The UN General assembly observes February 6 as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). According to the latest UNICEF report, atleast 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM in 30 countries across the world.
A country that is not yet on that list is India, where the practice of FGM has been carried out for years among the Muslim Bohra community. For the first time, women from this community have come forward and spoken against this practice.
“I was seven when a local midwife circumcised me. I remember that it was very painful. My mother and my grandmother took me to a dingy house in Bhindi Bazar, a Bohra community–dominated area in Mumbai. That house belonged to a local midwife. I was made to sit inside and they lifted my dress and pulled down my underwear. I was told it would be something very quick and would hurt just a little bit. The midwife, took a blade out and used it to cut a thin layer of my clitoris. At that time, I remember feeling that pain, but eventually it went away and I also forgot about it.”
Many years later, Aarefa Johari started to understand and explore what had happened to her when she was just seven years old. Khatna as it is known locally in India, is the practice of FGM. The Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of the Shia community spread predominantly across Gujarat and Maharashtra, is the only reported community to practise FGM in India.
In her teens, when Aarefa asked her mother about Khatna, she was told it was necessary for health reasons. “It was only when I was in university that I started to understand it. I argued with my mother and blamed her for a long time. But eventually, I accepted it and forgave her. She too was part of the system.” The emphasis being on “system”.
The practice of FGM is not religious, but is considered a cultural tradition. Even though it is practiced in Muslim societies, nowhere is it mandated in The Quran nor is it promoted by any Islamic practitioner on religious grounds.
Almost a year ago, five women, from different backgrounds, decided to get together to form Sahiyo, first ever community-driven NGO in India, working towards eradicating the practice of FGM among the Muslim Bohra Community.
Aarefa who is also one of the founders, says that through their work, they want to emphasise the values of consent and a woman and a child’s right over her own body. Currently Sahiyo is a five-member team spread over three different countries.
Unlike many conservative communities in India, the Bohras are considered to be among the progressive, educated and financially well-off communities in the country. But the traditional practice of Khatna remains one of the most reactionary and socially backward challenges that many women like Aarefa are trying to comprehend and fight.
“Our aim is to initiate dialogue. The primary thing is to break the silence on this taboo subject first. Our final goal is completely eradicating this practice, not just among Bohras in India, but the diaspora all across the globe, as well,” says Aarefa.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), “Female genital mutilation comprises of all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.”
WHO has also classified Female genital mutilation into four major types:
Type 1 — Clitoridectomy: Which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris.
Type 2 — Excision: This is partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora
Type 3 — Infibulation: This is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
Type 4 — Others: Which are all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
In India, the Dawoodi Bohra community follows “Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris”. The term used for the clitoris by the women in the community is Haraami boti or Haram Ki Chamdi.
Internationally this practice has been recognized as a violation of human rights of girls and women. However, reluctance to legislate against this procedure is still prevalent, especially in India.
Masooma Ranalvi, another Muslim Bohra woman who underwent FGM at the age of seven, says it took her almost four decades to realise what had happened to her, when she was taken to a local midwife by her grandmother.
“I still remember that day, very clearly. My grandmother took me to a building, she led me to a room and I was asked to lie down. I was wondering why they wanted me to lie down on the floor and remember being very scared. I didn’t know what was happening, and I was holding my grandmothers hand. That lady took my clothes off, and told me it would take a minute and then I could go home.”
“I was hurt, it was painful for the next few days, and it did scar my childhood, but as time went by, I forgot about this incident and moved on, only to realize it in my late fourties, what actually happened to me that day.”
Masooma Ranalvi, along with 18 other Muslim Bohra women, got together under the forum – ‘Speak out on FGM’ – to begin a conversation on this extremely secretive ritual which has caused “physical and psychological” damage to them.
An online petition with almost 44,000 signatures is an attempt to urge the Indian government to pass a law banning this practice in India.
“The response on this petition has been extraordinary. We have had a lot of support and so many more Muslim Bohra women have come out and spoken about their own experience. It’s encouraging them to make this bold step,” says Ranalvi.
However, four years ago, when Priya Goswami was working on her national award winning documentary, “A pinch of skin”, on the practice of FGM in India, she said, one of the biggest challenges as a film-maker was simply to get the Bohra Muslim women to come out and tell their stories.
“Back then everyone was comfortable with anonymity in varying degrees. But things have changed drastically. Today, so many women are willing to reveal identities and speak out more openly on the subject. It is no longer a hush-hush subject.