Female Genital Mutilation debate puts Bohra women on opposite sides
A group of women have started a campaign to end the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sometimes called female circumcision, in India. The custom, followed in India only by Bohras, a Shia sub sect, involves partial or total removal of external female genitalia. International agencies describe it as child abuse and a violation of human rights.
Women, who include Bohras, have petitioned religious leaders and the Union government seeking a ban on the custom. They have said that while sections of the Indian Penal Code and child abuse laws can be used to punish offenders, there is no specific law prohibiting it. A lawyer Sunita Tiwari has filed a petition asking for a ban. Last week, Speak out on FGM, one of the groups campaigning against it, and the Lawyers Collective, a human rights group, released a document ‘A guide to eliminating the practice of FGC in India’ which, they said, could serve as a blueprint for a law against the custom.
The paper says that women who were forced to undergo the procedure, apart from being victims of human and child rights abuse, can, like under French law, also be recognised as disabled people because the practice leaves them with life-long mental and physical impairments. Speak out on FGM, which had earlier restricted its campaign to online petitions, has said they will join the legal fight against the practice.
The Bohra clergy has said the custom is a religious obligation, but refused to talk to the women campaigning to end it. The religious leaders, it seems, did not want to get into the debate. They have now announced the formation of a group called the ‘Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom’ to defend the practice and challenge the court petition.
The group, which includes doctors, has not spoken to the media which has extensively covered the anti-FGM campaign.
In an e-mailed response to this newspaper, they said they have tolerated ‘an uninformed assault’ on them by the media, at the behest of a handful of women who do not represent them. They have called the petition in the Supreme Court ‘a damaging PIL (Public Interest Litigation) to stop us practising a harmless religious rite’. Referring to Tiwari, they said: She has claimed that “damage is being done to each and every girl and woman of this community in some way or other”. And therefore she has been compelled to file the PIL “on behalf of all those voiceless women who have suffered in silence”.
In a message forwarded to this newspaper, one member, Nafisa Kagalwala, said, “This practice, like all religious practices, is never forced upon anyone. So what is the need for all this hype and what is the need for passing a law against it?”
The group has said that circumcision, as they refer to FGM, has not ‘damaged’ them. “We have a membership of thousands of educated women, increasing by the day. We intend to show that the Petitioner does not speak on our behalf and has based her PIL on hearsay evidence, distortions and hysteria,” the group has said.
Dr Fatema Jetpurwala, a founder member of the group told HT in an e-mail reply: “India is known for its uniqueness in imparting religious freedom to all its citizens and I am convinced that our legal system will not take it away from me, a proud Dawood Bohra woman and the thousands of DBWRF who have joined me.”
Another member, Rashida Diwan, said, “We are a self-respecting, law-abiding community, never telling others what to do. We demand the same faith in our ability to practice our religion without harming ourselves or others.”
The FGM supporters said that the country’s freedom of religion allows them to practice the custom.
We are disappointed that the Supreme Court gave notice to the respondents without affording us, the target of the PIL, an opportunity to have our say. We will now intervene at the Supreme Court to ensure that the numerous false statements made in the PIL are exposed and the right to practice religion granted to every citizen of India is not denied to us,” said a supporter.
With the fight pitting one group of Bohra women against another, the anti-FGM campaigners are preparing for an antagonistic debate. “It is going to be a long-drawn legal fight,” said Masooma Ranalvi, convener of Speak out on FGM.