My Sahiyo U.S. Activists Retreat Reflection

By Maryah Haidery

Growing up as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Community in the United States is a challenging experience, especially for women. It’s like precariously walking across a tightrope while trying to balance two vastly different worlds. In one world, there are the positive benefits that come from belonging to a community rich with tradition and ritual, with a strong emphasis on family. In the other world, there are the progressive ideas that come from living in a country (United States) whose core values emphasize reason and individualism and women’s rights. Usually, those of us who grew up here in the U.S. can find a way to reconcile the two worlds, but certain Bohri practices like khatna or FGC can make that very difficult and force those of us who really care about the values in the U.S. world to call into question everything we knew or thought we knew about the first world, the Bohra world.

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When I realized that I was cut as a child and that this practice was not common among other girls, not even most other Muslim girls, I felt very isolated and “different”. The isolation was made more acute because khatna was a subject that was never spoken about, not even among other girls who were my age. When my sister first told me about the existence of groups like Sahiyo and We Speak Out, I finally felt like I was not alone, and by telling my story of undergoing khatna, I could start the process of healing and perhaps give a voice to those of us who are not yet ready to share their stories.

It was in this spirit that I attended the first ever Sahiyo activist retreat this past January. I wanted to meet the brave women who had been the first to speak out openly against FGC and who allowed the rest of us to finally have a platform to do so. I also wanted to learn more about the medical, legal and religious aspects of the practice so that I could talk about it with both the media and members of the community in a way that was challenging the practice without necessarily denigrating the people who chose to practice it.

IMG_3915.jpgThe retreat was so much more gratifying than anything I had expected. The retreat helped me to learn quite a lot about khatna, the power of storytelling and the challenges that FGC activists face. But more importantly, the retreat helped me learn quite a bit about myself and my need to feel validated and heard. The women I met at the retreat differed vastly in their ages and backgrounds. Some were from conservative jamaats [congregations] and some were from what I consider more liberal jamaats. Some were still pretty active in the community and others less so. Some felt ready to publicly share their stories, others were less comfortable. But they all had a story I could relate to in some way and they all shared a commitment to help end this practice for the next generation of Bohri girls.

For me, speaking out about a practice like FGC has sometimes been challenging. Sometimes it has felt like the media and certain political groups have used my story to further their political motives while additionally, people in the community I care about have attacked me for being a traitor. It’s a journey that has felt scary and demoralizing and frustrating as much as the journey has felt empowering and worthwhile. That’s why being a part of this January retreat and learning that I was not alone in this journey was such a priceless experience.

To learn more about the U.S. Bohra Activist Retreat, read the report!

Female Genital Cutting: Religion has nothing to do with it

By: Anonymous

Country: United States
Age: 34

Around the age of seven, unbeknownst to me at the time, extended family members asked my parents when they would be taking me to have khatna done. In the country we lived in at the time, it was the norm for girls in our community to get it done when they hit that age. My dad opposed this practice vehemently and refused to let it happen to his three girls. In the 1980s, opposing khatna was completely shocking and unconventional, let alone having a father speak his mind. Close family members were told to lie and hide our “secret”.

I myself didn’t uncover this secret until much later as a teenager, when I heard women discussing this thing called ‘khatna’ within family walls. These talks occurred within women-only audiences, where they spoke in code if their 7-8 year-old daughters were in the room with us. Later, I asked mum what this hush hush topic was about and that is when she revealed the secret to me. She also informed me that I should not let anyone know that my sister and I hadn’t been ‘cut’. In those days, my parents would have been social pariah if the truth came out.

Fast forward a few decades later and it hit me that my sisters and I were the only ones, in our entire Bohri side of the family (that I am aware of), who were spared the horror of undergoing what I now know as FGM. Thankfulness and gratefulness isn’t enough for what my father did for us back in the day when he stood up for our rights when no one else would have. I have cousins who regret that it happened to them and a few aunts who regret doing it to their daughters. I now live in the United States and see that this practice still lives on, whether it’s against the law or not, and it hurts me knowing that it is still easy to find a cutter, that mothers of my generation will still ‘cut’ their precious girls because the highest religious office in the community still preaches that it’s the right thing to do.

The Detroit case gives me a glimmer of hope that maybe people within our communities living in the United States will think twice about performing FGM on minors, and that parents will think hard and long before subjecting their girls to this practice. I’m hoping it creates a ripple-effect throughout communities that live here. On the other hand, I know that as long as this practice is encouraged by the leadership, it will continue. Parents will take their children out of this country in an effort to ensure this practice lives because they still think it’s the right thing to do as it is prescribed by our religion and by the leadership of this community. Most seem blinded by the clergy and won’t go against what they prescribe no matter the risk, as this case highlights.

