With the passing of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, or the Triple Talaq Bill as it is popularly referred to, the NDA government is claiming to be a champion of women’s emancipation. It is, however, ironic that the Bill comes in the midst of another, rather overlooked, development — an ongoing case in the Supreme Court (SC) on whether Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), practised among the two lakh-strong Bohra Muslim community, be banned.
While a survey, conducted by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, has shown that of 4,710 Muslim women from the economically weak strata, 78 per cent had been given unilateral divorce by their husbands, a petition by Speak Out on FGM has stated that at least 90,000 women from the Bohra Muslim community — across all economic strata — have maintained that they have been cut and want the practice to end. In response to a writ petition seeking a ban on the practice, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) held that there is no official data or study that supports the existence of FGM in India. The ministry, in a recent affidavit filed in the SC, said,”It is respectfully submitted that at present there is no official data or study (by NCRB etc) which supports the existence of FGM in India.”
The reply comes as a shock since Minister Maneka Gandhi had, in an interview to a national daily on May 29, 2017, said “We will write to respective state governments and Syedna, the Bohra high priest, shortly to issue an edict to community members to give up FGM voluntarily as it is a crime under IPC and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. If the Syedna does not respond, then we will bring in a law to ban the practice in India.” Following the interview, Speak Out on FGM, a group of Bohra women trying to stop FGM, reached out to her. While she initially said that she would issue an advisory against the practice, later, she stopped responding to their mails.
The Bohra ritual of FGM or khatna involves snipping off the tip or hood of a young girl’s clitoris, which is defined by the WHO 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, according to members of the sect, rooted in the patriarchal belief that the sexuality of girls needs to be curtailed so that they do not become “promiscuous” and is done to “tamper a woman’s sexual desire”.
It should be noted here that khatna is performed on young minor girls who do not have the freedom to choose and whose bodies are violated despite there being a huge outcry against this practice across the world. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. The practice also violates a person’s right to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
More than 23 countries have banned FGM and made it a punishable offence. Countries like the US, UK, France, Australia, Sri Lanka have been extremely proactive in punishing the perpetrators of this practice. However, many under the umbrella organisation Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association For Religious Freedom, have countered the horrific tales and maintained that khatna is performed as part of a religious belief and causes no physical harm. “Female circumcision performed by Dawoodi Bohras is absolutely harmless. There are no ill effects,” a doctor associated with the organisation has maintained. But on December 18, 2014, the United Nations General Assembly adopted by consensus a Resolution which reaffirms its call to ban FGM worldwide. Further, ending FGM is a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of the UN and India stands committed to it. To stop the practice in India, all the community needs is a nod, either from the religious leadership or the Union government. The volte-face of the WCD Ministry has left everyone baffled, because most were hoping that with a green signal from the Centre, the practice may come to an end, more so since the Bohra religious leadership is seen to enjoy a good relationship with the Modi-led BJP.
The late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb, the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq (absolute missionary) of the Dawoodi Bohras and Narendra Modi had a close and cordial relationship. When the Syedna passed away in January 2014, Modi conveyed his condolences with the message: “We will remember Syedna Sahib as a great man who devoted his life in bringing smiles on people’s faces and spreading [the] message of peace and harmony. His demise is a great loss for society.”
In much the same way, Syedna’s son, the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin Saheb, also met with the PM to continue, if not strengthen, the relationship started by his father. This also places Modi in a unique position, unlike any of his predecessors, to be a catalyst for change and bring a ban on the practice of FGM.