What Islam says about Female Genital Cutting and how far are these texts invincible? (Part 1)

By Debangana Chatterjee

A journey through religious texts helps us to validate or disprove the claims that there are religious justifications for traditional cultural practices. A similar logic applies to the claims that Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is an Islamic practice.

The Holy Quran and the hadiths, evolving from the deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, form the basis of Sharia or the Islamic law. Whereas the Quranic scriptures are unquestionable, hadiths require authentication as they are the dynamic source of evolving Islamic practices. Hadiths are the Prophet’s verbal instructions which were documented by various narrators after the Prophet’s death. The actual narration of the text is called the matn and the insad contains the trail of narrators to support the authentic transmission of Prophet’s instructions over generations. Hadiths can be classified as either mutawatir or ahad. Mutawatir hadiths are substantiated and backed up by multiple reporters documenting his guidelines and thus, is adequately acknowledged within the Islamic circle. Praying namaz, donating, fasting and going for Hajj are few of the mutawatir hadiths which are considered fully authentic. On the contrary, although a few ahad hadiths are thought to permit a limited form of female genital cutting, they are deficient of authenticity borne through insad.

According to a Baihaqi hadith, circumcision ennobles women. But many suggest it to be advisory rather than obligatory. One of the Bukhari Sharif hadiths considers circumcision as one of the acts of fitra (human acts inspired by God) like the removal of pubic hair, trimming the moustache, removing armpit hair and shortening nails. In Islam there has been much controversy whether fitra is binding. One Jami at-Trimidhi hadith suggests that there must be an essential bath after sexual intercourse between the two circumcised genitals of opposite gender. Though the supporters here take circumcision as a prerequisite to sexual intercourse and hence to marriage, the commandment of the hadith lies at the fact of taking a shower after sexual intercourse where circumcision may be spoken of as a natural presupposition. Written in Arabic, this hadith may have been toldto a community that was culturally inclined towards FGC at the time it was said. Hadiths by Abu Dawud, Al-Tabrani and Al-Khatib al-Baghdad seem to suggest conducting a plain cut of the clitoral prepuce, as according to them it beautifies a woman’s face and makes her even more desirable to her husband. Primarily even if the hadith  indicates FGC, it eliminates the severe forms of it such as infibulation and only promotes the least severe form.

Other interpretations of this hadith suggest that rather than taking it as the Prophet’s order, one may read this hadith as suggesting it is merely a desirable option. In contradiction, a hadith reported by Abu Sa’id al-Khudri and documented by Ibn Majah and Al-Daraqutni with an authenticated line of insad seems to unequivocally reject any practice amounting to harm.

In Shia Islam, taharat (purity) concerning the notions of hygiene, cleanliness and purity is sometimes put forward to justify FGC. It is believed that due to the clitoral unhooding the excess building up of smegma is addressed. Yet, effective measures of washing and cleanliness are more than adequate to address this issue.Removal of healthy tissues for it does not seem to be credible enough.

In India, Dawoodi Bohras, the largest Bohra sect belonging to the Tayyibi Ism’aili branch of Shia Islam, who practice khatna, consider the Da’i al-Mutlaq, also known as Da’i, to hold an authoritative, infallible status in the community. As the Da’i considers Daim-ul-Islam as the binding religious text for the Bohras, diktats of the text are taken as truth by devout community members. In this text, the Prophet is believed to advise for a simple cut of a woman’s clitoral skin as this, according to certain translations of the text, assigns chastity to a woman and makes her more ‘beloved by their husbands’. Though supporters of FGC cite this as the reason for the continuation of khatna, scholars have shown that da’is have never been as invincible historically, as has occurred in the recent past. In fact, changes in the provision that khatna is required, would add dynamism to the religion.

Islam as a whole neither complies with the practice nor endorses FGC. Despite repeated invocation of religious references as a justification for FGC, considering the myriad number of Islamic texts, the grounds for such justification hold little or almost no merit.

 Read Part 2 – Female Genital Cutting (FGC): Is it an Islamic Practice?

More about Debangana

Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com.

Not all damages are physical. Not everyone religious is morally ethical

Name: Xenobia (name changed)

Age: 27
Country: India

Today, social media is raging with thoughts and opinions on empowering women, being pro-choice, violating someone’s privacy and their body, and the role of consent, among others. Some say rapists must undoubtedly be hung to death, while some talk about punishing molesters and eve-teasers as well, so that the right patterns are set at the grassroots level and so that they think twice before taking advantage of girls again.

