The discussion about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) among Dawoodi Bohras, the only group in India known to practise it, has moved outside the confines of the small community. An online petition to the ministry of women and child development, asking for a ban on the custom, has received over 50,000 signatures in support.
The United Nations considers all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons as FGM and says that the practice violates the human rights of girls and women. The custom is banned in many countries and some western countries prohibit families – usually of immigrant origin - from taking their children abroad to get it done.
The Bohras call the procedure Khatna; it is also called female circumcision. The group leading the campaign to end the custom now want to use another term – Female Genital Cutting (FGC) – so that they are seen as less ‘value judgmental’. Priya Goswami of Sahiyo, said that organisations across the world are shifting to the new term. “To the extent that WHO released a report as FGM/FGC. FGM cannot be an umbrella term for all kinds of cutting,” said Goswami.
The decision to avoid the word ‘mutilation’, the campaigners said, was part of the effort to get the community’s support for the cause. The Bohra clergy, which has a stranglehold on their followers, has refused to take part in any debate on the topic with the petitioners, but the spiritual leader, the Syedna, is reported to have told his followers that the ritual is a religious obligation that has to be done. The head of the rival branch of the Syedna’s family, which broke away after a dispute over the succession to the spiritual seat, has more liberal views. He has said that the procedure should not be forced on children, but has added that the surgery – often done in unsafe and risky conditions – actually benefits women. Women should make the choice after they reach adulthood, he said.
In the face of such challenges from the clergy, anti-FGM campaigners feel that a non-confrontational approach is needed to get the community’s support for the ban. Goswami said that the change in terminology was crucial in ending, or reducing the incidence, of the practice in places like Senegal, in West Africa. “They have also been using the term FGC instead of FGM, especially in communities where it is a cultural norm. Parents do it (the procedure) with the intention of love so that the daughter is married off well,” Goswami explained. “Using the expression ‘FGC’ is acknowledging their intent. At the same time we are not condoning to what they are doing.”
Among the Bohras, too, the practice is seen part of their culture. The new term, according to Sahiyo, is more culturally inclusive. “Families believe they are practising circumcision but the term is problematic because this is not like circumcision in males. This is done to curb sexuality in woman,” said Goswami.
Will a change in terminology shift century-old beliefs? Irfan Engineer of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, who is Dawoodi Bohra, said, “I express my solidarity with the women but I do not think that using the word ‘cutting’ instead of ‘mutilation’ will get them the support of the clergy,” said Engineer. “I do not think the problem is with the terminology or semantics.”
“The whole idea is to kill or suppress the sexuality of women. To what extent, how far and what is cut is a different thing,” said Engineer. “They (elders) go to the extent of examining women to find out whether it done according to what is prescribed.”
“The right way is not to cut or mutilate, and definitely not on a seven-year-old child. If it is a considered and informed choice by an adult it is a different thing though I doubt whether any woman will chose to undergo it,” said Engineer.