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

By: Anonymous

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

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

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

All was done.

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

After a few days, I forgot about the incident.

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

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

‘I begged my mother not to circumcise me. She listened to me.’

By Anonymous

Age: 26

Country: United States

I remember hearing about it for the first time in my Saturday school class. A male teacherfullsizerender-1 was taking our class that Saturday morning, and the topic was circumcision. At the ripe age of 14, I didn’t really know what that meant, but I did know it involved something that was related to sex-ed. I awkwardly sat with the girls in my class on the right side of the room, separated from the boys by a wide space, who sat on the left side of the room. The teacher began to speak about male circumcision; that skin was surgically removed from a boy for hygienic reasons. He then went on to explain female circumcision; that it was done to curb a girl’s sexual desire. Girls were meant to be chaste, quiet, and obedient. Circumcising little girls was the only way to keep them from being promiscuous. It was the only way to stop them from bringing shame to their families.

I remember sitting there, having no idea what my teacher was talking about. I was sure I had never undergone this procedure, or whatever my 14-year- old brain could comprehend from the Gujrati he was speaking – it was not my first language. I felt extremely uncomfortable and unsettled as I sat in that room that day.

I remember going to a sleep-over at an older girl’s house that same Saturday, where the topic inevitably turned to what we had heard at Saturday school earlier that day. I sat quietly as one girl, a bit of a know-it- all, explained why this procedure was done on girls, and how it made us better Muslims and better Bohris – because circumcision ensured that we would never be tempted by sexual desires and pre-marital sex; it cleaned us, purified us. I listened intently as other girls relayed their circumcision stories, all the while feeling like a fraud because I knew that I had never undergone this “rite of passage”. I know now that I still didn’t understand then, what this rite of passage truly meant. All it meant to me was that I didn’t fit in, that I was a “bad girl”, that I was dirty, and that I was just pretending to be a good Muslim.

I remember finally working up the courage to ask my mom about it a few weeks later. I watched awareness dawn in her eyes, as I relayed what we had learned in class. I saw the look on her face when I hopefully asked her if I had had this procedure done, and just didn’t remember. She shook her head. She had always meant to take me to get it done, when we were in India but had just never gotten around to it. I told her the stories I had heard from my friends and asked her if she could explain this procedure to me since I had had trouble understanding it in my class. She proceeded to explain the process of khatna to me; the removal of skin from a girl’s clitoris, to make her clean and pure. As I heard the explanation, I cringed. She watched me for a few minutes, and then stated with authority that next time we went to India she would take me to my aunt, a doctor, who would perform the procedure on me. I sank to my knees in front of her, begging her not to do this to me, begging her not to make me undergo what sounded like an unimaginably painful procedure. I promised her that I would be good, I would be clean, I would do anything she wanted if she would just forget this whole thing. She exhaled, saying “we’ll see” in a soft, resigned voice.

I remember getting older, doing more research on what khatna even meant, listening to my cousin passionately talk about how wrong it was, and realizing what a monumental loss my mother had spared me from. As an adult, I view the practice of khatna very differently than I did as an impressionable teenager. So many young girls have had this choice stolen from them.

No one has asked them if this is something that they want. Their families have decided to steal a part of who they are, without any regard for what it will do to them, and often times make the decision to bring their precious little girls to unsterile and inexperienced hands to do something so serious to their bodies.

I remember seeing a huge Facebook discussion break out months ago, where a very outspoken girl I know accused people who work to stop khatna of “airing the dirty laundry” of the Bohri community in such a public way. In that moment I had never felt so much shame at someone in my community. This practice is wrong, and the non-consensual nature of it makes it even more heartbreaking and deplorable, to me. When your community is doing something questionable, and touting it as a religious practice revered by the Prophet (PBUH), you don’t close ranks and hide deeper in the shadows. You open the floor to debate and discuss how we can become better as a community. You discuss how we can protect the young girls and young women of our community and give them the chance to make their own choices, rather than taking their choices away from them.

We can do better as a global community to stop this. My mother saved me. She put her love for me first, and I am the woman I am today because of her. I am forever grateful for her protection and guidance. All young women deserve the same protection, the same love, the same respect, and the same autonomy over their bodies. It’s the least we can do.

‘My mom regrets that she allowed khatna to be performed on me’

Age: 34

Country: USA

I was six years old when my mom explained to me that I had to undergo the procedure of khatna – that a small surgery would happen on my private parts. I simply understood that it was one of the many rituals that I, as a Muslim girl, would experience. So one night when my parents and I were at the markaz for an event, my mom took me with her to the back room storage area where a young woman introduced herself as a doctor. The cutting happened so quickly – I do not remember any pain. I do not remember being afraid. I was given a maxi pad to wear which felt awkward. And was then asked to go into the men’s section to tell my dad we were ready to go home.

