Female genital mutilation is being practiced not just in Africa but in the heart of Mumbai. HT speaks to several ‘victims’ who are becoming the face of a brave fight back
By HARINDER BAWEJA
Imagine being taken to a room in a dark decrepit building. Imagine being pinned down on the floor. Imagine your underwear being taken off. Imagine
seeing a knife being heated on the gas stove. Imagine the same hot knife slicing your clitoris. Imagine young girls shrieking in pain.
The cruel practice of female genital cutting or female genital mutilation (FGM) is not happening only in far away Africa. It’s not just being practised
in tribal societies. Young girls aged six and seven are regularly being cut right here, in India. Mumbai abounds with untrained midwives who continue
to scar young girls from the Bohra community, a Shia sub sect.
For long, FGM or khatna as the Bohras call it remained a well-kept secret, a taboo, a subject never to be discussed. But now a few women – victims at
the hands of the Bohra tradition – are choosing to speak out and create awareness. Masooma Ranalvi, a Delhi-based publisher – who has put her name to
an online petition against the practice along with 17 other women – has decided it’s time to come out in the open. The pain has become a trigger and
the passion to save other girls from being cut have made her and the others fearless.
Masooma was cut 42 years ago but says the day is etched in her mind. She narrates her personal story haltingly but with clarity. “My mum told me come;
I’ll take you out and buy you chocolates. I happily went with her. She took me to Bohri mohalla (in Mumbai), a cluster where 90% Bohras live. We went
into this dark decrepit building. I remember being taken into a room. The curtains were drawn. She said lie down. Like an obedient child, I lay. My
grandmother was holding my hands. An oldish woman pulled down my pants… I started crying. Grandmom said don’t worry, it will be over in a jiffy. I
shrieked in pain… I experienced a sharp, shooting pain and she put some black powder there… I came home and cried and cried and cried...”
For a long time, Masooma did not understand what had happened to her or why she had been cut. The realisation that she had been so betrayed shattered
her. The reasons why khatna is so common in the community shocked her.
"I experienced a sharp, shooting pain and she put some black powder there…"
Aarefa Johari, a young, articulate journalist is another petitioner. Like most women in the two million-strong Bohra community, Aarefa was cut too.
Without consent and without too much thought. Why, she asked herself for a long time. The answer to that question is stark: Tradition is not easy to
slay. Slaying young girls is easier.
Masooma and Aarefa were both cut because their mothers were pressured into taking their daughters to Bhindi Bazaar in Mumbai by older women in the
family; either by aunts or mothers-in-law. The beliefs that the clitoral head is ‘unwanted skin’, that it is a ‘source of sin’ that will make them
‘stray’ out of their marriages are reasons that lie at the heart of a practice that predates Islam but thrives amongst Bohras. One woman this reporter
spoke to referred to the clitoral head as ‘haraam ki boti’ or immoral lump of flesh.
The sad truth to this painful process is the fact that it is a practice being done to women by other women. Most women we spoke with blamed their
mothers initially. Till they realised they too were victims of the same mindless tradition. “There was pain and I cried. I was aware that there is a
thing called khatna and the main intention is to curb sexual desire… The first target of my anger was my mother,” said Aarefa.
Aarefa, like other women, has had long conversations with her mother who now supports her in her fight against FGM. “When I got it done for my
daughter, I did it because it was a custom to be followed,’’ says Aarefa’s mother Sophie Johari. She read an article by a Bohra woman some years later
and made Aarefa read it too. “It struck me that I should have thought about it more. I’m a science student. I really should have thought about it,’’
says Sophie who now lends support to her daughter’s campaign on Facebook.
"I did it for my daughter because i was told it is a custom. There was no ill intention."
Unlike Aarefa, Zehra Patwa, a 45-year-old US-based Technology Project Manager found out only a year ago that her most private parts had been tampered
with. She had dealt with the childhood trauma by just blocking it out completely, which psychologists say is common.
For the past year, Zehra has been
struggling with questions flooding her mind. “I wasn’t aware this is happening in my community. A year ago, someone from my family spoke about it
publicly. Lack of understanding of why it’s done bothers me the most. It goes against everything I know about my community which is educated,
progressive, modern,’’ she says. She feels violated and says, “There is no openness about it. We don’t know what was done. Was it a nick, a big cut,
what was it?”
Few will be able to answer a question so relevant because there are no medical norms to determine the cut. Untrained midwives use blades and knives
that recently left a seven-year-old bleeding for six days. “She had to use a sanitary pad,’’ an aunt told us on condition of anonymity.