But what happens when the people taking advantage of a helpless 7-year-old girl are none other than her own family and community? Who, then, takes accountability for that? I’m not going to cry about my personal story here, but present some basic facts for you to consider. I am a Bohra Muslim raised in India. While the world sees us as a non-confrontational, peace-loving, business-thriving community, we have a secret tradition of circumcising 6-7-year-old girl children that we call khatna.

There are plenty of arguments about how this is “needed” from a health point of view for males and how it helps them in their sex life eventually, but the most educated and civilised people agree that this practice is harmful to a woman’s physical, psychological and emotional health, especially since it is not supervised or is often performed by untrained aunties in basements. This practice is officially termed as “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM) everywhere else in the world and it is increasingly treated as a crime committed on helpless female children.

Why? What’s the reason?

Some say purity, some say patriarchy. Some do it because it’s a mandatory tradition and if the priest says so, who dares to refuse? Some do it out of peer pressure, some do it to avoid being blacklisted or labelled rebellious. The popular conclusion for those seeking out answers has been, to moderate or curb a woman’s sexual desires. Sure, this might have worked well in an era when we lived in deserts and tribes were always on the lookout for stealing another’s woman.

Irrespective of the reason today, does it even matter? However good your reasons may be, you still don’t have the right to decide what to do to a woman’s body without her consent. Whoever you may be. No matter what your intentions, the damage is done and you are still no different from a criminal.

So what does this mean for the victims?

The custom practiced by us is allegedly ‘Type 1’ and is different from that practiced by some African communities – Type 2 and Type 3 (based on levels of severity). As recognised by the World Health Organization, Type 1 FGC is described as the cutting of the clitoral hood and/or the clitoris, which poses a range of physical and emotional consequences such as infections, excessive bleeding, burning sensations while urinating, etc. The practice can adversely affect mental health as well since many young girls feel personally betrayed, helpless and confused. The child can also experience fear of sexual intimacy and mistrust of community members later in life as a result of the trauma. Sounds familiar?

But aren’t there thousands of other women who have gone through the same thing, and claim they are not facing sexual problems?

Just like most people don’t talk to others about what happens in their bedrooms, there are FGM survivors who don’t talk about their sex lives in public either. Some of them scream in pain through the night or are unable to have a healthy “bedroom life”. Plenty of these women are regular patients of doctors, sexologists, counsellors, and therapists. Yes, they manage to get pregnant (which is not very hard to do, with or without a man) but is the process peaceful and pain-free? No.

Everyone talks about divorce rates going up but nobody realises why. They don’t see that in general, women are subject to a lot of curbing throughout their upbringing. Things have always been decided for them and whatever the gender might be, it’s not like we are brought up in a community that breeds leaders or independent decision makers. We are a herd of brainwashed followers. And with the recent #metoo revolution, women have just started discovering their voice.

My personal take

Yes, I was ‘cut’ too. I don’t remember the details, but I remember flashes. I was taken to meet “some aunty” and I remember not having a very good feeling about it, but you do what you’re asked to do anyway. We went to her gloomy house in Calcutta and she asked me to stand over an Indian-style toilet with my legs apart and I remember seeing blood fall. That’s all.

I definitely remember having a hard time peeing for a week after that. Since this clearly does not qualify as a regular dinner conversation, it was just never spoken of after that. At age 16, I came across this ‘Muslim practice’ in Jean Sasson’s book – Princess. Among other terrible things done to women in Saudi Arabia, this was described in detail and that awoke something in my memory.

At first, I was scared and terrified because I didn’t know what to do with that information. It didn’t make any sense. Why would something that awful be done to me? What was the purpose? Was this religious? Was this medical? Gradually, I started asking other people of my age about it. Thanks to the internet, I started understanding a lot more of this ‘barbaric’ practice and how it is just another side effect of our patriarchal world, where random men decide how we must lead our lives and what is good for us.

What I couldn’t wrap my head around was how parents would let that happen to their own kids. When your daughter is at the peak of her innocence and brimming with nothing but pure love for you, you violate that basic trust. And then you actually hand her over to the monster who does that to her?

So your religion asks you to cut her body. And you see nothing wrong with that. And what about the repercussions and damages – physical, mental and emotional? She deals with those all her life. And if this is something you truly feel isn’t wrong, then why the hush-hush? Why the secret? Tell everyone about it, celebrate it, like you do for a misaaq ceremony? Why stop there? Of course, there are always exceptions too. Plenty of well-wishers keep trying to tell me that’s it’s not my fault and I shouldn’t worry about it, and I say, “Yes I know, and yet, I’m the one paying the price.”

