One day when I was around seven, my grandmother took me to the Bohra mohalla (at Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai) with a promise of buying me some chocolate and ice-cream.
Gladly I went. Grandmother took me to an old, decrepit looking building in the narrow gullies. We went to the first floor and entered a home; she led me to an inside room; there was a woman there who drew the curtains and asked me to lie down. I was petrified by then, and was clutching onto my grandmother’s hand. This woman who made me lie down, pulled down my pants and held my legs while grandma held onto my hands. I was just so scared, I didn’t know what was happening. The lady said it would just take a minute and there will be just a little pain. I just clutched my grandmother’s hand and closed my eyes. There was a nick, and then she pulled my pants up and told me to go.
I went home and hugged my mother and cried. My mom told me it was alright, I would be fine. She explained to me that it would hurt when I would pee but the pain would soon subside. This horrific incident has stayed with me all my life.
I was too small to understand what happened to me and nobody explained it to me either.
I was hurt, scared and scarred by this one incident in my otherwise very happy childhood.
This was more than four decades ago. The practice continues till date in my community.
I belong to the Dawoodi Bohra community which is a small, prosperous, highly-visible Shi’a Muslim sect based in Western India. The Bohras are an exclusivist, conservative, male-dominated society; however, interestingly, the women are seemingly proud of the measure of independence they have achieved and often describe their sect as egalitarian in its treatment of men and women in education, marriage and basic freedoms. Yet, they observe several conservative, male-dominated traditions, one of them being the practice of female circumcision.
Mumbai is a city of approximately 22 million people, 17 percent of whom are Muslims. Asghar Ali Engineer in his book The Bohras attributes the origins of this sect with the arrival of Shia Ismaili missionaries in early 11th century AD, to the port of Cambay from Egypt via Yemen. These missionaries found converts among Indian traders, largely in Gujarat, who came to be known as Bohras. There are now approximately one million adherents in India and across parts of Eastern Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America.
According to scholars, the sect today is largely comprised of traders, business owners and professionals. The Bohra world headquarters is in Mumbai where the Syedna, the religious head of this community resides.
The Bohra practice of FGM is very much alive and kicking today, and is ordained and supported by the current Syedna’s decrees. The Syednas’ support and sanction of the practice is enough to want all the Bohra women to observe it and perpetuate it unquestioningly and blindly.
Many Bohra women argue that this practice is part of the egalitarian nature of their religion, as both men and women are circumcised.
For men, the circumcision is done for health and hygiene, while for women, it is meant to curb sexual desire and tame them. The benefits of male circumcision apparently outweigh the risks – according to federal guidelines from US health officials released in December 2014, “There is scientific evidence that supports recommending the procedure”. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that medically-performed male circumcision could help decrease the risk of contracting HIV and several other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well as other health problems.
The circumcision of men is a celebration in the community, while for the girl child it is a dreaded, secretive event done in the confines of the home without any proper instruments or medical supervision. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.”
Jameela, an elderly matron, states matter of factly that, “Boys are circumcised at birth, and girls undergo the procedure at age seven, it’s part of our religion.” However, Zainub, a practicing doctor, acknowledges that “For males, the circumcision is for health reasons and that for women the procedure is to curb sexual desire and prevent wives from straying from their husbands.” She also narrates a case of FGM gone horribly wrong because of the primitive methods causing excessive bleeding and a subsequent hospitalization of the girl child.
Young Bohra women continue to support the practice even though they may be ambiguous about the so-called benefits of the practice. Some elderly women call it “haram ni boti” which can lead young girls astray and say the process is needed to ensure they obey the wishes and commands of their husbands and don’t lust for other men. FGM seems to be motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity.
Rashida, a childhood friend of mine, described the procedure as “Just a small snip of flesh done without anesthesia” and admitted to getting her daughter’s circumcision done by a doctor in Dubai recently without really questioning the need for it.
Intellectually, some Bohra women accept that the rationale given for female circumcision of preserving the sanctity of marriage does not stand up to scrutiny, but they nonetheless accept it as part of the requirements of their faith that they share equally with men.
