“You can't just cut off a part of another human being's body without their consent, even if you are their parents.”
Social conditioning and secrecy are a terrible and potent combination. While there has been much debate and discussion recently over the various atrocities and challenges women in India face, there are still ancient truths that are only now fighting to crawl out from under the carpet. Female genital mutilation/cutting is one such practice.Involving the partial or total removal of a young girl’s clitoris with the intention of controlling her sexuality, it’s a gross violation of human rights practised in 28 African countries and several Middle Eastern ones as well. Closer home, we have the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims and the only community to still practise it in India and Pakistan. Considering how cloaked it has been for so many years, it’s not an easy subject to get a real-world understanding of either, so we reached out to Aarefa Johari, a journalist who has gone from being a survivor of the unspeakable violation, to actively campaigning against FGM and working closely with the cause of raising awareness about the issue.
Excerpts from the interviews follow:
Johari is one of the few women in the community who has broken the mould by speaking out openly against a ritual that is shrouded in immense secrecy, even within families. In this interview with Homegrown, she sheds light on the various aspects of the little-discussed ritual, including its long-lasting medical and psychological implications for the women who’ve undergone the procedure.
“There are many reasons different communities give for practising different types of Female Genital Mutilation (there are four types according to WHO, based on the degree of severity). Some believe it is essential to make a girl a woman, some even claim it enhances sexual pleasure, but predominantly, I'd say, it is practised because these communities believe that women's sexual urges need to be curbed and moderated. In different communities, it is carried out on girls at different ages - some at birth itself, some at puberty or just before marriage.”
Bohras generally practice Type 1 FGM, which involves snipping just the tip of the clitoral hood or clitoris and it is remarkable, for a practice that is compulsory for all Bohri women, how little the issue is spoken about, with all religious priests or leaders choosing to stay mum about it. While this means that no official reason has been given to explain the reasons behind the century-old practice brought down from Yemen, where Bohras originate from, Aarefa says, “Most people say it is carried out because women have too much sexual energy that must be controlled.”
It is probably the meticulous planning behind the ritual that is the most appalling, as it is carried out on girls around the age of 7 when she is considered ‘innocent’ and young enough to not bleed too much, while still being old enough to remember. Generally taken to the midwife’s house by her mother, she is led to believe that she is going somewhere else - to a relative’s house or a friend’s party - and is thus, caught completely unaware at what lies ahead.
“I was circumcised at the age of 7, like most other Bohra girls. When I was young, there weren't too many proper doctors performing the act, so I was taken to this midwife in one dingy house in Bhendi Bazaar. My mother and my grandmother took me and I think I was just told that we were going out somewhere...In that lady's house, I was made to sit and they lifted my dress and pulled down my underwear; my mom had just told me that it was going to be something quick and it would hurt just a little bit. They were holding me, and the woman did it with a blade. My mom says that she made sure only a thin layer of tissue was scraped. At that time, though, I remember feeling pain that went away after some time - I'm not sure how long - and eventually I forgot about it. I only understood the nature and implications of the ritual later, in my teens.”
Since this is a practice that is carried forward from mother to daughter (or often grandmother to granddaughter through daughters-in-law, who can’t say much), there are many, many Bohra men who have no idea about the practice at all. The younger ones - when they do come to know - often react with horror, and confess that they don’t want their own daughters to undergo it. Aarefa shares that the men don't really take part in it at all and in her case, while she doesn’t think it was actively discussed with the men, she doubts it was kept a secret either. “I think my circumcision was pretty much how it happens to most Bohra girls,” she concedes. “But the thing to understand is, there is no uniform size of a clitoris or clitoral hood; it would differ for different women, and would be harder to figure out on a 7 year old child.”
She elaborates that if you take into account two other factors - that midwives may not cut uniformly on all girls and that the girls are likely to be resisting, squirming, or flinching, then you realise that the experience of the khatna (the Bohra word for FGM) can be different for each person. Some women have had more cut than others, and in some cases, the process has been quite botched, with the entire clitoris ending up damaged.
“Even among those who have the least damage (cutting the tip of the hood) the greater effect is psychological, especially if they were not told anything about the procedure and were suddenly held down, stripped and cut. The memory of that trauma has remained for many women, which does affect their sex life in the future. I've personally spoken to women who said they had to undergo therapy after marriage because they found themselves too scared to be intimate with their husbands. On the other hand, there are also many women who are very pious and believe the practice is necessary and important, and who say they've had no problems at all in their sex lives.”
Other consequences of khatna that women having experienced more severe cuts have spoken about include pain for several days after the cutting, burning sensations while urinating and much later, even excruciating pain during intercourse.
“Personally, what disturbs me the most is that I will never know what sex is like with a normal, full anatomy, because I will never have a frame of reference,” Aarefa reflects.
While the number of women who undergo the procedure is hard to deduce, as there are absolutely no statistics that have been documented, it is safe to assume that a significant majority of the community practices it. “If there is a change in the recent numbers, one wouldn't know because the practice is compulsory, so anyone not doing it to their daughters will keep that a secret,” she says.
We turn to take a look at the women who circumcise the young girls and enquire about their backgrounds, and whether it’s a family profession.
