With No Laws, Extensive Female Genital Mutilation Among Muslim Bohra Community In India Is Scarring Women For Life

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“I don’t know any Bohra woman who has not undergone it. Every Bohra woman in my family, those I know have all undergone it.” — Jumana, 26-years-old from a big city.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FMG/C) – also known as Khafd or Khatna is a fecund practice in the Muslim Dawoodi Bohra community. Adding despondency, there are no laws in India banning the distressing custom. Bohras are not the only community to practice FGM/C in India. FGM/C is also practiced in different parts of Kerala amongst different sects of Muslims and is referred to as female Sunnath Kalyanam in the state.

In Khafd, a part of woman’s clitoris is forcibly removed in the name of culture. Khafd, a pre-requisite to the Nikaah (traditional marriage ceremony), is generally known to be performed amongst Bohras at the age of seven years. 

Contradicting government’s admission to the Supreme Court that there’s no data available on the existence of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in India, a new qualitative study shows that 75 per cent of women in Bohra community subjected their daughters to the practice. The study interviewed 94 women from the community.

The study titled “The Clitoral Hood A Contested Site”, was released on February 5 before International Day for Zero Tolerance for FGM.

“There was this lady, she was a middle-aged woman. She was wearing a pink Ridah when it happened. I was made to sit on my great grandmother’s bed. First, she cleaned the area with cotton but she was doing it so hard I felt that that was the Khatna itself. And I kept wondering when would it get over and I kept asking my mother is it over? Is it over? Mom said “no she is only just cleaning it with a cotton swab.” After that the cut happened. And it was the most painful thing I ever remember in my life. And then after that I don’t know why but I felt like peeing. I remember this… it was done with a blade. I would like to believe it was sterilized. I don’t know whether it was or it wasn’t. Then I was sitting on the toilet seat and it was burning and mummy had given me some ice to put. But I just could not pee. I don’t know if it happened immediately or it happened a few hours later. But I know that it was very, very, very, painful. There was blood but not much of bleeding. It was like a wound on your genitals. Obviously, I am guessing that irreparable damage was not done because after two days it did become fine.” – Jumana, 26-years-old

 

Forceps, Curved scissor, Scissor, Blade, Serrated Knife, Scalpel, Snap Blade are some of the instruments used during Khafd/Representational Image

As children and as mothers, women mostly undergo Khafd or genital mutilation over a weekend, allowing girls time to recover and rest after the procedure.

Read more: US Doctors Of Indian-Origin Fakhruddin Attar And Jumana Nagarwala, Indicted In Female Genital Mutilation Case

The fact that 97% of the women could recall in such vivid detail their Khafd experience and the pain associated with it, despite being cut between the ages of five to eight years old, indicates that the incident itself was consistently very significant in girls’ childhood. Other memories immediately following Khafd repeated by several women included bleeding, difficulty walking, burning during urination and feeling terrified to urinate.

Reasons for practising Khafd

The reasons for the practice of Khafd amongt Bohras echo many of the reasons behind FGM/C that are stated throughout the world. Amongst interviewees’ responses, Khafd as a religious ritual stood out as the most prominent, followed closely by Khafd to control women and girls’ sexual behavior, promote modesty, and prevent promiscuity.

Several respondents acknowledged the pressure from community members, including family, acquaintances and religious community, to ensure that girls are subjected to Khafd and lastly some believed Khafd is one of the many ways Bohras maintain their distinct identity from other Muslim groups in India.

What are female children told about Khafd

In most cases, Khafd appears in the life of Bohra girl abruptly. Many respondents (when they were children) were not prepared for their Khafd with any relevant explanations prior to the procedure. Instead, the trip to the traditional circumciser was introduced as a trip to purchase sweets, as a day out with grandma, as an outing to a party or to resolve a medical issue. These excuses were explained to ensure that children do not put up resistance.

Many respondents remember the exact reason given to them while they were taken to Khafd. 

