'An amorous lump of flesh': Female genital mutilation continues in an unexpected country
A middle-aged woman, her face not shown, her hands painted with henna, is talking about “haraam ki boti,” Hindi for “an amorous lump of flesh.” She is referring to the clitoris in female genitalia that a number of cultures around the world believe must be cut to control or tame sexual desire in women. “Many sins are eliminated from the society if a wife is satisfied with her husband,” another woman says in the award-winning Indian documentary in which both women appear, called “A Pinch of Skin.”
Through the 27-odd-minute film, many women—young, middle-aged, and old—explain, sometimes hesitatingly and with their faces in silhouette, why khatna, as the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is known in India, has been going on in the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra among the Muslim Dawoodi Bohra religious community for decades without any major resistance. A lack of conversation within the community and a stoic silence on matters related to the female body and sexuality meant that the practice has been gone unchallenged. Until a few months ago, this was a dark secret within the Bohra community, rarely spoken about and seldom discussed even between mother and daughter.
That changed when a group of Muslim Bohra women came forward to speak out against FGM. They started a Facebook campaign called “Speak out on FGM,” wrote blogs and started a signature campaign on Change.org. These were baby steps though, as Masooma Ranalvi, a Delhi-based publisher, knew all too well. Ranalvi is at the forefront of the campaign. She underwent FGM at the age of 7, but it wasn’t until her 30s that she realized what had been done to her.
“There was no explanation that was offered, no discussion,” Ranalvi said. “My grandmother took me to a dingy building in the Bohri mohalla [neighborhood] in Bombay [Mumbai] where we used to stay. It was on the pretext of meeting friends or getting some ice cream, if I remember correctly. When we reached the house I was told to lie down. I was very confused. A woman then removed my underwear. I was crying, very scared, holding my grandmother’s hand and then all I remember is a cut, extreme pain, blood, and a black powder being put in my private parts. It was never discussed after that, between friends, sisters, never.”
Ranalvi’s two other sisters went through the same morbid experience but the three never spoke about it. Almost three decades later when the silence was broken they realized that their grandmother had taken each of them to the same woman. The male members of the family were unaware for decades that this had happened to the girls.
A UNICEF report released this month said that at least 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM in 30 countries across the world—nearly 70 million more than previously estimated, in 2014. The practice comprises all procedures that involve partial or total remove of the external genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons, and is recognized by the United Nations as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. India, however, is not on the list of countries that practice it, even though there is clearly a small community that has continued to perpetuate FGM in the country. The Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of the Shia community, are the only known community to practice FGM in India. Yet because of migration of the sect, the practice has spread within the Dawoodi Bohra community to different parts of the world, something we know about because women have finally begun to protest.
I spoke to a mother of two, Ayesha, based in the United States. She asked that I use a pseudonym to hide her identity, because opposition to her speaking out against FGM is now coming from within her own family. Her extended family believes that girls should undergo this procedure in their early years. Ayesha was born in the southern United States and has lived with the psychological aftermath of khatna. As a 7-year-old, she was taken to her grandmother’s house, she told me. “We went to her basement,” she said. “I was told to lie down on the bare, tiled floor. It was cold. I remember that. I also remember my mother explaining that they are giving me something for the pain and they will do something down there. So it wasn’t traumatic at that time. I took it as normal, like a shot. I thought all women went through it.”
Five years later, at the age of 12, Ayesha realized that this what she had endured was not the norm. “I was talking to another friend and she said her mother decided not to do the procedure because it would affect her daughter’s marital life,” she said. When Ayesha confronted her mother with what she’d heard, she was told that FGM was necessary, “that women have urges and that this was done to control those urges” and to “keep women safe.” The messaging continued as Ayesha grew up and began her marital life: “I heard it often that this [khatna/FGM] prevents women from straying. That it is a woman’s responsibility to tame desire. I was later diagnosed with a psychological disorder where the body clams up during intercourse and intercourse itself is very painful. I always question whether the trauma of that feeling when they cut me up had something to do with my condition.”
The “Speak out on FGM” Facebook group has started an important conversation on a ritual that has remained ingrained and secret, said Ranalvi, who is a member along with her sisters While every story on the public forum is similar, Ranalvi and the others said they realize it is only a small knock toward bringing down a wall of deep-seated patriarchy aimed at controlling bodies and desire. “It has been perpetuated almost blindly with no questioning, and is rampant, even among the most educated families,” Ranalvi said.
A conviction in an Australian court in November 2015 in which a retired nurse and a mother of two young girls (now aged 10 and 12) were found guilty for committing FGM has led to anxiety and a mobilization within the community both in Australia and India, I learned from speaking to a cross-section of both places. That hasn’t, however, meant an end to the practice. Sometimes families who live abroad take their girls to India, where there is no law against it. Additionally, Ayesha and other living in the United States claim that many in the community carry out Khatna even in this country. “It is done seamlessly,” she said. “Often families fly their girls to Texas to get the procedure done.”
My conversation with Naghma (name changed at her request) was over a Skype frame that had an empty wall instead of a face. Naghma said she believes in FGM but wasn’t comfortable talking about desire and the female anatomy in public. “I was circumcised—both men and women are circumcised in our community,” she said. “It’s a nick, a small cut. Why should it be given the name of FGM, like it happens in countries like Africa, where they close holes? We don’t do that. It was done crudely earlier but is now done with medical supervision.” She elaborated that the practice is no longer done by untrained midwives with blades and razors but by trained medical practitioners. It often hurts no more than what “an ear-piercing feels like,” she insisted.
When I prodded her about the difference between male and female circumcision, she agreed that male circumcision is done for health reasons while for girls it is aimed at taming desire, keeping marital fidelity, avoiding premarital sex, and broadly adhering to what is considered “proper sexual behavior.”
I asked Naghma if she has daughters and whether she has had khatna done on them. “I have two boys, no girls, but girls in our family had it done recently,” she said. But, she added, “There was no pain. It was done under anesthesia.”
Clearly in disagreement with Naghma in terms of the brutality of the practice, Ranalvi and Ayesha speak for the many women who say that FGM has had a lasting effect on their bodies and has infringed on their autonomy and control over their lives. As more and more women are revealing their identities or even speaking out under pseudonyms about the cruel act they were forced to undergo to as young girls, it’s a significant first step toward the total abandonment of a practice that has been forced upon women for generations.
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, FGM, Asia