Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Work of the devil?

By: Koen Van den Brande
Age: 56

Country: India

I rarely speak of the devil.

In Germany they have a saying:

Du sollst den Teufel nicht an die Wand mahlen
Literally this translates to ‘Don’t paint a picture of the devil on the wall’.

Loosely translated it means that you should not invite evil by talking about it.

But maybe there are times we have a duty to alert others to the devil’s work.

What I mean by that is not that anyone in particular is a devil but rather that maybe at times the devil has a hand in misleading people.

My efforts to get to the bottom of the origins of the practice of ‘khatna’ – what the rest of the world calls ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ (FGM) – in the Suleimani community, recently led me to the inevitable conclusion that the devil has had a hand in twisting the words of the Prophet PBUH, to mean the opposite of what He was saying.

My attention was drawn to some research carried out by learned members of the Muslim community. Let me present the facts to you so that you may come to your own conclusion.

Early on in my own research I came across a Hadith – a reported saying of the Prophet – which was being quoted as evidence of tacit approval of this ancient practice, which predated Islam and may have been initiated in the distant past to subdue the sexual urges of female slaves.

My discussions with members of the Suleimani community had made it clear that the Daim-ul-Islam is the rulebook to which many show an unquestioning allegiance.

Of course such blind faith can have dire consequences. The Daim-ul-Islam does indeed refer to the Hadith in question. Following is an extract from a paper published on www.alislam.org, with the title ‘Female circumcision and its standing in Islamic law’.

Al Islam quote

But it turns out this is not the full Hadith.

In full, the Hadith seems to leave little doubt as to where the Prophet stood on this matter. The authors of the report quote from Al-Kafi, a respected Shiite book of traditions.

Koen article quote

Was the Prophet endorsing, encouraging or even mandating that women should be cut?

Or was he signaling his disapproval and in the face of a long-established tradition, trying to limit the harm done to women? Given what he says, is it correct to claim, as some do, that he should have forbidden it, if he really felt it was wrong?  

I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusion.

For me these words of Mohammed, now in full view, are consistent with other issues where he championed the rights of women in the face of a culture which at that time saw no reason to do so.

Who decided to shorten the hadith and to what end? And at which point did a woman who ‘used to circumcise women slaves’ become a woman who ‘used to circumcise girls’? There is a substantive difference is there not?

Just as with the modern day suggestion that Mohammed condoned wife-beating, when in fact he counseled restraint and suggested several alternative ways of resolving marital disputes or the insistence by some on the validity of ‘triple talaq’ divorce, where in fact careful mediation over a period of time is prescribed, one can only conclude that the devil himself has repeatedly sought to undermine the Prophet’s cause as champion of the rights of women!

Today we call this ‘fake news’ and we are learning day by day, how it is used to mislead those who believe without questioning.  

Witness how the young parents of our community are systematically fed disinformation, building on that same principle of blind faith. But blind faith in whom?

I quote from the website www.islamqa.com.

Koen article quote2

Search for the term ‘khatna’ and the following question is addressed, among others:

Koen article quote3

This is how the scene is set:

Koen article quote4

I wonder what a properly qualified medical practitioner would make of some of the advice given.

Koen article quote5

Need I say more ?

How do we tackle such blatant attempts at misleading parents of young girls?

Surely the best strategy must be to focus on facts and truth. So I am attempting to find a consensus across the Suleimani community around the following statement.

“I as a member of the Suleimani Jamaat, in the interest of young parents and their girls, want to reflect what I believe to be the truth about the practice of khatna. 

Fact is …

  1. It is a tradition which predates Islam 
  2. It is not mentioned in the Quran at all 
  3. It is not practiced by all muslims 
  4. It has been declared a crime in several Muslim majority countries 
  5. It is considered a health hazard by the World Health Organization
  6. It is considered a crime against a child by the United Nations

Truth is, in my humble opinion, that the Prophet Mohammed PBUH frowned upon this practice and sought to prevent harm from being done to women.

I believe that these facts should be endorsed by our leadership and communicated to all of the Jamaat ‘s young parents. 

The Daim-ul-islam states that ‘khatna’ is not obligatory and that it should not be performed before a girl is 7-years-old. 

I believe that it would be in line with this rule to recommend to parents that any decision to proceed with this practice should be postponed until the age of consent. 

