“Ma, there’s something that I really want to talk to you about,” Faiza (name changed) texted her mother a fortnight ago. “Tell me, Beta,” the mother promptly replied. “I have been thinking about the day you took me to get cut,” she pursued even as her mother remained stoic. “There’s nothing to think about. It happens to every girl at age 7,” she responded, dismissing Faiza’s concerns as “nothing big”. But Faiza pressed on, gradually shedding her inhibition to confront and confess for the first time how her experience of khatna or female circumcision—still practised within India’s Bohra Muslim community — had left her feeling “traumatised” and “wondering why I was put through it”.
The highs and lows of this mother-daughter exchange would have been unexceptional had it not been for the fact that the mother is an inanimate chatbot who exists only inside Faiza’s phone. To help more women like Faiza express themselves and initiate conversations on female genital cutting or mutilation (FGC/FGM)—a topic that most in the community still struggle with—an artificial intelligence powered app called Mumkin, meaning ‘possible’ in Hindi and in the shape of a friendly octopus, simulates emotional responses that one would expect from a mother or a husband, and helps them navigate the stigma and silence around the practice, thus enabling them to strike-up difficult dialogues in the real world. <EP,1>Faiza had tried talking to her parents several times in the past 12 years since she found out that the nick she had undergone was a violation against women according to WHO. “And now, after all the fights, I finally found a way to communicate better with my father about this,” she says. Faiza even mustered the courage to draw a vagina to explain the procedure to her parents, prompting them to admit this was “jahaalat” meaning ‘ignorance’ in Urdu.
Co-created by Priya Goswami, a documentary filmmaker and Aarefa Johari, a journalist and one of the first in the Indian Bohra community to speak out publicly about her own tryst with the practice, Mumkin is a byproduct of Goswami and Johari’s relentless pursuit over the past nine years to end female circumcision among Dawoodi Bohras and other South-Asian communities.
“Despite nine years of active engagement with the community, the taboo and culture of silence still prevent people from opening up on the subject. With on-going pro-khatna movements, it’s only got harder to have a public discourse. We thought it would be good to give women access to such conversations within the privacy of their palmtop devices,” explains Goswami. “Mock conversations with chatbots help users shed inhibitions and gain the communication skills and confidence they need,” adds Johari.
At the heart of Mumkin’s chatbot lies natural language processed from anecdotal evidence, personal stories and data that Goswami and Johari have gathered over their years of activism to shape the content. “We know that some women feel resentful of their mothers who took them to get cut, others seek closure, while some grapple with trauma and might feel triggered talking about it. We’ve built the cognition of the chatbots keeping in mind the complex range of emotions survivors go through when they try to talk about FGC with their loved ones,” explains Goswami.
But whether conversations automated by algorithms and delivered via screens can heal wounds as effectively as human therapy , Goswami points out: “Mumkin is more of a conversation partner than a therapist. It seeks to fill the void of a friend or a mentor, draw people out and support them emotionally.”
While the pilot version of the app is directed at Bohra women battling the scars of khatna, it also aims at taking the conversation forward to bring down the wall on domestic violence and consent in the future.