What is really sad is that so many girls out there probably still don’t even know or remember this incident taking place. They are living under the impression that sex is bad and painful, and perhaps the problem is with them. Like most of our teachings. All the more reason why I am grateful to Sahiyo for this amazing platform for women to share their stories, to empathise, to let girls like me know that I am not the only damaged one and that I don’t need to see myself as a victim. Empowering women through storytelling seems like a glorious part of our culture that they are taking forward!

 

On The Supreme Court Hearings and The Pro-Khatna FAQs Circulated by Bohras

By Shabana Feroze
Country: Bahrain

The Supreme Court of India is very close to deciding a ban on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or khatna, and I couldn’t be happier. As a survivor of FGC myself (I live in Bahrain but had khatna done to me in a shady house in Hyderabad, India), I want to see this practice legally banned.

The Supreme Court observed it goes against the Constitution of India to make any changes to a young girl’s private part. In my opinion, Female Genital Cutting goes against not only the Constitution, but child rights and human rights as well. The argument by pro-khatna Bohras against this is always “religious freedom”, as is evident in the name of the group at the forefront of defending khatna: the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom.

What religious freedom? You’re allowed to do anything in the name of religious freedom?

I really hope that the Supreme Court rules to have this practice declared illegal once and for all so Bohra moms stop bringing their daughters from all over the world to get a part of their anatomy removed for no reason.

But what scares me is that even if it gets banned, the practice may go underground and still continue. A few members of the Bohra community who are pro-khatna (and the Syedna, the leader of the community) vehemently defend the practice, saying that it’s their right to do it, and that parents don’t need the consent of a 7-year-old girl child to make non-medical changes to her clitoris. They also claim that the procedure is done for “taharat” or “religious purity”. There was even a document circulated on WhatsApp recently, called “Female Circumcision, as practiced by the Dawoodi Bohras: Understand it, before condemning it!”.

The document is structured like an FAQ, listing all the arguments against FGC and countering them with their supposedly good and right reasons in favour of this practice.

This document claims that the Bohra form of FGC is not the same as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and that khatna does not cause any physical harm, trauma or even pain. This claim ignores all the personal stories of women who have said that it caused harm, long-lasting trauma, and terrible pain to them (including myself). The authors of the document also state that the World Health Organization (WHO)  has “over-reached” in including Bohra khatna in their classification of FGM. Do they think they are smarter than the World Health Organization?

They also compare nose and ear piercings to FGC. The document claims:

“Nose & ear piercings, a very popular practice world over, is commonly performed on small girls for non-medical purposes. Nose & ear piercings are painful and cause a publicly visible & permanent change on the human body. Yet they are considered perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, female circumcision, which is a mild & harmless practice causing no visible change, is considered to be a human rights violation!”

Making a piercing in the cartilage of the nose and ear is very different to cutting off a piece of genitalia. The genitalia is connected to your sexual organs and reproductive system. It’s not a harmless procedure. Nose and ear piercings are harmless procedures, available at hospitals and pharmacies, and are done by trained professionals. The WHO doesn’t have a problem with it. It’s not banned in several countries. So the comparison of nose and ear piercings to FGC/ khatna is not on the same level.

Looking at the Bohra community’s arrogant defiance to continue this practice, even in the face of organizations such as WHO, I’m scared that even if the Supreme Court makes it illegal, it will continue to happen. It’ll just be shrouded in more secrecy. The Syedna himself needs to declare it to be an outdated and unnecessary tradition that needs to be stopped. If he doesn’t and it becomes illegal in India, a huge network of home-based cutters might grow, and women might continue to take their daughters, granddaughters and nieces to dark homes in small alleys to get it done.  

The subject was heavy, but my heart felt light: My experience at Sahiyo’s StoryCenter workshop

By Salma Qamruddin

Female genital cutting (FGC) sounds like a distant and antiquated practice, especially to those living in the US. Americans think FGC happens in remote African villages or in times of yore, but not locally and not now. Unfortunately, this is simply untrue. Sahiyo is an organization dedicated to opening up the conversation around modern FGC practices. Their 3-day workshop, Sahiyo Stories, invited women to break the silence around FGC by transforming each woman’s personal FGC story into a short film. These are my experiences attending Sahiyo Stories…

Unlike many of the other attendees, I am new to the sphere of activism. Although I’m just beginning to speak out against female genital cutting (FGC), Sahiyo Stories was a transformative point in my activism journey because it helped me refine my voice and allowed me to work among some of the trailblazers of FGC activism whose work is genuinely driving social change. From Severina Lem who has traveled the world working to unravel tradition-based cutting practices, to Renee Bergstrom who has created invaluable resources for victims of FGC to get proper medical care, and to Mariya Taher who co-founded Sahiyo with the goal of dismantling the practice through storytelling, every woman I met amazed me with their confidence and drive.

