Is it genital mutilation? A debate rages on a controversial Bohra practice
Amita Shah | 05 Dec, 2018
BEFORE RINGING THE doorbell, I hesitate for a few seconds, seeing a small Ganesh sculpture above the entrance. A woman with short salt-and-pepper hair opens the door. It’s the right house. Inside, in a long room with balconies on two sides, there is a ‘God’s corner’ with some inscriptions and images, including one of Jesus. The rest of the room looks contemporary, yet ethnic.
This, in the Delhi suburb Noida, is where 52-year-old Masooma Ranalvi unwinds to the sound of Hindi film songs of the 1960s. She belongs to a family of Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of Shia Islam, and is haunted by an orthodox Bohra ritual that she underwent at the age of seven in Bombay, where they lived.
It had happened during the summer holidays of 1973, when her grandmother, who lived in Ranala village of Dhule district, had come visiting and suggested one morning that they go out. Since she loved going out with her grandmother, whom she remembers as a woman full of life, she readily agreed. That day, however, Ranalvi was taken to a dingy house in Bhendi Bazaar. An old lady opened the door, led her to an inner room and asked her to lie down. “My grandma nudged me,” says Ranalvi, “I lay down. The woman removed my underwear and held my legs. I don’t know what she did, but it was painful. I never forgot that episode because it was a terrible memory.” On returning home, she cried in her mother’s lap. She was told it would be fine. Nobody had asked her; nobody gave her any explanation. There was silence. And the memory remained sealed in her mind, a secret untold.
It was around two decades later, while reading a story about cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa that Ranalvi came to recognise what she had undergone that day. It infuriated her, but she kept her fury to herself. The practice, she knew, was also prevalent in India among members of the Bohra community. In 2011, she came across a post on Change.org by an anonymous Indian Bohra woman; aimed at religious leaders of the community, it took up the delicate issue of FGM—called khatna, a general term for circumcision, or khafz, specific to women—and she was glad that someone had. Four years later, she herself gathered the courage to blog about it for a TV channel’s news website. “A lot of women connected with me,” she says, “I realised there were several others thinking the same way as me.” They formed a WhatsApp group—initially of five, including her two sisters—called ‘Speak out on FGM’. Within a week, it had 50 members across the country. Next, they created a collective called WeSpeakOut and petitioned the Government for a ban on FGM. Today, this appeal has over 150,000 signatories and the movement to break free of the tradition has reached the judiciary. Ranalvi, who has studied law, is an intervenor in the case at the Supreme Court, which in September referred a plea seeking a ban on FGM to a five-judge Constitution bench.
Around 20 km from Ranalvi’s house, another Dawoodi Bohra woman tells her tale. At the end of rows of empty glass cabins along the corridor of an almost vacant building in Delhi is the bustling office of a company that exports software solutions. A couple of glass doors lead to the chamber of its CEO, Samina Kanchwala, a middle-aged woman in a beige rida, a typical two-piece Bohra burkha. She founded the company in 2007. Today, she wears another hat—that of secretary, Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), which claims 72,000 members and opposes a ban on ‘female circumcision’ in India.
Kanchwala, 50, has only faint memories of the day she underwent khafz over four decades ago. Settled in Pune then, her family had taken her to her grand aunt’s place in Ahmednagar when she was seven or eight. All she recalls is a yellowish tinge on her bloomer. “It may have been turmeric powder sprinkled for faster healing,” she says, “My cousins were there and I remember playing with them.” It had all faded into the past, until last year, when she got a call from Rashidaben Diwan of Mumbai to start a movement against a ban, pitting her against women of her own community.
“Everything we do has esoteric meanings,” says Kanchwala, “Khafz is an act of taharat (purity). Without it, my namaaz is not accepted. Why should I stay unfulfilled? Men and women both go through circumcision. Why should women be denied this spiritual obligation?” She draws a distinction between FGM and ‘female circumcision’, saying that the Dawoodi Bohra practice of khafz is strictly the latter. It involves only a minor nick on the prepuce, she says, and is therefore not genital mutilation, as done in some parts of Africa. According to her, khafz is a matter of Bohra women’s religious freedom, choice and equality with Muslim men (who undergo a ritual circumcision of their foreskin).
