By Aarefa Johari
This is a story I have told so many times in the past few years that I’ve now lost count. But every time I re-tell it, I become overwhelmed with a surge of emotions – despair, anger, frustration – that take hours to subside. But it’s a story that needs to be repeated, so here it is.
When I was seven years old, my mother took me to visit the home of an unknown lady in Bhendi Bazar, a mohalla in south Mumbai dominated by Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. I didn’t know why we were there but when we were seated in her tiny, dingy apartment, my frock was lifted, my underwear was taken off and I was asked to spread my legs. The only preparation I got before the cutting happened was my mother telling me something like, “It will only hurt a little bit, it will only take a minute...”
My memory of that day is hazy now, and I don’t remember exactly what the blade looked like, or whether there was blood, or how we eventually returned home. But I remember that someone was holding me down, that the woman cut something down there between my legs, that there was pain and I cried.
That was the day I lost the tip of my clitoris – my clitoral hood or prepuce – in a practice called khatna (literally “cutting”, a ritual of female circumcision) known around the world as female genital mutilation/cutting, or FGM/C. It is an ancient, pre-Islamic ritual mandated by my Dawoodi Bohra community for all seven-year-old girls, even though it is impossible for children that young to give informed consent for being cut.
The practice is said to have originated among communities in Africa, where it continues to be performed with varying degrees of severity, depending on the region and tribe. It is also practiced by some Muslim sects in the Middle East and in Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.
In India, where I come from, the Bohras are the only community known to practice female khatna. In fact, all the other Indian Muslim sects react with shock and horror when they find out that Bohras, a Shia sub-sect known for their wealth, education and otherwise liberal attitudes towards women, engage in a ritual that is mentioned nowhere in the Quran.
Although I am not entirely certain, I believe the situation is the same in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – Bohras are probably the only community practicing female circumcision in these countries too.
Bohras claim they perform the mildest form of khatna for girls, cutting such a thin slice of tissue that it has no physical or sexual consequences. But in the past few years, I have heard innumerable stories of Bohra women who have experienced varying degrees of physical, psychological and sexual trauma because of their khatna – women who were cut more than intended, women who felt assaulted and violated and betrayed by their own mothers. Women who find it difficult to become intimate with their husbands because of traumatic memories linked to their khatna.
For years, the voices of women like myself never had a platform to be heard, because female circumcision is practiced in secret, and talking about it has been considered a taboo.
Why do we practice this form of cutting, performed so secretively by women that even Bohra men often don’t know about it? A large section of the community claims it is done to keep a girl’s sexual urges in control. If a girl is not circumcised, they say, she is likely to have pre-marital or extra-marital affairs. So many young Bohra girls have lost parts of their clitoris because their mothers and grandmothers wanted to keep them pure and virtuous. And I don’t need to explain how that is downright patriarchal, misogynistic, outrageous and a clear form of gender violence.
Another reason some community members give is that this form of “clitoral unhooding” enhances sexual pleasure. To which my question is, why do communities want get into a little girl’s underpants and cut her genitals in order to influence her future sex life? Isn’t that a form of patriarchal control too? Are these communities implying that a girl’s natural, God-given anatomy isn’t good enough for her to have a normal sex life?
The “official” reason behind khatna finds mention in the religious text Daim-al Islam, a 10th century book of jurisprudence written by Qazi Noman and followed by many Musta’ali Ismaili Shias, including the Bohras. According to this book, the prepuce is sliced off for cleanliness, hygiene and religious purity. This I find most frustrating of all. Khatna-practicing communities clearly believe that Allah has made imperfect bodies. Why else would they feel the need to slice off the folds of the clitoral hood in order to maintain hygiene down there? I know of two magic ingredients that can be used to keep clean instead: soap and water!
Fortunately, the shroud of secrecy around this practice is finally lifting. Around four or five years ago, there were just a handful of Bohra women speaking out against female khatna. Today, there is a vibrant movement, powered by scores of Bohra women (and men!) across different countries, working to abandon an unjust form of gender violence despite backlash from some sections of the community.
There is no law against female genital cutting in countries like India and Pakistan yet, but many of us who are working with the community believe that legislation alone cannot convince a culture to let go of such an old tradition. In fact, in several countries that do have laws against FGM/C, the practice often continues underground. Part of the reason for that is a raging debate over the term “mutilation” itself.
While many survivors of khatna view the cut as a mutilation of their bodies, many others don’t. Nearly everywhere, communities practicing female circumcision see the word “mutilation” as an offensive value-judgement on something that has been a social norm in their culture. Parents don’t intend to harm their children, so when they read the word mutilation, they are bound to go on the defensive. This is why so many community activists now use the term “cutting” instead of mutilation, and also why the World Health Organisation has moved from “FGM” to “FGM/C”.
Khatna is a social norm that has been perpetuated for centuries, much like sati, foot-binding, menstrual taboos and other practices. And like many of these obsolete norms that have been harmful or discriminatory towards community members, it is time for khatna to be abandoned too. The struggle is going to be long and challenging, but for the sake of seven-year-old girls who are cut without consent, our efforts must continue.