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

By Debangana Chatterjee

Though often being referred to as an Islamic practice, Female Genital Cutting (FGC) precedes both Islam and Christianity. It is believed to have originated in the Pharaonic era of Egypt. Elizabeth Boyle, author of Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community, mentions in the book that before the advent of Islam, Egyptians, who valued FGC (particularly infibulation), introduced a strong slave system and expanded it towards the adjacent geographic region. At the onset of Islam in the Egyptian controlled region, Islam asserted a stringent prohibition towards enslaving other Muslims. Hence, non-Muslim were continued to be used as slaves, and since FGC was done to these non-Muslim women slaves to increase their worth and value as slaves, FGC was by extension spread to other parts of Africa by the slave traders. This remains one of the driving factors behind the spread of FGC in Africa simultaneous to the rise of Islam.

Despite FGC predating Islam, the myth of it being an Islamic practice persists due to the impressions of virginity and purity remaining closely associated with the religion’s values. There are ample reasons to challenge the unnecessary association of the practice with the Islamic culture. First, FGC was common among the Egyptian Coptic Christians and a number of Tanzanian Christian communities. In fact, FGC was also reportedly performed on Western women in the 1950s as a cure to nymphomania and depression according to L. Amede Obiora.

Secondly, the practice is rife only among a limited number of Islamic practitioners of the world. Islam is the world’s second largest religion with approximately 1.6 billion followers of the religion consisting of 23.2 percent of the world population. On the other hand, there are around 200 million reported cases of FGC worldwide which includes non-Islamic people as well. Even if one takes these numbers as absolute, merely 12 percent (approx) of the entire Islamic population is affected by the practice. Thus, FGC does not necessarily qualify as an Islamic practice, considering most of the followers of the religion either nullify FGC or even remain oblivious to it. Third: the Holy Quran altogether stands in opposition to inflicting harm; going by that logic Islam cannot be supportive of FGC inflicting mental/physical harm of any sort onto women/girls. Despite the Prophet being explicit about sunna (tradition) on male genitals, FGC’s existence within Islam remains debatable.

In many countries, Islamic traditions often remain debatable, including discussions on FGC. In the documentary The Cutting Tradition, an imam from the Harar region of Ethiopia is heard explaining how it already existed among various communities and the Prophet merely advised a sunna way of cutting where only the nicking of the clitoral prepuce is permitted. In the same documentary the Grand Mofti of Egypt, Fadilet Al-Mofti Ali Gomma repudiates any religious basis for FGM/C, though in 1994 a religious decree was issued in the country in favour of the practice stating it as an honourable deed for women. In fact, the decree, issued by one of Egypt’s prominent clerics Sheikh Gad el-Haqq, admittedly mentioned that FGC is not obligatory in Islam but should be followed due to the traditional rituals attached to it.

Even in the Afar region of Ethiopia, religious leaders are seen invoking Islamic scripture and text to counter continuation of FGC among practicing community members.

The practice came to South-East Asia in the 13th century, due to the advent of Islam in the region after the change in regime. The Shafi school of Sunni Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia considers FGC an Islamic practice, yet they are culturally influenced by the region where Yemen and Oman are situated, countries that have considerable FGC prevalence.

At a time in the world when right-wing politics riles up with growing Islamophobia, it is important not to straightjacket Islam in order to avoid its unnecessary vilification and mindless demonization. Islam, as it grew, got entangled with cultural traditions in such a manner that it often looks inseparable. But a close and nuanced study of the matter opens it up for further scrutiny and leaves room for potential dialogic engagement with the communities practicing female genital cutting so that in time these communities will come to abandon it.

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

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.

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.

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 5: The “C” Word… and I Don’t Mean Circumcision

(This article is Part 5 of a seven-part series on trauma related to Female Genital Cutting. To read the complete series, click here. These articles should NOT be used in lieu of seeking professional mental health and counseling services when needed.)

By Joanna Vergoth, LCSW, NCPsyA

Since the ritual of Female Genital Cutting (FGC)  involves the clitoris, it seems important to learn more about this organ and its function. But first a bit of history, or—more appropriately—herstory.

