age and is a practice carried down from mother to daughter, with usually no involvement from the male members of the family. The ritual was traditionally carried out by midwives but mothers and grandmothers now also take girls to hospitals or clinics, particularly in the bigger cities.
WHERE IS KHATNA PERFORMED?
As Dawoodi Bohras migrate around the globe, so too has the practice of FGC. Reports have come in through the media and our online survey that Dawoodi Bohras practice khatna in the following locations: Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Canada, India, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Tanzania, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.
IS KHATNA DIFFERENT FROM WHAT HAPPENS IN AFRICA?
According to the World Health Organization, khatna as practiced by the Dawoodi Bohras falls under the category of Type I FGC, and this too is a human rights violation. Internationally, it is the more severe types of FGC that tends to draw media attention and public outrage. While most people associate female genital “mutilation” with Types II, III and IV as practiced in many but not all African communities, they are often unaware that FGC is common in various Asian countries in the form of Type I and Type II. In Asia, it is almost always followed as a religious ritual by various Muslim sects. In many Africa countries, where the practice is believed to have originated, it is followed by Muslims as well as people from other religions.
The Bohras, and many other Asian communities believe that the “circumcision” they practice is categorically different from the traditions of African communities. However, all forms of FGC originate from the same ideology and have a shared intention: to influence and control a woman’s sexuality. Regardless of what form of FGC is performed, they are all being done on girls who are too young to give consent or even understand what is happening to them.
HOW IS KHATNA DIFFERENT FROM MALE CIRCUMCISION?
Some Dawoodi Bohras perceive the cutting of the clitoral hood to be the female equivalent of removal of the male foreskin. Among Dawoodi Bohras, both are performed at an age when children are not old enough to give consent for it – approx. age 6 to 9 for girls and infancy for boys. The underlying ideology behind the two practices also differs for the Bohras. Until 2016, the Dawoodi Bohra religious leadership did not publicly explain why khatna is mandatory for girls in the community. In 2016, the religious clergy claimed that FGC is done for hygiene purposes. There are no medical studies substantiating this claim. Also most community members, on the contrary, believe that the ritual is meant to moderate a woman’s sexual urges and prevent her from having pre-marital or extra-marital affairs.
Male circumcision, on the other hand, is not linked to a man’s sexual desire or pleasure and is not known to affect the sex organ (though this point is also contested, see The Atlantic article). FGC does damage the sex organs, inhibiting pleasure and potentially causing severe pain and complications for women’s sexual and reproductive health. See more here.
Thus, FGC is a patriarchal cultural tradition carried out with the intent of subjugating women and controlling their bodies. The practice serves to oppress women, reinforcing the perpetuation of their marginalization and inferior status in society. For more information, please refer to Equality Now’s FGM Fact Sheet.
Male Circumcision is performed, according to Dawoodi Bohras and others, for reasons of hygiene as well. Though there is an intense debate on whether indeed there are medical benefits, necessitating the need for male circumcision amongst those living in developed countries, such as the United States (see more here.) And there is a growing opposition to male circumcision as well (see here).
However, the World Health Organization has stated that there is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%. Three randomized controlled trials have shown that male circumcision provided by well-trained health professionals in properly equipped settings is safe. WHO/UNAIDS recommendations emphasize that male circumcision should be considered an efficacious intervention for HIV prevention in countries and regions with heterosexual epidemics, high HIV and low male circumcision prevalence.
There are no known health benefits for any form of FGC.
IS KHATNA SAFE WHEN IT IS DONE IN A HOSPITAL SETTING?
(Please refer to Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation)
Trained health professionals who perform female genital cutting are violating girls’ and women’s right to life, right to physical integrity, and right to health. They are also violating the fundamental medical ethic to ‘Do no harm’. Yet, medical professionals have performed and continue to perform female genital cutting (UNICEF, 2005). Studies have found that, in some countries, one-third or more of women had their daughter subjected to the practice by a trained health professional (Satti et al., 2006). Evidence also shows that the trend is increasing in a number of countries (Yoder et al., 2004).
