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Women From the Bohra Community Are Fighting Against Female Genital Mutilation To Win Back Their Freedom

The women of the Bohra community are fighting against Female Genital Mutilation to win back their sexual and bodily freedom as heated debates are ensuing everywhere about the malpractice.

Simantini Dey | News18.com

Updated:August 15, 2018, 2:10 PM IST
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Women From the Bohra Community Are Fighting Against Female Genital Mutilation To Win Back Their Freedom
Women in Dawoodi Bohra Muslim are subjected to female genital mutilation to suppress their sexual urges. (Picture for representation).
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India celebrates its 72nd Independence Day this year but the fight for freedom is far from over for several women of the Dawoodi Bohra Community, who are seeking a ban on the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) -- a religious practice in the Bohra community which violates women’s freedom to have control over their own body, their right to privacy, and their sexual freedom.

FGM/C, also known as Khafz, is the process of intentionally changing or causing injury to a girl or woman's genital organs for non-medical reasons. The operative words here being 'intentionally' and ' non-medical reasons'. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called this procedure a violation of human rights of girls and women.

Yet, routinely, six-year-old or seven-year-old girls of the Bohra community are made to undergo this process, where their clitoris hood is either cut or nicked without their consent. Until 2011, however, it wasn’t known that FGM/C was a prevalent practice in India.

"In 2011, the first petition against FGM by Tasleem came out and it got some media attention," said Aarefa Johari, a journalist by profession, who had undergone FGC as a child.

"Then, I started speaking out. That also triggered a lot of reactions. In the next three to four years, Insia Dariwala who was writing a script on the issue met me. Priya Goswami made a film on it called ‘A Pinch of Skin’. Then, a few of us met online and a conversation began," she recalled. Johari, along with Dariwala, Mariya Taher and Priya Goswami is the founder of Sahiyo, an NGO that fights for women's rights and against the practice of FGM/C.

The conversation that Johari is talking about is not just fairly recent, but also anecdotal for the most part. In the last seven years, many women from the Bohra community have come out and spoken about their experiences of undergoing FGM/C. The Bohra community has a rich history of trading, they are popular for their cuisine, and the literacy rate is much higher among Bohra women.

However, regardless of it all, women of the community have been coerced into continuing this procedure for generations. Most women who have come out and spoken against FGM/C recall it to be a traumatic experience. Sift through the media reports on FGM/C, and you will find intricate personal accounts of women, unfolding the details of how they, as little girls, were taken by their mothers or grandmothers to midwives on the pretext of a party or shopping, and then pinned down and nicked or cut in their most private part, not just without consent but also without prior intimation.

Several women confessed that they felt betrayed, and the overall experience has had a negative psychological impact on them. However, the worst part about undergoing this 'irreversible' process is not just the post-traumatic stress but also several physical and sexual problems that they have to live with for the rest of their lives. In many women, Khafz curbs sexual desire, while others endure pain during intercourse and complications at childbirth. These women also face a high risk of urinary tract infections.

And yet, despite the obvious negative effects of FGM/C, getting rid of the practice in India, amending old laws or coming up with new ones to curb the practice is not as easy a task as one might think.

Currently, the Supreme Court, which is hearing PILs filed by lawyer Sunita Tiwari and two Bohra women, is in the process of deciding the legality of FGM/C.

Advocate Aanchal Singh, one of the advocates of the Lawyers Collective, who along with Indira Jaising is representing women who are against FGM/C, said that they have formulated their arguments around Article 14, 15 and 21 of the Indian constitution.

"We have argued that the practice of FGM/C is against Article 21 of the constitution, which guarantees the fundamental right to life, personal liberty, and dignity. Since the practice is also to curb the sexuality of a woman, and therefore, trying to control her, so it is against her right to equality as well...The practice is against her dignity and personal autonomy too."

However, Singh said that the Union of India claims that FGM/C is already an offence, as there are existing laws under Indian Penal Code and POCSO (Protection of Children against Sexual Offences) against it. Under IPC 319-325, the intent to 'hurt' or cause ‘grievous hurt' covers FGM/C. While POCSO's Section 3 (penetrative sexual assault) and Section 5 (aggravated penetrative sexual assault) can be used to curb the practice.

"To implement POCSO, there has to be a sexual intent," said Singh. "However, in the case of FGM/C, there is no sexual intent of the midwives. It is done as a religious practice," she added. Therefore, neither of these laws inclusively covers FGM/C. Coming up with a new law or amending an already existing one, or coming up with specific guidelines to address FGM/C are some of the things that the apex court might have to look into in order to curb the practice in India, pointed out the lawyer.

The PILs against FGM/C are, however, facing opposition from the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), a collective of 70,000 Bohra women, who have filed an intervention in the ongoing case saying that FGM/C falls under the right to practice their own religion which is guaranteed by Article 25 and 26.

"Why are people calling such a small procedure 'mutilation'?” asked the Secretary of DBWRF, Samina Kanchwala. "Do people not know the meaning of mutilation? This is my religious right, this is my basic religious tenet. It is very important for our spiritual being. This is not forced upon anyone, it's a choice that you make. There are people who do not want to do this, and that's fine. But why do you deny this right or this freedom to people who actually want to perform it? I should be given the freedom to practice my religion because this practice is completely harmless." she added.

