The undecided: Conversations with survivors of Female Genital Cutting in Pakistan

By Hina Javed

(This is the fourth part in a series of essays by Hina Javed on her experience of reporting on FGC in Pakistan. Read the whole series here: Pakistan Journal.)

My conversations with survivors had by now made it clear that the more answers I received, the more questions arose. Wrapping my head around Female Genital Cutting (FGC) was not going to be easy as I had, up till that point, been presented with two extreme views of FGC with little room for middleground.

I found myself diving deeper to uncover the truth behind a practice which spanned centuries; a curiosity fuelled my quest to get to the very origins of such an invasive practice.   

From the outside, the Bohra community seemed united, but I found the more I scratched at the community’s surface, the divisions and differences of opinion on FGC became evident. Publicly, the Bohra community will protect their own; quietly, they dissent amongst themselves.

Getting to the bottom of this practice had become more than an assignment for me. The following day I found myself sitting in the drawing room of an elderly lady who belonged to the Bohra community in Karachi. Here was 65-year-old Mrs Sumaira*, ready to answer all my questions without a hint of doubt or hesitation:

“Aunty, what is your opinion on female circumcision? Is it right or wrong?”

“Well, I cannot comment on the moral and legal implications of the practice. It is not for me to decide. All I know is that circumcision is sanctioned by our community leader. I am not entirely sure if it is right or wrong, but I believe the decision should be left with the child,” said Mrs Sumaira.

“What about you? Did you get your daughter circumcised? Did you inform her prior to her circumcision? How did you feel when she was finally cut?” I asked without bothering to check my train of thought or questioning.

“I was in my early thirties when the pressure to get my little one cut started building inside me. I knew it was supposed to happen sooner or later. I feared a backlash from the family elders if I delayed it any further. It was a rite of passage and my daughter had to go through it. My only, and probably biggest fault, was not telling the truth to an innocent child who thought she was going to a lady doctor for a routine check up. I told her they might perform a small operation if they found a ‘bug’ down there. I deeply regretted lying to her when I saw her bleeding and in pain,” she told me somberly.

“Why did you regret? Was it only the pain that made you feel guilty or was it something else?” I asked.

The answer she gave me came ridden with doubt. Sumaira believed she had little choice all those years ago.

“Maybe this wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe I took something away from her; something that actually belonged to her the minute she opened her eyes. I could have given it a second thought, but I was overwhelmed with uncertainty and wanted to get it out of the way. I knew I would get a lot of raised brows if I avoided it altogether. In fact, I would have been ostracised from the community,” she added.

My line of questioning had ruffled some feathers, and I became more determined to seek answers. “Aunty, forgive me if I am being too intrusive, but didn’t you say you believed it was a necessary rite of passage?”

Sumaira explained that the decision she took for her daughter, without the latter’s consent, was in the girl’s best interest.

“I believe it depends on the type of society you live in and the level of exposure you get growing up. It’s true that circumcision lowers the libido and you have no right to take that away from an individual. However, it becomes necessary to control that drive if the girl is growing up in a conservative society like Pakistan. If she goes ‘astray’,  she would be called names and looked down upon. Besides, she would also have to suppress her desires which could ultimately lead to psychological issues like depression and anxiety,” she said.

“Does that mean it is more of a social requirement than a religious ritual in the Bohra community?” I asked, confused. Sumaira’s reply made it clear she was also confused.

“It could be, but I am not entirely sure about that. I believe it’s good if you get it done. However, there is an element of choice which people did not realise back in the day. People who are growing up in a free society and have liberal mindsets could either do away with it or let their child decide.”

Sumaira continued to speak but her response left a deafening silence from me. It became difficult to detach myself emotionally and focus on that interview. Therefore, I targeted my final question at just that; breaking the silence.

“Then why do you think breaking the silence will help? Why did you decide to speak about this issue in the first place? How will it change the narrative?” I asked apprehensively.

“It’s just the question of expressing yourself. If you disagree with the practice, you should be able to voice your opinion without being bashed by others. And if you want to go for it, then there’s no one stopping you. In either case, there’s no reason for it to be a hush-hush affair. There is more awareness, education and freedom of expression in this day and age. You’re free to make your own decision,” she concluded.

The hour-long question and answer session with Sumaira left me more confused than before. My search for the right answer was becoming fruitless with every interview, but, in the midst of it all, I realised that three categories of people existed in the Bohra community when it came to FGC: the decided, the undecided, and the opposed.

