Survival has been the prime need of every living creature. Animals are usually found to prefer living in groups. Living together enhances their chance of survival, helping them keep predators at bay. Move a few notches higher up the hierarchal ladder and we have the more evolved and civilised human race. Humans too have followed this motto of ‘live close and live long’ over civilisations. As observed, smaller communities have better chances of progress and peace. An individual has a far greater shot at survival in a community than in solitary. But what if that same community strips and cuts you, scarring your mind and body for life?
The Dawoodi Bohra community is a sub sect of Shia Muslims who trace their origin to Yemen and are concentrated in the western states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Udaipur in Rajasthan, albeit in small numbers. Often living in close knit circles, the Bohra community is often talked about for their progressive reforms in terms of education and business, not to mention their lavish lifestyle. However, under this progressive and glittery farce lies the ugly truth of a gruesome act — the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). The FGM is a procedure that involves removal of the external female genitilia, usually the clitoris or causing injuries to them for reasons other than medical. This gruesome ritual was thought to be prevalent mainly in countries of Africa and in some parts of West Asia until the surfacing of dissenting voices in the Indian subcontinent made its presence palpable here as well.
Over the last few years, a number of women from the Bohra communities in India and Pakistan have come out in the open and shared their nightmarish experience of going through the ordeal. “When I was in Mumbai, visiting some relatives, my mother and aunt took me to an old apartment building in Bhindi Bazaar, a Dawoodi Bohra populated neighbour in South Mumbai. Several elderly ladies wearing saaris welcomed us as we entered the front door of one of the apartments. Soon after that I was lying on the bare floor with my dress slightly pulled up, exposing my midriff and my undergarment pulled down. My aunt was holding my arms so I wouldn’t move. One of the older ladies was holding some sort of an instrument and then I felt a sharp pain before I began crying. After it was complete, both ladies and my mother tried to comfort me. My mother hugged me tight while the ladies bought me Thumbs up to drink,” recounts Mariya, a social worker and a FGM survivor. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has termed all forms of female genital cutting as ‘mutilation’, activists and researchers prefer the term ‘cutting’, keeping in mind the objectives/reasons cited by the patrons of the custom and to keep the term closer to the actual process involved.
The Bohra community uses the word khatna interchangeably for both female and male circumcision. There are four types of female circumcision: type 1 and 2 being the least severe forms. The Bohra’s practise the type 1 female genital cutting which involves removal of only a part of the clitoral hood. As opposed to male circumcision in Islam which is vindicated on hygiene and medical grounds (helps prevent smegma from collecting in the folds of the prepuce tissue and is also believed to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV as per the who records), circumcision in females has barely anything to do with one’s physical wellness and holds supposed religious and cultural obligations as the main reasons. Often mistakenly cited as an Islamic practice, Female Genital Circumcision (FGC) predates Islam and most likely originated in Africa where it is practiced by specific ethnic groups of both Islam and non-Islamic faiths. Many of the community members that Tehelka spoke with seem to believe that the ritual is done with a motive of moderating a woman’s sexual urges and to keep her from indulging in ‘sinful’ acts like masturbation, pre-marital or extra-marital sexual indulgences. This, consequently, has been the major cause of resentment amongst the activists fighting to eradicate the practice. Unlike circumcision in males, female genital cutting has received a lot of criticism for its unjustified violative objectives.