A range of factors can motivate medical professionals to perform female genital cutting, including prospects of economic gain, pressure and a sense of duty to serve community requests (Berggren et al., 2004; Christoffersen-Deb, 2005). In countries where groups that practise female genital cutting have emigrated, some medical personnel misuse the principles of human rights and perform FGC in the name of upholding what they perceive is the patient’s culture and the right of the patient to choose medical procedures, even in cases where the patient did not request it (Vangen et al., 2004; Thierfelder et al., 2005; Johansen, 2006a)
Some medical professionals, nongovernmental organizations, government officials and others consider medicalization as a harm-reduction strategy and support the notion that when the procedure is performed by a trained health professional, some of the immediate risks may be reduced (Shell-Duncan, 2001; Christoffersen-Deb, 2005). However, even when carried out by trained professionals, the procedure is not necessarily less severe, or conditions sanitary. Moreover, there is no evidence that medicalization reduces the documented obstetric or other long-term complications associated with female genital cutting. Some have argued that medicalization is a useful or necessary first step towards total abandonment, but there is no documented evidence to support this claim.
There are serious risks associated with medicalization of female genital cutting. Its performance by medical personnel may wrongly legitimize the practice as medically sound or beneficial for girls and women’s health. It can also further institutionalize the procedure as medical personnel often hold power, authority, and respect in society (Budiharsana, 2004). Medical licensing authorities and professional associations have joined the United Nations organizations in condemning actions to medicalize female genital cutting. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) passed a resolution in 1994 at its General Assembly opposing the performance of female genital mutilation by obstetricians and gynaecologists, including a recommendation to “oppose any attempt to medicalize the procedure or to allow its performance, under any circumstances, in health establishments or by health professionals” (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics). In 2016, the World Health Organization released WHO Guidelines on the Management of Health Complications from Female Genital Mutilation. They recommended that no form of medicalized FGC be accepted because it violates medical ethics since (i) FGC is a harmful practice; (ii) medicalization perpetuates FGC; and (iii) the risks of the procedure outweigh any perceived benefit.
DOES KHATNA AMONG BOHRAS DIFFER FROM COUNTRY TO COUNTRY IN TERMS OF THE METHODS USED AND THE SCALE AT WHICH IT IS PRACTICED?
Right now it is hard to say how different the practice is from country to country. The practice has indeed migrated as groups of Dawoodi Bohra move to other countries outside of India. In general, what is prescribed for khatna within the community is that part of the clitoral hood is removed. However, that might not necessarily always happen, and we have heard from Dawoodi Bohras who have noted that more than that was removed.
One difference regarding how the practice might be performed in some countries versus others is that in India, the practice is more so performed by midwives/cutters, while in other countries, it may be performed in a hospital/medical setting.
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF FGC (Type I in particular)?
The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 90% of cases include Types I or II and cases where genitals are “nicked” but no flesh removed (Type IV), and about 10% are Type III (WHO 2013). Read about possible health risks of different types of FGC here.
Besides the possible physical consequences of Type I FGC, it is vital to note that the practice can have a negative impact on mental health. The ritual of khatna typically involves taking a child to a doctor or a midwife under a different pretext, making her partially undress and inflicting pain in a sensitive part of the body with little or no explanation. Many women remember resisting the blade in fear.
It is an act that induces trauma for many children and even if the trauma is forgotten by the conscious mind soon after. It can surface later, at the time of marriage and one’s first sexual experiences, in the form of fear of sexual intimacy.
WHAT DOES ISLAM SAY ABOUT FGC?
Not all Islamic groups practice FGC. This includes countries where there is sharia law like Saudi Arabia. Many non-Muslims also practice FGC such as Christians and Animists. In fact, FGC predates Islam as it existed during the time of Prophet Ibrahim which was before Islam.
The Quran does not talk about male or female cutting, but male cutting or circumcision is considered mandatory in Islam. It is seen as one of the five “sunnah-al-fitrah” (obligatory customs of nature) that Prophet Mohammed preached including circumcision, cutting the nails, trimming the mustache, plucking pubic hair and plucking armpit hair. Some interpret sunnah to mean it is either religiously recommended or something that was practiced in the time of the prophet.