As we speak of religion, this case also gives me shudders because if the legal defense of the doctor who was charged is using religion as a justification to continue and allow FGM, then to the wider world, Islam is to blame. I cringe at the thought of FGM being tied to Islam because there is nothing Islamic about circumcising young girls to curb their sexual desires. If there was anything in Islam about khatna, it would be stated in our Holy Qur’an, which is every Muslim’s ultimate guide to the way we live our lives. If khatna was prescribed by God and mentioned in His book, billions of Muslims around the world would be doing it. There are only a fraction of Muslims around the world that practice FGM, and it stems from a cultural and ritualistic base. I hope that the magnitude of khatna, what it does to a young girl’s psyche and the fact that there is no basis in Islam for khatna, does not pass the ‘religious freedom’ excuse in our court system.

 

Let us not vilify the Detroit doctor as we work to end Female Genital Cutting

By: Anonymous

Country: United States
Age: 34

Shortly after my seventh birthday, I went to visit my grandmother in New York. My mother told me this visit was going to be special because I turned seven and I had to have something “important done”.  “All girls have to have it done when they turn seven,” I was told, just as my older sisters had it done before me.  My mother said it was to ensure a “good marriage” when I am older. At the age of seven, this was a more than sufficient explanation for me. I just took this explanation as the norm, and even believed that women of all faiths and cultures must undergo the same experience. At the time, I had no idea that day would be life-changing for me on so many levels.  

The procedure harmed me physically. It was, unsurprisingly, botched, being conducted on a basement floor by an untrained older housewife in our community. But the message I was told that day – “this will help your marriage”, and messages I was subsequently told throughout my life “this is to make sure women’s urges are controlled”, “these things are done to make sure you are loyal to your husband”, “women need to appease their husband” – these messages are what truly did the most psychological harm. These messages have caused me to live a life in which I felt inferior to my partner and felt shame for all my natural urges/feelings.  

As I grew more aware of how that day impacted me, I became upset and resentful. I was angry about what I was forced to go through and constantly wondered what would have been if that day never happened. Thinking about other little girls, who would undoubtedly have to undergo the same thing, overwhelmed me with feelings of anger, sadness, and helplessness. I hoped people in our community would stop subjecting innocent girls to this practice. I wished people would wake up and realize they were doing more harm than good – that they were truly doing no good at all.  

A few days ago news broke of a female doctor in Detroit who was charged with illegally performing FGM on two young girls. My first reaction – like that of many who are opposed to this practice was a feeling of vindication. Someone was finally being held responsible for this practice. People might start becoming aware that this is a serious problem, not just abroad, but right here in the US. I also thought this case might act as a deterrent for many other people who are thinking of performing FGC.

After witnessing people’s reaction to the news, my vindication soon turned into disheartenment. People adamantly opposed to the practice or adamantly opposed to Islam, began to vilify this doctor as a cruel heartless sexual predator. But that is not what I saw in her. I just saw a woman, just like my mother, aunt, or grandmother. A woman – a mother who was trying to do what was best.

My mother did not take me for that procedure with some malicious intent to hurt me. She did so, in the same manner, many of us take our children for immunizations, needed surgeries, or even male circumcisions. It hurts us to subject our children to anything painful, but we do so with the firm believe that it is being done in their best interest. We put faith in our medical professional’s guidance because they are widely respected and trusted as experts in a field. Similarly, people living in a Bohra community – those constantly surrounded by those of similar faith – put their faith in the guidance of their religious leaders. In their world, these leaders are widely accepted as trusted “experts” who know what is best for each one of us. For them, the divine rules set forth by these leaders well supersede standards set by medical communities or politicians.  

So I look at this woman and I don’t see a villain – I see a victim. A victim like myself who has undoubtedly also been unjustly cut as a child. A woman who was not only physically abused in the past but also continues to be mentally manipulated into acting against her better judgment. I am not completely absolving her from the choices she made – everyone must take responsibility for their actions, and she could have acted differently. I am just attempting to explain, from the perspective of her world, how it often might seem like there is no choice for her to do otherwise.  