In over 5 million years of human evolution, only one organ exists for the sole purpose of providing pleasure — the clitoris. Yet, from ancient times to the present, the anatomy of the clitoris has been discovered, repressed, and rediscovered. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, born circa 460 B.C., called the clitoris “columella”: the little pillar. About 500 years later, Galen, an anatomist renowned in Rome, denied its existence. Centuries later, the 1901 edition of Gray’s Anatomy included a drawing of the female pelvis in cross-section, showing a small protrusion with the label “clitoris” (Gray, 1901). In the 1948 edition of Gray’s Anatomy, there is an analogous illustration of female genital anatomy (Goss, 1948). Yet, the label of the clitoris is now gone. The clitoral protrusion of the older illustration is also removed. As a result, the clitoris has now been erased (Moore & Clarke, 1995).

Just The Tip of The Clitoris

In reality, what we generally think of as the clitoris—what we can see and feel—is just the pea size tip of the clitoris, called the “glans”. The glans, located at the top of a woman’s vulva, at the point where the labia majora meet (near the pubic bone), contains approximately 8000 sensory nerve fibers—more than anywhere else in the human body. In fact, the amount of sensory nerve fibers in the glans is twice the amount found on the head of a penis.

More Than Meets The Eye

Many people assume that all there is to the clitoris is the glans, but with the clitoris, what you see is not what you get. Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist, and her colleagues have corrected that misconception (O’Connell, Sanjeevan, and Hutson, 2005). Using modern imaging techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), O’Connell has shown that there is much more to the clitoris than what meets the eye. They discovered that the glans of the clitoris is simply the tip of an extensive organ.

In fact, three-quarters of the clitoris is inside the body. As shown below, the clitoris is a MRI clitwishbone-shaped structure that is about 3 ½ in. (9 cm) in length and 2 ½ in. (6 cm) in width. The glans extends backward into the clitoral body. The glans then split into the two leg-like parts, the crura, which are composed of erectile tissue and are next to the vagina and urethra (see MRI photo below of internal clitoris). The vestibular bulbs are two elongated masses of erectile tissue situated on either side of the vaginal opening.

The Clitoris and Its Place within the Vulva

The vulva is a single term used to describe all the external female genital organs. These sub parts internal clitorisorgans include the labia majora, the labia minora, the clitoris, the vestibule of the vagina, the bulb of the vestibule, and the glands of Bartholin. The two sets of labia (lips) form an oval shape around the vagina. The labia minora are smaller and surround the vagina. The labia majora are larger, and, after puberty, the outer part of the labia majora is covered with pubic hair.

Since there are large portions of the clitoris extending through the pubic area, sexual responsiveness is not limited to direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoral glans (Wallen and Lloyd, 2011). Due to this extended internal structure, the clitoris can respond to stimulation of the external vaginal labia, the vagina itself, and the anus. As a woman draws closer to orgasm, the clitoris can swell by 50 percent to 300 percent. According to O’Connell, “The vaginal wall is, in fact, the clitoris.” If you lift the skin of the side walls of the vagina you will find the bulbs of the clitoris (O’Connell 2008). O’Connell proposed the notion that during vaginal intercourse it is the “clitoral complex” that is stimulated.

Clitoral anatomy and FGC: Removing the glans of the clitoris does not mean the whole organ is destroyed.

The issue of clitoral anatomy is also significant concerning the practice of image5clitorectomy. Type 1 FGC: Often referred to as clitoridectomy, is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in some cases, only the prepuce or hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris). The clitoral hood varies in size, shape, thickness, and other aspects of its appearance from woman to woman. Some women have large clitoral hoods which appear to cover the clitoral glans. Others have much smaller hoods which leave the clitoral glans exposed. While the biological function of the clitoral hood is simply to protect the clitoral glans from friction and other external forces, this body part is also an erogenous zone. It provides natural lubrication, which makes stimulation of the clitoral area more pleasurable. As the clitoral glans itself is often too sensitive to touch, many women gain pleasure from having the glans indirectly stimulated through the clitoral hood. 

