What happens when a religious leader supports female genital mutilation
In the confines of their home in Boston, among close friends, the Bandukwalas decided that their 8-year-old would not undergo khatna, the name given to the practice of Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation (FGM/C) by their community of Dawoodi Bohras. While hardly dinnertime conversation, the topic was in the air all evening. Finally, the couple agreed not to do it.
“It’s incompatible in these times we live in,” Bandukwala said.
A few weeks later, in April, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the religious head of the Dawoodi Bohras, delivered a public sermon at a mosque. In the sermon, the clergyman, speaking in the Lisan-ul-Dawat language, a Gujarati dialect with heavy dashes of Urdu and Arabic, said:
“What can they say to us? That if you do this, it is not right. I will not go into detail about what I am saying—they say that this is not right, you should not do it. Who are you to teach us! He needs to understand, they all need to understand. Why do you not prohibit those who drink alcohol, prohibit those who smoke cigarettes, why do you not tell them?
“The procedure, the procedure has to happen. If it is a man, it can be done openly, and if it is a woman, it must be discreet—but it must be done. You understand what I am trying to talk about.”
Then, on June 6, Saifuddin issued a written statement, in which he reiterated his stance even more clearly.
“Male and female circumcision are religious rites that have been practiced by Dawoodi Bohras throughout their history. Religious books, written over a thousand years ago, specify the requirements for both males and females as acts of religious purity. This religious obligation finds an echo in many other Muslim communities, particularly those following the Sunni Shafi’i school of thought.”
The two statements changed everything for the Bandukwalas. When I called them back, they were hesitant to comment. Our conversation was short and awkward.
“We were willing to make a personal decision since our Syedna [religious leader] had not said anything,” the husband told me on the phone, adding that he spoke on behalf of his wife as well, as she did not wish to engage any further on this issue. “For us to violate his wishes now will be tough,” he said. “I don’t think it is possible to not do it after he has said what he has said.”
Threats, intimidation, and pressure
The Dawoodi Bohras are one of the only known communities in India to practice female genital mutilation. And while the unambiguous statement of the top clergy has been a big setback and led to a clampdown of sorts, “it is also significant,” says Masooma Ranalvi, a Delhi-based member of the Speak Out on FGM campaign on Facebook, which was started in September 2015.
“It is perhaps the first time in the history of the community that the top clergy has been forced to address the issue publicly,” Ranalvi says. “This is the first time the leadership has had to face uncomfortable media glare on the prevalence of the practice. Now this statement will definitely impact the community for whom every word of the Syedna is gospel and reinforce the practice, but for years all we got is a stony silence.”
In the past few months, as the strongest opposition to the practice has come from within the community—from Bohra women who survived FGM and men who were oblivious that their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends had gone through it—the pushback has been worse.
The Speak Out on FGM campaign says it has received seven requests in the past three months by women to delete their photographs and comments on the issue. Priests in Mumbai have personally called family members of women in the group, asking them to stop talking about the matter or break ties with the anti-FGM movement. Two women, who joined the campaign and asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told me they had stopped going to local mosques, at least for the time being, because they were stared at constantly and felt intimidated.
Munira Hamza, a 47-year-old securities trader in New Jersey who is part of the Speak Out on FGM group, received sexually explicit messages on her WhatsApp account from several unknown numbers in India. In one of the messages, her profile picture was Photoshopped with flames and sent back to her. “I am still very much part of the group and campaign, but I was shocked and scared when I received that picture,” she says. “I have a long list of blocked people on my phone now, and I have kept my profile picture blank. This is the level to which I have toned it down, so to speak.”
The conversation that started with FGM had also begun to touch on misogyny and gender bias. “The messaging is that we have to be virtuous women, homemakers,” says one member of the Speak Out on FGM group who asked not to be identified. “In the case of FGM, it’s stark and out there: Tame women. In other aspects, it is subtle. The norm among the more orthodox following is to seek permission from the Syedna before an important decision like admission to college."
Young girls seeking permission to enter science or engineering programs are denied and instead encouraged to join home science programs because otherwise they will have to work alongside men, the member says.
Yet many Bohra women say the community at large and previous heads of clergy have supported women’s education and their careers. “It’s a progressive community,” says the Speak Out on FGM member. “Look at all the women who are speaking up and have the courage to do so. [Ending FGM] will take time. You won’t be able to rush through years of silence and conformity.”
About half of the 1 million Dawoodi Bohras, a community of Shia Muslims hailing mostly from the western Indian state of Gujarat are settled across the world in Australia, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada. Female genital mutilation is outlawed in these places. The communities here have passed resolutions, asking Bohras to follow the laws of the land where they live and not engage in cutting. (Even the June statement by Mufaddal Saifuddin, which unabashedly supports FGM, does say that resolution letters passed by these congregations abroad are valid.)