How can a seven-year-old decide whether she wants to undergo Khafz? I realised there were several others thinking the same way as me, says Masooma Ranalvi, ounder of ‘Speak out on FGM’
Do parents, however, have the right to decide on such irreversible procedures for minors? Where does one draw the line between matters of faith and human rights? Who draws that line? The images from Kerala, where women trying to enter Sabarimala temple are facing stiff resistance from men as well as women who believe women in their menstruating age should not enter the shrine of a celibate Ayyappa, have left people like Ranalvi worried. “What is happening at Sabarimala is scary,” she says, “The apex court has allowed women to enter, but look at the protests. So where is the hope? Just because some traditions are centuries old, do we allow them to continue?”
While FGM is examined by the apex court, social pressure, threats and troll attacks from within the Bohra community have forced some women to withdraw from the movement seeking a ban. It is not an easy battle, says Ranalvi, who has lived part of her life in the shadow of ostracisation. Her father Shoaib Ranalvi, a book shop owner, was ex-communicated for joining a Bohra reform movement for democratic rights in the 1970s, one of whose demands was that religious leaders be held accountable for how their collections of zakaat (an Islamic welfare contribution that effectively serves as a tax) were being used. He was not even allowed to attend his own mother’s funeral, and Masooma’s mother had to live in constant fear. “We were three sisters and had a proud father who brought us up to be independent and fearless,” says Ranalvi.
It remains unclear whether the Government will support an FGM ban. “Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had spoken out against FGM. After that, there has been silence. It looks like a conspiracy of silence. We have written to the Prime Minister. We have got no response. He was concerned about women who suffered because of Triple Talaq. What about us?” asks Ranalvi.
Ministry sources say the Government need not intervene since FGM is already an offence under the law, with safeguards in existence against it under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, as well as the Indian Penal and Criminal Procedure Codes, and so it is for the Bohra community to stop the practice.
Still, the question of a difference between female circumcision and FGM remains a bone of contention that complicates the application of existing laws. The World Health Organization (WHO), which defines FGM as any alteration of genitals of a child for no medical reason, has classified the procedure into four kinds. Bohras in support of khafz say they practise only Type 1/a (removal of the clitoral hood) and Type 4 FGM/C (pricking, piercing, and cauterisation). Dr Shujat Vali, a gynaecologist who has had a medical practice in Godhra, Gujarat, for the past 30 years, rejects this claim. In virtually all cases of khafz among Bohra women, the critoris—just 2-3 mm apart from the prepuce—suffers complete damage, she says. “It is very difficult to separate the two. For an untrained person to cut just the skin hood is almost impossible. Even for a person like me, it would involve conducting a microsurgery,” says Dr Vali, who has examined around 30 women who have undergone khafz. The dais who perform it, often inheriting the profession from their mothers, use a knife or a blade. Clitoral damage, according to Dr Vali, reduces libido since it is the most sensitive sexual organ of a woman.
Everything we do has esoteric meanings. Khafz is an act of Taharat (purity). Without it, my namaaz is not accepted. Why should I stay unfulfilled?, says Samina Kanchwala, secretary, Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom
Women who have undergone it in their childhood, however, say they have no point of reference to judge if their sexual desires have been nipped. Irfan Engineer, vice-president, Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community, describes the act as “barbaric and the thought process behind it, of controlling women’s sexuality, even more barbaric”. He says the practice crept into the Bohra community here from Africa in the “garb of religion”. The Dawoodi Bohra Mission had its origin in Yemen. Besides, adds Engineer, even if it is seen as a matter of religious freedom, as the DBWRF contends, the choice should be left to adult women; children should not be put through it. “How can a seven-year- old decide whether she wants to undergo khafz?” asks Ranalvi, who refused to put her daughter, now 24, through it.