In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation. The resolution was passed unanimously and India was part of this unanimous decision. Several countries in the world have banned the practice of FGM. Nigeria is the latest country which recently passed a law banning FGM, taking the total of countries banning this practice to 23 in Africa alone.
Research shows that if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly. However, talking to women in my community shows this practice is perpetuated and even supported by some women among the Bohras.
Bohra women are among the most educated Muslims in India, they practice all kinds of professions from medicine, teaching to being businesswomen, artists, and research scholars, lawyers, journalists, making one wonder that why this educated section of women continue with this practice.
A large section of the women in the Bohra community genuinely believe the practice is religiously ordained and is good for them. Some blindly follow it as they are ordained to do it by the clergy. It is one of the many diktats which get followed without any questioning glare.
Another reason perhaps could lie in the complete indoctrination within the community to accept any and every decree of His Holiness, the Syedna, their religious head. The threat and fear of social boycott or excommunication for any form of protest or disobedience is so deep and so real that not many have the stomach of be booted out of the confines of the close-knit community. Any stepping out of line immediately attracts ostracism from near and dear ones, disallows you from participating in social and religious gatherings and meetings, prevents the marriage of your kids into the community, and prohibits your dead body from being buried in the community burial ground. This fear has prevented women from raising their voices against any oppressive practice.
A few years ago, Taslim (surname withheld) had started an online signature campaign on change.org to stop FGM among Bohras. The fear of the powerful clergy was so palpable that she refused to identify herself or come forward, even though her mind and heart were strong in their opposition to the practice. However, there are many like Taslim in the community who have read about the harmful effects of FGM on their little girls and refuse to subject their daughters to this barbaric practice. Taslim’s parents had taken a stand and had not got her circumcised. Taslim in turn did not allow her daughter to be circumcised, thus effectively breaking the chain of perpetuating the practice. There are many intelligent, questioning and enlightened Bohra men and women who have ensured this practice does not perpetuate. I have three sisters and we each have a daughter; we have not circumcised them.
The ritual of female circumcision does not have any religious sanction as such. If it did, why is it not practised uniformly across the Islamic world? The practice of FGM predates Islam, it is more cultural than religious. It is most widely practiced in Africa in all communities and religions (Muslims, Christians) and the practice of it among Bohras has something to do with their historical roots in Africa. In India, which has a large Muslim population, it is only the Bohras who practice FGM.
The way forward for us as Bohra women perhaps could be to break the vice-like grip of the secrecy around this practice. We need to talk about this practice and start questioning why is it done. We need to start voicing our experiences, our thoughts and our responses to this practice. Even if it is among family and friends. The secrecy and shame surrounding this practice should go. The practice is wholly voluntary. We need to openly acknowledge that something like this happens in our homes, in our families and in our lives, and that if we have to break the perpetuation cycle for the next generation, we have to start doing it first in our own homes. We owe it to ourselves and to our daughters.
All forms of female genital cutting must be seen to constitute a sexual mutilation and violation of bodily integrity. It amounts to a violation of human rights and child rights as it involves removing healthy, sensitive tissue from a non-consenting person, a girl child in this case. What happened to me years ago was an act of coercive violence without my consent, and I have chosen to speak out against it today and I sincerely hope others do so too.
PS: A trial has started in the Supreme Court of Australia in a case where where circumcision was found to be done on 2 girls belonging to a Dawoodi Bohra family in 2012. The girls mother, a senior clergy member Sheikh Shabbir Vaziri and a 68 year old nurse who performed the genital cutting on the girls, all these belonging to the Bohra community, are facing the trial. If convicted, the three accused could face seven years in jail as per the Australian law.
This case has begun to cause ripples in the Bohra community in India as well. Fear of the law and fear of arrest and a jail term can perhaps act as the best deterrent to abolish this practice.
Masooma Ranalvi is a Dawoodi Bohra. She works as a publisher and is actively involved in working on womens issues. She is committed to spreading awareness on the issue of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in her community.