The mixed messaging is nothing but hypocrisy, says Zehra Patwa, survivor of FGM and a U.S.-based member of the Speak out on FGM group. “These resolutions were an obvious response to a growing campaign against FGM, a trial in Australia where several were convicted and the realization that there could be a jail term if people flouted the law,” she says. “It’s confusing because Bohra parents look like they are being encouraged to do it elsewhere, in countries like India, where no ban on FGM currently exists. However, taking a child out of a country for purposes of FGM is also illegal in many countries.”
In the face of hypocrisy
Mariya Taher was raised a Dawoodi Bohra and underwent FGM at age of seven. Her family was on vacation to India, visiting relatives in Mumbai, when her mother and aunt took her to an old apartment building in a Dawoodi Bohra neighborhood. Her aunt held her arms so that she couldn’t move, while one of the older ladies in the apartment used some sort of an instrument on her. All Taher felt was a shooting pain.
In her master’s thesis, “Understanding the continuation of Female Genital Cutting in the United States,” Taher writes about the incident, saying, “After the khatna was complete, both the ladies and the mother dressed her and tried to comfort her. Her mother hugged her tight while the ladies brought her a soft drink called Thums-Up found in India.”
The memory of Taher’s own khatna ends here, but she describes the time, a few years later, when the procedure was performed on her younger sister: “It was celebratory, a joyous occasion and at that time I viewed it as a moment when my sister was passing a milestone,” she wrote. “It was much later that I made the connection that what happened to me and my sister constitutes as a form of violence.”
In 2015, Taher and four other women, Insia Dariwala, Shaheeda Tavawala, Aarefa Johari, and Priya Goswami, founded Sahiyo, an NGO that advocates the end of FGM. But the last few months have been tough for them. They were recently served a cease and desist letter, a threat to serve a legal notice to WordPress (under which Sahiyo.com is registered) and to sue the five co-founders individually.
This was because the website had posted letters from various Dawoodi Bohra congregations across the world asking the diaspora to follow the law of the land and not engage in FGM. The letters were issued after a landmark FGM trial in Australia in which three Dawoodi Bohras were convicted of carrying out female genital mutilation on two sisters. The letters had been widely circulated on social and mainstream media and were seen as part of an outreach by community heads.
Sahiyo took down the letters from its website, but published a blog pointing out the hypocrisy. “Why should religious authorities issuing these letters be concerned when we are sharing their good effort and progress in ending FGC?” the statement said. “We believe this was an attempt to re-silence the practice of khatna that had finally begun to come out in the open.”
In a community where the threat of social sanction looms large and can take the form of being ostracized from places of worship, being denied a burial place, or even being shunned by the family, the statement of the religious head is likely to push the practice underground. An online survey conducted by Sahiyo revealed that 80 percent of the 385 surveyed had undergone FGM/C.
“Ours is a community where social sanction/ostracism takes place,” Taher says. “I've heard from several women who lied about their daughter's undergoing FGM/C. They were subjected to it themselves, but did not want their daughters to undergo it. They were unable to publicly state that their daughter would not undergo it. So they kept it a secret that their daughters had not undergone it.”
“On the other hand,” she adds, “I am aware that in some communities, FGC will continue to be performed in secret, being driven even more underground due to the Syedna's statement.”
What will it take to stop FGM?
At a clinic on a narrow street in Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar area, elderly women are seen sometimes with young girls. They never sit on benches or wait for the doctor. Instead they enter through a back door that serves as a connection between the house and the clinic. It’s here that a midwife performs khatna. I shall call her Farida.
In a small, dim room with no windows or furniture—with only a bamboo mat and stale air—Farida does the procedure, pinching the tip of the clitoris with a clean razor blade. She often asks young girls to use the toilet first. She is forbidden to speak about any of this—the procedure, her clients, how long she has performed khatna, or other places where khatna can be performed.
Farida did not go to the mosque to hear the clergyman’s April sermon. She heard it in a four-minute audio clip that her friends sent her on WhatsApp. But about 7,000 men, women, and children attended the mid-day congregation that day, which was telecast across various Bohra mosques in Mumbai.
Since then, Farida has become busier. She has also become more careful. The months of June and July are often referred to as the “cutting season,” when doctors, midwives, and others engage in cutting. It’s a period in which many members of the community who have settled abroad come back to India for vacation and to make sure that their girls—between the ages of 5 and 9—undergo the procedure.
What would it take to stop khatna? I ask Farida.
“If the Syedna says, ‘Don’t do it,’ it will stop overnight,” she replies.
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