When a group of Dawoodi Bohra women started a campaign against the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), called female circumcision by supporters of the practice, there was no reaction from their clergy. The only response was from the smaller breakaway group – now headed by Syedna Taher Fakhruddin, the son of the claimant to the community’s spiritual leadership. The group broke away after Taher’s father Khuzaima Qutbuddin, who died in March, refused to accept the succession of his nephew to the spiritual seat that was held by his half-brother Mohammed Burhanuddin, the 52nd Dai (Syedna) or head of the sect. The groups split after Burhanuddin died in January 2014 and the dispute over the succession is being heard by the Bombay high court.
The breakaway group, which said that the anti-FGM campaigners asked them for support, has been more liberal in their views on the custom. While critics have said that it is a patriarchal practice forced on women, Fakhruddin has contended that the surgery actually improves the conjugal relationship. While he has not said that the custom should be banned, he has said that women should be allowed to take the decision whether they want to undergo the procedure. “It is sensitive and complicated; there is a matter of religious practice. So the Syedna came up with a solution which addresses the issue directly to protect the girl child — which is the main issue,” said Abdeali Qutbuddin, Fakhruddin’s brother.
“At the same time, keeping the sanctity of the faith, he (Fakhruddin) has clarified that what is done is a procedure to enhance their (women’s) experience with their husband. What the Syedna has said that when a girl reaches adulthood, it should be her decision whether to undergo the procedure,” he added.
The campaigners against the custom may not agree with this interpretation of the practice, but the breakaway group thinks they have provided a more moderate solution to the question. “The Dawoodi Bohra faith, in itself, is a liberal faith because it has at its core the Dai, who can interpret the faith,” said Abdeali.
As his rival tries to win followers by taking a more liberal view on the issue, the head of the main faction, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, finally spoke on the issue. His statement came after reports that associations representing Bohras in United Kingdom and Australia, where the practice is a crime, asked their members not to break the local law. Mufaddal said that circumcision – for men and women – is a religious rite practiced since the beginnings of their faith, but supported the decision of the trusts to end the custom in countries where it is a criminal offence. The practice can continue in countries like India where it is not illegal, he added.
In India, the Bohras, who are Shias, are the only group to practice it though it is common in Yemen and Africa. Most western countries not only prohibit the practice but also make it a criminal offence to take a child out of the country to get the procedure done. Recently, the supreme court of New South Wales convicted three people, including the mother, for the circumcision of two girls.
His followers think that Fakhruddin, whose following is still miniscule compared to the main faction, has won more supporters by his liberal views on FGM.
“I think the Bohra community has recognised that the Syedna has provided a practical solution,” said Abdeali. “But the support is not in large numbers; there is fear of social boycott (ex-communication by the clergy if they openly support the rival group).”
Some Bohras think that Fakhruddin’s statements may not win him many followers. “He is not getting any sympathy. After all, he is the product of the same authoritarian system which is not appealing to many people in the community,” said Saifuddin Insaf, a member of the reformist group, which does not recognise the clergy.