Sumaira is a pseudonym. The person’s original name has been changed to protect her identity.

A tale of deception: My conversation with an FGC survivor in Pakistan

By Hina Javed

(This is the third part in a series of essays by Hina Javed on her experience of reporting on FGC in Pakistan. Read the whole series here: Pakistan Journal.)

The time had come to pick up that phone. Little did I know that my conversation with an FGC survivor would be more harrowing for me than the talk which revealed its existence to me in Pakistan.  

I picked up the phone and made contact with my second survivor, 37-year-old Sophia. The woman narrated the time when she, just a girl of seven, was led into a dimly-lit room, full of strange odors and even stranger people. This was not the shopping trip the minor had in mind when she was told earlier in the day that her aunt was taking her out. As if the surroundings were not distressing enough, the girl was forced to lie down on the floor and soon a complete stranger was reaching between her legs.

The moment she was ‘cut’, she let out a loud scream and tears started rolling down her face. When it was over and done with, the matter was hushed up and never spoken of again.

Three decades on, a now grown woman remembers vividly the day her freedom of choice was taken away:

I still remember it distinctly. I feel slighted, even to this day, at how they held me down despite my attempts to push them [the strangers] away. But most of all, I feel angry at how they buried the matter under blankets of silence and pretended like it never happened.

The day I walked out of the dingy apartment, I thought I was punished for being ‘bad’. I was mortified to look even look at the cut. I wanted to lie down in my mother’s lap and forget everything; to assume, for a split second, that what existed between my legs wasn’t shameful.

When I grew up, I was finally able to connect the dots. The ‘cut’ was a symbol of my sexual submissiveness. Just like vaccinated animals, I was now wearing an imaginary ear tag signifying the death of the ‘parasite’ [or bug] driving my sexuality. From then on, I was to be categorised as a woman of ‘decent’ character.

The truth is, I was just another offering to a centuries old tradition. The decisions made about my body came from a group of elderly women who believed it was a necessary rite of passage. And the cherry on top was that I was made to kiss my hostess’s hands as a gesture of respect.

I didn’t speak about the incident for the longest time. I feared it would be considered rude and impolite. But there came a point when it became difficult to contain my angst and disappointment and I ended up asking my mother.

I now realize that it wasn’t her fault either. I wonder if my anger towards my mother was even justified. Without a shadow of doubt, she was under immense pressure from family elders. If she tried to get away with it, they would have found out and ostracised her from the community.

I am now a happily married woman with two beautiful children, but I feel a sense of deep remorse when I engage in sexual activity. I feel immoral, sinful and unclean. The trauma is so deep that the act itself becomes an unpleasant experience. It is difficult to be psychologically scarred and feel completely at ease.

Sadly enough, our generation still believes sex is a dirty, reproductive act. We are trained to associate sexuality with immorality. We grow up with warnings that if we express our desires, we are deviant and dirty.

We have spent our entire lives in the absence of this conversation, but we need to have it anyway. This avoidance has robbed several women of their identities.

I have tried to bring this up many times with little progress. I am already estranged from my family over disagreements. What is surprising is that these decisions are made by women. The misogyny is so deeply internalized that they are unable to look squarely at the sexist world around them.

Upon hearing Sophia’s story, I recognized the extent of psychological and physical damage the ‘cut’ had on her. She was in perpetual dilemma: on the one hand she wanted to speak up about her experience, but was also overcome with guilt and fear. It was evident that she was unable to shake off the impact of the incident to this day.

As she finished speaking, there was a momentary pause as I struggled to thank her for speaking up about her experience.

“I wish I could allow you to quote my name. There is a dire need to elevate this conversation in every country, especially Pakistan. However, there is immense pressure from my community due to which I want to remain anonymous,” she said.

“I understand,” I replied.

“I hope your story stirs a conversation and becomes a movement in this country. We need to put an end to this contested practice.”

(*Sophia is a pseudonym. The person’s original name has been changed to protect her identity.)

(Hina Javed is an investigative journalist based in Pakistan, driven by the ambition of tackling difficult, often untouched topics. Her focus is on stories related to human rights, health and gender.)

The unsolved riddle: conversations with survivors (Part 2)

By Hina Javed

(This is the second part in a series of essays by Hina Javed on her experience of reporting on FGC in Pakistan. Read the whole series here: Pakistan Journal.)