While physically, I was not severely damaged, emotionally the experience of khatna has held a sobering cloud over my understanding of sexual health. The practice of khatna reinforced the idea that a woman’s sexuality is to be protected and hidden and not talked about. This is compounded by the policing of menstruating women – that we cannot touch the Qur’an or enter the Masjid while on our period. This all serves to define female genitalia as dirty things to be cut, cleaned or controlled.

It took me years to unlearn this internalised oppression and find a way to practice Islam in a way that allows me to feel empowered by my sexuality instead of ashamed of it. I am also grateful that my parents are part of this journey with me and are speaking out against the practice of khatna. I know my mom especially regrets that she caved to the pressure from her parents and allowed khatna to be performed on me. I wish I could take that burden of guilt away from her. I can only hope that as she sees me in a healthy relationship with my husband now, she knows that I am OK and that we can work together to ensure the practice of genital cutting ends with my generation.

‘I am not traumatized or damaged, but I still want Khatna to stop’

By Anonymous

Age: 30

Country: United States

For the record, I have never been mutilated. I am not traumatized, damaged, or broken. Yes, something unfortunate happened to me that I wish had not; but I do not want to be labeled a survivor. Personally, I feel the word is inappropriate to my situation because my life was never at risk. What I do want is to live in a world where what happened to me no longer happens to others. The reason I want this is because although I have come to forgive my loved ones, accept what has happened to me, and move past the trauma, not everyone who has undergone khatna has been so fortunate.

Like countless other females raised in the Dawoodi Bohra community, I underwent female genital cutting (FGC) as a young, unsuspecting child. My recollection of the event is foggy, but I do remember lying half naked on the examination table in a pediatrician’s office. I also remember an unpleasant sensation accompanied by a scream and then a calm, comforting voice explaining that what I had just felt was only cold antiseptic. I cannot recall the exact moment I was cut; I  assume the pain caused me to purge it from memory. However, I do remember the aftermath.  I remember feeling confused and slightly elated at having to wear a menstrual pad like my big sister. Not because I had reached the milestone of menstruation (that would not happen for another 4 years), but to avoid dark red stains on my underwear as the cut healed. I remember a party a few days later; my markaz friends came over for a mithi sitabi. We played games like Twister, Monopoly, and Operation – not standard mithi sitabi activities. I’m sure prayer was involved, but I don’t remember it. All I can recall is how much fun that day was.

Somewhere along the way, I was left with the notion that what had happened to me, happened to all girls, Bohra or not. As I sit here and reflect, I think I have a reasonable explanation for this. The procedure itself occurred in a medical setting. My parents remained cool and calm throughout the entire event. At the mithi sitabi, I was the youngest; the last girl of the group to undergo the procedure. It all felt so normal. No one needed to tell me that this happened to all girls; I arrived at the conclusion myself. The normalization of this event enabled me to quickly forget about it and continue on with the business of growing up – that is until I reached high school and formally learned about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa while sitting in a health class.

That day in class, as I listened to my teacher speak about FGM, I began to feel queasy. How could this happen to women in Africa? My heart ached for them. After school that day I used the internet to learn more about the practice. At the time, I didn’t recognize why this topic peaked my interest. In my mind, these women lived a world apart from me. We had nothing in common, so I initially thought. I don’t know if it happened that night – it could have been days later – but I eventually arrived at the realization that what had happened to me when I was seven years old was NOT something that happened to all girls. In fact it was considered a violation of human rights. 

I confronted  my mother about it. I showed her documentation confirming that what had shidabeen done to me was considered a form of FGM. In an accusatory tone I asked her why she did this to me. Her response was straightforward and simple: hygienic purposes. I pressed her further but all I got was “apna ma karvanu che” , our people must do it. At some point I asked her if she enjoyed sex; she told me she did. Although I was still upset, her response brought me some relief.

During college, I visited a gynecologist and informed her about my experience. With the knowledge in hand, she examined my genitalia. Much to my relief, she was unable to discern any physical evidence of the cut. After college, I visited another gynecologist and she too was unable to detect a physical abnormality. 

I grew up in a traditional Dawoodi Bohra family and I underwent khatna. Much to my community’s dismay, neither circumstance prevented me from engaging in premarital sex. Because I have no previous comparison, I cannot say with 100% certainty that it is because of khatna, I am unable orgasm from clitoral stimulation. However, if I had to put money on it, I would. I may look normal down there physically, but from personal experience, I’ve discovered that my clitoris is not a sex organ like it should be. In fact for me, clitoral stimulation leads to pain, not pleasure. Medically, this is known as allodynia –pain due to stimulus that does not usually provoke pain. My guess is that although undetectable to the human eye, my clitoris underwent nerve damage when I was seven years old. All because, apna ma karvanu che.

