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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) : India’s Well Kept Secret #Vaw

Women of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim sect during a mass marriage function in Mumbai. The Dawoodi Bohra sect still carries out female genital mutilation (Photo: Reuters)

When I was around seven, my grandmother took me on an outing. We went to a dingy building. The women there told me to take my panties off. Then all the women, including my grandmother, pinned my arms and legs down. One of the women took a blade and began cutting me down there. I screamed in terror and pain.”

Those may be the words of only one woman, but they convey the anguish faced by many.

What is FGM?

Words such as those led Tasleem, a Mumbai-based woman in her 40s, to start a campaign on the topic of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) over three years ago.

She started a campaign in December 2011. Tasleem’s goal was to collect enough signatures to present to the Bohra High Priest, His Holiness Dr Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, ordering a ban on this ritual.

However, Burhanuddin’s spokesman, Qureshi Raghib, regrettably ruled out any change and claimed he had no interest in discussing the issue:

I have heard about the online campaign but Bohra women should understand that our religion advocates the procedure and they should follow it without any argument.
– Qureshi Raghib, Dawoodi Bohra community spokesperson

Nothing has changed since. This barbaric practice goes on unchecked to this day, and I believe legal intervention is necessary as soon as possible.

FGM, according to the WHO, comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

It has been widespread in many parts of Africa and the Middle East for centuries, but has been a particularly well-kept secret in India and Pakistan, where it’s practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community under the specious plea of ‘an Islamic mandatory’.

Debate on this subject is generally taboo and any discussion sacrilege. The women of this community, are made to believe that it is practised all over the world, as well as crucial for their social acceptance.

A young Muslim bride belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community displays her henna-painted palms while waiting for proceedings during a mass wedding in Mumbai. (Photo: Reuters)

Time to Break the Silence

However, it poses severe health risks to women besides serious having long-term physical and psychological ramifications.

More awareness needs to be raised within the Dawoodi Bohra community. Several attempts to do this have been made.

A blog, Break the Silence, for instance, aims to shed light on similar narrations and spread awareness on the cruel practice by questioning how men and women lack compassion for their daughters and granddaughters by putting them through such  pain, and why female circumcision hasn’t been made illegal in India.

Documentaries are also being made on the topic. A Pinch of Skin, portrays a string of women sharing their own experiences of FGM, and brings together voices of women who suffered.

It is important to note that it has been made clear by Islamic scholars that there is no mention of any type of genital mutilation in the Quran.

Religion has nothing to do with it (genital mutilation)… These are customary practices of certain traditional societies in some parts of Africa, where all women were genitally mutilated irrespective of their religion, caste or creed.
– Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, Professor of Islamic Studies, St Xavier’s College.

A bride in a traditional attire after participating in a mass wedding ceremony. (Photo: Reuters)

Need to Criminalise FGM

In light of recent judgements of the court, I am inclined to argue there is an incredibly strong case for legal intervention.

Article 25 guarantees every citizen the fundamental right to preach, practice and profess one’s religious beliefs. In Javed vs State of Haryana (2003) and in Khurshed Ahmed Khan vs State of UP (2015), the court ruled that “what was protected under Article 25 was the religious faith and not a practice which may run counter to public order, health or morality”. It was also observed “that a practice did not acquire sanction of religion simply because it was permitted”.

These lead me to the firm belief that FGM clearly fails on all counts and must go. Syedna Burhanuddin passed away in January 2014 and a bitter succession battle has ensued between Mufaddal Saifuddin and Khuzaima Qutbuddin for leadership of the Dawoodi Bohras, including litigation. While the two battle it out, may I plead that our courts intervene sua sponte/suo motu and criminalise FGM immediately.

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