That night, after witnessing truth being replaced with the censor’s lie, I spent hours alone in my room, flinching at every little thought that crossed my mind. I sat on the tiniest corner of my bed, locked in a deep sulk. In the ensuing minutes and the quiet of that night, thoughts frantically raced through my head in an attempt to find the answer. Was the issue of female genital cutting (FGC) so intimidating that it could not be expressed aloud in the Pakistani media? Was this the way of patriarchy? It made you suffer in silence.

I traced my steps back to where I had deviated from the norm. The more I struggled to solve the mystery of why my well-researched article on FGC in Pakistan was no longer going to be published, the more I was convinced that the questions would be put away in the recesses of my mind, like an unsolved riddle.

In that instant, brief fragments of past conversations bubbled up in my consciousness. How bizarre it was that the reminders came flooding in at the very moment disorder took over my existence. I was now back to square one, having my first conversation with Amber* after she acknowledged the existence of FGC so matter-of-factly.

“But why would you cut an innocent girl who is still tasting the sweetness of childhood?” I asked, trying to make sense of it all.

“There is no harm in it,” Amber spoke with an indifference. “It makes the child pure for the rest of her life. We live in a sinful age where girls deviate when they hit puberty. Khatna is done to preserve their chastity and it’s a good thing!”

I nodded, less in agreement, and more as a courtesy to show I was listening.  

“You know how in foreign lands girls explore their sexuality before tying the knot?” She said in an almost condescending tone. “Circumcised girls don’t indulge in such things.”

Amber’s words hit me like a ton of bricks. We had been friends for some time now and frequently discussed women’s rights, consent, and feminism. In every conversation, it surprised me how much the two of us thought alike. However, this time I could not believe my ears as I listened to her justify female genital cutting.

I held myself from lashing out in protest at her promoting FGC. As Amber’s friend, and not a journalist, I could have countered her justifications. But, I refrained from hurting her religious sentiments and gave her the benefit of doubt to see if I was missing a point.

“But doesn’t it hurt a girl’s sexuality as she grows up?” I asked, my face scrunching up into an expression of worry. “What if your daughter doesn’t want this for herself?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Amber said, softening her tone. “There was a time when family elders used to mask reality and constantly take us by surprise. There was less communication and more innocence. But, when it came to my daughter, I mentally prepared her for it ahead of time.”

I nodded, again less in agreement and more in courtesy.

“The doctor asked me not to hide anything from my daughter. In fact, this doctor is so professional,she doesn’t circumcise girls without their consent.”

“What was your daughter’s reaction like?” I asked in a muffled tone, full of disbelief at what Amber was telling me.  

“She was scared and had her fears, but she knew what was coming. After a few conversations, she made peace with it,” Amber went on. “My daughter will never blame me because I took her consent. Mothers who do it without their daughter’s consent are wrong, in my opinion. There is no harm in asking. They are girls. They will understand.”

Listening to Amber made me realize how we, as a society, misunderstand the concept of consent. The definition of ‘consent’ is written in crayon; raw, unfinished, unprocessed. What is confusing to a great many people is that consent cannot be given by a minor who because of their age cannot grasp the full implications of what is happening to them. Consent is more than forcing a grudging “yes” out of someone; it means getting informed permission from a person when they have the reasoning capacities of an adult. This lack of understanding consent can cause a lifelong impact on a girl’s sexuality when they are an adult – one that is eternally painful.

Amber and I gauged each other’s expressions with an uncertainty only we could discern. She was patient with my questions, but now I could feel a thought forming at the edge of her consciousness. She was wondering if perhaps I viewed her differently, thought negatively of her actions. She was starting to get a little frazzled. I changed the topic and asked her if I could call the following day.  

That night, I decided to pursue this topic as a story. I perused online resources and posted in a few closed forums to connect with more survivors. The mere thought of doing a thorough investigation on a topic as sensitive as FGC seemed far-fetched – almost impossible. I received several warnings from friends and colleagues asking me to back off. I didn’t.

The next day, I brewed coffee, cleaned my work space, drafted the questions and called Amber. Since my journalistic hat was now on, I decided to remain neutral – barely interrupting her as she spoke.

“Hello!” Amber said after picking up her phone.

“Hi!” I responded.

We waited for each other to fill the silence as if we had yet to discover the language in which we could really communicate on this topic.

“I hope I am not being a bother,” I said after 60 seconds.