So by villainizing her, punishing her – you may scare some other doctors from conducting the practice. You may deter some other mothers from having their children undergo the procedure. But punishing her does not punish the true abusers. As long as the male leaders continue to advocate for this practice and maintain its importance in religious doctrine, followers will continue to adhere to the guidance of their respected leaders. My worst fear is that this public case mixed with continued pro-FGC messaging from our community will drive this practice underground even more. So instead of having doctors illegally practice in their sanitized clinics after hours – our girls will be subjected to experiences similar to mine – being cut by their grandmothers on an unsanitary cold basement floor.  

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

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

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

What is the Detroit case all about?

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

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

Bohras have been aware that FGC is illegal in USA

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

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

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

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

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

A deeply-entrenched social norm

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

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

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

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

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

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

A law is not enough

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

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

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

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

I don’t remember my khatna. But it feels like a violation

(First published on February 23, 2016)

Zehra Patwa

Age: 45

Country: United States

In 2014, I saw a video that changed my life.  My husband sat me down, told me that this was going to be upsetting and showed me a video.  It was a documentary from Australia featuring my cousin’s wife recounting her experience of being cut at the age of 7 in a dingy apartment in India by an old woman. Her telling of the story horrified me, which is the same reaction I have always had about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) but what threw me was the fact that this was a Bohra woman, like me.  She said this happens to all Bohra girls around the age of 7 and that it had happened to her sister, too.  For a moment, I refused to believe it but as she kept talking, I realized that it could have been done to me too.

I grew up in the UK and moved to the US in 1994.  I immediately recalled that summer trip to India at the tender age of 7 to attend my uncle’s wedding.  My mother had made me new dresses and I had matching hats and headpieces to go with them.  It was going to be so much fun.

What I couldn’t recall, though, was the actual khatna, but I have since received confirmation from my family that it was done to me. Even then, the reality did not sink in. How could I not remember it?  Maybe it wasn’t done to me after all, maybe it was all a ruse to “save face”.  What I’ve learned since is that some women erase the memory of the traumatic event completely and utterly.  Sometimes, it can be restored and other times it can’t.  I still haven’t accepted if it’s better to know or to not know.  Either way, it feels like a violation.

I cannot stand by quietly and let other girls in our Bohra community be subjected to this terrible practice.  I will not be silent. Even though I do not recall my personal khatna, I feel lasting psychological damage has been done just knowing that it happened to me. I can only imagine the physical and psychological damage done to those girls and women who, to this day, have vivid memories of it.

The Bohra jamaats in Sydney and Melbourne in Australia and, now, London in the UK have banned khatna (khafd).  Why do our sisters from all over the Bohra diaspora still have to suffer when our sisters in Australia and London are spared?  Are Bohra women valued more in some countries than others?  All Bohra women are subject to the same rules and edicts from Aqa Maula, why is this any different?

Khatna is illegal under Female Genital Mutilation laws in the US (18 U.S. Code § 116 – Female genital mutilation) but if khatna should not be done by some Bohras, shouldn’t it be extended to all Bohras regardless of the law in that country?  If you had a daughter in Dubai, would you still consider subjecting them to khatna if your sisters in Australia and the UK are specifically told not to?

‘I deeply resented what was done to my most intimate parts without my permission’

Age: 64

Country: United States

It’s time to take a stand against Female Genital Mutilation. It’s long overdue. It wasn’t right when my mother went through it (I assume she did but I never asked her about it), it wasn’t right when I went through it and it wasn’t right when I put my daughter through it (under pressure from my parents).

I have a hazy recollection of the day the FGM was performed on me back in India. I was approximately six or seven years old. My brother, who was older than me, was sent away for the day to play at a friend’s house. A lady, who I’d never seen before, came over and I was taken to my parents’ bedroom where the FGM was performed.

I seem to have blocked the uncomfortable memory of that event and day – except for that image of the lady and my mom holding me down. I’m not sure what explanation was given to me about the reason why this had to be done. I remember deeply resenting what was done to the most intimate part of my body without my permission – akin to being violated. Most of all, I resent the fact that the person whom I trusted the most in life at that young age, allowed it to happen. Maybe, that is why, there is a part of me that cannot forgive my mom and I am amazed that my daughter has forgiven me for doing the exact same thing that I resented being done to me.

FGM is an insidious custom using the cloak of religion to appear correct. It’s only a matter of time when the untiring work of organizations like Sahiyo will stop this barbaric tradition rooted in a twisted interpretation of Islamic traditions. Till the Syedna denounces FGM, and puts his words into action, I will be ashamed to call myself a Dawoodi Bohra.

(Cover photo courtesy: ‘A Pinch of Skin’)