And in line with the Prophet’s guidance, at a time when it was a more common practice, I believe that when and if it is performed, it must be done symbolically only and cause no harm.”

I hope you can join the effort by endorsing this statement.

And if you cannot, I invite you to propose an alternative.

At least let’s start by banning the use of http://www.isllamqa.com

Let us work together to undo the work of the devil.  

 

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!

 

Why men too must speak out against Khatna

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.

Khatna, by virtue of being related to female anatomy, is often categorized as a women’s issue. However, one must also remember that it is a practice performed on uninformed and unconsenting children. We must move beyond defining it as a child or a woman being violated and look at it as a human being who is being wronged, and therefore the most comprehensive way to describe it would be a human rights violation.

Despite it being a human rights issue, it appears as if not many people are willing to speak up against it, even though all people, especially men, need to do so. Within the structure of the Indian patriarchy, men enjoy power not only by virtue of their gender but also by their sheer number in our country. Therefore men can use their position of power to effectively tilt the weights in favor of women who are speaking against Khatna.

Although, ideally we expect all men to support us in the endeavour to end Khatna,  we should also attempt to understand their hesitancy. Within the Indian patriarchal family structure, the woman is seen as the mistress of the house, in charge of children, while men are seen as masters for all things outside the domain of the house. Therefore any attempt by men to venture into the discussion concerning women’s bodies is seen as ill-mannered and a gross violation of clearly demarcated gender roles.

During my research, I met a father who became aware of Khatna and its consequences because he had daughters and therefore vehemently opposed it. He narrated the daily struggle of convincing his own mother against this practice. However, like many other men before and many after him, he was unsuccessful in dissuading the women in his family from continuing it on his daughter. He was blindsided by his mother and given the blanket argument that she knows better for a woman by virtue of herself being a woman.  

Yet research has shown that with increasing education on khatna, more men are willing to campaign against it. Still, the onus of initiating a conversation on khatna among others lies with the women. Communication between men and women, especially husband and wife, is crucial for the discontinuation of Khatna. A woman I interviewed who had undergone Khatna took this initiative and began a conversation with her husband, which gave her immense strength and helped her protect their daughter from falling into the clutches of tradition. Research too corroborates the same: if more men are are part of the decision making process, the less the likelihood that Khatna would be performed on the girl.

The research linked above shows that men who wish to speak up are held back by their limited knowledge on the effects of Khatna.They are unaware of what is removed and what are its ramifications. The primary reason for this ignorance is the lack of conversations about women and their health among family members. This hesitancy to talk about women in front of men comes from the idea that women are equivalent to the family’s honour, therefore talking about aspects of their sexuality may be seen as a violation, thereby a disgrace to the family’s honour.  However, we must move beyond the archaic concept and understand that creating awareness about the ill effects that Khatna has on a woman’s body in no way defiles a family’s honour. After all, what honour can reside in pain?

Conversations about Khatna must begin, questions must be asked and collaborative measures between men women must be taken to put an end to this practice. There are several ways to oppose this practice. You may choose to speak out or you may to choose to silently protest;  however, if active measures are not taken to resist it, then there is passive consent for the continuation of khatna, and we must understand that every time such consent is given, it means another child is being harmed. Therefore, let us come together for the children and do whatever we can, wherever we can.

To participate in Priya’s research, contact her on priya.tiss.2018@gmail.com

 

Khatna and the law, Part 1: Legislative Framework on Female Genital Cutting in Egypt

By Bhavya Singh

Since the recognition of the presence of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, efforts have been made to eliminate it in these areas. At the international level, elimination of Female Genital Mutilation is a part of Sustainable Development Goal number five, which seeks to achieve gender equality. Organisations like WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA have worked for greater involvement of the international community to advocate against FGC. These efforts include creation or reformation of laws at the national level to counteract the issue. Legislation at the national level, however can be a complex issue as this practice is very deeply entrenched in the social fabric of the communities in which it occurs. Countries which have criminalised FGC continue to face problems, as punishment alone is not enough of a deterrent in a community where FGC is connected to tradition. In other countries, the implementation of the law has not been successful and has not seen prosecutions occuring. Communities themselves have resisted the effort to ban the practice, often arguing with officials who arrest those involved with carrying FGC out.