Though these accomplished women came from all places and all walks of life, our connection to one another was sparked almost immediately. Because we had to open our hearts to discuss such a personal subject matter, we all had to let our guard down by design. All of us carried trauma that few other people could relate to; it was refreshing to finally be in a room where everyone genuinely understood the pains we’d all experienced. From strangers to sisters, the respect and love in the workspace was tangible.

While preparing for Sahiyo Stories, I read up on what information was already available on FGC. Sahiyo partnered with a healthcare research firm to identify the biggest challenges facing activists speaking out against female genital cutting (FGC). Reading through the report, I was surprised how closely my journey to activism perfectly aligned with the “standard” journey for most activists. On one hand, I felt validated that I was not alone on my path and that there were others whose struggles were harmonic to mine. However, my story also felt less special. The goal of Sahiyo Stories was supposed to present unique experiences with FGC, but if I am a “cookie cutter” activist, what did I have to say that hadn’t been said? Even though I was not very confident in what my story brought to the table, I decided to share my first “a-ha” moment about FGC; the time when I realized that I had been cut.

IMG_0948
Salma and other participants during Sahiyo Stories Workshop

Despite entering the workshop with some insecurity, the process of putting my story onto paper, editing the script and illustrating the words was cathartic. In order to translate my thoughts into a digital story, I had to boil my experience down to its core and dissect why this story matters to me. It was a process that involved deep reflection. As my story started to come alive, my confidence grew with it. One of the most beautiful moments for me was when speaking with Orchid, a Sahiyo Stories facilitator who believed that, “everyone has the best voice for their own story”. Both Orchid and Amy, the two StoryCenter staff members, had an incredible talent for pulling out the real meaning from a story and empowering us through the process. Even though the subject was heavy, talking through my story with them made my heart feel light.

Though the process of creating digital stories was helpful, the highlight of Sahiyo Stories was the screening of the completed products. We sat together, laughed together, and cried together as we watched the digital stories for the first time. The room was a stirring pot of emotions. As we watched each person speak their truth, we felt their emotions and their pain. Their words resonated with us, not only because we could all relate to FGC, but because the struggles were tied to themes that all humans experience: isolation, grief, family, tradition, and healing. The power of what we had created was instantly recognizable. Being a survivor of FGC is a multi-faceted experience. It affects so much more than just anatomy. Even though all of these stories are tied together by the common thread of FGC, they capture so many different components that no story is alike. Personally, when my story was screened, I felt a rush; it was proof that my voice is unique. It was validation that I, along with every person who has a desire to speak out, has something valuable to offer by sharing their voice.

Overall, Sahiyo Stories served as the catalyst in my personal journey down the road of activism and I’m excited to see what comes next…

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Salma:

SalmaSalma Qamruddin works as a scientist based out of Chicago and is new to the world of activism. She works at calling attention to current FGC activist efforts through digital platforms and serves as the current Social Media Intern for Sahiyo. She hopes that Sahiyo Stories can be a tool that takes us one step closer to an open and honest conversation about the prevalence of cutting in this day and age.

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

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

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

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

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

The first time

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

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

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

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

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

The second time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeling drained after talking about Khatna? Here are some resources that can help

By Priya Ahluwalia

Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. She is currently conducting a research on the individual experience of Khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series – Khatna Research in Mumbai.

As human beings we are trained to react immediately, lessen the magnitude of pain when injured, manage our emotions when overwhelmed. We always initiate a response, however not all actions can be immediately responded to, especially when they are extremely distressing or traumatic. Often they are hidden away by our minds to prevent any major upheaval for us. However, even when hidden, they tend to seep through the cracks, leading to subtle effects such as difficulty falling asleep, distrustfulness, self doubt, among others. But sometimes, a small object, event or even a word can widen the crack, leading to a dam of emotions running out. This process is called re-traumatization. Perhaps the best description of the same would be an object, event or situation which leads to re-experiencing the emotions and physical symptoms that are associated with the initial episode of trauma.

