By Absar Ahmad and Aafiya Siddiqui
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a well-kept secret, caught the public eye in India recently, when several women of Dawoodi Bohra community came together to launch an online campaign by running a petition against this religious ritual, and asking Prime Minister himself to intervene and declare it as illegal. However, this was not the first time when FGM made it to the headlines globally. Earlier in Somalia, a supermodel Waris Dirie, who herself was a victim of FGM, spoke strongly against the high prevalence of this agonising practice in African countries and called it as absolute violence against innocent girls. She even went ahead to launch a campaign against it by setting up Desert Flower Foundation in 2002.
The prevalence of FGM is not merely restricted within the boundaries of India and Somalia. In fact, it has been estimated that around 200 million girls and women, in about 30 countries across the globe, have undergone female circumcision (“Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting – UNICEF DATA,” n.d.). It is predominantly practiced as an age old tradition in various communities of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Also, with the substantial increase in number of immigrants, FGM is becoming a fast growing practice in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand (Rushwan, 2013).
In India, it is practiced as a religious ritual by Dawoodi Bohra community. They are a subsection of Shia Muslims, who migrated from Yemen to the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century. The worldwide population of this community (Dawoodi Bohras) is estimated to be 1,117,200 (approx.); they are mostly based in three countries, namely India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka with a population of 1,113,000, (2300) and (1900) respectively (“Bohra | Joshua Project,” n.d.). In India, they are mostly settled in the western part, i.e. Gujarat (694000), Maharashtra (270000), and Madhya Pradesh (127000). Female Genital Mutilation is a widespread practice in this community over the generations and they normally refer to it as Female Khatna or Female Circumcision.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. There is actually no formal medical procedure to it and people of various cultures and ethnicity perform it as per their own customs in an ill-mannered way. Although most of the communities believe that they can conduct such circumcision anytime in between the birth of the girl to reaching her puberty, it has been observed that they usually perform it on the girls of 5 years of age. According to the World Health Organisation, FGM can be broadly categorised into following four categories:
- Type 1 is Clitoridectomy: it involves partial or total removal of the clitoris.
- Type 2 is Excision: it involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
- Type 3 is Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris
- Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures of the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing the genital area.
It is estimated that 90% cases of FGM belong to type 1, type 2, and type 4 category and only 10% of the cases were estimated to be of type 3 category (Taher, n.d.). In 2015, United Nations included the elimination of all types of Female Genital Mutilation/cutting as target number 5.3, under goal 5 on gender equality, among its 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be accomplished by 2030. 6 February is observed as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
Further, going by the UNICEF Global databases 2016 (“Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting – UNICEF DATA,” n.d.), prevalence of FGM among girls of the age group 0 to 14 years varies from less than 5 % in Benin (0.2%), Togo (0.3%), Uganda (1%), Central African Republic (1%), Ghana (1%), and Kenya (3%) to more than 50% in Indonesia (49%), Mauritania (54%) and Gambia (56%). In Indonesia, prevalence of FGM is observed to be more in urban areas (56%) as compared to the rural areas (47%). If we consider the prevalence of FGM in accordance with wealth quintile, then we find that prevalence in the poorest quintile is more as compared to the richest quintile. Prevalence of FGM among girls and women aged between 15 to 49 years varies from 1% (Cameroon and Uganda) to 98% (Somalia). In Rural areas, FGM is more prevalent in those countries where it is being practiced traditionally over the generations and not started as a result of immigration. It is common in all the wealth quintiles. And there are not many differences, like in Egypt if prevalence is 94 % in poorest quintile, in richest it is observed to be 70%.
In India, there are no official statistics for the prevalence of FGM among the Bohra girls, but it is estimated that it can be as high as 80% (Taher, n.d.). Bohras perform type 1 FGM on their girls and they term it as Female khatna/khafd. Responding to an inquiry from the apex court on a petition to end FGM, the Ministry of Women and Child Development stated: “At present there is no official data or study which supports the existence of FGM in India.” It is true because very limited national-level field research studies have been published to understand the practice of FGM or khafd in India. Thus, the Government of India too has used the lack of ‘official data’ to shirk its responsibility to address or even acknowledge the existence of FGM in India (Anantnarayan, Diler, & Menon, 2018). For Bohra community, the main reasons for practicing female circumcision are religious as they believe it is obligatory on the parents to perform it on their daughters. Traditional practice, social obligation, curbing girl’s sexuality or discouraging masturbation are few other reasons presented by them (Ghadially, 1991). They also justify FGM on the grounds that it helps in reducing the women’s ability of sexual fulfillment and thus preserves their purity, morality, chastity, and fidelity. Victims of this clandestine procedure among the Bohra community reveal that it is carried out either by an ill-equipped traditional circumciser or by untrained midwives (dais), or by any older woman of the community with little experience. They perform this painful procedure just by using a blade or barber’s razor in an unhygienic environment and the entire procedure can last from a few seconds to several minutes depending upon the resistance offered by the girl.
A qualitative study was done using snow ball sampling technique to estimate the extent and type of FGM/C which is being practiced in India. This study featured semi-structured in-depth interviews of 94 participants of Bohra community, which included 83 women and 11 men from 13 location across 5 states in India (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Kerala) and expats from 3 countries, i.e. Canada, United States of America and United Arab Emirates as well. Responses revealed that 75% daughters (aged seven years and above) of all respondents in the sample were subjected to FGM or khafd. Most of the girls were subjected to khafd at age of seven years (approx.). Study data also suggests an increasing trend of FGM procedures by medical professionals including doctors and nurses in urban areas in India. While practice of FGM is prevalent among all economic classes, it has been observed that medical facilities are being pursued mainly by upper-class Bohra families (Anantnarayan et al., 2018).