According to the UN, FGC has reduced by 24% since 2001, however, at the same time if FGM continues at the same pace it currently occurs, around 68 million girls around the world will be affected by it by 2030. Thus legislative efforts have not been effective deterrents in most countries.

To further understand the legislative framework regarding the issue, this blog series will explore the laws in place in countries affected by FGC in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In Africa, FGC is criminalised in 18 of the 28 countries it is reportedly practiced in. Criminalisation is only the first step in ending the problem. This fact is illustrated by the situation in Egypt where a law prohibiting FGC has been in place since 2008, but only two cases regarding FGC related deaths have been reported in the years following. According to 28 Too Many the law in Egypt is mentioned in Article 242-bis and Article 242-bis(A) of Law No. 58 of 1937 promulgating the Penal Code. The penalties for violation of the law include:

  • Article 242-bis – the performance of FGC is punishable with imprisonment for between five and seven years.
  • Article 242-bis – where the performance of FGC results in permanent disability or death, the punishment is increased to ‘aggravated’ imprisonment for between three and fifteen years.
  • Article 242-bis(A) – anyone who requests FGC is punishable with imprisonment from one to three years if the mutilation is carried out.

In 2016, an amendment upgraded the performance of FGC from misdemeanour to felony. Where a charge of misdemeanour earlier meant a penalty ranging from three months to five years, it now ranges from five to seven years. The provisions of the previous law had gaping holes, including exempting genital injuries with sufficient medical justification. As a result, FGC moved from hidden corners into medical hands. According to 28 Too Many, 78.4% of incidences of FGC are done my health professionals. The widely covered death of Soheir al-Batea brought this issue to light. A thirteen-year-old, she died at the hands of Dr. Raslan Fadl who performed the procedure. What is surprising here is the fact that despite existence of the law against FGC since 2008, Dr. Fadl is the only health professional to have been implicated for the crime. (See ‘A Small Nick or Cut, they say…’ by Priya Goswami)

This, more than anything, makes it clear that the existence of law is not enough to end FGC The need to conform to societal norms is so strong that people are ready to break the law for its sake. Also, in many communities, honour and pride are strongly associated with notions of women’s purity. Female circumcision, which it is often also referred to, is falsely propagated as a marker of purity, which makes FGC difficult to erase, as people value honour over a women’s safety, comfort or hygiene. Another reason why change is challenging is because the harbingers of change are often considered ‘outsiders’ instead of part of the community. The attempt at reform by these ‘outsiders’ is often viewed as propaganda against the community rather than upliftment of the community and concern for its community’s wellbeing.

What will help, is the inversion of societal notions. If FGC is seen as honourable, people should be made to see the reasons why it is quite the opposite, so it can be dissociated from honour. If FGC is seen to be a requirement for marriage, it needs to be seen as a deterrent instead. If FGC is seen as religiously sanctioned, people need to be made aware how it is not. The long-term solution involves changing the mindset such that FGC is recognised as harmful.. As seen in this blog’s case scenario, penalising an act that much of a  society does not think a criminal offense in itself will not lead to the desired solution.

About Bhavya Singh: Bhavya Singh

Bhavya is 19 year old law student who has a deep interest in human rights and political theory. She is the happiest when extremely busy and wants to use her law degree to help as many people as she can. Always willing to talk about fashion and sitcoms, her other two passions, and she is hungry for new experiences and challenges to be thrown at her.

 

‘Call it by the Name’: A researcher’s dilemma on the FGM-FGC terminology debate

by Debangana Chatterjee

Two years back when I ventured into trying to understand a culturally specific embodied practice pertaining to procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia ‘for non-medical reasons’ as a researcher, the biggest challenge for me was to ‘call it by the name’.

Disagreements regarding the usage of the term ‘mutilation’ in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), bearing a negative connotation, have surged. International organisations and agencies commonly term it FGM. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) justifies usage of the term on the basis of its previous reference in 1997 and 2008 by the interagency statements. WHO also acknowledges ‘the importance of using non-judgemental terminology with practising communities’ and some of United Nations agencies prefer adding the word ‘cutting’. Ultimately, both terms underline the violation of women and girls’ rights.