It is essential to acknowledge that all individuals give a similar physical response to trauma, but the psychological response is never the same. For example, we are biologically programmed to give a physical response to pain, such as crying when injured. However, we are culturally conditioned to suppress the psychological pain caused by the injury, which is essentially the case with women who have undergone FGC/Khatna. Although the pain is suppressed, it cannot be avoided because it begins to manifest indirectly. For example, one of the participants, I interviewed for my research reported that although she does not remember anything from the day of her Khatna, she has been terrified of blades ever since then. This is a clear example of unaddressed psychological distress. Thus, irrespective of whether the response to trauma is immediate, delayed, drastic or subtle, all individuals must gain access to resources for assistance.

Therefore, while delving into a topic such as Khatna, which is emotionally charged and traumatic, it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that the effect of re-traumatization is minimized. As cliché as it sounds, listening is perhaps the best therapeutic tool to minimize re-traumatization. Case studies have shown that when victims of trauma are unheard they are more likely to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. Besides listening, providing an open and safe environment, choices, lists of resources and being available post the interview are also known to help. However, it is essential that a sense of independence be encouraged. Therefore survivors must be trained to look out for signs on their own and have a some set of immediate resources be available for themselves.

Some of the signs to look out for:

  1. Sudden and recurring thoughts of an unpleasant event, that may be difficult to control.
  2. Change in sleeping habits: an increase or decrease in the need for sleep, as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
  3. Change in eating habits: an increase or decrease in appetite as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
  4. Difficulty paying attention to an activity at hand, inability to remember information.
  5. Easily irritated.
  6. Not interested in participating in activities which were earlier enjoyable.
  7. Frequent crying spells.
  8. Using negative statements (“I am bad”) while addressing oneself.
  9. Having extremely negative view of the world (“everyone in the world is bad”).
  10. Regular thoughts of death or harming oneself.
  11. Distrust and suspiciousness of those around oneself.
  12. Sense of powerlessness
  13. Increased feeling of fear

Things to do:

  1. Seek out a trusted confidante and talk to them, it will allow you an emotional release as well as provide the support to overcome the current distress you feel.
  2. Arrange your day in a way that allows for at least 1 or 2 activities, such as painting or dancing among others, which give you positive emotions such as happiness. These activities could last from anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, preferably not consecutively organised.
  3. Seek out support in organizations – research has shown that women who choose to speak out about their trauma by joining organizations working against the trauma that they survived are more adept with dealing with their emotions as they are able to gather wider support of individuals with similar experiences.
  4. Perform physical activity which would allow your body to release positive hormones which would assist in overcoming some of the negative emotions you may currently feel.
  5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This can help you to you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.

Steps involved:

  • Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.
  • Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
  • Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  • When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  • Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  • Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
  • It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.

6. Mindfulness Meditation:

Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now, enabling you to be fully engaged in the present moment and thereby reduce our anxiety.

Steps involved:

  • Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
  • Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling.
  • Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and thoughts.
  • Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.

 

Why the new survey on Khafz (Female Genital Cutting) among Bohras is biased and unscientific

By Mariya Taher, MSW, MFA

Last week, many Dawoodi Bohras around the world received the link to an online “research” survey with questions about Khatna/Khafz practiced in the community. Khafz refers to cutting a portion of a girl’s clitoral hood – a type of Female Genital Cutting – and this new online survey by Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T and Dr. Rakhee K claims that it aims to get feedback from Dawoodi Bohra women and men about the practice. (Link to survey is here).

As someone who has gone through the process of designing multiple research studies, I can confidently say that this latest survey on Khatna/Khafz in the Bohra community is neither a safe nor an unbiased tool for conducting proper research on female genital cutting. Other academic researchers who reviewed the Khafz survey have also pointed this out. For example, Usha Tummala-Narra, Ph.D., an associate Professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College, states:

The questions are strangely worded, and implicitly and explicitly suggest that the practice is not mutilation or traumatic. There are also no questions related to girls’ or women’s experiences of the practice. We can’t really know much about the definition of khatna/khafz without asking about the experience and its effects over time.”

While Karen A. McDonnell, an Associate Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Prevention and Community Health at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, states:

“Overall this survey presents itself as a feedback mechanism from Dawoodi Bohras about female circumcision. Taking the perspective of someone trained in objective survey development in psychology and public health, the survey actually reads in its entirety, not as a feedback, but rather as a tool for marketing a perspective. As the survey proceeds, the tenor of the questions increase in a lack of objectivity and a central cause/message is quite clear and the respondent is made to feel manipulated.” 