“My mother told me that we were going to get a small pocket stitched in my underwear. She added that I would then be able to hide anything I wanted in my underwear.”

“They told me that they wanted to take us somewhere to remove a worm.”

“My grandmother told me there would be a gathering.” 

Words used by women to describe what they felt during Khafd 

Nose prick, Pinch, Injection, Prick of a needle, Nick, Strongly pinched, Ant bite, Injection, Piercing pain, “The way the upper skin is peeled off and it causes pain.”

While study participants might not have clearly remembered their exact age or the exact procedure, which they were subjected to, almost all remembered who took them for it.

 

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Nose prick, Pinch, Injection, Prick of a needle, Nick, Strongly pinched, Ant bite, Injection, Piercing pain are words used by women to explain what they felt during Khafd/Representational Image

The study outlines that women accompany and undertake the logistics of organising the Khafd of their daughters or granddaughters. 

“Several mothers who had decided or were forced to decide to cut their daughters did mention they could not bear to see their daughters go through the pain of the procedure and therefore did not accompany them or left the room during the procedure”, reads the report.

Materials used after Khafd as recalled by women

Talcum powder, Ash, Turmeric, Dettol, White antiseptic powder, Soframycin, Boric powder, Ether/Spirit, Tincher Benzoine, Pain killers, Black Ointment, Red Ointment, Cotton, Diaper cloth

Instruments used during Khafd as recalled by women

Forceps, Curved scissor, Scissor, Blade, Serrated Knife, Scalpel, Snap Blade

I don’t remember what device it was – a blade or a knife or something. She brought whatever it was and I was cut and of course I was in a lot of pain. She cut my skin and she showed it to me, after cutting a bit of my flesh. Having told me, “this is the manifestation of the devil” and we have got that out. She said “Shehthaan che. Tamara mathi kaado che.” – Insiya, 26-year-old 

The role of men

When participants were generally asked if they thought men had a role to play in Khafd, many respondents said “No, men don’t have a role to play.” However, further examination revealed that men do have a role to play, but at a personal level. At the minimum, they are informed prior to the procedure in many families. In a few instances, participants reported that their fathers/ brothers transported them to the place where FGM/C was performed, or gave the mother money for the procedure.

The study indicates that with the generation change, as increasing numbers of younger men are playing a more active role in their daughters’ Khafd. Their active participation in the decision-making is a recent trend as older men were not so involved.

“Sometimes we learn things when it comes into your life. So, when my daughter was around 7 years old no, in fact when my daughter was born I learnt that just like male circumcision there is something called female Khatna that is known as Khafd. That was the general discussion between me and my wife, that’s all.” – Hussain, 41-year-old Bohra man 

Read more: Brutality Can Never Be God’s Will, Women Of Mumbai’s Bohra Community Say ‘NO’ To The Painful Female Genital Mutilation

This change could be because younger educated men play a more active role in child rearing and care giving today. It may also be because of their awareness of the health risks of FGM/C and lastly it coincides with shifting dynamics in communication between couples, where women feel the need for involvement of the male partner in girls’ Khafd.  
Men informed about Khafd but passive 

“I encountered the issue of Khatna for the first time when my sister had to undergo the procedure. I was very young at that time and I never had the courage to actually ask any details to my mother or grandmother about it.” – Moiz, 34-year-old Bohra man 

“When my daughters became of that age where they were taken for their Khatna, I came to know of it soon after it was done but even then, I could not clearly take a stand that it should not be done.” – Shoheb, 55-year-old Bohra man 

“Men are informed about their daughter’s Khatna and do not oppose it since it is compulsory in our community.” – Masooma, 19-year-old young girl

“I took his (my husband’s) permission. They are his daughters so I took his permission.” – Farzana, 33-year-old

Euphemisms 

“They call it “Naak Vindavanu” (Nose piercing) for some reason. So I thought they were actually going to pierce my nose.” 

“I was told that, we will have to go to Bhindi bazaar, to some aunt’s house… “Chakli udavwa” “to set a sparrow free.”’