I don’t want others to read this and feel sorry for me. I have come to terms with what happened to me and I have moved passed it. Sympathy is not what I am asking for. What I am asking is that this practice stop. That is why I am sharing my story. I want future generations to be spared.

FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING A Continuing Tradition

(Original Post on Imagining Equality Project Page, published in July 2014 by Global Fund for Women & International Museum of Women)

In this deeply personal piece, author Mariya Taher wrestles with and speaks out against khatna, female genital cutting, a tradition practiced by her family community. Read her story and the stories of six other interviewees below.

 

***

Having experienced khatna at a young age, I know firsthand the tremendous toll that a community’s traditions can have on the women and men who live according to them. What follows is my story and the story of six women interviewed for my thesis, who live in the United States and underwent khatna. The women ranged in age from 22 to 59 years, were born or spent the majority of their lives in the United States, and have some amount of higher education. They all experienced khatna between the ages of 5 to 7 years.

By interweaving their voices with my own khatna experience, I hope to show the wide spectrum of emotions and experiences involved in such a complicated practice. Most importantly, I hope to break the isolated feeling, the unspoken taboo surrounding FGC. We are not alone. FGC is a shared experience by many women, bound by tradition, living today.


“When men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition.”

~ Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Some refer to it as Female Circumcision; others call it Female Genital Mutilation. As a child, I knew it as khatna. No matter the name, it is the process of removing part or all of the female genitalia. Within the Dawoodi Bohra religious community, a ritual performed on girls. I never knew it violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let alone was a practice criminalized in the United States by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

According to the United Nation’s Children Fund, more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in Africa and the Middle East. As many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade.[i] Within the United States, the Center for Disease Control, found that in 1990 an estimated 168,000 girls and women were living with or at risk for FGC. In 2000, it was found that an estimated 228,000 women had undergone the procedure or were at risk, resulting in a 35% increase from 1990.[ii]

The practice is categorized as violence against women, yet the community I was raised in, often praising themselves for emphasizing women’s education, practiced it. In graduate school, for my thesis, I sought to answer the question of why FGC continued in this day and age.

Upon initial research, I found, to my dismay, that reports on FGC within the United States, only included immigrant women from African countries where the practices was widely known to occur. Excluded from statistics were women like me, born in the United States, growing up in a community whose origins were from Asia and knew FGC to be an important tradition. Further, few qualitative studies, depicting the stories of women, American women, who had knowledge of the practice within this country existed. Here then is my story and the story of six women interviewed for my thesis, who live in the United States and underwent khatna. [iii]

I found, to my dismay, that few qualitative studies, depicting the stories of women, American women, who had knowledge of the practice within this country existed.

These women shared their experiences due to a promise of anonymity. They had to. They did not want loved ones – those who performed khatna or allowed their daughter to undergo it, getting in legal trouble.  Within the United States, consequences of contributing to FGC can result in removal of child custody, prison time and/or deportation.[iv]

The Khatna Stories

(Note: quotes from interviews are italicized)

The summer before I began second-grade, my family visited relatives in India. One morning, my mother and aunt took me to an apartment inside a run-down building located in Bhindi Bazaar, a Dawoodi Bohra populated neighborhood in south Mumbai. Inside the apartment, several elderly ladies dressed in saris greeted us. Initially there was laughter and much chatter. Then I was asked to lie on the bare floor. The frilly dress I wore was pulled up to reveal my midriff and my underwear pulled down, revealing parts I had been taught were to remain private. I couldn’t see what it was, but something sharp cut me and I began crying out in pain.

You’re given a pain injection, pain medication, to numb the area and the piece of skin that’s removed is not even a centimeter, not even a millimeter it’s so tiny.

Once the procedure was complete, my mother embraced me and the elderly ladies, trying to be friendly, handed me a soft drink called Thumbs-Up to chase away tears streaming down my face. We then left the dilapidated building and I hid the memory from my conscious for the next several years.

As a teenager I learned what happened was Type 1 FGC, where all or part of the clitoral hood is removed, sometimes along with the clitoris. But this image is not brought to people’s minds with FGC is mentioned. Instead, Type III or infibulation, the most severe form, involving removal of all or part of the external genitalia, is the form garnering the most attention. Leaving Type 1 to be understudied.

People try to generalize the practice. They put it in a box, so when you think of FGM you think of tribal communities in Africa. African girls getting sewn up and glass bottles and shards of glass cutting them and you think of the worse, you think of the extreme.

After learning khatna violated human rights, I became angry with the Dawoodi Bohras and for a few years, I emotionally struggled with what had been done to me. I also wondered if khatna had negatively impaired my sexual abilities. Gynecologist today cannot distinguish any genitalia differences, perhaps there were no adverse effects. I do not know. But I alone did not have this fear:

I was scared because my mom always talks about how she hates sex and it’s the worst thing God ever created. It’s probably because she doesn’t fucking enjoy it. Geez, no wonder because who knows how much of her clitoris is gone.