Although female sexual pleasure is often hindered by clitoridectomy, many women report that they are still able to enjoy sex (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989, Kelly and Hillard, 2005). One researcher has found that even infibulated women may still have the ability to achieve orgasm. Dr. Lucrezia Catania, who has studied and treated FGC-affected women in Italy for two decades, has found that when some of the sensitive tissue of the labia minora and clitoris remain intact, infibulated women can experience orgasm, while others cannot and instead feel pain.

Pelvic Nerve

The clitoris has enormous potential for arousal, but what may affect sensitivity is the supply of nerve endings and the individual pattern of each clitoris, which explains the variation in women’s preference for stimulation. The pelvic nerve branches in individual ways for every woman. The pathway distribution is quite different and far more diffuse from male sexual wiring, which is much more uniform.

Some women’s nerves branch more in the vagina while other women’s branch more in the clitoris, or in the perineum (the skin between the anus and vagina) or in the mouth of the cervix. No two women—not even identical twins—have the same pattern and distribution of nerves. This complex system of nerve endings extends into the pelvis and is in fact far larger on the inside than it is on the outside. When stimulated, the erect clitoris tightens around the vagina. This means that “vaginal orgasms” are actually caused by the clitoris, not nerves on the vaginal walls themselves. Whether brought on by penetration or external stimulation, all orgasms are clitoral. 

Not only can the anatomical facts of the clitoris help alter cultural biases and mythologies, but correct knowledge of clitoral anatomy may help enhance a woman’s appreciation and experience of her body.


The information for this article was sourced from:

  • Blechner, Mark, J., “The Clitoris: Anatomical and Psychological Issues.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 18:3 (2017): 190-200.
  • Wolf, Naomi. Vagina A new Biography. New York: Harper Collins, 2012
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoris

The images included were researched from internet sources.

About Joanna Vergoth:

Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma. Throughout the past forma logo15 years she has become a committed activist in the cause of FGC, first as Coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, and most recently with the creation of forma, a charity organization dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women affected by FGC, and also offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy and awareness training to hospitals, social service agencies, universities and the community at large.

Let there be no more victims like me

By Anonymous
Country: Sri Lanka

I am a victim of Female Genital Cutting – some might want to call it circumcision, I call it Mutilation. Not quite the way that the proponents want to depict it as what always happens in Africa (infibulation) with horrific scars, but in the way, it happened to me in Sri Lanka where there are still scars, tiny, almost unnoticeable. But in all the ways that matter, it has damaged me no less than the most severe forms of mutilation.

To those who want to medicalize the procedure, let me say that I was cut by a qualified doctor, in a sterile environment, when I was seven-years-old. I remember that day clearly and it is I who have had to live with the consequence of what was done to me in the name of religion.  Not my religious leaders, not my elders, and not that doctor. ME, the woman who that child without a voice grew up to be.

Let me now take the arguments I’ve heard in support of the procedure and give you my perspective as someone who has first-hand experience of the negative impacts of FGC. I will use the term female genital cutting (FGC) since irrespective of what one wants to call it, that is what is done to a lesser or greater degree, depending on who holds the pin, blade or knife.

A. Sex lives as Adults

To the women who say that they have better sex lives due to FGC, I ask you this: what is your point of reference? Have you had sex with the same partner before and after your FGC to arrive at this conclusion?  Have you ever considered the possibility that you have been very lucky, and that whoever performed the FGC on you spared you any real damage? It is also very presumptuous for you to assume that NONE of the billions of uncircumcised women around the world enjoy great sex the same as you.

To the women who don’t have a horrific memory related to their own FGC and who don’t understand what all the fuss is about: let me tell you that neither do I. I don’t have any horrific memories of that day. My Mom who accompanied me held me gently, the doctor looked very professional and it was over before I knew what was being done. I felt a pinch, no bleeding that I can remember – just some cotton wool that smelled of antiseptic placed there after I was cut. And I walked out, confused, uncomfortable but definitely not traumatized. Sounds familiar?

It wasn’t until I was as an adult that I realized the impact of what was done to me. I feel pain during intercourse. Most of you may not. But does that mean you are not damaged? Have you ever considered the fact that intercourse is supposed to be more than just “pleasant” or something you put up with when your husband feels so inclined? In my case, I have been examined by a doctor who has seen the tiny scars and helped me understand the impact of those scars on my ability to enjoy sex.