WHO ascertains that there are no health benefits of this regressive practice and it is even termed as human rights violation by the United Nations. Besides causing serious physical and mental trauma to the innocent girls, FGM also leads to severe pain, haemorrhage, tetanus, infection, infertility, cysts and abscesses, urinary incontinence, sexual & psychological problems, complications during childbirth and maternal deaths (Rushwan, 2013). Over the years, more and more Bohra women are breaking their silence and raising their voices openly against this disturbing and agonising ritual of female genital cutting. Recently an advocacy group on FGM, Speak Out, headed by Masooma Ranalvi, a Bohra woman who herself has been a victim of FGM, launched an online petition to the Indian government to render FGM illegal in India, which garnered 80,000 signatures. They are now launching a second petition to the UN as well. Despite many voices being raised in various countries all over the world to stop this painful and barbaric practice, a large section of girls and women are also coming in support and asking for the continuation of FGM. According to UNICEF global databases 2016, percentages in support for the continuation of FGM among girls and women, aged between 15 to 49 years, varies from less than 5 % in Togo (1%), Ghana (2%), Benin (3%), Iraq (5%) to more than 50% in Egypt (54%), Somalia (65%), Gambia (65%), Sierra Leone (69%), Mali (73%), and Guina (76%). If we consider urban-rural differences then rural women are more in support as compared to their urban counterparts. Similar pattern has been observed while considering the wealth quintile: poor women were more supportive of this practice than rich women. The main reason for this difference is strong backlash from the community. While urban societies offer various alternatives to the people who are disowned by fellow people, ostracisation is a powerful control tool in rural communities. In India, Dawoodi Bohra community has even set up a website with a name dbwrf.org (Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom) where women write in support of FGM, saying it is only a symbolic nick on the clitoral hood, not barbaric like those practiced in African countries. However, it must be noted that even this small nick falls under the definition of FGM given by WHO and causes irreparable mental and physical trauma on innocent girls.
What religion says about female circumcision?
Not every act done in the name of Islam is Islamic. Many actions are done for purely cultural reasons but over the time they may acquire an Islamic justification, especially among communities that are predominantly Muslim (Asmani & Abdi, 2008). An act is only considered to be Islamic if it has a basis in any of the fundamental sources of Islamic guidance such as The Holy Quran, Sunnah, Qiyas (consensus of scholars) and Ijma (analogical deduction).While male circumcision has been referenced in the religious text of Islam and Judaism, no such ruling is mentioned in any of the shariah laws in context of females. Al-Azhar, the Supreme Council of Islamic Research and highest religious authority in Egypt, even issued a statement saying FGM has no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions. Also, they stated it is harmful and should not be practiced (UNICEF, 2007). Talking in reference to Indian Muslims, no sections other than Bohra community is involved in practicing FGM and all of them consider it forbidden in Islam. According to Masooma Ranalvi, it is not even clearly mentioned in the religious book of Dawoodi bohra community, Daim-ul-islam.
The dawoodi bohra community however is tightly controlled by their religious head, who they address as Syedna. It is obligatory for all bohra people to take oath of allegiance to Syedna and seek his permission for all religious, personal, professional as well as family affairs. Any disobedience against Syedna can result in strong punishments for the community people like 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. Despite a few voices being raised against FGM, and few countries (like Australia, UK, US) outlawing it, in his 2016 public sermon in Mumbai, Syedna has ordered the bohra community to “stay firm” and continue this religious practice.
In recent times, India is increasingly being viewed as a hub for the performance of FGM on Bohra foreign girls. This is primarily due to the recent legal action on FGM amongst Bohras in Australia and USA, and the lack of an anti-FGM law in India. However, increase in anti-FGM advocacy, media attention, and directives from the religious authority are forcing the practice underground in India (Anantnarayan et al., 2018).
Considering the wide spectrum of ethnic and religious groups that are involved in Female Genital Mutilation, it can be said that it seems to be more of a traditional practice than a religious one. It was observed that while a particular subgroup practice FGM devotedly, the other related subgroups of the same community don’t consider it necessary. Among the Indian Muslims also, the Dawoodi Bohra community is the only section that is involved in Female circumcision and considers it as a primary religious practice, while other sections of Muslims at large consider it forbidden by Islam. In recent years as the opposition of FGM is gaining momentum around the globe, Bohra women are also speaking out openly against this deep-rooted regressive practice of their otherwise progressive community and demanding the Indian government to term FGM as illegal. Although without the consent of Bohra clergy, it seems to be a difficult road, the change has certainly begun with voices being raised against the practice.
Anantnarayan, L., Diler, S., & Menon, N. (2018). The Clitoral Hood A Contested Site. Retrieved from here.
Asmani, I. L., & Abdi, M. S. (2008). Delinking Female Genital Mutilation / Cutting from Islam. Population Council. Washington DC. Retrieved from here.
Bohra | Joshua Project. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2017, from here.
Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting – UNICEF DATA. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2017, from here.
Ghadially, R. (1991). All for “Izzat” The Practice of Female Circumcision among Bohra Muslims. Newsletter (Women’s Global Network on Reproductive Rights), 66, 17–20.
Rushwan, H. (2013). Female genital mutilation: A tragedy for women’s reproductive health. African Journal of Urology, 19(3), 130–133.
Taher, M. (n.d.). The Secret Is Out: Banning Female Genital Cutting in India. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from here.
UNICEF. (2007). Fresh progress toward the elimination of female genital mutilation and cutting in Egypt | Press centre | UNICEF. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from here.
Absar Ahmad is a PhD. student at International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, India. He is a statistician in community medicine department, Career Institute of Medical Sciences & Hospital, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Aafiya Siddiqui, M.Sc. in statistics, is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger.
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