FGC, on the other hand, is not considered obligatory but, according to a section of scholars, is prescribed. There is a reference to female circumcision in one of the hadiths (books explaining prophetic traditions), specifically the hadith of Abu Dawood. It describes an incident when the Prophet came across a woman performing the act of female circumcision in Medina. The Prophet is said to have told her “not to cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.” However, according to Asghar Ali Engineer, the late reformist Dawoodi Bohra scholar, the hadith that cites this is “considered weak by many Muslims.” Sa’ad, who was responsible for this hadith was hanged, and 200 of his hadiths have been thrown out as “interpolation” or fabrication.
Many fatwas have been issued by religious leaders against FGC in countries such as Egypt, Mauritania and Senegal. In Islam the Prophet’s commandment states, “Accept no harm and do no harm to another.” Islam also teaches that if the harm (physical or mental harm) of anything outweighs the benefits, we should leave it alone.
Other Islamic scholars around the world who prescribe FGC give multiple reasons for endorsing it. These include hygiene (preventing secretions of the inner labia from accumulating and developing a rancid odour that could lead to infections), reducing excessive sexual desire, reducing the excessive sensitivity of the clitoris so that it does not get aroused to a size that is inconvenient to the husband, and preventing spasms of the clitoris. A lot of religious myths have been formed to justify FGC but none of them, including the reasons listed above, have been proven to be true. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that the Prophet’s daughter ever underwent FGC.
The Dawoodi Bohras give particular prominence to a 10th century text of jurisprudence called Daim-al Islam, written by Qazi Noman. This text mentions khatna for males and females as a sunnat (recommendation) for purposes of taharat, or cleanliness, hygiene and purity. This is believed to include not just physical purity but also spiritual.
However, as they pass down the ritual of khatna through oral tradition, Bohras cite certain other reasons for the practice more frequently than the reason of hygiene. One reason often cited for practicing khatna is that it moderates a woman’s sexual urges – that in Islam, women must not be sexually aggressive and khatna is a way to curb the aggression. A few claim the opposite – that khatna is done to enhance sexual pleasure. In 2010, when Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher was a Master of Social Work student at San Francisco State University, she conducted an academic study titled, “Understanding the Continuation of FGC in the United States.” One woman interviewed in the study stated that according to religious teachings she had gained while attending Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, when both a man and woman are circumcised, a certain kind of essential knowledge or ilm is passed between the married couple during the act of sex.
WHAT ARE THE LAWS ON FGC AROUND THE WORLD AND IN INDIA?
FGC is illegal in several countries around the world. In the United States, it is currently illegal in 28 states. India does not have a specific law against female genital cutting, but the Supreme Court of India is currently hearing a set of petitions by various individuals and groups on the issue. While some petitioners are seeking a legal ban on the practice of FGC in India, a counter-petition by the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom has defended the ritual of female circumcision on the grounds of religious freedom. In September 2018, the Supreme Court referred the case to a five-judge Constitutional bench, which will scrutinise the practice of FGC from the lens of religious freedom.
In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of global discussion on the effectiveness of legislation banning FGC in different countries. In 2013, a paper titled, “Legislating Change? Responses to Criminalising Female Genital Cutting in Senegal,” published in the Law and Society Review found that in rural Senegal, knowledge of FGC being criminalized by legislation does not motivate abandonment of the practice itself – many continue to cut their girls in secret. However, legislation can be a tool to protect women and girls from experiencing FGC, as well as contribute to the elimination of this practice when accompanied by other community programs focusing on education and health.
Effective legislation must also integrate the need for social change. The UNICEF-UNFPA publication, “ How To Transform a Social Norm (2018) ” also notes that legislation must acknowledge the deeply embedded cultural significance of the practice, and work to integrate social change within FGC practicing communities.