While all research has its limitations, the design of this questionnaire suggests that it clearly was NOT created and sent out into the world to collect empirical unbiased research on the practice FGC/Khatna/Khafz. Instead, the bias and manner of wording of this survey tool express that the authors (Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T & Dr. Rakhee K) are seeking responses that will justify their motives to prove that Female Genital Cutting (FGC) does not harm girls.

Which makes me wonder, was this research tool (the survey) even vetted before the study’s implementation?

In 2008, because of my increasing passion to end violence against women, I choose to craft and carry out research for my Master of Social Work thesis on “Understanding the Continuation of Female Genital Cutting Amongst the Dawoodi Bohras in the United States.” The issue had been in the recesses of my mind for years and I wanted to learn how a practice that involves cutting the sexual organs of a young girl could ever have been deemed a religious or cultural practice. I wanted to understand how the issue of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) could continue generation after generation without question, because if I could understand this reasoning, then I could better understand why FGC had been done to me at the age of seven.

As a graduate student, my thesis advisors walked me through every step of the research process, from consulting references and existing studies, to contacting other academics and experts who had studied FGC. In the end, I carried out an exploratory study and crafted questions that could be used to conduct ethnographic interviews. Ethnographic interviewing is a type of qualitative research that combines immersive observation and directed one-on-one interviews. In order to draft the questions, I consulted questions used in previous studies by other researchers. My thesis advisors reviewed the questions, and the San Francisco State University’s Institutional Review Board examined my question to ensure there was no hidden bias in the wording of my questions that could lead participants to answer one way or the other.

Having been through the process once, and understanding the importance of having multiple individuals review your questions for hidden biases, years later, I went through a similar process when Sahiyo designed its study on Khatna among Dawoodi Bohra women. Prior to engaging Bohra women for the study, our research tool (the survey) was vetted by many NGOs and expert researchers.  

If this newest Khafz questionnaire by Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T & Dr. Rakhee K had been vetted by other individuals and institutions, it would have recognized the following problems well before releasing the study to the public.

intro.JPG1) Participant consent

Prior to filling out a study, it is important that participants are informed of the study’s intention and are able to sign a consent form acknowledging that they understand the study’s purpose and are giving their permission for the findings to be used in a study’s report. The new Khafz -survey does not have a consent form that does such. [See Screenshot to the left]. In fact, the purpose of this survey is misleading to the reader. There is no mention of how the respondents are being recruited and if their responses will be anonymous or even held in confidence and in essence violates a respondents rights as a participant.

2) Confidentiality

The new Khafz survey form requires participants to provide information that will NOT allow their information to remain private. The study requires that participants add their Community ID (ITS52/Ejamaat) Number. As reported in Mumbai Mirror, the ITS number keeps track of a Dawoodi Bohra’s personal details, including the number of times a person visits the mosque. By requiring an individual to enter this information, already the researchers have directly violated a person’s right to privacy. The question also limits respondents to only those who have signed up for such an ITS number. This, therefore, rules out the participation of many individuals born into the Bohra community or to a Bohra parent who may not have signed up for the ITS card for a variety of reasons, but who have had to undergo FGC as children because of a decision made by a family member or community member.

The mandatory requirement of disclosing one’s ITS number can also discourage an individual from filling out the survey for fear of backlash from the religious community for disagreeing with the practice of Khafz Such backlash occurs on a regular basis against advocates speaking against FGC as can be viewed on Sahiyo’s social media accounts. (See Sahiyo Activist Needs Assessment to learn more about the challenges individuals face when they speak in opposition to FGC).

3) Biased questions Khafz survey Q2

Besides the problematic ITS number, the wording of subsequent questions on the new Khafz survey is biased and considered to be leading questions that prompt survey respondents to answer in a specific manner.  Khafz survey Q5

For instance, Questions 2, 5, 9, and 10 make assumptions about religious freedom, media, and activists, rather than posing the questions and response choices in a more neutral, open-ended form.

Khafz survey Q9n10

Questions 12 and 13 are perfect examples of problematic, leading questions: Question 12 Khafz survey Q1213offers a definition of the word “mutilation” without any context to why the word is being asked. Question #13 then frames the question in a manner that can minimize or under report a participant’s level of distress associated with khatna/khafz, and also automatically suggests to the participant that the practice is not mutilation. 

