(The Supreme Court on 9 July questioned the practice of female genital mutilation of minor girls in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, saying it violates the bodily “integrity” of a girl child. The following article on FGM is being republished from The Quint’s archives.)
A survey done by WeSpeakOut, a survivor-led movement to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), suggests that three in four (or 75%) girls from the Bohra community, a Shia Muslim group with roots in Gujarat, are cut in India around the age of seven. They call it khafd, a religious obligation despite it finding no mention in the Quran itself.
The survey was released in collaboration with the Nari Samta Manch in Delhi on 5 February on the eve of the ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM’, primarily in response to an affidavit submitted by the Ministry for Women and Child Development to the Supreme Court in December 2017. It said: “At present there is no official data or study (by National Crime Records Bureau, etc.), which supports the existence of FGM in India.” The SC is currently hearing a petition to put an end to this practice.
This is in contradiction to the government’s earlier stand when Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development, said that she would ask the Bohra spiritual leader to end FGM internally within the community, failing which the government would ban it. Neither was done, and the government has maintained silence on it ever since.
The research was done over one year and included 83 women and 11 men from six states: Gujarat, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. Bohra expats from Canada, United Arab Emirates, and the United States of America also took part in the study. The sample group also includes traditional circumcisers, healthcare professionals, and teachers.
Taking into account not only numbers, but heart-wrenching case studies of women who opened up about their experience of being cut, find space in this research making it the first and largest ever survey in India to document the impact of FGM.
WeSpeakOut and Nari Samta Manch, along with social activists Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shabana Diler and Natasha Menon hope that the survey will amplify calls for a law to ban FGM, which they say causes physical, emotional and sexual damage.
However, change is slow to come. The Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), with the support of “65,000” Bohra women, in its response to the survey, insists it is a “one-sided representation of views”.
"As a trust that works to assist, encourage and support Dawoodi Bohra women, DBWRF is deeply disappointed with [the] alleged study...It is neither qualitative nor quantitative in its findings, datasets or arguments...The views of these anti-FGM advocates have been incorrectly propagated as the views of the entire Dawoodi Bohra community but in reality, this cannot be further from the truth."
What’s in a Name?
Supporters of the practice defend their “cultural and religious practice” by claiming that khafd (in case of girls) within the Bohra community was merely a “nick on the clitoral hood” and did not qualify as FGM as defined and classified by the World Health Organisation.
The WHO considers all procedures involving the alteration or injuring of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons as a violation of the human rights and an extreme form of gender discrimination.
The practice is officially called Female Genital Mutilation, and is classified into four types based on the severity of the damage done to the genitalia. Based on that, the survey found that majority of Bohras practice Types 1a and 1b FGM, which is partial or total removal of the clitoris or clitoral hood; a very small number practised Type 4 which is pricking, piercing and cauterisation of the genital area.
WeSpeakOut also use the term ‘FGM’ but commonly refer to it as Female Genital Cutting (FGC) so that they are seen as less judgmental so as to garner the community’s support.
The Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), whose members oppose the campaign against the custom, use the term Female Circumcision (FC), taking a stand against any kind of mutilation.
"FGM and FC...are entirely different from each other. Khafd is a harmless cultural/religious practice unique to the Dawoodi Bohra community which entails a tiny excision on the skin of the prepuce. We reiterate that there is no place for any kind of mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra religion and culture. The Dawoodi Bohra Community is strongly against FGM or any practice or act that demeans, oppresses or subjugates women." - DBWRF responding to the survey
But the concept of the girls not being old enough to consent to even a tiny nick of the most sensitive part of their body is entirely overlooked in this argument.
The survey records the testimonies of cutters and doctors who perform the cut within the Bohra community, which are contrary to DBWRF’s claims: More often than not, it is more than just a “tiny excision”.
The study included responses from 94 participants.
Of them, 83 were women survivors of FGM and 11 were men.
The women surveyed were between the ages of 17 and 89.
All the interviewees together had 81 daughters.
Of them, 55 had been subjected to khafd indicating nearly 75% of them underwent FGM around the age of seven.
Further, the female intervieews’ cumulatively knew 1,248 women within their families who had undergone khafd.
Each participant knew approximately 14 women in their family who had been cut.
However, 37% of female interviewees extended their support to continuing FGM.
22% of the women who took part in the survey simply had no memory of their khafd. Of those who did, 97% remembered it as a painful experience, physically and psychosexually.
Women reported painful urination, physical discomfort, difficulty in walking and, pain and bleeding following the procedure. 10% of the women suffered from recurrent Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and incontinence in the long-term.
One case study that stands out is of a mother who shared how she feared her daughter would bleed to death after she was cut. The 8-year-old had to be rushed to the hospital due to excessive bleeding after a botched circumcision. The doctors had to “stitch her up in that place”. The girl remains terrified of hospitals to this day. The traditional circumciser confessed that in her experience of 35 years, this was the first khafd that “had got spoilt”.
33% of the women subjected to khafd believe the partial or total removal of the clitoris has negatively impacted their sexual life. They spoke of having a low sex drive, an inability to feel any sexual pleasure or sometimes, an over sensitivity in the clitoral area.
Other Noteworthy Takeaways
Besides the Bohra community, the survey records instances of the custom being practised about certain Kerala Sunni families on toddlers. It also finds that in the absence of a law banning the practice, India was becoming a hub for FGM for expat and foreign Bohra girls, following a crackdown on the practice in the USA and Australia in the last two years.
Several interviewees either directly or indirectly knew about expat community members flying down to India to get their children cut since the doctors can’t be criminally charged and lose their license here.
37% of the interviewees supported the continuation of FGM/C, while 43% were against it. The main reasons for this stated by them are to continue with an old traditional practice and adhere to the Shariat, to rightfully control women’s sexual behaviour and promiscuity and out of the fear of ostracisation.
While the practice is known to have been confined only to women, “Bohra men do participate in khafd (actively and passively) and have an integral role in its maintenance and/or propagation, both at personal and political levels,” notes the survey.
Another key finding of the survey is a trend of increasing medicalisation of the FGM/C with doctors and nurses now offering the service in urban areas, until now provided by traditional circumcisers across economic classes. Among the interviewees, six were cut by doctors and 85 by tradition cutters.
"Many doctors also practice it. And some 20-25 women practitioners also are available in Mumbai. People do go more to doctors rather than the traditional practitioners." - Zubeda, 58-year-old Traditional Circumciser in the WeSpeakOut Survey on FGM
Tiny incision or deep gash, the fact remains that khafd, even in its least violent form, is a violation of the rights of women to be free from violence and discrimination, right to health, life and physical integrity. Legally, the continuing practice of FGM/C as documented in the study violates no less than five international conventions India is a party to, including the all essential Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
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