According to Kanchwala, it’s a decision, like several others, that a parent takes in the interest of a child. She argues that it’s done at a tender age for physiological reasons. Ranalvi counters her, saying that when a Bohra man marries a non-Bohra woman, she is still asked to get it done and even asked to get a certificate to show that she has. “If a woman can undergo it at marriageable age,” she says, “then this reasoning does not hold.”
As the face-off intensifies, what the apex court has to say is awaited. It was last year that Sunita Tiwari, a Delhi-based lawyer, filed a petition against it, saying the practice violates human and child rights and should be banned by a specific law.
“As the lead counsel in the so-called FGM matter, says Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the DBWRF’s lawyer, “my preliminary objection was that the phrase ‘FGM’ is itself a mis-characterisation and distortion constituting a barbaric African practice, which my clients, the Dawoodi Bohra community, condemn and which has no relation to the symbolic nick done by Shias.” Further, he says, “Secondly, we raised several constitutional arguments which the court found prima facie meritorious and hence rightly referred the matter to a Constitution bench. Thirdly, my own personal appearance as lead counsel was entirely professional and had nothing to do with the political hat I wear. Fourthly, we had produced material to show that amongst the significant Fatimid Shia School, from the 10th century onwards, there was an essential religious practice, done continuously and uninterruptedly till date, of an extremely minor nick on the prepuce of the clitoris to signify purity. Lastly, I had also raised an Article 14—gender discrimination— argument, to the effect that while the universal practice of male circumcision in every Islamic school is protected as an essential religious practice, it is wrong to view a similarly universal essential religious practice qua females within the Fatimid Shia School as unconstitutional.”
Senior advocate Indira Jaising, who appeared in court on Tiwari’s behalf, has said that a report has been prepared on the consequences of the practice on adult life and the trauma that lasts.
According to a sample study conducted this February by research scholars Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shabana Diler and Natasha Menon and commissioned by WeSpeakOut, 75 per cent of Bohra girls aged seven and above have undergone khafz and 97 per cent of them remember it as a painful experience.
While FGM is prevalent in around 30 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, in India it is a practice only among Dawoodi Bohras, a community of half a million people who live mainly in Gujarat and Maharashtra, but also in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. How Bohras came to adopt the practice is unclear. According to the study, while some trace it to their 9th century ancestral origins in North Africa, its supporters claim it is ‘Islamic’ and traceable to the Arabian peninsula. However, FGM is not practised by most Saudi Arabians, a majority Sunni country; even among its minority Shias, it is prevalent only among Sulaimani Ismailis, who constitute only about one-tenth of its population and live most in the region bordering Yemen.
Kanchwala, who worked as a defence scientist with DRDO before starting her own company, says she has never felt deprived in any way and that Bohra women have always been educated and empowered. “In today’s world, if khafz is carried out with the help of doctors, it causes no harm,” she says. “Only the prepuce—the clitoral hood—is nicked. It’s a religious practice being followed for the past 1,400 years. Banning it is not the answer.”
KANCHWALA IS DISPLEASED that the PIL has attracted so much public attention, saying that petitioners have invaded her private life. Those seeking a ban say that such a violation of a woman’s body calls for public action. Shamina, 27, a law graduate and activist with WeSpeakOut, says it was a practice which had been taken for granted. Living in a posh South Mumbai apartment in a joint family, she had undergone khafz when she was seven. “The thought of it itself was painful. I think I fainted. I could not urinate after that. It finally healed. But it leaves a mental scar. You don’t know what it means to be normal.” She argues that even if women say it has not affected their sex life, there is no way of knowing how different it could have been without khafz. The stories are all similar— a grandmother, mother or aunt discreetly taking them at the age of seven to an old woman, the memory of pain, and an unforgotten experience.
“Why should anybody be cut?” asks Shamina. It’s a question that looms over the discourse. FGM has been banned in several countries, including the US, UK, Australia and some European and African nations. In the faith-versus-rights, tradition-versus-rationality and female circumcision-versus-FGM debate, the last word is yet to be said in India. For now, the jury is out.