Question 14 is confusing for another reason. The introductory paragraph by the researchers suggests that male participants can take part in the study, however, Question 14 is written and geared towards female participants who undergo Khatna/khafz. Khafz survey Q14Yet, because of the asterisk (*), the question is mandatory for all respondents, meaning men would have to submit a response to Question #14. This inclusion of information would automatically invalidate the data collected as men have NOT gone through khafz. The wording of the question also infers that all Dawoodi Bohra women have undergone khatna/khafz, which, from anecdotal reports and previous research on FGC in the Bohra community, we recognize is not the case. In fact, we do see a trend in the Bohra community of people wanting to give up the practice on future generations of girls. Yet, the survey makes no mention of this trend or suggests that it is even an option amongst survey respondents.

Overall, the Khafz/Khatna study is problematic for an entire milieu of reasons, not only the ones I have listed here. However, as a researcher, a social worker, and a woman who has undergone FGC because I was born into the Bohra community, what saddens me the most about this survey is that it is yet another attempt to discredit and disbelieve the numerous women and girls who have spoken up and stated that FGC was harmful to them. These women have spoken up for no other reason than to be believed, and instead of comforting them, the researchers of this new Khfaz/Khatna questionnaire are trying to silence them.

We did a project on FGC in college and learned our Bohra Classmates had undergone it too

By Rachael Alphonso, Green Madcaps

City: Mumbai, India

I’m no fan of Vogue, so I was wondering what the face of a pretty African model, Waris Dirie, was doing on the cover of my favourite Reader’s Digest. ‘Desert Flower’, the title said. Her photo betrayed no sign of what she had suffered in her childhood – Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

‘Circumcision’ – wasn’t it something only men had to undergo? How was it physically possible for women? And why? Having read the Bible and references to the Torah, I had never found any reference to women needing circumcision. So what was this all about?

I read the article, “….a sharp stone…I felt the sting…my flesh was being torn away…no anaesthetic….” I couldn’t imagine the pain!

Had it not been the Reader’s Digest, I would not have believed it! Because of her ‘circumcision’, menstruation for Waris was utterly painful. She could not have a steady flow which resulted in painful cramps. Soon, she was married to a man a few decades her senior who would have to tear open the skin over his wife’s vagina to be able to penetrate her during sex. Childbirth would be worse.

I was stunned reading about it, and when my group in college was asked to do a project I was quick to gain support from my group to investigate this topic. We began our research. Our discussions and debates within the group, despite all efforts, became one-sided simply because we believed that nothing ever could justify the genital mutilation that Waris or any other girl suffered as a result of the circumcision. We could not find any medical or rational evidence that supported the idea.

But the perpetrators of FGM continued to say it was done for the ‘benefit’ of the women and that women’s sexuality needed to be tamed. Men ‘simply fell for it’ [sex], and men could not control themselves, so women had to be controlled. We found this argument had taken different forms in different cultures, emerging into practices that control women and make them believe they are nothing more than their sexual organs, nothing more than a womb that bears children.

We presented this topic to the rest of our class, and were proud of ourselves for doing so. Unconsciously, we also believed we were less affected by FGM because we also believed FGM could not happen in India.

We were wrong.

After our presentation we learned that many of our classmates were victims of ‘khatna’– a practice by which a piece of the clitoral hood is removed. Our classmate told us that the reason given by her religious leaders was that if a woman found pleasure in her sexual organs she would go on a rampant sexual orgy with anybody. Her sexual urges needed to be controlled so her morality was ensured. Their justification for khatna was also aligned with their belief that because men cannot control their sexual urges, women must remain covered and ‘decently’ dressed.

The classmate who spoke of her own khatna and her cousin’s ‘khatna’ revealed that when they experience sex, they most likely would not be able to experience the clitoral orgasmand/or sex would seem slightly sensitive, but that’s all in terms of ill effects.

She also informed us that nowadays, painkillers are used, and the procedure is done by a qualified medical professional. My group realized that she was made to believe that khatna was good for her, the harm nonexistent, as long as the cutting was done using the correct instruments and anesthetics.Later, we realized that many women may be traumatized by their experience but they are unable to speak about it, because they may not recognize they have a right to do so

While Nigeria banned FGM in early 2016 – something that my presentation group and I heralded as a great move – we also learned that the Bohra leaders in India announced ‘khatna’ as a necessary part of their religion. The leaders claim it was meant for cleanliness, but to me, it is clear that the clitoris is in no need of surgical manipulation for cleanliness. What I find most interesting is that these ‘rules’ and ‘announcements’ were made by men (as the Bohra religious authorities are all men) who themselves do not possess a vagina and know little about the care of one.

Millions of women have survived without undergoing khatna. My friends and I are among them. Then why are my Bohra sisters forced to believe otherwise? Who made these rules? Does the rule-maker have a vagina?