The aunt, like Zehra, fails to understand the dichotomy between the regressive practice in an otherwise progressive community. Bohra girls are educated
and have travelled the world. Shaheeda Kirtane, a researcher in public health and policy, was protected by her mother, Dilshad Tavawalla, afamily and
child protection lawyer based in Canada.
She was lucky to escape being put under the knife and has joined the fight against FGM to try and stop her community from betraying its daughters. “I’m
not able to explain to myself. It’s so ingrained in culture. They unquestioningly do it to be part of the community. If you openly declare you won’t do
it, the backlash is considerable and many just won’t do business with you,’’ she says.
Insia Dariwala, a film-maker and child rights activist who has also put her name on the online petition, was also lucky to escape. Her mother put her
foot down after her older daughter was taken to one of the dark decrepit rooms by an aunt. But Insia still feels cut in different ways. “My sister was
cut after being taken away on the pretext of a movie. I’m not cut but still feel cut off from ritualistic functions, joyous occasions. But saving other
children is very important. It’s a form of child abuse.”
“There is no openness about it. We don’t know what was done. Was it a nick, a big cut, what was it?”
The abuse leaves women physically, psychologically and sexually damaged. Boston-based Mariya Taher is pursuing a career in social work and domestic
violence because of her own personal experience. Is she emotionally damaged? “No. It’s something I had to come to terms with. It took a long time for me to
be okay. It is something that has affected me; it’s affected the kind of work I do. I am a social worker and my work revolves around gender violence.
It’s made me the kind of person that I am.”
The mutilation is also affecting marriages. Couples are finally admitting to it but only in one-on-one confidential meetings with the petitioners. One
mother who wished to stay anonymous because she lives bang in the middle of Bohra mohalla says, “I support the fight against FGM. I don’t think I ever
enjoyed sex in my marriage. I often wonder what it would have been like if I hadn’t been cut. The sad part is I will never know.”
One reason why khatna continues is because the Syneda, or the Bohra high priest, refuses to engage on the issue either with the women or the media. The
United Nations has declared female genital mutilation a human rights violation but there is no ban in India. Young girls are still being taken to
midwives and to doctors in Bohra-run hospitals. An anonymous Bohra woman petitioned the Syedna in 2011 but drew a blank but the current one in which
Masooma, Aarefa and Insia have identified themselves is gathering steam with over 45,000 signatures.
Slowly, the issue is becoming less taboo. In Mumbai, HT approached Nushrat Bharucha, a prominent Bohra face who has hit the Bollywood screen with Pyar
ka Punchnama. She initially agreed only to a tape-recorded interview but soon sent a message saying she wanted to be a part of the campaign to stop
Her parents ensured she wasn’t mutilated and she says, “If I have a daughter, no way is she going through this.” Her mother Tasneem says she was broken
after she realised how her mother had plotted her khatna and her father Tanveer, who distanced himself from the clergy by not paying the household tax
the clergy fixes, had to pay a huge emotional price. He wasn’t allowed to bury his father till he paid up. The family is united now and willing to
withstand any backlash that comes their way in the fight against FGM.
The fight is picking up slowly. A conviction in Australia in November, where a nurse and a mother are set to go to jail has led to chatter within the
community and a decree from the Sydney Jamaat advising all Bohras against being in contempt of the country’s law. Insia and Mariya are part of Sahiyo,
an NGO speaking to community members through an ‘each one, reach one’ campaign that is also being promoted on the Speak Out on FGM Facebook page. Masooma and Aarefa plan to finally ask for a ban when they take their
petition to the ministries of women and child development, law and health.
Sahiyo members are analysing the results of an online survey they conducted. Preliminary findings show that 80% of 400 respondents have been cut. Non-Bohra women are joining the fight too.
Priya Goswami, director of a documentary titled ‘A pinch of skin’ is one of them. “When I saw the film on the big screen, I realised I couldn’t move
away from it. It’s great that we have formed a coalition of sorts to try and end khatna.”
Family and child protection lawyer Tavawalla views khatna as a gross violation because children are not able to protect themselves. “Laws play a very
essential role in bringing about social change. Gender reforms are slow and hard-fought, even more so when they involve ancient, archaic and cultural
practices of a secretive and closed community like the Dawoodi Bohras,’’ she says.
Women from the community agree. The secrecy comes wrapped in deceit and betrayal. And a grave form of abuse on young minds and bodies.
Web Producer: Sheikh Saaliq, Zehra Kazmi
Video & Photo: Athar Rather
Illustration: Astha Mittal