Is the Dawoodi Bohra community truly as progressive as it claims to be?

By Saleha

Country of Residence: Canada
Age: 45

Having lived in South-East Asia, and being exposed to multiple races and cultures, I grew up in a very open-minded family. As a child, my family and I occasionally went to the local Bohra mosque to socialize with others in the community. I loved going to the “masjid” – there I got a chance to meet my best friend and also eat delicious Bohri food. It was wonderful to see all the aunties dressed up in “onna ghagra” which are colourful skirts with matching chiffon scarves draped around the head. After the prayers, everyone congregated outside and chatted into the late hours of the night.

Then suddenly in the early 90s it all changed. The upper echelons of the Bohra clergy instated new rules. The progressive Dawoodi Bohras were no more; instead, women were forced to wear a form of hijab called “rida” and men were made to sport a beard, wear a kurta, and “topi” or a cap on their heads. The clergy, headed by the Syedna, began to exert control over everything. Permission from Syedna was required not only for religious matters but in daily life as well. For example, permission was needed to start a business, get married or even to be buried. Female Genital Cutting or khatna was deemed necessary, even though that act of it is not prescribed in the Koran. If any of the rules were not followed, or if you protested and spoke against them, you were excommunicated or threatened to be. You’d lose all your ties to friends and family forever.

I can never forget the awful day, when I was seven, while on a holiday in India, my aunt asked me to go shopping with her. She took me to a dingy place where a Bohri man and woman took me inside. They asked me to undress waist down, and when I protested, the man held my hands while the woman removed my jeans and underwear and forced me to lie down. I saw the man take out a blade and I struggled and screamed for help, while they proceeded to cut me. I lay bleeding on the floor, unable to comprehend what had happened to me. It was horrific, painful, and demeaning. I hated what was done to me. I hated that my mom was not there. I was angry at my aunt for allowing them to hurt me.

I remember that experience vividly and to this day I am infuriated that I had to go through this ordeal as a child in the name of religion. While the majority of the Muslim communities around the world have spoken against this, the Dawoodi Bohra religious authorities urge continuing FGC under the guise of cleanliness. The worst part is that some women push this practise on vulnerable children too young to give consent, instead of protecting them as adults should.

It was a difficult time for me. Having grown up with all the freedom in the world, it was  suddenly being taken away from me and I grew cynical of my Bohra culture and wanted no part of it. Today, I am happy I decided to leave the fold. It was not hard to leave. In fact, it was liberating. I was not comfortable with the more rigorous path that my community was taking. I am sure there are many other Bohri people out there who are quietly questioning many of the beliefs handed down to them – some so silly, useless, and others very damaging – Bohris must refrain from using Western toilets; Bohris cannot host or attend wedding functions in secular, non-Bohra venues; brides can apply mehndi only an inch below the wrist and cannot hold the traditional “haldi” functions; and all Bohris must carry a RFID photo ID which will monitor attendance to the mosque.

Humanity has achieved such remarkable progress. We have ventured into space, developed cloning and gene editing technologies, and most importantly, the Internet has resulted in globalization and interconnection between various cultures and communities. In this light, I wonder why we are still talking about FGC and the right to choose to do it to our daughters in this day and age? I am thankful that organizations like Sahiyo and We Speak Out have become a voice for children who are being hurt in the name of religion.

I look at my children and I see the most informed, connected, and progressive generation. Imposing impractical, harmful religious rules such as continuing FGM on such a generation will only drive them further from our culture. More and more Bohri women and men are speaking out against this harmful practise because whenever religion becomes too rigid, too corrupt, it begins to crack. My hope is that our community can find the strength to break free from all the rigid practices and once again become the most progressive community among the Muslims.

Building the data on Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra Community

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the findings of the first ever large scale global study on Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra community in order to gain insight into how and why this harmful practice continued. A year later, this February 2018 saw the release of a second large-scale research study entitled “The Clitoral Hood – A Contested Site”, conducted by Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shabana Diler and Natasha Menon in collaboration with WeSpeakOut and Nari Samata Manch. The study explored the practice of FGM/C in the Bohra community specifically in India and added findings about the sexual impact of FGC on Bohra women. Substantial overlap between the two studies can be found and parallels can be drawn.

Firstly, both studies explored the type of FGM/C that was carried out on the participants. The study by Sahiyo discovered that out of the 109 participants who were aware of the procedure that was carried out on them, 23 reported having undergone Type 1a – the removal of the clitoral hood. Research carried out by Anantnarayan et. al. found that although proponents of FGM/C in India claim that Bohras only practice Type 1a and Type 4 FGM/C (pricking, piercing or cauterization of the clitoral hood), participants reported that both Types 1a and 1b (partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or clitoral hood) are most often practiced.