When asked why mothers had hesitated to tell their daughters the truth, several women said they knew their daughters would resist or refuse to go for the procedure.

The narratives of Bohra women in this study leaves absolutely no doubt about the experience of FGM/C. Bohra women deal with a traumatic childhood – being taken for Khafd by a trusted family member, feeling physical pain and discomfort, and emotions of bewilderment during the seventh year or eighth year of their life.

Type of FGM/C practiced by Bohras 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies FGM/C into 4 Types20. Type 1 is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or clitoral hood/prepuce (Clitoridectomy), Type 2 or Excision is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without the labia majora, Type 3 or Infibulation is the removal of the labia minora, labia majora and sewing of the vaginal opening with or without removal of the clitoris, Type 4 includes all other medically unnecessary procedures like nicking, pricking, piercing and cauterization of the female genitalia. Of relevance to this discussion on FGM/C amongst Bohras are the WHO’s Type 1 and Type 4 FGM/C classifications.

Taking into account, the narratives from the community, there is no consistency or uniformity in the practice of girls Khafd in India.

Accounts indicate that Types 1a, 1b, and Type 4 FGM/C are practiced by Bohras in India. The procedures include cutting of the clitoral hood and/or part or all of the clitoris and ‘nicking’ of the clitoral hood although there is no clear medical definition of what a ‘nick’ entails.

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Representational Image

“My mum took me out, under the pretext that we are going to hang out. I just remember that I ended up at a clinic and she introduced me to this doctor. The doctor (OB-GYN) was really nice and they both didn’t tell me anything about what was going to happen. Maybe it was a fear that I might cry or some such. I was just asked to remove my undergarment. My mum was there with me always and was holding my hand and all. For a little child, you have only been naked in front of your parents and so it felt a bit weird. And though there was nothing wrong with me, yet I was taken to a clinic. So, there was this anxious build up. The doctor was good, she asked me to remain still. Next thing, I just felt some piercing pain. If I were to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, the intensity of this pain was up to 50. I will never forget this at all. I cried a lot and kept crying. I was wondering if I had done something wrong and why was I being punished? My mum was holding my lower part.” – Alifiya, 29-year-old

Long-term physical, psychological and sexual impact

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) are listed as one of the long-term health risks of FGM/C by the WHO. Some of the recurring issues as reported by the study participants related to sexual health include low sex drive and disinterest in initiating sex. Delayed arousal, problems trusting the partner and difficulty reaching an orgasm were also constantly reported. Other issues included dryness, lack of lubrication, pain during sex and difficulty masturbating. For many women, this was the first time that they verbalized their fears of sexual intercourse or their negative experience of sexual activity.

A few women even reported thoughts of Khafd during sexual intercourse.

Citing polarisation of the world, the study indicates that people’s views on FGM/C in India are also becoming polarised. On one hand is the rise of religious orthodoxy and on other hand, is the slow abandonment of the practice.

The last five years have seen a dramatic break in silence and increase in public debates on FGM/C amongst Bohras. The two international legal cases in Australia in 2012 and USA in 2017 have brought the issue of FGM/C amongst Bohras into the limelight.

Khafd or FGM/C as currently practiced by Bohras in India violates numerous rights enshrined in the Indian constitution. 

Khafd violates the following human rights of women and girls: 

– Right to be free from all forms of discrimination 

– Right to life and physical integrity 

– Right to be free from violence 

– Right to health 

– Right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

While the government has a very clear stand on ending the Triple Talaq practice, it is important that it must tread female genital mutilation.

Khafd or FGM/C constitutes violence against women and is a form of gender-based discrimination. It is high time that Indian government must pass s an anti-FGM/C law banning the practice in India. Learning from the experiences of anti-FGM/C activism around the world, this practice will never be abandoned without mass mobilization and awareness-raising within communities. Educating parents about the harms of Khafd is key to ending this harmful traditional practice which resides in the core of patriarchy.

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