A legal framework that clearly states that harmful practices are unacceptable is undeniably an important necessary measure for contributing to the end of these practices. However, when laws that ban the practice are introduced in contexts where people are still expected by their families and communities to engage in the practice and fear social punishment if they do not, the practice will continue and may be driven underground. The challenge, therefore, is to develop, introduce and implement legislation in ways that contributes to a social change process that ultimately results in the decision by communities to abandon the practice. When it is accompanied by human rights education programs and community dialogue to foster a consensus on the abandonment of the practice, a legislative approach can be an important instrument for promoting the abandonment of FGM/C. ~ UNICEF, 2010
Our organization believes that for Dawoodi Bohras, particularly in India, criminalizing FGC cannot alone get the community to put a stop to khatna. In fact, in a communally polarized country like India where personal religious laws of minority groups are prioritized, any push for a law against genital cutting would be seen by the Dawoodi Bohras as an affront to their religious beliefs. We believe we must first begin with education and community-based outreach programs, encourage open dialogue between community members and religious authorities, pull the topic out of the shadows of taboo – and only when there is enough steam within the community to demand an end to the practice will any kind of law become relevant.
WHO ARE THE VOICES AGAINST “KHATNA” IN THE DAWOODI BOHRA COMMUNITY?
Over the past few decades, there have been disparate attempts by Dawoodi Bohra women around the world to speak out against female genital cutting and to call for an end to this practice.
All for “Izzat” The Practice of Female Circumcision among Dawoodi Bohra Muslims in India, by Rehana Ghadially, was a small case study done in 1994. Over the last few years, other voices have called for action through articles in magazines, other publications, and blogs by survivors of “khatna” and their supporters. There has also been an online petition appealing to the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin to bring an end to this ritual.
Despite women advocating to abolish the practice of khatna, the ritual still continues. In a survey conducted by Sahiyo in 2015-16, of the 385 women participants surveyed from the Dawoodi Bohra community, 80% had been cut. When survey participants were asked if they would continue the practice, the majority of survey participants were NOT okay with the practice of khatna for women continuing for future generations.
WHAT ARE THE REASONS THAT KEEP MORE WOMEN FROM SPEAKING UP AGAINST IT?
As female genital cutting is a complicated custom, and there are many factors that play into the continuation of the practice.
One reason being that some in the community do not believe that the form of “female circumcision” they practice is in any way related to “FGM” as recognized by WHO or as practiced in many African countries. Khatna is practiced discreetly by women in the community, and speaking about it in public – particularly expressing dissent against the practice– is widely considered a taboo that could result in communal ostracism. People fear getting loved ones in trouble by reporting FGC to authorities. The people who perform the FGC might be relatives or friends. The parents of the child who had it done might be sent away if the FGC is criminalized in their country. These are legitimate concerns for why some people do not speak up against it. People fear the community may stigmatize their families (parents, children, etc.) if they speak out against it. A legal case in Australia which included a religious leader, a midwife and a local family from the Dawoodi Bohra community were arrested on charges of assisting in FGC. The religious leader informed his community to lie about FGC occuring. A similar situation has occurred in the United States after a doctor from the Bohra community in Michigan was charged with performing FGC on minor girls in the United States.
People may fear being viewed as a victim. Some people who have undergone FGC do not want to be viewed as a victim. They, themselves, might not see themselves as such. To them, victim might have a negative connotation, and they do not want to be viewed in that light within the community or outside of the community.
IS THERE A DECLINE IN THE PREVALENCE OF FGC OCCURRING GLOBALLY? WHAT ABOUT SPECIFICALLY AMONG THE DAWOODI BOHRA COMMUNITY?
Within the last few decades, female genital cutting has increasingly been recognized as a human rights violation. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to end FGC at the global level. Similarly, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) publicly declared the need to deploy efforts to end FGC. Stakeholders all over the world have come to a consensus in ending FGC within generations. Governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and communities that practice FGC have been working on abandoning this practice. Several countries affected by FGC have passed laws to stop the practice. Due to these continuous efforts, there has been a reported decline in FGC within African countries.