Sahiyo and Anantnarayan et. al. both found that the majority of participants had undergone FGM/C and therefore, among both samples, FGM/C was widely practiced. Sahiyo found that 80% of 385 female participants had undergone the practice, whereas Anantnarayan et. al. found that of the 83 female participants in the study, 75% reported that their daughters had undergone FGC. Both studies found that FGM/C was performed at around the age of seven.

The impact of FGM/C on participants was also reported to be similar among participants of both studies. In exploring this further, Anantnarayan et. al. found that 97% of participants remembered FGM/C as a painful experience. Participants who had undergone the practice reported painful urination, physical discomfort, difficulty walking, and bleeding to be the immediate effects after having undergone FGM/C. In the long-term, some women reported that they suffered from recurring Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and incontinence, which they suspect could be linked to their khatna.

Both studies also explored the effect of FGM/C on participants’ sex lives. Anantnarayan et. al. found that approximately 33% of participants believe that FGM/C has negatively impacted their sex life. Similarly, Sahiyo reported findings of 35% of participants who believed that FGM/C has negatively impacted their sex lives. Some of the problems identified by several participants included low sex drive, the inability to feel sexual pleasure, difficulty trusting sexual partners, and over-sensitivity in the clitoral area.

Physical consequences of FGM/C in both studies also revealed psychological consequences. Similar to Sahiyo’s findings, Anantnarayan et. al. found that many participants reported feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, anger, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting people as some of the psychological repercussions of their FGM/C experience. Sahiyo found that 48% of participants in their study reported that FGM/C had left them with a lasting psychological impact.

Both Sahiyo and Anantnarayan et. al. also explored the main reasons for the the continuation of FGM/C within the Bohra community. Several common reasons were found, including the continuation of an old traditional practice, the adherence to religious edicts, and to control women’s promiscuity and sexual behaviour.

Interestingly, Sahiyo’s study found that 80% of women had earned at least a Bachelor’s degree, no relationship could be determined between education level and having undergone FGC. Meanwhile, the study by Anantnarayan et. al found that a strong connection existed between a mother’s education level and her decision to continue FGC on her daughter.

Sahiyo’s study, however, did note that more important than education level was the question of a person’s ideological preference (stated religion) as it might influence a person’s decision to continue FGC on their daughter. In fact, Sahiyo’s survey found that those who were most likely to continue ‘khatna’ were also more likely to still identify as Dawoodi Bohra in their adult life. Anantnarayan et. al also determined that the more diverse personal networks and economic independence from the Bohra religious community a woman had, the more likely they were to discontinue FGM/C and renounce it.

Finally, both studies examined the relationship between men and the decision/involvement for a girl to undergo FGC. Both studies did allude to the idea that the decision leading to a girl undergoing FGM/C may not strictly be confined to women. Sahiyo’s study revealed that 72% of respondents believed that men were aware of the practice, but only 27% believed that men were told of the practice when the girl underwent it in their family. Anantnarayan et. al. concluded that men played an integral role in the maintenance and propagation of the practice, both at the personal and political level, whether passively or more actively. However, Sahiyo’s data collection was completed in 2016, prior to the large-scale movement to end FGC in the Bohra community. The last few years have shown that with an increase in awareness of FGC amongst the public, Bohra men’s own knowledge of FGC has also naturally increased, and thus the traditional idea that men are unaware of FGC may in fact be changing with the current generation, as pointed out by Anantnarayan et. al.


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

By: Anonymous

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

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

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

All was done.

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

After a few days, I forgot about the incident.

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

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

A Kenyan Woman’s Take on FGM/FGC in the Bohra Community

By Zarina Patel

Country of Residence: Kenya    

Age: 81 years

I only very recently heard a fleeting mention of FGM being practiced in the Bohra Community in my country, Kenya. It was in a group conversation where I was adamantly protesting against the FGM still being inflicted on Kenyan women in spite of it being an illegal procedure in Kenyan law since 2011.

It was my first time to hear the word ‘khatna’. Though I am a Bohra thankfully my late parents did not subject me to it. And so hush-hush is this ritual that my subsequent enquiries bore no fruit. But in the process, I came across SAHIYO – a windfall.

FGM or FGC, extensive or minimal, is today recognized by the United Nations as a human rights violation and is one of many manifestations of gender inequality. To drag an innocent young girl child into a dark room and forcefully inflict this wound on her body; subject her to excruciating pain and most probably tell her never to speak about it as if she has committed a crime – surely this is unacceptable by any standard of human behaviour. I think any caring and ethical person will agree that it is a violation.

I am interested in looking at some of the more analytical aspects of FGM in our community.