‘Mutilation’ refers to impairing a vital body part by cutting it off with an explicit intent to harm. In this context, a few other terms used to connote FGM require closer attention. Female circumcision and excision are often used identically with FGM, although these do not fully carry the information regarding the practice. Out of the four types of procedures entailing FGM as specified by WHO, female circumcision appears akin to type I and even occasionally type II FGM and appears not as physically severe as the Type III category. Yet, existing research suggests that treating female circumcision as replacements for FGM fails to take the practice into account in its entirety. Using ‘female genital surgeries’ is contested as well, as it appears to validate medicalisation of FGM or in other words implies that FGM is a medical surgery like other standard surgeries.

The term FGM received significant prominence in the 1990s. Fran Hosken coined the term in 1993 to draw international attention to the ill-effects associated with the practice as well as to distinguish it from the widely prevailing male circumcision practices. For Ellen Gruenbaum the term ‘…implies intentional harm and is tantamount to an accusation of evil intent’ and thus, entails greater chances of hurting sentiments. There are scholars like Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson who prefer Female Genital Cutting (FGC) instead of FGM. They consider ‘circumcision’ insufficient as it makes a ‘false analogy’ to male circumcision. At the same time, they disagree with the term FGM as it subsumes that all types of the procedure are an act of ‘mutilation’. Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia also choose the understanding of FGC and circumcision as to not force women to dwell on their body as mutilated. These scholars understand the sense of trauma that ‘mutilation’ might connote for some women.

In fact, the constant reference of FGM in the existing international human rights (IHR) discourse mostly remains unaware of other forms of bodily mutilation of women. ‘Mutilation’, in this sense, can mean both bodily modifications attempted through cosmetic surgeries and public sexual violence which remains under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states concerned. Needless to say, mutilation of raped bodies is one of the most common occurrences of sexual violence. When FGM as a cultural practice is emphasised over other forms of ‘mutilation’, it indicates the cultural biases of IHR discourse. It is not to dilute the abhorrence that this practice deserves, but to show how little a space it leaves for consciousness building and community learning. For both the activists and researchers alike, extreme caution is required  to not alienate people and to sustain the dialogic engagement with them.

Also, with ‘mutilation’, a popular imagery of infibulation (narrowing of the vaginal orifice)  is attached. It comes more with its representation in popular culture as is the case with the film Desert Flower. Notwithstanding the reality of the incidence shown in the movie, in most of the cases, the type I and II procedures are conducted instead of type III (infibulation). Clubbing all the procedures under the single rubric either exaggerates type I and II FGM or dilutes the gravity of Type III and some forms of Type IV (Type IV includes miscellaneous procedures like piercing, pricking, incising or stretching of the clitoris, burning or scraping of vaginal tissues. Whereas some of the type IV procedures are of greater concern, others may not necessarily appear as severe).

In the light of these debates over terminologies, how does a researcher resolve her dilemma?

My study aims to locate the practices of FGM/C exclusive to the Bohra Muslim community in India in the frame of international politics. Especially keeping in mind my position as a scholar who is outside the purview of the culture, I stand on the edge of being either called a cultural relativist/apologist (a person who believes that people’s cultural traditions can only be judged by the standards of their own culture and thus, cultural practices are to be judged relative to the understanding of its practitioners) or prejudiced against cultural particularities. My study aims to juxtapose international discourses surrounding the practice vis-a-vis its occurrences in India. Hence, while writing my thesis, I shall be using FGM interchangeably with FGM/C to reflect the larger WHO definition and its usage in the international circle. As no term seems perfect in defining the practice, academically FGM/C looks commonly acceptable reflecting the international outlook towards it. Needless to say, the term FGM/C also has received substantial backlash from the communities and Bohras are no exception to it. An objective and unbiased study of the practice seeks the right approach more than an elusive perfection in terminology. Thus, during my interactions with members of the community, while analysing the local Indian discourse, khatna as a term will be given preference respecting the cultural uniqueness that the term bears.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMore 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.

A conversation with change makers: women who chose to speak up about Khatna

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. To read Priya’s first blog in this series, visit ‘How I found out Khatna exists and why I choose to speak out’.

The first time I heard the statement,“Well it could have been you! It could have been anyone! But it happened to me,” by a woman who had gone through khatna, I felt its weight immensely on me.

I do not yet have the answers for why this statement affected me so intensely, but it has strengthened my resolve to understand and generate more awareness about Khatna, because it has affected women for so long and has the capacity to affect many more.