Yet since learning what happened to me, I never once grew angry at my mother. She was doing what she believed was necessary for me to be a good Dawoodi Bohra girl. My mother was only following the traditions she had been raised with:

My mother told me she’d been approached by a woman in the community, an elder like the priest’s wife and she told my mother it was time for me to get it done. And my mom didn’t question it because she felt it was something that we all had to do. And she herself had done it and her mother before her had been cut.

And tradition is a hard beast to slay, if the practice becomes normalized, common, like getting your period:

It was something we all knew we had to get done at that age [7]…It’s like when you get your period…if other people have gotten it then it’s just a rite of passage and you’re ok.

Like any tradition, to those with family and friends who underwent the same procedure, and to see them come out okay, the fear and uncertainty of the unknown is taken away.  But for others, there is an emotionally scarring that cannot be erased.

I felt violated. I felt it was a situation completely out of my control. I went through everything you go through in a trauma- although it happened many years before. I went through that trauma at 19 and it lasted for years. I was depressed. I was acting out.

Some suffered. Some did not. There had to be a reason why this centuries old practice was continued generations after generation. I learned of many reasons:

I don’t know if it’s a definition of being Muslim or if it’s one of the criteria for having to become Muslim, but it is a pretty important factor when people convert to Islam they have to get this done…I mean not just for an external appearance or for society to know it has been done. I mean not for that reason alone, but it somehow affects your mind and body and that change is necessary for you to become Muslim. In that regard I would get it done, but to be honest I would just continue it because of the tradition.

I’ve asked around as to why it has been [performed] and I’ve gotten different answers like some of it’s just been for religious purposes, but our bhen sahab (religious clergy’s wife) told us it enhances your sexual experience but I’ve heard otherwise. I think it’s more done because they’ve been following it for many years and they don’t stray from tradition.

Tradition constitutes the transmission of customs or beliefs between generations. Tradition was the overarching theme for continuing khatna among Dawoodi Bohras. The practice was believed to connect women to their culture and for those who agreed with the practice, it was part of their identity. Even when communities crossed oceans to establish new lives elsewhere, this tradition continued, providing a sense of comfort often lacking in an alien world.

I found through observation that people within the United States overcompensate for the fact they’re not living in India and far from their homeland. So they really make sure they stay within the culture that they know, so for that reason I feel they probably practice it more than people in India who have probably left the practice because they’re  around that community all the time and people here it’s like we don’t want to lose that culture, we don’t want our kids to lose that culture, so they abide by every single rule more so.

The need to hold on to culture is a strong pull within this community, perhaps more so in the United States, where the ideals and values often feel contradictory to those in the homeland.

I think it’s still done by a lot of our immigrant parents to their children here because of the western temptation and sex and partying and all of these things that their children are exposed to…that might not normally happened in India or Africa

Not all agree with the practice. Yet, speaking against it comes with consequences.

I didn’t want to [speak up and] make it bad for my parents because all they have is this community and they want to be a part of it and they choose to be a part of it. I don’t identify with it but it’s all they have. They’re here. They’re immigrants from another country. They’re not going to find people like them anywhere else. They need that and now they’re old and they want it even more.

She continues to explain:

It’s the social ostracism that people are worried about. Not belonging and the gossiping and the reputation trashing.

The need to belong, to feel socially accepted, a universal feeling, can prevent those who would oppose FGC from speaking, feeling they would be in the minority and not wanting to be socially excluded.

I shared the khatna stories, not so that any of us can be viewed as victims of an intolerable act, but to illustrate FGC is a complicated custom. It cannot simply be considered an act continued by ignorant people, the reasons given for its’ continuation have been rationalized and been given cultural or religious significance. My wish is not to disgrace this community but to demonstrate the role tradition plays in continuing a practice oppressive to women. Khatna is considered a private matter, not one to be discussed openly. Yet, that is the first step towards bringing an end to this centuries old practice imposing violence on women. Let the conversation continue.

 


[i] Retrieved June 30, 2014, from UNICEF – http://www.unicef.org/media/files/FGCM_Lo_res.pdf

[ii] Female Genital Cutting Research. (2008, February 11). African Women’s Health Center. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital: http://www.brighamandwomens.org/Departments_and_Services/obgyn/services/africanwomenscenter/research.aspx

[iii] World Health Organization. (2010, February). Female genital mutilation. Retrieved on

April 12, 2010 from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

[iv] Legislation on Female Genital Mutilation in the United States. (2004, November).

Retrieved March 20, 2009, from Center For Reproductive Rights: www.reproductiverights.org

– See more at: http://imaginingequality.globalfundforwomen.org/content/female-genital-cutting#sthash.g8x2aTvi.dpuf