The Cutting of the Clitoris: Female Genital Mutilation and the Bohra Muslims

Representational Image: Amnon Shavit/ Creative Commons
Despite signing international treaties, India has yet to outlaw female genital mutilation.

We are all instinctively protective of our genitals. Any damage sustained by them, particularly in childhood, can leave long-lasting trauma. But for millions of small girls across the world, it’s a protective instinct that is dashed to the ground, when they are forced to spread their legs and have their genitals mutilated in the guise of a ritual.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is among the most traumatic things one can do to their children. But it is estimated that, across the world, 200 million girls are alive today who are victims of this. In its many forms, FGM encompasses “cutting, pricking, removing and sometimes sewing up external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.” These girls face a lifetime of risk, from urinary tract infections to swelling and an increased chance of dying during childbirth. Some may never have an orgasm again.

This invasive and painful procedure is carried out by people without any medical training – usually an older, female relative. But now, this unethical practice is increasingly being performed on women in hospitals and clinics, putting them at risk and violating their right to their body.

There are four types of FGM, in order of severity. What is most commonly performed in India is type I – the partial or total removal of the clitoris.

For members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, girls as young as six but below the age of 15, are made a victim of this practice, which is said to be thousands of years old. Indeed, it predates Islam and Christianity and has been observed as a practice amongst Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. While its occurrence is concentrated in Africa, members of the Bohra community have taken the practice wherever its diaspora has travelled.

A Shia sect with roots in 12th-century Yemen, the Dawoodi Bohras are believed to have migrated to India in the 1500s. Over two million Bohra Muslims remain today, with half residing in India and Pakistan and the other half spread across as a diaspora. In many ways, the Bohra Muslims stand apart from the Muslims in India- their women wear multi-coloured Burkhas or none at all, they are highly educated and often wealthy, and have even maintained close ties with Narendra Modi following his ostracisation by Muslims after the 2002 riots.

But the rationale for genital mutilation, called Khatna in India, eludes an otherwise progressive outlook.

In 2006, Muslims scholars from across the world gathered in Egypt to declare FGM as un-Islamic. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution banning it on a whole. Yet, in 2016, the Bohra’s spiritual leader (Da’i Al-Mutlaq) Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin called for the practice to continue in a veiled sermon. Soon after, he sent out a press release, stating that the practice should continue in countries where it is not yet illegal.

India is one of those countries.

Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin of Dawoodi Bohra community meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 (Image: Narendra Modi/ Creative Commons)

Elsewhere, around the world, the law is taking its course. This year, two Michigan doctors were charged with performing the illegal surgery on two seven-year-olds. It is the first instance of a federal case involving FGM – and it opened the doors for many Bohra women who were victims or knew victims of FGM in the US. A similar landmark case took place that year in Australia as well.

In Britain, the practice has been banned since 1985. After 2003, this was extended to include families who brought their children to other countries to face the surgery. But FGM persists, reportedly at the rate of one every hour (according to National Health Services figures cited by the Independent). Families continue to cut their daughters, even when the penalty is the loss of residency rights in the UK.

With the tides turning against FGM, what stops India from banning the practice? Calls to do so have been made, from both the grassroots and the highest level. A survey conducted by the anti-FGM NGO Sahiyo found that 81 percent of women sampled were against the practice. Even within the community, sect leaders have started to reject the practice. India’s Union Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi, has promised that the government will end the practice if the Bohras do not.

It is still estimated that 30 million girls worldwide under the age of 15 are still at risk of facing FGM. In fact, the figure of 200 million victims overall does not include data from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Columbia, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The problem is potentially far larger than what is reported.

In a tragicomic turn of events, the Ministry of Women and Child Development submitted an affidavit to the supreme court, stating that there is no official criminal data or study which supports the presence of FGM in India. What this means is that state police across the country have yet to file a case against FGM practitioners – meaning the National Crime Records Bureau has no record of FGM.

The obsession with policing the clitoris is among the cruellest and most arbitrary injustices performed against women. Religion, often cited as a factor, isn’t even the main culprit – as the scriptures do not sanctify this. It is attitudes that make the call. When LGBT-culture was still considered taboo in the United States, women’s clitorises used to be operated upon to reduce ‘lesbianism’. Today, such a procedure would be considered unthinkable.

Until attitudes change among law enforcement officials and religious clerics, young girls across South Asia will continue to face the threat of a knife to their genitals. With international obligations to fulfil, India endangers the health and well-being of entire generations of young girls, by not putting a stop to this barbaric practice.

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