A New Delhi lawyer has filed a petition in the Supreme Court against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) seeking a ban on the custom that is common in some African and Middle Eastern countries but practised only by the Dawoodi Bohras in India. International agencies have described the practice as child abuse and a violation of human rights.
Last week, the apex court issued notices to the central government and the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan – that have large Dawoodi Bohra population — and Delhi seeking their response to the petition.
The custom, which largely went unquestioned, was brought into the public eye after a group of Bohri women filed an online petition that was signed by over 50,000 people. The petition, which seeks a ban on the practice, also called Female Genital Cutting and female circumcision, has been sent to the central government. The women also wrote to the clergy which first ignored them, but later said the custom is a religious obligation. The leader of a breakaway Bohra faction has more liberal views on the issue.
Sunita Tiwari, the lawyer who filed the petition in the Supreme Court, had put her signature on the online campaign. She said that before filing the petition she contacted the anti-FGM campaigners asking them to join her as fellow litigants but there was no response. “I was surprised,” said Tiwari. “So far they have been filing online petitions; what is the point? I told them I will fight the case pro bono (free of cost). I wrote to them and one of them called me on the day the matter was scheduled to be heard. She said she will call back but did not.”
Masooma Ranalvi, convener of Speak Out On FGM, which started the online petition, said the Supreme Court case is a surprise. “I did not know Sunita Tiwari till May 4 (when it was reported that a petition was filed). It is incredible. This was thrown in our face,” said Ranalvi.
Why are the Bohra campaigners reluctant to go court against the custom? There are fiercely opposing views on the custom within the Bohras and this could explain why they do not want to approach the country’s courts. In March, when the reformists — who broke away in the 1970s after they refused to heed the clergy — held their annual meeting in Udaipur, they invited Ranalvi to speak. Her speech was uploaded on a popular video streaming site. The video has since been pulled out, said a member of the reformist group.
Ranalvi said that she has been asked: why not file a petition? “We do not have the legal means to go into litigation. We are activists; we feel a better solution is to work with the community and approach the government,” said Ranalvi. “We decided not to go the PIL (public interest litigation) route.”
The western countries, some of which have outlawed the practice, have cracked down on perpetrators. In April, three people, including a 44-year-old Dawoodi Bohra doctor was arrested in Detroit, USA, for performing genital mutilation on two minor girls, probably the first case under an American law that criminalises FGM. In November 2015, a Bohri mother and two other people were prosecuted in New South Wales, Australia, for subjecting two children to the custom. There are reports of a similar criminal case in the United Kingdom. “The government pressure in these countries makes it difficult for the custom to be followed,” said Saifuddin Insaf, a member of the reformist group. “But it is in the psychology and people will believe that it is in our religion and we have to follow it.”
For a group that has a large international diaspora, the convictions have been a matter of embarrassment. Surveys suggest that many Bohri women want this to change. A survey — the group called it exploratory — by Sahiyo, another group campaigning against the custom, said that over 80% of the respondents had reservations on the existence of the practice and refused to carry out the procedure on their own girl child.
The campaigners said that they will now join the legal fight. “Now that it (petition) has been filed, we will intervene in the matter,” said Ranalvi.