An Anatomy of a Movement
By Masooma Ranalvi
A small but significant broad based movement against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (also known as female circumcision or khatna) is taking shape in India in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
The Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, a sub-sect of Shia Ismaili Muslims, are a small prosperous community. The origins of the community are associated with the arrival of two Shia Ismaili missionaries in the early 11th century AD, to the port of Cambay in Gujarat, from Egypt via Yemen. The missionaries are said to have found converts among Indian traders, largely in Gujarat, who came to be known as Bohras. Because of its history, the community is extremely close-knit and often secretive. The religious head of the Bohra community is known as the Da’i or Syedna.
There is a tremendous centralization of power and control of not only how Islam is practiced in the community but also how members live their lives, with dissenting voices being subjected to social boycott or excommunication. The control sometimes extends to issues one may find totally absurd, like the name you choose for your child, where you can be educated, and even the job you may choose. Besides the secular aspects of life, control is also exerted by large amounts of religious taxes that are extracted meticulously through a huge jamaat network from each and every Bohra throughout the year. Non payment of any tax attracts a reprimand in the least and social boycott in its extreme. The fear that exists in the Bohra community to this form of censure is very real and tangible. Denial of entry into the mosque, marriages or any social celebration in the community, and even the burial of one’s dead in the community burial ground are the real time threats or consequences faced by those who have spoken up against the authoritarian controls mentioned earlier.
Within this context, a practice like FGM has been sustained over the years among Dawoodi Bohra women. While there is no recorded history as to the origins of this practice in the community, it could be inferred that the practice was possibly picked up by the community through its roots in Africa and was enforced to maintain virginity and curb sexual promiscuity in the community.
Even though the community claims to be egalitarian and prides itself on empowering women through education, women’s bodies often become the site on which culture and tradition are contested. Women, like me, have been traumatised by a procedure that was performed on us as children without any explanation, often without prior warning, and always without consent in an extremely secretive manner. The resultant psychological scarring has been life long. Some women regard the practice as being essential for maintaining chastity as required by the Syedna and Islam. Some feel a sense of pride in passing on a tradition that signifies Bohra women as unique and sacred. There are also some who look back at the practice with regret and trauma, and deem it unnecessary. Some never processed what really happened to them, till they grew up to be adults who read or heard about FGM, and then realized to their shock that they were victims of it. Some women do not even have any recollection of having undergone FGM because of the PTSD symptom of repressing a traumatic memory.
There is a large-scale effort propelled by the United Nations to curb the practice of FGM is communities across the globe as it is perceived as a human rights violation. In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution for the elimination of FGM. In February 2016, the theme outlined by the UN is: Achieving new Global Goals through the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation by 2030.
There has always been a small section of women in the Bohra community who have resisted this practice. Right from Rehana Ghadiali’s brilliant article on FGM among Bohras in the 90s to Tasleem’s lone crusade in 2011 to get the Syedna to ban FGM through her online petition, to the work of Sahiyo, an NGO working against FGM, and their very first online survey, each have paved the way ahead. The movement, which gathered momentum in 2015, has come about from previous attempts to end the practice. It brought together different people and groups already working in the space of FGM as a collective. This movement is marked by several distinct characteristics which are worth examining.
The mainstay of the 2015 movement is that it has entirely been a product of technology, social media, and the mainstream media. It all started, in a sense, with an article in which I expressed my deep sense of resentment at having been subjected to khatna when I was a child of seven. The experience of penning my thoughts and feelings was cathartic and released a lot of pent up anger and frustration. The response to the article from Bohra women through emails, messages, and phone calls was overwhelming. In an instant, I decided to start a WhatsApp group to talk about FGM with the clear intent of doing something to end this in our community. I named the group Speak Out on FGM. I called a few of my Bohra friends and asked them if they would like to join in, and they agreed. Within days we multiplied and had women from different corners and quarters joining in to speak out.
Speak out on FGM worked as a magnet that attracted all the voices that were already working in the space. Sahiyo, the NGO, Tasleem, and many others came forward and lent their power to this collective. This was how a broad based democratic platform for Bohra women was born. Technology allowed a spontaneous collective of women to be brought together by the common and shared history of a trauma they have lived with.
We started off by reaching out to women like us who knew about the harmful effects of FGM. We also reached out to the fence sitters who were not really aware of the repercussions of FGM and yet were not totally swayed by the clergy. The group has also given women a sense of confidence and assurance that they were not alone in this.
The WhatsApp group has over 40 women from across the globe with connections and conversations that cut through different time zones to address issues across the board. We began to talk about this practice and question the reasons for its continued prevalence. The resultant clarity in thought which we all gained and, in fact, are constantly gaining, has opened up many questions about women and sexuality, religion and the law, as well as social reform and social change in a cultural and religious context. The wide-ranging discussions have helped sharpen the focus of our struggle. All this revolutionised us and helped us take the debate out into the public space. Voicing our disapproval of the practice has sent out a strong emotional message to young girls as well as older women about the rights they may or may not have over their bodies and their freedom of sexuality.
The group also made broader alliances with democratic, secular, and feminist organisations and shared the struggles within the community on larger social platforms. One such example would be the participation, for the first time, of a Bohra women’s group in the Muslim Women’s Convention organised by the Bebaak Collective in New Delhi and putting the issue of FGM among Bohras on the wider platform of violence against women.
The major campaigns we have undertaken under the banner of Speak Out on FGM have been digitally driven and supported wholly by social media and the mainstream media. On 1 December, 2015, Speak Out on FGM launched a signature petition on Change.org asking the government of India to ban FGM. We also started a Facebook group called Speak Out on FGM, which is a more open and public forum to discuss and encourage more and more people, men and women, to openly debate FGM.
The fact that we managed to garner 50,000 votes on the petition to end FGM in India is significant. This was the first time that 18 women put their names openly on the petition for an idea they believed in. It has helped build a strong voice of a women’s collective that has openly lent their names and their strength to the campaign.
Each One Reach One was another campaign in collaboration with Sahiyo, where we made efforts to reach out to men and women in the community and engage them in conversations on khatna. More recently we further tested the women’s courage and asked them to take a pledge: Not My Daughter and sign the pledge on Change.org. This pledge signifies the strength to break free from the fetters of convention and tradition and to take an independent stand for safety, security, and freedom from violence and psychological trauma.
The collective has also addressed an open letter to the religious head and the letter is signed by 30 women. We are still awaiting a response from the Syedna.
The judgement of an Australian Supreme Court convicting and sentencing three Dawoodi Bohras for performing FGM on two small girls has been crucial for this larger global conversation to condemn the practice. The resultant decrees were issued by the jamaats in Australia, the UK, USA and several other first world countries, asking the Bohras to stop the practice of FGM. We were able to seize the moment and gain mileage out of it. This would not have been possible had we not been organised, vigilant, active and in a ready state of action, with social media as our weapons of mass circulation. We instantly put out media statements applauding the jamaat decrees while also pointing to the loopholes in them. We circulated the decrees far and wide.
Today FGM within the Bohra community is a much talked about topic. We have raised pertinent questions forcing the clergy and its representatives to answer us. We have managed to change the discourse from a state of silence and secrecy, to a state of unrest, questioning the act itself. There is a resultant scrambling for justifications which now regularly appear in the form of odd blogs or statements from the clergy camp.
The narrative has changed; we have moved from sum zero to plus one. Bohra women are asking questions, demanding answers, and making decisions about their bodies.
Masooma Ranalvi is the founder of Speak Out on FGM and devotes her energy towards changing the narrative of FGM in India through a global network of women activists.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.