First of all, I cannot help wondering why male circumcision is an event celebrated with much feasting and publicity, while its female equivalent is often done so secretively and in such isolation. The only reason I can think of is that those who perform, or arrange for, this latter act know that it is both criminal and unjustifiable and that no young girl would agree to it if asked.

Male circumcision is performed to remove the foreskin of the male organ and in this day of HIV infections male circumcision has proved to be highly beneficial; even men in our Luo community (which is often referred to as the community of the uncircumcised) are embarking on it. The World Health Organization states ‘compelling evidence’ in support of this. There are no proven health benefits for FGC.

Often, female circumcision is performed to reduce, if not eliminate the sexual ‘urge’. There are those who claim the opposite – that FGM enhances sexual pleasure because you are exposing the clitoris even more so, but this assertion cannot stand up to scientific reasoning. Can there be a better example of patriarchal domination and discrimination? And please note, the clitoris is one of the centres of sexual pleasure, NOT the urge which precedes the act. The urge is the result of the hormones racing through our bodies which the Almighty created.

I would earnestly request my sisters, and the concerned menfolk, to give some serious thought to the practice of FGM/FGC and not to blindly follow some religious or traditional edict. After all, even in Islam directives made some 1400 years ago are being reviewed: Examples are the attainment of talak (divorce) by just three utterances (by the husband of course!) being made unlawful and the conditions for marrying  four wives being made almost impossible to fulfil.

And lastly do keep in mind that the practice of FGM is much older than Islam, it was already prevalent in the time of the Prophet Abraham. And it is not only Muslims who practice it; several one-time animist and now largely Christian ethnic communities also inflict this violation on their women. FGM is practiced in 30 countries in the world. One of the major propaganda tools used by our founding Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta, in his struggle against British colonialism was to urge his people to resist the order of the white Christian missionaries and the colonial officers for the banning of female circumcision. In those historical times the order was viewed as a form of cultural imperialism.

In one of the videos available on the SAHIYO site, a woman who performs this vile act claims, when asked the purpose of this procedure, that it promotes moral behaviour. She actually states that the Bohra community has a much lower incidence of extra marital sex and adultery by women compared to other communities in India. Really? Has she carried out a survey, done the required research on this topic? Has anyone for that matter? It would certainly be a very interesting study but almost impossible in my reckoning – which woman is going to admit to a researcher (or anyone) that she is sexually ‘free’?

I do hope that we are well past the age of just believing when we now have the educational tools to analyse issues and understand the processes. Is it not Islam of all religions that urges its followers to search for enlightenment even if it means travelling to the ends of the earth?



Sahiyo welcomes the new WHO guidelines to improve care for millions living with female genital cutting

The new World Health Organisation guidelines released at the Women Deliver conference, 2016, in Copenhagen is a huge win for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting activists worldwide. Sahiyo is cheering on too!

The guidelines, while defining the practice of various types of FGC, has finally put Asia and Middle East on the map of areas affected along with Africa. As the guidelines state:

‘International migration has now made the practice, prevalent in 30 countries in Africa and in a few countries in Asia and the Middle East, a global health issue.’

Stressing on the need for health care, the guidelines aim to empower health workers acknowledging the crucial role they play, while also acknowledging the gap between health workers’ training and the knowledge of how to tackle the health complications of FGC. 

As the report states, “Access to the right information and good training can help prevent new cases and ensure that the millions of women who have undergone FGM get the help they need.”

Another great aspect touched upon by the guidelines is so called “medicalization” of the practice of FGC – parents asking medical doctors to perform genital cutting because they think it will be less harmful. This is a phenomenon that we, at Sahiyo, have often observed among those who seek to justify Khatna. Several Bohras, particularly in urban spaces, now approach gynaecologists or other doctors within the community to have their daughters cut, and as the WHO guidelines point out, getting healthcare workers to stop participating in this practice is a big challenge. 

The guidelines have highlighted the need for evidence-based practice and creation of protocols and manuals including ‘what to do when faced with requests from parents or family members to perform FGM on girls’.

Some of the focus areas in the report include:

  • Mental health including cognitive behavioral therapy and psychological support to treat depression and anxiety disorders
  • Female sexual health covering sexual counselling to prevent or treat female sexual dysfunction
  • Information and education for all women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation, and health education and information on de-infibulation, where appropriate, for both health-care providers and for women and girls

In conclusion, this is a great set of guidelines incorporating Asia and Middle East and incisively addressing pseudo-scientific practices that often come in the way of dealing with problems that may arise from FGC. It is also significant that the guidelines make a specific mention on the effect of FGC on mental health, since that is a ground much need to be covered by FGC activists and counselors, and is particularly relevant in the context of khatna as practiced by the Bohras.

Read the full WHO report here.