The campaign by Dawoodi Bohra women against the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sometimes called female circumcision, has brought no response from the community’s powerful clergy.
The silence of their religious establishment in India contrasts with reactions from associations representing the community’s diaspora. Groups representing Dawoodi Bohras in the United Kingdom and Australia have recently asked members to avoid the custom.
“In Mumbai, there has been a lot of discussion on the subject, but there has been no open expression of support for the campaign,” said Saifuddin Insaf, a member of the reformist Dawoodi Bohra community.
Why has the campaign received support from Dawoodi Bohra associations in the west while their leaders in India, where most of them live, have ignored it?
One reason, according to members of the community, is that many western countries have laws prohibiting the practice; India has no such ban. “While the practice (of FGM) can be tried, at the most, as a case of child abuse in India, other countries have clear cut laws because the custom is widespared among African migrants,” said Asghar Vasanwala, a California resident and an anti-FGM campaigner. Apart from two acts that prohibit the practice, the UK has a new law that makes it an offence to take children out of the country for the procedure. In Australia, the practice is a criminal act and there are reports that a Bohra was prosecuted in November by a New South Wales court.
On February 13, Dawoodi Bohras who met in Northolt, a town north of London, issued an appeal asking the local community to avoid the custom, as their religion and prophet requires them to obey the law of the land. On February 9, an association in Sydney passed a resolution that informed parents that they are violating Australian law if they subjected their children to the practice. In India, newspapers, television channels and social media have discussed the issue, but there has been no debate in the Dawoodi Bohra community. “The newspapers that the community reads in India will not discuss the issue fearing a backlash. It is only beacuse of Internet that people are talking about it,” said Vasanwla.
Ifran Engineer, director of the Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, Mumbai, and a Dawoodi Bohra, said that the lack of debate on the issue was because FGM has been a secretive practice. “There are clinics in localities where Bohras live, or a midwife or a trained person, who would do it secretly. Even male members of the family would not know about it. Elderly women would tell mothers of six and seven-year-old girls that it needs be done. Even I did not know about the practice till a few years ago,” said Engineer.
Bohra men are surprised that many of them are unaware that the practice is widespread. “It is a patriarchal practice to prevent what they think is sexual deviency among women,” said Engineer. “But often women become agents and carriers of the practice.”
Engineer added that the custom is enforced by the clergy. “Even in cases of inter-community marriages, priests refuse to solemnise weddings if the couple does not produce a certificate which says that the bride has undergone the procedure.”
Can an Indian law help curb the practice? “The custom causes a lot of trauma; apart from the physical damage, there are psychological problems,” said Vasanwala, who recalled a conversation with Bhagvanji Rayani, who has filed PIL on issues like corruption in the education sector, unauthorised shrines and illegal hoardings. “But there was concern that going to the courts could delay the campaign.”
“There is a case for a PIL (against FGM) and I would like to do it, provided I get the community’s support,” said Raiyani.