However, due to high-level prevalence data only being reported in 30 countries by the UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programmes and being largely restricted to Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the extent and prevalence of FGC in most Asian countries (except for Indonesia) is largely unknown. Yet, FGC has been reported in various Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Singapore, etc. Additionally, women in these countries who have undergone FGC are not accounted for in the global figure assessing that 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC globally.
In 2015, FGM/C was included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under goal 5, target 5.3, which calls for the elimination of all harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriages and FGM/C (UNFPA, 2017). Yet, there is still a severe need for research on this subject in Asian countries if SDG 5.3 is to be met by 2030. In 2017, Sahiyo and 28 other NGOs collaborated on a change.org petition calling on the UN to invest more research and support into understanding FGC in the Asian context.
In the context of prevalence of FGC among Dawoodi Bohra community, Sahiyo conducted the first large-scale study to understand the prevalence of FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras in 2015-2016. The study revealed that 82% said they are unlikely or extremely unlikely to continue Khatna on their daughter and 81% said they are not okay with Khatna continuing in the community. This indicates an opportunity for the prevalence of FGC to reduce among Dawoodi Bohras a generation from now.
WHY SHOULD KHATNA END?
Psychological scars: The type of female genital cutting Dawoodi Bohras practice does not always have negative health consequences (although it does affect some women adversely), but it can leave lasting psychological scars in childhood that are not easy to erase later. The ritual of khatna typically involves taking a child to a doctor or a midwife under a different pretext, making her partially undress and inflicting pain in a sensitive part of the body with little or no explanation. Many circumcised women remember resisting the blade in fear.
It is an act that induces trauma for many children and even if the trauma is forgotten by the conscious mind soon after. It can surface later, at the time of marriage and one’s first sexual experiences, or in the form of fear of sexual intimacy.
Done without consent: Khatna is also objectionable because it is performed on girls at the age of 6 or 7, when they are too young to give informed consent for it, or even understand what is happening to them. Parents do make various decisions for their children throughout the time that they are minors and dependents, but this particular decision involves cutting off a part of another individual’s body – a part that is central to the sexual life of an adult woman.
A child of 7 has little or no knowledge of sexual or reproductive anatomy. Even if the child is given some explanation for the circumcision (a religious explanation or one to do with health), she is definitely too young to understand the implications of what it really means. Parents cannot assume the right to alter their daughter’s anatomy at an age when the child has no real knowledge of the clitoris and its role in her future life.
Inherently patriarchal: At the heart of it, FGC is a practice born out of patriarchy – the social structure that privileges men over women. Males are not circumcised to control their sexuality, but in the case of women, the purpose of khatna is to rein in their sexual energy to ensure they do not deviate from the prescribed sexual mores for women of the community.
Fear of female sexuality: The practice is rooted in the belief that women’s bodies and their sexuality are a dangerous, negative influence on society. If they are not controlled, traditional gendered roles in patriarchal family structures would not hold. FGC, then, is a symbol of misogyny and systemic gender inequality.
Women’s rights over their bodies: FGC, performed on children without their informed consent, basically denies girls and women their fundamental right over their own bodies. A girl cut as a child will grow up to be a woman who’s sexual life will be influenced by an event that was not in her control; she will be forever stuck with an altered anatomy that was not her choice.
COULD IDENTIFYING AS A CIRCUMCISED BOHRA ON SOCIAL MEDIA OR IN THE MEDIA POTENTIALLY LEAD TO LEGAL RAMIFICATIONS FOR ONE’S FAMILY, PARTICULARLY SINCE THIS IS AN ISSUE THE UNITED STATES SUDDENLY DECIDED TO CRACK DOWN ON?
This is not a simple question. It will depend on several factors:
1) If a person was cut in or before 1995, then it was not a crime in the U.S. or any state because the federal law against FGM/C was passed and went into effect in 1996. However, it is also important to recognize that the federal law is currently being contested as being unconstitutional on grounds that Congress exceeded its authority by connecting it to the commerce clause.
