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India's female genital mutilation: a thousand-year-old secret

So little was known, until recently, about the secretive practice of FGM in a small  Muslim community that India is not even on the UN’s list of FGM countries.

Mausoleum of Dawoodi Bohra community. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

India’s Dawoodi Bohra community has been so closeted about its practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that its recent disclosure shocked even women’s rights activists. It was the highly publicised criminal trial of the FGM of two Bohra girls in Australia, in 2010 and 2011, which shattered the secrecy around this practice.  Following investigation and trial, the mother of the girls, the midwife and a Bohra priest in Australia were sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2016.

They are a Shia Muslim sect that migrated to India  from Yemen in the 12th century.  Their custom of FGM probably originated in Yemen as it’s still a widespread practice there. The Bohra population is only about one million in size, with most settled in western India, and smaller communities in other countries.   

Perhaps what shocks most is that this practice is being carried out among the Bohras who are regarded as a progressive, prosperous and well educated community.  In fact, the Bohras are proud that their daughters are encouraged to excel in their education and jobs in much the same way as their sons. Most Bohra women are not veiled and choose modern, western attire and lifestyles. Even the burkha of Bohra women, called the Rida, is designed to reflect the community’s view of itself as being innovative and progressive. The Rida leaves the face uncovered, with a flap as option, and instead of the conservative black, it is always in bright colours like deep pinks, reds and greens, with lace and designs.

Nonetheless, recent testimonies and initiatives by Bohra women indicate that FGM is practiced widely.  In 2015 a group of women launched ‘Sahiyo’ meaning ‘female friend,’ an online platform that aims to create a safe, women-supported space for Bohra FGM survivors to share their personal stories and to lobby support via a petition for a law to ban FGM in India.  As there is no law in India banning FGM, a survey by Sahiyo indicates that the ratio of Bohra girls who have been subjected to FGM could be as high as 80 per cent. The survey also includes Bohra women in the US, UK and Australia.  After India, the second highest proportion of women in the survey, 31 percent, are in the US.

The Bohras practice Type-I FGM which involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris or clitoral hood. The clitoris is referred to as the ‘Haram ki boti’ or ‘sinful piece of flesh’ a recognition of its biological role in women’s orgasms and libido.  Even though FGM is called ‘Khatna’ or ‘circumcision,’ which is a ‘coming of age’ social ritual and fervently discussed and debated among women in other communities, what makes it odd among the Bohras is that it appears to be an extremely clandestine procedure.   Aarefa Johari, one of the co-founders of Sahiyo says it is never talked about even among girls and women.  Testimonies from Bohra women, discussed in agonising details, show the procedure is carried out by impoverished women practitioners, (who probably just need the income) in unhygienic environments, using a razor blade without anaesthesia.

FGM should be relatively easy to eradicate in India. Clearly many Bohra women want this custom abolished.  Public testimonies of survivors show extreme angst. Many women have admitted that this has affected their sex lives adversely.  Others speak of a much deeper psychological scarring caused by this childhood trauma. As one woman says, ‘The pain was blinding and ravaging… At 33, I feel sick and mentally disturbed because still I remember that day… I can only believe that most of our women feel like me. But consider themselves weak to change. But I ask still, Why? How can we put our children through this horror of FGM?’ Oddly, even though many Bohra women are extremely uncomfortable about the practice and want it to stop, there’s no clear answer as to why or how it continues.

‘People fear ostracism in the community,’ explains Aarefa Johari.  She says families who don’t do FGM stay silent about their choice.   Dilshad Tavawala, a child protection lawyer in Canada, who believes FGM is a violation of child rights, also speaks about how ‘the backlash [of ostracisation] is considerable and many just won’t do business with you.’  

While ostracisation is a powerful tool of control in small, homogenous, rural communities, it is generally non-effective for the urban, middle and upper income, educated strata because the environment offers alternatives.  However, what makes the Bohras an exception, is that the community’s structure and function is akin to that of a cult.

The community is tightly controlled by the religious head, the Syedna.  Every individual, from birth, is issued a Bohra identity card without which they are not even allowed to enter their mosques.  Bohras are required to take an oath of allegiance (misaq) to the Syedna, and must obtain his permission not just for religious issues, but for all personal, familial and professional decisions.  Furthermore, they have to pay a compulsory tax to the Syedna for every activity – including birth, death, marriage, business and education.  They must acknowledge him as the ‘Jan-O-Mal ka Malik’ (The Lord and Master of Their Life and Properties) and have the inscription `Abde-Syedna' or ‘Slave of the Syedna’ on their wedding cards.  The Syedna also asserts himself as the sole trustee of all the mosques and associated properties, trusts and monetary contributions.  As Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013), one of the fiercest spokesperson of the Bohra reformist  movement had said, ‘You can’t literally breathe without their permission.’  The punishments for noncompliance are severe and include not being allowed to pray in the mosque, bury a parent, being forcefully divorced, being forcefully disowned by families, physical harm, and sabotage of businesses and careers.  In 1978, the Citizens for Democracy appointed the Nathwani Commission to investigate charges of tyranny against the Syedna. In its 220-page report, the Commission recounted testimonies of victims and said it had found ‘large-scale infringement of civil liberties and human rights.’  Strangely, most Indian media did not report on this. The India Today magazine did but found that witnesses, who had agreed to speak to them, suddenly withdrew.  After receiving threats, the magazine was forced to conceal the reporter’s name.   

Successive Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi to Narendra Modi have pandered to the immensely wealthy Syedna, conferring political clout on his totalitarian control on the Bohra community. The Syedna has encouraged the Bohras to embrace Modi despite widespread aversion to his role as chief minister in the 2002 carnage of Muslims in Gujarat for which he has been rewarded by Modi with a Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards.

In a 2016 public sermon in Bombay, the Syedna instructed the community to continue with FGM. He was responding to the FGM trials and arrests in Australia that year. The Australian authorities had arrested a senior Borah cleric for attempting to thwart investigations and for directing ‘members of the community [in Australia] to give false accounts to the police.’  Fearing a similar crackdown, the Bohra clergy in the US, UK and Europe told their communities to comply with the laws of the land. This was probably just lip-service for it is understood that the Syedna, whose seat is in Bombay, is the ultimate authority for Bohras the world over.  In his public sermon the Syedna emphasised that ‘the act has to happen…Stay firm…Even [for] the big sovereign states…we are not prepared to understand.’

It is critical for India to have an anti-FGM law and to enforce its implementation, especially as India’s medical community has failed to address the ethics of FGM and is inclined to exploit it. The danger here is the medical legitimisation of FGM as Shaheeda Kirtane, co-founder of Sahiyo, points out.

A public petition to the Indian government  by the advocacy group Speak Out on FGM to outlaw FGM in India has garnered more than 80,000 signatures. The groups founder Masooma Ranalvi, a Bohra FGM survivor, who has also been pushing for the UN to recognize FGM in India, has launched a second petition to the UN .  Inclusion in UNFPA and UNICEF’s Joint Programme on the eradication of FGM would give Bohra activists the much needed global support to nudge the Indian government into action. 

About the author

Rita Banerji is a writer, photographer and gender activist. Her book 'Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies' is a historical study of the relationship between gender, sexuality and power in India. She is the founder and director of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global campaign to end India's female gendercide. Twitter handle: @rita_banerji


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