“Not at all! Shoot me your questions, but please conceal my identity,” she requested.

“How prevalent is the practice in your community?” I asked as I checkmarked the question in my notebook.

“Well, it’s certainly not decreasing. I would say the trend is static. As hard as it would be for an outsider to believe, it’s still widely practiced by the current generation of Bohras,” she said. “It is a religious compulsion which everyone has to perform. Those who are doing it, continue the trend by passing their beliefs and values down the generations.”

“What do you think about the people who do not practice it?” I asked next.

“There are good and bad people in every community. While I won’t say those who have opted out of it are bad people, they could just be skeptical and unclear about the practice. Either way, it’s their belief and choice,” she said with a heavy heart. “But it is sad that nobody is there to clear the doubts of those who are distrustful of this practice.”

I paused for a brief moment to reflect on what she said and then asked, “How are they supposed to learn the reasoning behind this practice?”

Amber had been waiting for me to ask this question. She wanted me to explain her side of the coin. Perhaps, even promote it.

“Hina, I want to make this concept very clear to the general public. We face so much hostility from people; those who have failed to understand the essence of circumcision. They are the ones who have lost its meaning to time and are trying to garner attention from the rest of the world,” she poured her heart. “Not everyone is able to understand its absolute significance because it’s not easy to digest.”

“Would you like to explain the significance?” I asked.

“There’s a lot of depth to this practice. Even if I explain it to you, you will not understand and definitely won’t be able to do justice breaking it down in your article,” she responded.

“Can I try?” I asked in a faint voice.

“I will first look for an answer myself, and whatever I take from it, I will pass it on to you. It is necessary for me to seek a scholar’s counsel first.”

“Of course!” I said politely. “You can take your time. I would be delighted to write about the flipside too. It’s my job to balance the narrative.”

In that instant, the phone went silent at the other end.

“Hello? Hello?! Amber?” I kept saying, talking only to myself.

A few days later Amber called me back to apologise for the abrupt way our phone call ended. Her mother-in-law had flipped after hearing Amber utter the word Khatna to a stranger on the phone and told her to get off the phone. The overwhelming pressure mounted by her mother-in-law caused Amber to tell me that she would have to end her participation in my investigation. “I’ll try to answer most of your questions today, but I am afraid I will no longer be able to help you with this,” she said, a hint of fear in her tone.

“It’s okay, Amber. The last thing I want you to be is uncomfortable. It’s your choice to go ahead with it or opt out.” I answered.

“Hina, as promised, I reached out to a scholar. He refused to be quoted, so I will answer on his behalf and add a bit of my own knowledge.”

“That’s absolutely fine.” I said, then she shared with me her bit of knowledge.

“I will give you an example which will basically sum up everything. You know how when we read the Holy Book, there are certain words that have no meaning, or perhaps have layers of meanings? Circumcision is like that. There is so much depth to it that we will fail to understand it. A one liner won’t do it justice.”

Once again, her reponse left with me more questions instead of answers. I was now more determined in my quest for clarity. Suddenly, it was no longer about my next exclusive story and I fast realised that the only way to end my curiosity would be to ask more questions. It was now a matter of reaching out to the right people in the hope of getting to the bottom of the ambiguity surrounding khatna.

Time to pick up that phone, Hina, I thought to myself. And just like that, I embarked on my quest to search for answers. Little did I know that the journey ahead was full of obstacles, some of which would stretch me to the point that my existence was bursting at the seams.

*Amber is a pseudonym. The person’s original name has been changed to protect her identity.

To read Part III – A tale of deception: My conversation with an FGC survivor in Pakistan, click here

(Hina Javed is an investigative journalist based in Pakistan, driven by the ambition of tackling difficult, often untouched topics. Her focus is on stories related to human rights, health and gender.)

Violated hopes: My struggle to report on Female Genital Cutting in Pakistan

By Hina Javed

Country: Pakistan

When sporting my journalistic hat, I tend to sniff out stories from unlikely sources, wherever they are hidden. I look out for news, dropping into places to see what is new. This time around, however, I wasn’t particularly looking for a story. I was just making small talk with a friend, who I would call Amber, sipping tea in the chilly, wintry breeze; the stillness of time hanging heavy in the thin air; the late afternoon light filtering through the branches of a tree.

