Woman’s group launch campaign against practice of female genital mutilation of Khatna in India

Mumbai,Dec1:A small group of women are braving intense backlash from their families and communities for speaking out against Khatna, the ritualistic mutilation of female genitalia practised by the Dawoodi Bohra community in India.

It’s not something they didn’t forsee, of course. Any woman venturing into the public space to voice an opinion is usually braced for threats of sexual and physical violence. However, this was closer home.

“Some commentators said ‘Who cares if you don’t feel sexual pleasure. This is what Allah wants.’ and ‘You don’t look like a Bohra from any angle – look at how you dress’,” says a Mumbai-based journalist who took part in the photo-campaign sparked by Sahiyo to speak up against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Others were accosted in mosques and community centers and asked why they were maligning the community. Invitations to weddings and community celebrations dried up. Relatives distanced themselves and entire families have been excommunicated.

It wouldn’t be alarming if this wasn’t the Bohra community, one of the most liberal Islamic sects with a high rate of female education and liberal outlook. The irony that they hold on to the traumatic, barbaric and unhygienic practice of khatna is not lost on the women of Sahiyo.

Five women – Mariya Taher, Aarefa Johari, Priya Goswami, Insia Dariwala and Shaheeda Tavawala – started Sahiyo (which means Friends) to engage the Dawoodi Bohra community in a dialogue about female genital circumcision and find a collective solution towards ending the ritual. In the Stories and Narratives section of their website feature personal stories of women who have undergone FGM, as well as of men who support the cause.

Mental and physical violation

“I was told by my grandmother that I was going to a party and will make lots of friends,” says a Mumbai based journalist. “But we ended up in a dark room. Two women forced me down on a bed, my grandmother spread my legs, pulled down my underwear and mid-wife approached me with a blade. I was howling and crying but the women in the room were laughing. I couldn’t pee without pain for a week and blacked out the entire incident. It only came back to me when I started talking to Sahiyo and participated in their campaign. I now have a strained relationship with my grandmother.”

If you ask any Bohra women whether her sexual experience is different from that of other women, she wouldn’t have any answer. “I never experienced that before I got cut, so how can I tell?,” says one homemaker.

The campaign

An exploratory online survey conducted by Sahiyo in July 2015 found that at least 80 per cent of the 400 Dawoodi Bohra women who participated had undergone khatna; and only 10 per cent believed the tradition should continue.

Dariwala, a filmmaker, says, “For me, this is another form of child abuse. It can’t be considered a tradition — it is a violation of child’s right to body. The need of an hour is to engage more and more people in conversation.”

In February 2016, Sahiyo and Speak Out on FGM (a similar organization) ran ‘Each One Reach One’ a month-long campaign to encourage people to engage in a conversation about khatna with at least one Bohra. “Many parents have now decided not to cut their daughter, including a father” says Johari, a Mumbai-based journalist. “It’s not just women, we need to reach out to the men too.”

In March, Sahiyo enouraged both men and women to lend their faces to their ‘I Am Bohra’ photo campaign. The idea was simple: Post a picture of yourself holding a placard saying: ‘I am a Bohra and I oppose khatna because…’.

The campaign gave their initiative more momentum, but also the most backlash. One participant’s family stopped talking to her. “The backlash took a rather offensive tone,” says Tavawala, a researcher and policy analyst living in Canada. “[So much so that] A few ladies requested us to remove their pictures as their families had been approached by people from the community and held accountable. We’ve were told that the community views us as ‘reformists’ and ‘fringe elements’ who are not true Bohras because we don’t wear the community dress or go to the mosque regularly.”

“I think any opposition we have faced has been a step in the right direction because it means that people are engaging in dialogues in a public way,” said Mariya, a social worker.

What is Khatna?

Khatna is the practice of removing parts of a woman’s external genitalia for ritualistic purposes. This could range from cutting the tip of the clitoris to removing the inner and outer labia, and in some communities, stitching the labia close. Dawoodi Bohras, a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Islam, remove the prepuce from the female genitalia. The aim is to curb sexual urges or prevent them from experiencing pleasure during intercourse.

The ritual usually takes place when the girl is seven by a midwife using a crude blade and often without local anesthetic or any painkiller. The consequences are pain during urination, infections, painful intercourse and mental trauma. Many women black out the incident and develop a deep mistrust of their mother or female relative who accompanied them to the ritual.

WHO lists repeated infections, cysts, infertility, higher childbirth complications and the need for repeated surgeries as consequences of FGM.