The first step in my research journey is to talk to women who have been directly affected by Khatna. While deciding upon the questions to ask my participants, my number one concern was to not sound insensitive or biased when asking them about Khatna. More importantly, I wondered how to ask questions about something this personal without sounding intrusive. The sensitivity of the questions depends on the context in which you ask the question rather than how you frame it, whereas the intrusiveness of it depends on the reactions from the women.

It was interesting for me to observe that none of the women found the questions to be intrusive or uncomfortable, rather there was a normalized, patterned response given from them, as if these were routine questions. My early hypothesis was that women would feel overwhelmed while responding to these questions, but that is not what I found. There are two possible reasons for this: one, they have been asked these questions before and thus have already reflected on the questions and know the answers for themselves; two, by choosing to speak about Khatna, they have already begun their healing process and by normalizing speaking about the incident they perhaps have taken back a sense of control that they had lost when they underwent it. Future interactions with more women will allow me to formulate a definite conclusion.

It was fascinating to observe that although each woman had an individual experience of Khatna, their stories were eerily similar and the trajectory of growing up and figuring out the significance of it was uncannily alike. A lot of the women I interviewed had repressed their memory of the day of their Khatna, and they grew up without any conscious knowledge of what had happened or what it meant, only to discover its significance much later in life. However, perhaps their discovery of Khatna later in life comes due to the ripple effect created by one woman speaking out. The women I have spoken with have talked about how hearing how other women were speaking about their experiences helped them to remember their own experience of Khatna.  

While interviewing women, some common traits I found among the respondents were curiosity, a fierce need for answers and an extraordinary amount of courage. All the women I interviewed had an aura of strength around them which was empowering. It crushed the fear and hesitancy I had in asking the questions, and it empowered me to not only raise more questions about Khatna. Through reflection, I found that change happens through empowering conversations.

While doing this research, always at the back of my mind, has been the questions of “Who are the changemakers?”  

I recognized that change-makers are those who have the courage to question the law of the land, who show resilience in the face of daunting challenges and who empower others to fuel the fire of change.

These women have empowered me to continue the change, and I request you to join me in further promoting this change. If we do not speak out, then who will?  

To participate in Priya’s research, contact her on priya.tiss.2018@gmail.com

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.

Miti sitabi: Sahiyo hosts a special edition of Thaal pe Charcha in Mumbai

Sahiyo’s fifth Thaal pe Charcha event in Mumbai on April 7 was perhaps its most special one so far. On popular demand by the regular participants of the group, this Thaal pe Charcha was a miti sitabi — a special women’s meal hosted in honour of the Prophet’s daughter, Ma Fatema. At Sahiyo’s event, this special meal was hosted as a tribute to those Bohra girls who were not allowed to participate in miti sitabis if they were not circumcised.

Thaal pe Charcha, which loosely translates as “discussions over food”, is a Sahiyo flagship programme that brings together Bohra women and men in a safe space to share their feelings, experiences and views on Female Genital Cutting or khatna, while bonding over traditional Bohra food. This programme began in February 2017 with a group of 16 Bohra women and now has more than 30 women and men associated with it.

The April 7 Thaal pe Charcha had 21 of those participants, including five men. In fact, while there were two women-only thaals (traditional large dishes for seating 8 people) for the miti sitabi meal, this was the first time that a group of Bohra men had their own historic miti sitabi thaal. The meal began with traditional jaggery and roti, which is eaten at the start of every miti sitabi. At the end of the meal, participants completed the traditions by applying henna, perfume and small gifts with each other.

The only tradition that this miti sitabi did not follow was that of khatna, of using khatna as a definer of who a true Bohra is and who gets to sit at special community thaal events. This miti sitabi was open to all.

At the Thaal pe Charcha event, participants also shared stories about their journeys after they started speaking out about FGC. One participant, who was attending a Thaal pe Charcha for the first time, talked about how she resisted family pressure and managed to spare her younger daughter from the cut, even though she could not save her older daughter. Another participant shared her experience of having a khatna discussion with her father, who was convinced that FGC was mandated by the Shariat. However, after she had a heartfelt conversation with him, her father acknowledged the pain she had been put through and apologised to her.  Participants concluded the Thaal pe Charcha with a lively discussion on other kinds of social norms, besides khatna, that patriarchal communities use to repress women.

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