“Traditionally, it has been midwives who carry out the procedure, but increasingly in cities, the cutting is being done by doctors in hospitals - mainly Bohra-run hospitals. As far as the midwives are concerned, yes, I think it did get passed down from generation to generation, although I have not interacted with any present-day midwives to confirm. I have, however, spoken with some doctors who carry out the practice, and most of them have been told to be tight-lipped about it, presumably because FGM is getting so much negative attention around the world and the religious heads know it is controversial.”
Aarefa and a few other activists found out, over the course of their anti-FGM work, that the religious leaders actually have a list of midwives and doctors (not necessarily gynaecologists, and not even necessarily Bohras) who are trained by the female religious scholars on how to cut and how much. It is only those on the list are authorised to cut girls, and they are supposedly trained to snip the tip of the clitoral hood. “A few doctors have now started administering anaesthesia because of younger mothers who don't want their children to have those memories,” she tells us.
Aarefa’s efforts against the practice began about three years ago, after an anonymous Bohra woman called Tasleem started an online petition to get the Syedna (the Bohra religious head) to stop the practice. While most Bohra women do not want to reveal their identities if they speak against this practice, she herself is not very religious and doesn't care much about being boycotted and thus, doesn’t mind speaking about her experience openly.
“Now we are a small group of women who are planning a campaign against FGM, mainly focusing on education, discussion and debate within the community. Almost all of us are Bohras - including a filmmaker, a social worker and a researcher - but there is also Priya Goswami, whose documentary on the practice, called A Pinch of Skin, has won a national award. Plus we have quite a few other supporters, both men and women. We believe that this practice can only stop if the community willingly chooses to put an end to it - not if it's imposed by those on the outside.”
The documentary that Aarefa mentions is an incisive 27-minute film made by National Institute of Design (NID) graduate Priya Goswami, who shot the film in 2011-2012 and dared to venture into unexplored territory by depicting several women speaking out openly about the horrors of the little-discussed practice. “One of the biggest challenges was to find Bohra women who were willing to reveal their identities,” Priya tells us. “I felt that it was important to find a visual language that would work, and I really didn’t want to shoot the film in a typical documentary-style manner, where faces are blurred while the conversation continues.”
Having come across a ‘gut-wrenching’ article on FGM in Outlook magazine, Priya confesses she felt extremely uneasy when she came to know about the practice and was driven to make a film to create awareness around the issue. “Things came together quite miraculously, and when I started off I didn’t even know any women from the community, even in my extended circle. I kept myself open to the idea of shooting as I went even as I tried to gauge how many people would be willing to talk about it, as the threat of being ostracised by the community is very real,” she says. “Frankly, I found it difficult to be objective, and was quite shaken by some of the insights. The Bohri community is a very educated and evolved community that are generally very well-to-do, and the practice doesn’t match their culture which I thought was a curious anomaly.”
Priya recalls that what she found the most striking was how mothers were the ones who were choosing to take this practice forward. “What is it that propels mothers to think of this as anything but abuse of their daughters?” she wonders. “I have met many suave educated mother-daughter duos, where there’s a jarring contrast in the Blackberry in the daughter’s hands and her acceptance of her mother’s views on female circumcision.”
Unlike female circumcision, which is limited to the Dawoodi Bohra community in the subcontinent, male circumcision is a Pan-Islamic practice.
“Personally, I am opposed to male circumcision as well, chiefly because among Bohras, it is done to boys at an age when they are too young to consent, just like the girls. You can't just cut off a part of another human being's body without their consent, even if you are their parents. But male circumcision is also different because it is not done to curb their sexual pleasure or desire. It is done for alleged reasons of hygiene and health, and is practised by all Muslims and Jews and, increasingly, even recommended by modern-day doctors for all boys in the West. The studies that indicate the health benefits of male circumcision are not disputed, as far as I know. But studies have shown that FGM has no benefits whatsoever and is actually harmful.”
Aarefa concludes that while she continues to oppose male circumcision at a personal level, that is a battle that men must fight themselves if they want to. She reflects that while it is hard to say whether more Bohri women women have started rationalising and increasingly opposing the practice with each passing generation, the majority of the community still practices khatna. She does note that in the past three years, a number of men have told her that they would not let it happen to their daughters. “And there is a considerable number of people who do want to talk about this, question it, though not openly,” she adds.
Religion can be tricky terrain to navigate, especially with regard to effecting a change in traditions that go so far back, and there are apparently many women in the community who don’t have their daughters undergo the procedure, but claim that they have so as not to face ostracising by the community; thereby using the secrecy around the ritual to protect their daughters.
It is indeed a relief that the futures of some of the daughters within the community are finally being acknowledged, instead of becoming casualty to a ritual that has absolutely no basis in science and is rooted in a shockingly calculative mindset aimed at hampering the sexuality of women. When asked about these newer developments, Priya Goswami opines, “While it’s fantastic that fewer women have to undergo the procedure, by lying about it - you are essentially still playing by their rules.”
It’s still a long road to the abolishment of the practice, which is not going to happen unless mandated by a religious leader, but the past five years have shown a marked increase in conversation around the issue which is a definite start.
“In the long run, I think it will be important for the debate and criticism of the practice to be more public,” Aarefa winds up. “That's the only way in which larger numbers of people will be motivated to make a change.”