FGM/C comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). The practice is considered a human rights violation falling under International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
WHO has categorized the different forms of FGC into four categories based on severity of the practice performed on a girl. Type 1 is considered the least severe and Type III the most severe. Type IV is the category in which all other types of FGC are labeled into. Globally, Type I and Type II are the most common FGC procedures, accounting for more than 85 percent of all procedures.
The Dawoodi Bohra community claims to practice what is known as Type 1 FGC in which a part of the clitoral hood is removed from young/adolescent girls, usually at the age of seven. Generally, in the past, not much research and attention has been given to the least severe forms of FGC. However, that is changing as more voices are coming out to speak against the practice and as the media has begun to pay attention to FGC happening in other parts of the world.
Women are speaking up about both their physical and emotional traumas experienced due to undergoing FGC. A petition was started in 2015 to end FGC in India and garnered over 50,000 signatures. SAHIYO (‘friends’ in Gujarati), an organization I co-founded, is helping these women to share their stories in order to build a critical mass of voices that can help the community decide to abandon the centuries old tradition. We also conducted the very first global survey on the practice of khatna amongst the Dawoodi Bohra community to learn more about these women’s communal experiences of khatna and we found that of the 385 survey participants, 80% of women had been cut. The stories we have collected through our survey and via our blog depict that FGC amongst the Bohras traditionally was practiced by mullanis, women who have semi-religious standing, or by dais or midwives. Typically, these women had little to no formal training in medicine. However, there is a growing trend to have FGC performed in a more hygienic and ‘safe’ manner, and we also have collected stories from girls who had their khatna performed by a physician or other medical professional both in India and abroad.
The emotional/physical trauma faced by survey participants who underwent FGC varied from extreme emotional trauma, pain, bleeding, sexual dysfunction to not feeling physically or emotionally affected by the procedure. Yet, regardless of the extent of emotional and/or physical harm felt by the women who took our survey, the majority, overwhelmingly agreed, that khatna should NOT continue on the next generation of girls in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
Still, because in India there is no law banning the practice and we all too often hear that khatna is a religious requirement, the practice of FGC does continue. In other parts of the world, some diaspora Dawoodi Bohra Muslims are continuing it under the guise of secrecy because the practice is outlawed in their country. In the United States, where I was born, the practice of khatna or FGC has been banned since 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Yet, I am very well aware of its continuation as I myself underwent khatna when I was seven years old. My sister also underwent it. In Australia, the first ever federal conviction of FGC occurred in 2016, and those convicted came from the Dawoodi Bohra community. Authorities in the UK also requested that Dawoodi Bohras in London abandon the practice of FGC as it has been against the law since 1985 in that country. Diaspora Dawoodi Bohras settled in countries from Canada, United States, Australia and Kenya have told their stories of undergoing it.
With the coming out of stories, the religious authorities of the Dawoodi Bohra community have finally taken notice, and in June 2016, a press statement was released, stating that in those countries where FGC is illegal, citizens of the country should obey the law and not carry out khatna. Yet, the same press release also stated that FGC should continue in general because it is a centuries old practice for the Dawoodi Bohras. The inconsistency of the press release has confused many Dawoodi Bohras globally, frustrating those who recognize khatna to be a human rights violation, and encouraging those who consider khatna a religious requirement that cannot be questioned.
Yet, regardless of the conflicting statements in the press release, the fact that the Dawoodi Bohra religious authorities have chosen to provide some sort of public discourse on the matter is encouraging, as we know that it is critical to engage religious leaders in dialogue about gender justice and gender equality. In September 2016, the Islamic Society of North America included a panel on Gender Justice to discuss just how vital these types of collaborations are to ending gender violence. The initial steps towards public dialogue taken by the Dawoodi Bohra religious officials demonstrates that social change is occurring – despite the fact they have yet to condemn khatna in countries where FGC is not illegal. The shift in their position indicates that the continuation of khatna/FGC is a pressing concern, a social concern that will not be silenced any longer, and must be addressed.
Social change takes time and we have seen throughout the years how, once religious leaders become involved, a trend towards the abandonment of FGC becomes established. This has occurred in Kenya when religious officials began encouraging Somali and Borana tribes to end FGC. As well as in Senegal, when Imam Demba Diawara, after fourteen years of walking from village to village – a total of 347 villages, helped community members decide for themselves to end FGC.
Every voice that speaks up against FGC in the Dawoodi Bohra community is a voice that is helping to change the perception that khatna is a religious requirement, a social norm that must be continued. SAHIYO encourages all voices to continue in dialogue on the issue of FGC, and for this reason, we have recognized that men’s voices are important and collect stories from fathers, brothers and sons who know women affected by FGC. We collect stories from women in the Dawoodi Bohra community who have not been cut, protected from the cut, who want all future generations of girls to be spared from it.
Every voice that speaks out gives rise to the fact that FGC is a form of gender violence that has been justified and continued in the name of tradition for far too long. The stories of survivors are important. The assistance of religious leaders, key. The support of all us working together to create change, vital.