Initially, I wondered whether what happened to me was a mere unfortunate mistake by this doctor. I have since then come across stories of others in Sri Lanka who were cut by the same and other doctors who share similar tales. So no, I was not an unfortunate accident – the doctor and others like him/her knew exactly what they were doing and did it nonetheless.

B. The need to perform the procedure on a child

All the literature shared by the supporters of this practice alludes to adult women enjoying their sex lives. However, I still have yet to come across any argument to support as to why the procedure needs to be performed on seven-year-old girls who have a long way to go before they begin their sex lives.

So, what is being promoted is, in fact, the sexualizing of children. News flash: these organs don’t stay dormant and get activated only when one gets married.

Personally, I find the very idea of parents allowing strangers to access to their daughter’s private parts for non-medical reasons and letting them alter her genitals, an extremely troubling thought. I’m more inclined to believe that in their hearts, they know that they are in fact desexualizing her. What they want in reality is to keep her pure and innocent until she could be given away. There is no thought given to the fact that she then has to live with a damaged body and fulfill marital obligations that she may not enjoy as much in their effort to keep her pure and innocent until she was given away.

C. The Religious Argument

Who decides on one’s religious belief? The individual or the individual’s parent?

Yes, the parents would bring up the child within the religious norms they follow, and yes in most cases the child would continue with that belief till the end, but this is not always true for everyone.

Hence, how do you justify altering a child’s body, without any medical reason, to be in alignment with the parents’ religious belief, when that child is yet to determine what path she would take or which God she will follow once she has learned enough to make that decision?

As for me, I don’t believe that the God who created me required any man or woman to tamper with my body, with the assumption that they can make it better. I believe the Quran when it says that all of God’s creations are perfect. I won’t let any man or woman tell me otherwise.

But my body has been altered irrevocably – it’s no longer the way God created it to be. My body is now in conflict with my religious beliefs. It has ended up representing the beliefs of others and not mine. The religious belief of others has also denied me pleasure that was my right and right given to me in the Qur’an. How can that be a just outcome by anyone’s standards?

A Tradition That Branded Me

By Severina Lemachokoti

I chose to tell this particular story about my experience with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) because the story defines me, who I am, and shows what my culture/tradition branded me with. The story reflects the reality of what I went through and what I felt as a little girl. This is my other life that no one knows unless I share it with them. Sharing my story at the Sahiyo Stories workshop was a bit hard, but at the same time, it was a relief because I shared it with women who can relate to my hurt, women who have gone through painful and traumatic experiences as other FGM survivors. I felt comfortable and at ease with my sisters. I enjoyed the sisterhood, the courage, and passion that each of them embraced during the entire time. The storytelling process was smooth and very educative. I was able to revise my own story and put it in a way that I am confident will make a difference to our communities.

My advocacy on FGM is primarily focused on community education and the mental health of the survivors. As an activist, I believe that FGM will end when our communities are educated on the negative effects of FGM and find alternative ways of celebrating cultural practices without cutting girls’ genitalia. I am also aware that it is the right of each community to uphold their traditions and beliefs, but culture should not violate the rights of young girls in any way either. The mental health of survivors is a critical issue that needs to be looked into and addressed. Most of us are traumatized and still bear the pain of the cut even after so many years and it is necessary that survivors get healed in order for them to step up and talk about FGM in a way that can save other young girls who are at a risk.

My story is not very different from those of other survivors, but at the same time, I

DSC_0074.JPG
Severina with Lena Khandwala at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

believe I am unique and so my story is unique because of the painful experience and feelings that I had during the cutting. My hope is that my story and the stories of my other sisters will change our communities. I am looking forward to working with various organizations and individuals to see that our girls are free from FGM across the world. I will basically do my activism work till the end of my days, and advocate for supporting the mental health of FGC survivors across the world.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Severina:

