Twenty-six-year-old Sakina remembers the day “in vivid detail”. Her mother had made her wear a pink dress, and set off for the dargah. “I was just seven, but I was still baffled because I had never worn a dress to the dargah. We were in Bhendi Bazaar, Mumbai, and instead of going to the dargah, we entered a damp, dark house in a dingy lane. Inside was a woman, wearing a hijab. I was made to lie down. The woman held my legs and told me there was some haraam in my body, and that we need to get rid of it. I cried for days, because of the pain,” says Sakina, a Bohra Muslim woman who now lives in Mumbai.
Long after she became an adult, Sakina thought that khatna or female genital mutilation (FGM) was the religious obligation of every Muslim woman. “Just a couple of years ago, I realised that only we (Bohra Muslims) are subject to this.” Agitated at what she calls a “betrayal of faith”, she confronted her parents, to understand why they didn’t take a stand against the “horrific process”. The only answer that she got revolved around “traditions and customs”.
The Bohra ritual of khatna involves snipping off the tip or hood of a young girl’s clitoris, which is defined by the World Health Organisation as Type I FGM or clitoridectomy. This is done when a Bohra girl turns seven, in a clandestine manner by midwives or doctors in Bohra-run hospitals. It is rooted in the patriarchal belief that the sexuality of girls need to be curtailed so that they do not become “promiscuous”. Soon after a girl is cut, mothers hold a small celebratory lunch, where only girls who are “cut” are invited, and it is seen as a sign of growing up.
Over the years, a wave of disquiet has swept the community, as a new generation questions the discriminatory practice — and comes to terms with the trauma caused by this childhood violation.
Five years ago, Mumbai-based Samina, 26, came across an article describing the ill-effects of FGM. She confronted her mother, who apologised, admitting that she too had no clue why her great-grandmother insisted that all girls in the family do it. When her best friend, also a Bohra, told her that “it’s done to enhance a woman’s sexual pleasure”, Samina was eager to believe it. “Truth is, I didn’t want to accept that my body had been violated beyond repair even though I could feel something was amiss,” she says.
“It’s like when you are molested, you know your body has been violated. You can’t prove it to the world but the trauma stays with you. I spoke about being cut after 40 years — it’s not like I wanted to but it still haunts me. Moreover, it is done unjustly,” says Masooma Ranalvi, who has been leading the anti-FGM movement under the banner of Speak Out On FGM since 2005. “Though there is no scientific proof and I can’t pinpoint it to FGM but the number of women in the community who have told me that they don’t feel aroused during sex is appalling,” she says.
A recent Supreme Court notice is forcing the community to confront these accounts of violence. Last month, the court sought a “detailed reply” from the Centre and four states — Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi — in response to a petition seeking a ban on FGM. While Bohra Muslim women have been working to mobilise the community against the practice for a few years now, the petition was filed independently by Delhi-based advocate Sunita Tiwari, who works in the field of child rights. “This practice violates children’s rights. I have nothing to do with the religious aspect but children should not suffer.”
There is disagreement within the community whether seeking a judicial fiat on khatna is the way to go. Ranalvi admits that the petition, which will come up for hearing in June, has left her unsettled. “Although it quotes us, we were never consulted. We have been working with the community, sensitising them, speaking out for a long time now. I am just apprehensive that if it is rejected, the doors of judiciary will be completely shut for us.”
Ranalvi, with the help of senior counsel Indira Jaising, has just released a law report. They plan to intervene in the petition in the Supreme Court to strengthen the case for a ban on FGM by demonstrating that only a separate law is the way forward. It has been submitted to the Women and Child Development Ministry. “Since we are right at the centre of this storm, we are in a better position to put facts on record. Most importantly, our voices should be heard,” she says.
The petition has also led to a backlash against activists by staunch supporters of the religious head, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. Many women have been abused and threatened on social media.
Another group, called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), has been formed to counter the anti-FGM campaign. “Yes, many of us may well be circumcised, as were our mothers and grandmothers before us. The Constitution of India gives us this right to freedom of conscience and religion,” says Rashida Diwan, founding member.
In 2016, the Syedna’s office had released a press statement: “Male and female circumcision (called khatna or khafz) are religious rites that have been practised by Dawoodi Bohras throughout their history. Religious books, written over a thousand years ago, specify the requirements for both males and females as acts of religious purity. This religious obligation finds an echo in many other Muslim communities, particularly those following the Sunni Shafi’i school of thought…” Everyone does not have the right to perform khatna. To be a cutter, you require a razaa from the Syedna.
But as Irfan Engineer, 55, who has been actively involved in the anti-FGM movement for the last couple of years, explains, there is no mention of it in the Quran. “The Bohra religious leadership, however, refer to a text called Daimul Islam, written 300 years after the death of the Prophet by al-Qadi al-Nu’manin. It mentions khatna of seven-year-olds just once, on the authority of Imam Ali, the son of Prophet Mohammed,” he says. FGM is practised by all Bohra sects — Dawoodi, Sulemani and Alvi Bohras.
Over the last few years, a strong anti-FGM movement has taken root in the community, with a large number of women speaking out against the practice, and pushing for a ban.
In 2011, an anonymous Bohra woman filed a petition, also addressed to the government of India, asking for a ban on the practice, which also leads to medical complications. The petition gathered support from almost 3,000 people. Though the petition inspired other Bohra women to come out and talk about the gruesome practice, it soon withered as the movement had no face to it. On December 17, 2015, a group of women, a part of Speak Out on FGM, launched an online petition, which has till now gathered almost 90,000 signatures. This is significant as the community is extremely closely knit, and keeps a low profile about their problems, for the fear of being ostracised. The women have also sent several letters to the religious head of the Dawoodi Bohra community. They have not got any response.
Farzana (name changed) is a doctor, who has a razaa, but stopped conducting khatna five years ago. “I cut girls for over 20 years. I even cut my own daughter. But once she grew up, I realised what I had done to her. She was livid. She made me rethink the whole issue. I have stopped cutting since then,” she says.
Naeema (name changed), a 53-year-old resident of Rajasthan, says sensitisation is the key to eradicate this practice. She was cut in Kolkata at the age of seven. “I remember something had happened.
But I was so young that over the years, I forgot about the incident. It never stayed with me,” she says. But when a girl was born to her sister, both of them took a stand. “We ensured she doesn’t have go through what we did. It was a rebellious act, our protest. But it was worth it,” she says.