2) If the person was cut in 1997, but outside the U.S., the federal law was in effect, but only for FGM/C committed in the United States. Additionally, very few states had states laws that early on to bring an FGM/C case. However, as of 2019, 34 states have laws on FGC.
3) If the person was transported from U.S. soil for the purposes of being cut and was cut abroad on or after November 2013, then the vacation cutting provision applies. Please note, that though the federal law is being challenged as unconstitutional, this vacation cutting provision is NOT being challenged and still hold true.
4) There is also the issue of statute of limitations. How long after the cutting can a criminal or civil case be brought under federal or state law? Is the statute of limitation “tolled” (put on hold or frozen) until the 18th birthday and then starts running? If yes, how long after the 18th birthday does the person or prosecutors have?
5) The federal law applies to both children and adults within its jurisdiction. The person who underwent FGM/C or someone legally allowed to act on their behalf would have to bring the charge or bring it to the attention of authorities who would bring the charge. That legal person could be a parent, guardian or court-appointed advocate.
I AM A STUDENT AND I AM DOING A PRESENTATION/DISSERTATION/THESIS ON THE TOPIC OF FGC- CAN I CONNECT WITH SAHIYO FOR MORE INFORMATION OR CAN YOU CONNECT ME WITH SURVIVORS WHO I CAN INTERVIEW FOR MY PROJECT?
If you are a student, please first take the time to go through the Sahiyo website. Important pages where you can gather information include:
Sahiyo’s History – Information about Sahiyo’s work and activities.
Sahiyo Resources – Sahiyo has put together a few resources including 1) Study on FGC in Bohra community 2) Media Toolkit that discusses the history of Bohra community and how to work with survivors sensitively, 3) Activist Needs Assessment Report on Barrier Faced in Advocating against FGC.
Stories and Narratives – If you are looking for personal testimonies, please look at the stories we have collected from women who have undergone FGC. You may take quotes from these articles provided you cite Sahiyo as your source.
More News on FGC – Links to news articles and research papers on FGC can be found here. There is a wealth of information, so please do look up these sources first.
As an NGO, we are always happy to connect with students and believe it is important to educate everyone on the topic. Please note though that while we would like to support individual student projects with their research, our capacity is limited, and it is often difficult for us to connect with all students requesting support.
If you need further information, you can also write to email@example.com. We do ask that you give us at least 3 weeks notice for a research/class presentation deadline.
HOW CAN I GET INVOLVED WITH SAHIYO?
There’s a wide variety of routes you can take to connect with Sahiyo.
- Stay informed! Keep posted on all our latest opportunities by subscribing to our newsletter.
- Connect and share! You can do this by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. Please share posts with your communities- like, comment, engage. A big part of how Sahiyo connects with global supporters is through social media, so please don’t hesitate to spread our content with your networks and community
- Tell your story! If you are a survivor, or have a personal story to share related to FGM/C, you can share your story to inspire others to come forward as well. You can write a blog post or create a digital story at one of our regular storytelling retreats. Reach out to write a blog any time to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also write us to express your interest in being part of a workshop, and we’ll put you on the waitlist, and reach out with an application when the next workshop is approaching
- Donate! Our programs (such as activist retreats, storytelling workshops, Thaal Pe Charcha and more) are sustained by the generosity of donors. Helps us ensure the conversation around FGC continues and survivors receive support.
- Intern with us! We have a variety of internships involving social media and communications/events.. See what openings we currently have.
- Volunteer with us! Our international team of volunteers bring a wealth of experience, identities and perspectives to our work. Apply to be a part of our community.
- Sign our petition! Add your name to the collective of voices rising up to end female genital cutting.
- If you would like to conduct interviews with women who have experienced FGC, please send an email to email@example.com with a description of your project and request and we will consider sharing it on our social media channels so people may follow up with you directly.
- We also strongly encourage students who do research to submit blog posts to Sahiyo regarding their reflections and experience pursuing the project and speaking with women who have undergone FGC. We also ask you to consider volunteering some of your time with Sahiyo to learn more about our approach and work.