17904081_1414046985328334_8283055367043356965_nSeverina Lemachokoti is an anti-FGM campaigner, a human rights defender and a gender activist from the Samburu community in Northern Kenya. Severina graduated from Wichita State University, Kansas State with a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies, with focus on Community Psychology, Sociology and Women Studies. She was the Cultural Ambassador- Kenya, at Wichita State University and participated in various activities that fostered diversity and inclusion. She worked as a graduate research assistant in the Criminal Justice department and also worked at the graduate office as a receptionist. Severina is a professionally trained teacher and holds a bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology and a higher diploma in psychological counseling. As one of the survivors of FGM, Severina uses her own experience to educate young girls from Kenya and her community to say “NO” to FGM and other harmful cultural practices. She has helped in changing the lives of young girls and women in her community through mentorship programs in schools and churches. Severina worked as a program officer for the ANTI-FGM Board, a government body under the ministry of gender to implement the ANTI-FGM act of 2011 and the 2010 constitution of Kenya to protect the rights of young girls in Kenya. Severina is a member of various organizations in Kenya and Africa that defend the rights of young girls and has spoken in various conferences including the UN on the rights of young indigenous girls and women.

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!

 

Khatna Isn’t Black Or White, Just Like My Story

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation in the Bohra community is not black and white, just like how survivors and non-survivors’ stories are not black and white. This idea resonated the most with me during the Sahiyo Stories workshop held in Berkeley, California at the beginning of May. Sahiyo Stories allowed me to explore the complexities of FGM/C and see the strength of the women who advocate to end the practice worldwide.

The workshop included women from different backgrounds and communities. We had varying ages, ethnicities, and cultures, yet our common experiences and passions bound us together.

I remember fighting back tears as we shared a space around a table and told our stories. For those ten minutes, we were allowed to feel vulnerable, insecure, afraid and seek advice, support, and shared empathy from others.

I have not undergone khatna, and I was the only one in the group who had not. My digital story touches on how I sometimes feel like an outcast around Bohra women, regardless of whether or not I know they have undergone khatna. In the Bohra community, so many practices and customs are normalized on a large scale that you are left wondering if you are different for something that has or has not happened to you.

I was in awe of the bravery of the women around me who shared their stories of the khatna/FGM they underwent when they were young girls. It was impactful for the women to be from such varying backgrounds. It made the issue of FGM feel global and like it touched so many different lives.

By the end of the workshop, I realized that khatna, advocacy, traditions, women and human rights are not all black and white. Instead, they are layered and multi-dimensional, thus making these matters far more intricate than just taking a stand one way or another. My experience is not black or white either, and the Sahiyo Stories workshop was the most empowering avenue for me to explore that gray area.

 

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.  

Why I Chose to Tell My Story About Female Genital Mutilation at the Sahiyo Stories’ Workshop

By Renee Bergstrom, EdD

I chose to tell my story of FGM because I am aware that being silenced is a universal issue for those who have experienced it. When I read my story the first day at the StoryCenter, I was surprised that my voice cracked with emotion. Our sisterhood developed quickly from the strength of shared history in spite of differing cultures, and I felt so privileged to be included. The world needs to hear all our voices in order for this female injustice to end.

The storytelling process was beautifully orchestrated and we were guided to compose our messages for the greatest impact. All apprehension regarding telling my story dissipated. Before my story became public knowledge, my advocacy was focused on developing and distributing brochures in collaboration with my Somali friend Filsan Ali. Pregnant infibulated Somali women give this bilingual brochure to their physicians and midwives to plan safe labor and delivery and prevent unnecessary C-Sections.

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Renee Bergstrom at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

In 2016, the time was right to share my story because so many young women were standing up to their political, cultural and religious leaders, matriarchs, and patriarchs. Instead of being seen as a Western woman imposing my beliefs on another culture, I am supporting their efforts. Recently, other white Christian women from North America have contacted me with their FGM stories, thus my current advocacy plans involve listening, but also connecting these women with resources and opportunities to share their stories.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Renee:

Version 2Renee Bergstrom, EdD, is an educator who advocates for relationship-centered medical care. She and her husband, Gene, have been married 53 years. They have three children, ten grandchildren and one great-grandson. They live in a dynamic art town in Midwest America where they are very involved in the community. Renee loves to read, watercolor paint, weave, garden and bike. She has been an advocate for women’s justice throughout her life.