(The original article appears on Green Madcap’s blog.)

Rachael Alphonso is a life-long learner, a feminist and an environmentalist.

My inner healing at Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat in the U.S.

By Anonymous

Country: United States
Age: 34

To be honest, it was hard for me to make the decision to go to the Sahiyo Activist Retreat earlier this year. I grew up in the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, and having had my share of challenges with the community that involved threats to my family, I felt like I didn’t have the courage within me to start another battle that involved me fighting against FGM/khatna. But I knew deep down inside that none of my battles with my community had ever ended, and if I stopped speaking up now, another girl somewhere else would have to suffer like me.

I have been away from India for the last 7 years, and it took a retreat like this one for me to realise that I had not interacted with a single person from within the Bohra community here in the US since I moved here, and how much I had missed that. My only experiences of being with other Bohra women was in India, either at a religious prayer service or ceremony or at a Bohra women’s ‘meneej’ (kitty party) group that I was forced into by my mother and friends. I had never had an opportunity to be in a room full of Bohra women, where we could have an open, honest and authentic discussion about the challenges women faced in the community, and identify ways we could empower each other, stand up against the injustices done to us, and fight for change within the community. The Sahiyo Activist Retreat allowed for that and much more.  

Copy of IMG_3846

Since most of my experiences were in India, I was keen on learning about how the community functioned here. And through my very first interactions and impressions, I knew that it was no different here and that the community was as strict, perhaps even more here than in India. It was also clear from the start that every single woman present in the room including myself, had shared hopes from the retreat; to find a space where we could openly share our FGM /khatna stories, to build a strong support group, to gain knowledge and tools to confidently speak up against FGM/khatna, and most importantly, to find a space to heal.

The agenda for the two-day workshop was packed but allowed enough time for us to bond with each other, and my healing began almost immediately. The workshop had a bottom-up approach, wherein each participant got to share their stories and all the work that they had already been doing to end FGM/ khatna in the community. The sessions that followed helped us further our knowledge and understanding of FGM/Khatna by providing us with in-depth studies and evaluations, effective communication tools, and defining ways to support activists inside and outside the community worldwide.

The discussion that stood out for me the most was the one that focused on community and survivor-led movements, and the importance of having Bohra men and women from within the community fighting to end FGM/khatna. I have always believed that for any change to truly take place, all the effort and groundwork needs to happen by individuals who represent the community, who understand the systems, history, culture, and nuances of the community, and that means each one of us Bohra men and women. If we want to end FGM/Khatna, each one of us needs to take leadership and ownership of this problem. Men need to become allies for women, and women need to become allies for other women in the community.

Copy of IMG_3784Through breakout sessions and one-on-one conversations, we came up with action plans and ways in which each one of us could contribute to this movement. And of course there were informal post-dinner ramblings, debates and heated discussions on FGM/khatna, and many other women’s issues faced by us in the community.

Three months later, I sit with this fire within me that began during the retreat. I find myself more at ease when talking about FGM/khatna with friends and work colleagues. I still haven’t been able to openly talk about it, for I fear the backlash my parents will face in the community in India, but I’m confident that that will also change someday. I am now helping coordinate logistics for a storytelling workshop that will educate and empower 8 women participants to become powerful and effective storytellers. I am also excited to organize a ‘thaal pe charcha event during the summer with the hope to bring both, women and men, to have an informal dialogue about FGM/khatna, and learn from the findings provided by Sahiyo.

Lastly, my inner healing that began during the retreat continues to change me in positive ways. It is allowing me to let go of my past, and channel my energy to be a better activist, to not dwell in self-pity, but to become a strong ally and force of change within the community.

Want to help end Female Genital Cutting? Vote for Sahiyo in the Shared Nation Contest

Shared Nation is an online community of global citizens designed to allow people around the world to join forces and combine their money, time, and wisdom to identify and accelerate the best solutions to our world’s biggest problems.

This month, nominated by Jonathan Payne, Sahiyo will be one of the projects participating in the May 2018 contest to be voted on to receive the digital community’s combined funds. Each month, general voting takes place for the first three weeks of the month, and in the final week of the month, a winner is selected from eight quarter-finalists.

What’s great about Shared Nation is that every participating project will be offered a small percentage of the pooled Shared Nation funds for taking part, but one lucky organization receives the vast majority of the funds.

If you would like to help Sahiyo become the May 2018 Winner, sign up for Shared Nation and vote today!

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