Amber kept rambling about her married life and parental responsibilities, and how both were in permanent need of repairs or adjustments like an old car needs maintenance. I pretended to listen to her, albeit inattentively, all the while thinking about the most plausible excuse for not meeting a story deadline. And just in that moment, I snapped out of my reverie at the mention of the word khatna (also known as circumcision).

Suddenly, my eyes and ears were attentive, in perfect union. In that rare and curious moment, I dared to ask her if she was talking about Female Genital Cutting, a practice I thought did not exist in Pakistan. For a split second, I thought I might have violated an unwritten code of ethics. Maybe I had not phrased the question to fit the language of social architecture. It was too late now, but I still tried to rephrase the question, spitting out tiny fragments of sentences; struggling to find the right words and dwelling on the worst possible response.

The response was startling, if not dreadful. All this while, she was complaining about her 10-year-old daughter who had recently been cut and refused to urinate for several hours. Amber was worried that her daughter would develop an infection if she held it for too long. Perhaps, for me, this was the worst part. This limbo of not knowing whether to ask more questions, given the sensitivity of the topic. But, I gave in and flooded her with queries.

If there is one thing Amber knows about me is that I listen keenly without ever coming across as judgmental. I assume it’s because of my profession. People never ask me what I think, and I never tell them what I think, because in my view that’s the way a journalist is ought to behave.

The initial conversation got me thinking. I made several attempts to talk to Amber and determine the extent of the issue. She would mostly respond in bits and pieces, leaving me more confused than ever. One day, however, she started talking more openly; justifying the practice and expressing concerns over how misunderstood her community is. It was in that fleeting moment that I knew I had plunged into murky waters. I was ready to write my next story, except I was in a state of moral anarchy.

As I investigated the matter further for my piece, I realized something important had changed. The social architecture that dismisses the inconvenient truth of FGC was changing fast, but only among the younger generation of Bohra women. Outsiders, however, were still largely unaware of the practice. These women were speaking up in numbers too big to ignore. What was holding them, however, was the horror of bringing shame to their families and a subsequent fear of revealing a reality that would rather be rationalized away.

Listening to the stories of vulnerable women gave me sleepless nights. I felt burdened with a sense of responsibility too heavy for my shoulders to carry. They had expectations too great for me to fulfill; each one of them hanging on to the hope that my story will stir up a conversation in Pakistan and possibly bring an end to this practice.

A month later, I had almost finished writing the story despite my own uncertainties and misgivings. In my limited experience as a young journalist, I had done stories on sensitive topics but nothing came close to this. To counter my persisting doubts, I had the story edited by a trusted senior colleague who showed nothing but the greatest respect for my brave efforts. I was finally starting to feel a sense of gratification; a tiny ray of hope for giving a voice to the voiceless. I was ready to put it out before the general public. However, the journey was far from over.

The path ahead was ridden with disappointment. Pakistani media organisations refused to lay a finger on the piece due to sensitivities. I was told that I had crossed the comfort zone for the general public. The article caused a stir and went through clearance after clearance; each time censoring important chunks of information and eventually being turned down.  

I was aware of my country’s heavily censored media and the difficulties journalists had to overcome to report sensitive topics. However, my experience landed me on a different playing field altogether; one that was far from level. I was now a victim of the epidemic of shameful silencing. I was among the people who were hurt, humiliated and degraded because I had made the mistake of speaking out. I had forgotten that stirring up a conversation would dismantle the stronghold of patriarchy. I was asked to retreat and swallow my resentment, to bear up and direct my fury elsewhere. Or turn it inwards. Or stomp it out altogether.

As I sit here in silence, I feel the guilt of betraying the survivors and the fury of being betrayed by the so-called representatives. The former, a betrayal of hopes and expectations. The latter, a betrayal of attitudes. This unbearable pressure has crept into me like a blazing fire – at first slow but fast turning into an inferno. I exist in perpetual isolation and emotional turmoil. I am left to untangle the web of reasons why all my efforts backfired. I wallow in the awareness that no one will ever acknowledge the existence of an otherwise contested practice in my country. Every time I think about taking a small step in a positive direction, I am reminded of the faces of responsible individuals shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that the conversation may open a gateway to a potentially dangerous territory that could affect them.

This is the first part in a series of essays by Hina Javed on her experience of reporting on FGC in Pakistan. Read the whole series here: Pakistan Journal.

(Hina Javed is an investigative journalist based in Pakistan, driven by the ambition of tackling difficult, often untouched topics. Her focus is on stories related to human rights, health and gender.)