Several survivors, however, tell a different story and often say that women who choose to speak out against the practice, or parents who decide not to make their daughters undergo FGM/C often face discrimination. Saleha Paatwala, who had undergone FGM/C as a child said, "Girls who don’t go through this practice are sometimes not even invited to religious activities,".

"One girl had spoken against this practice and after that video was out, she and her family was asked to apologize to the clergy. She was told to remove herself from the video or she might face excommunication." Paatwala confessed.

Talking about how the community reacts as and when women speak out against FGM/C, Insia Dariwala, a co-founder of Sahiyo said, "I think it's very subtle...It's not like they are going to ostracise you or throw you out of the community because you are speaking against FGM/C. But it isn't accepted very nicely. They might not tell you that they are against what you are saying, but they make sure that you know. They try to get to you via your family, instead of directly talking to you. "

Another claim that DBWRF has made is that the process of FGM/C is harmless. "First and foremost, we do not touch the clitoris at all. What is done is just a nick on the prepuce (hood)," said Kanchwala.

"There are papers that also mention how it is beneficial and hygienic. It's about enhancing, it is not about curbing sexualism. Tell me one thing if it exposes your clitoris, should it enhance or should it decrease your pleasure? Any scientific mind will tell you that it is for enhancing the pleasure," she added.

Shujaat Vali, a gynecologist, and a surgeon, however, said that "I have also seen cases where the clitoris is either disfigured or very small in Bohra women. I examine them when they come for pregnancy-related treatment. I have seen that Bohra women, who have undergone FGM/C in their childhood, have a damaged clitoris which in turn does a lot of damage to their sexuality, and their arousal."

Vali also pointed out that Khafz is quite different from male circumcision. In male circumcision no harm is done to the penis, it is only the foreskin that is removed, however, in female circumcision the hood and the clitoris is so close that it is nearly impossible to remove the prepuce (hood) without hurting the clitoris. So in most cases, inevitably, the nick is not just of the clitoral hood.

After DBWRF filed the intervention in court, another debate on whether FGM/C is an essential or non-essential part of their religion has begun. Many of the women I interviewed said that the practice does not have any mention in Quran.

In fact, a woman (who doesn't wish to be identified by her real name) who had also undergone FGM as a child and is now supporting the movement to abolish the practice said, "Propagators of FGM cite religious texts to continue practicing Khafz. But researchers have found that the practice pre-dates Islam. While Khafz is mentioned nowhere in the Quran, these other religious texts being cited talk about religious purity and continuing this practice to pleasure the husband."

"However, in all the community discourses, this has not come forth. It has always been about religious purity. They conveniently leave out the part about FGM/C being done for the husband's pleasure." she added. Apparently, the clitoris hood is also referred to as the 'haraam ki boti' or an immoral lump of flesh which causes women to become promiscuous. Therefore, it is nicked/cut to curb any sexual desire.

Recently, the practice of FGM/C has stopped among the same community living in several western countries.

"Similar practice has been banned by the same community in several other countries, by their community heads called Syedna. In a recent judgment in New South Wales, a mother, a midwife, and a Sydena who propagated the practice of FGM/C, were accused and found to be culprits," pointed out Singh.

"After this judgment, there was a resolution passed by several Syednas across the world, where they have asked members of the community to follow the law of the land they live in and prohibited the process of FGM/C," she added.

So, the arguments that are being put forth by those who are against FGM/C are that it is not an essential practice because had it been essential, Syednas of different countries would not have exempted women from undergoing it. Also, if it is not an essential practice, then why should women in the Indian Bohra community still undergo this process?

One of the biggest hindrances for the women who have been fighting against the practice of FGM/C is the lack of data. The Ministry of Women and Child Development maintains that there is no data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau, and therefore, the ministry claims that FGM/C doesn't exist in India.

Masooma Ranalvi, who is a member of WeSpeakOut, the largest survivor-led movement against FGM/C said, "It was a secret practice for a really long time. Nobody knew about this, it is only when women started speaking out that people realized what had been happening in this community."

"The only way for the government to have data would be for the government to undertake research. The government can hear the women who are speaking out, who are saying that this has happened to them, who are survivors. The onus should be on the government to collect data," she added.

WeSpeakOut recently did a research on FGM/C, where they did field interviews of 94 participants and found that 75% of all daughters of the study sample were subjected to FGM/C, which means it continues to be practiced on little girls. They also found that 97% of women who remembered their FGM/C experience from childhood recalled it as painful.

"The verdict is still awaited in the ongoing case against FGM/C, but the observations by Supreme Court have been very positive so far. One of the observations being that no one has the right to tamper with the bodily integrity of a person. The tampering and cutting of genitals are irreversible. One has to live with it for all their lives. We are happy with the court's observations." added Ranalvi.

WeSpeakOut and Sahiyo are continuously trying to sensitize people about this practice. However, the Supreme Court judgment will play a crucial role in how the community continues to see FGM/C in future. The lack of knowledge about their sexual parts is common among most Indian women, including women from the Bohra community, therefore, sensitization on female anatomy is also a must.

"The Bohras are also devout followers of Syedna," pointed out Saleha Paatwala, "if he comes out and guides them to not practice FGM/C, people will most certainly obey," she added.

A few measures to curb FGM/C would be to talk to doctors and bringing out reports from the doctor’s association which call this practice as harmful. Efforts need to be made to include this in the school curriculum for adolescents to make them understand why it is practiced, and an in-depth study by the government to prove its prevalence in the community will also go a long way in addressing FGM/C.

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