Detroit arrest: It is time for Bohras to get serious about ending Female Genital Cutting

Sahiyo is shocked and truly saddened by the news that a Bohra doctor in Detroit, USA, has been arrested on charges of performing Female Genital Cutting (FGC) on minor girls in the community. While the allegations in this particular case are yet to be proven, we believe it is a serious breach of medical ethics for any doctor to perform this non-medical procedure that is categorically recognised as a form of gender-based violence and a violation of human and child rights. In countries like the USA where FGC is a criminal offence, we believe that parents, too, cannot be absolved of the responsibility to follow the law.

In the light of this Detroit case, Sahiyo would like to call on the entire Bohra community to make a concerted effort to bring an end to this unnecessary and potentially harmful tradition. We believe it is also imperative for the community leadership to call for a clear, unambiguous, world-wide end to the practice of khatna, khafz or female genital cutting.

What is the Detroit case all about?

On April 13, 2017, a Detroit emergency room doctor was arrested and charged with performing FGC on minor girls in the United States. This is believed to be the first time someone was brought up on charges under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGC. According to the U.S. Federal complaint, Jumana Nagarwala, M.D., 44, of Northville, Michigan performed FGC on 6 to 8 year old girls out of a medical office in Livonia, Michigan. Some of these girls’ families reportedly traveled inter-state to have the doctor perform FGC. At this time, the complaint is merely an allegation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The federal complaint states that phone call records and surveillance video show that in February 2017, two Minnesota girls and their parents came to Detroit for a “special girls trip”. They stayed at a hotel in Farmington Hills and ended up visiting Nagarwala, thinking they were seeing the doctor because their “tummies hurt”. Instead, the girls underwent FGC. The complaint also indicates that other children, including children in Detroit, might have undergone FGC by Nagarwala between 2006 and 2007. To see the official press release, click here.

Bohras have been aware that FGC is illegal in USA

Among Bohras, khatna or khafz, involves cutting a part of the clitoral hood or prepuce of a 7-year-old girl. Many Bohras have argued that this mild, ritual “nick” is not the same as the supposedly “African” practice of FGM, which can involve severe cutting of the clitoris and labia (classified by the World Health Organisation as Types II and III of FGM/C).

However, the Bohra form of khatna very definitively falls under Type I FGM/C, for a good reason. However “mild”, khatna still involves the cutting and altering of female genitals for non-medical reasons. No health benefits of the practice have been recorded, and in fact several Bohra women have been increasingly speaking up about the negative physical, emotional and sexual consequences they have faced.

For the past one and a half years, particularly after three Bohras in Australia were convicted under the country’s anti-FGM laws, there has been increasing awareness in the community about the fact that khatna is considered a violation of human rights by the United Nations. In countries where the practice is illegal, including the US, UK, Australia, Canada and other parts of Europe, Bohra jamaats have themselves issued clear resolution letters, asking community members not to practice khatna or khafz on girls anymore.

In fact, the Detroit jamaat issued such a resolution letter to all its members on May 11, 2016.

So despite all this awareness, why are some Bohras — like the parents of the girls in Minnesota — still choosing to break the law and subject their daughters to FGC?

A deeply-entrenched social norm

The main reason, according to Sahiyo, is that female genital cutting is a deeply-entrenched social and cultural norm for Bohras and all other communities practicing the ritual. A variety of reasons, often contradictory, are cited for following the practice: many say that khatna curbs a girl’s sexual desire and prevents promiscuity, some claim that cutting the clitoral hood enhances sexual pleasure, others claim it is done for hygiene or health.

However, a recent online survey conducted by Sahiyo found that among Bohra women, the most common reason cited for khatna is “religious purposes” or tradition: most people simply continue the practice without questioning, because they believe it is a necessary cultural requirement.

Sahiyo is concerned that these beliefs might be getting compounded by certain mixed messages conveyed by the community leadership.

In April 2016, even as several Bohra jamaats were issuing resolution letters against khatna, community leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin covertly endorsed the practice during a public sermon in India without mentioning the word khatna. He said that “the act” must be done discreetly for girls irrespective of what people say.

Then in June 2016, the Syedna issued a statement to clarify his official stand on khatna. It stated that the resolution letters issued in various international jamaats were still valid for Bohras living in those nations. However, in the same statement, Syedna also endorsed khatna as a “religious obligation” necessary for “religious purity”. These ambiguous messages can be confusing to community members who may then be caught between abiding by the laws of their land and abiding by their leader’s wishes.  

Sahiyo therefore strongly urges the community leadership to unequivocally and unambiguously ask all Bohras across the world to now stop the practice of khatna for girls.

A law is not enough

Overcoming deeply-ingrained social norms like FGC is difficult, but not impossible. Sahiyo recognizes that laws are important to help reinforce that a particular practice is against human rights. However, we also recognize that to truly find sustainable change within a community and to end this form of violence, we must seek ways to change mindsets around this social norm.

First, it is important to recognize that FGC occurs to women and girls coming from all kinds of different backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, country. FGC does not just happen to girls in small villages in Africa as is often mistakenly believed. The US State Department recently came out with a video highlighting American Survivors of FGC to counter this misconception (See American Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Speak Out). In fact, up until the 1950s, clitoridectomy was performed by physicians in the US and in Europe to treat hysteria and mental illness.

It is also important to empower civil society activists and organizations working to end FGC around the globe. Today there is a lack of resources dedicated to preventing FGC in all parts of the world. Sahiyo is working to bring awareness to the fact that FGC occurs in several Asian communities, and has even launched a petition urging the UN to invest in more research and support to survivors from these backgrounds, particularly since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (Goal #5) call for an end to FGC by 2030.

To truly end FGC, we need to educate the general community and collectively let go of this ancient and unnecessary practice. It is heartbreaking that the girls in Minnesota, those in Australia and several other Bohra girls have been subjected to khatna. However, we hope that the indictment of the doctor in Detroit will lead to more awareness and education about the need to end FGC both within the community and globally.