In India, female genital mutilation is not just restricted to Bohras, says study
News reports so far have suggested that the Bohras, a Shia Muslim group with roots in Gujarat, are the only community in India to practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
A survey done by ‘WeSpeakOut’ a survivor-led movement to end FGM, suggests that the practice may not be restricted to Bohras. The survey, details of which will be released in Delhi on February 5, which is observed as ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance’, says that the custom also exists among certain Kerala Sunni families. Unlike the Bohras, where girls undergo the procedure when they are around seven, in Kerala it is done to toddlers.
There has been a debate on what to call the procedure that involves the ritual removal of the clitoral hood. The UN, which considers all procedures involving the alteration or injuring of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons as a violation of the human rights, calls it FGM. Members of ‘WeSpeakOut’ use the term but also refer to it as Female Genital Cutting (FGC) so that they are seen as less ‘value judgmental’. The group had said they wanted to avoid the word ‘mutilation’ to get their community’s support for the cause. The Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), whose members oppose the campaign against the custom, use the term Female Circumcision (FC) and they maintain that FC and FGM are two different procedures, and that they are against FGM.
In an e-mailed response for this article, Samina Kanchwala, secretary, DBWRF said that their custom, called Khafz, was a harmless procedure entailing a small nick or prick on the skin of the prepuce. “It is a cultural and religious practice unique to the Dawoodi Bohra community and we request that our practices be respected like we respect others’.”
Kanchwala says Bohra women have been stereotyped, misrepresented and not allowed to speak in defence of their cultural practices. She says the custom is not enforced on those who do not want it, and that there is no ‘substantive scientific evidence’ that the procedure affects the physical, emotional or psychological health of women. “In fact Dawoodi Bohra women, who have undergone female circumcision, lead normal lives with happiness and fulfilment.”
This argument, however, ignores the fact that procedure is done on girls when they are hardly at an age to give consent. The UN is resolute in its condemnation of the practice. The agency says the custom reflects deep-rooted inequality between genders, and is an extreme form of discrimination against women.
Those campaigning for a ban on the custom are not persuaded by the statement from those who want it to continue. Masooma Ranalvi, founder of WeSpeakOut, says the custom is harmful, and many women have been harmed physically and psychosexually. “It must be stopped,” says Ranalvi. “You can call it A,B,C; that is not the point, the point is the practice.”
Groups like ‘WeSpeakOut’ are worried about the government’s recent attempts to deny FGM’s existence. Replying to the Supreme Court which is hearing a petition to end FGM, government officials told the court that there is no data on the existence of the practice. This is a turnaround from its earlier views when Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said she would write to states and the Bohra spiritual leader to issue an edict to end FGM, failing which the government will end the practice.
Ranalvi said they spoke to people who provide the service. “We have got six cutters and doctors who are doing it. It negates what they (DBWRF) are saying,” says Ranalvi. “It is the same story in Indonesia, Malaysia; they say it is not FGM and the cut is so small. This is the narrative across Asia,” said Ranalvi adding that medicalisation of the issue is counter to their charges. “It is clear cut control of desire.” DBWRF says they are ready for a dialogue. “We are willing to participate in these conversations,” says Kanchwala.