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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in India: A Hidden Truth

By Chandni Shiyal

It was during my University days that I got interested in gender studies. Since I became more concerned about the gender inequalities that persist and negatively affect lives of women, physically and psychologically, I thought of pursuing the subject further. Later I did my M. Phil. in African Studies where I came across the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) that is prevalent in 29 countries of Africa and Middle East, and some other parts of the world, where the immigrant communities carry their tradition. This practice has destroyed the life of millions of girls with awful consequences, some even leading to death. I was completely shocked, in tears as well as rage, knowing the consequences of this heinous practice. I wanted to know more about this practice and chose it as my topic of research. During my research, I came to know that FGM existed in India among the Dawoodi Bohras. I had a few Bohra friends, but we had never spoken about this, so I assumed that it might have existed in the past among Indians. I continued my research on Africa.

Later I came across an article by Priya Goswami in The Times of India regarding her documentary, A Pinch of Skin. While reading it I was again stunned that it still exists and is extensively practiced in India, especially in parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat. I rang my Bohra friends and asked them. They confirmed to me the prevalence of this practice in their community and also disclosed that they, too, had undergone the knife. To my shock, these friends sounded quite casual. I was upset at how educated girls like them seem so fine with this unjust practice, which violates their rights. After that I started talking to more friends and their relatives. Sometimes during my travels in the local trains, I spoke to women co-traveler about it. The majority of responses indicated their level of comfort with this. There were women who also clearly spoke in support of female circumcision. A few months later, I came into contact with Aarefa Johari and the other activists of the ‘Sahiyo’ organization, who were bravely involved in opposing this practice. Their courageous efforts gave me hope that change could and will happen. For me now this practice is not only my topic of research but I would like to play a part in spreading awareness and helping to change the mindset of women and girls who think this is part of their existence and has to do with their religion or culture.

In India not many people are aware of the practice of FGM. Many of them do not know the term FGM. The Bohra community usually calls it khatna. A young girl in her twenties from a Bohra community innocently told me that she has undergone this practice, but does not know what exactly it is and why it was done. The fact is that millions of girls have undergone this practice. Some remember and some are afraid to answer. There are a number of them who express knowledge about male circumcision, but feign ignorance on female circumcision. Some have forgotten this harm done to them without their consent, and some want answers from their mothers. There are others who remain silent under the pressure of society and isolation.

I would like to share few of the informal interviews I conducted:

  1. She was circumcised at the age of seven and does not remember exactly what was done to her. She just recollects that her mother told her that they were going to some aunt’s place. While talking to me, she said that it is done to reduce sexual pleasure. Men are not involved in the decision making. To her, the mutilation of girls is for their betterment. If she gets married, she will, mutilate her own daughter. But she further said that if she gets a confirmation that the Quran does not mention circumcision of girls, she will try her best not to do that to her daughter. In her opinion, girls who do not have khatna become more sexually active than the ones who undergo it. During my conversations with her, I came to know that she is not against the practice. She believes that since there are no side effects of this practice there is no reason to discontinue it.
  1. She was circumcised at the age of seven and says that it is a religious obligation and is done for our betterment. Her grandmother’s sister performs khatna on girls and has done so for around 35 to 40 years. She also said that it is usually done in hospitals. Further, in an attempt to justify this practice, she iterates that that there is a scientific reason behind this practice. The reason that she gave was that it helps control sexual urges which further leads to preventing STDs. In her last assertion she said that this practice started in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and is definitely not borrowed.
  1. She lives currently in Yemen and has two daughters. She had undergone khatna at the age of seven and recollects the pain she had suffered. The woman who performed the procedure gave her a small purple bottle with ointment to apply on her wound. While justifying the practice, the respondent compared female circumcision with labour pain and maternity. She retorted, “During labour, it pains a lot, so the pain of khatna is nothing bad and it is good.” Continuing this tradition, the interviewee disclosed that she has performed khatna on both her elder and younger daughters. For this she had especially come to India and got it done in a hospital. Taking the refuge of religion, she said that whatever her religion sanctions is for her own good.
  1. In an attempt to get medical and scientific perspective, I interviewed a female Bohra doctor. In one of the many strange responses, the doctor made it clear that they do not call it mutilation or circumcision. It is called clitoral hooding. She said she performs this practice in hospital under anesthesia and removes a small piece of skin above the clitoris. The procedure, for her, does not reduce sexual pleasure but increases it. She said it was a small thing and not harmful.
  1. This is the girl I met in the train. She was around the age of 18 and had recently got engaged. I asked her about khatna and she replied that she did not know exactly what it was, but it was done to her when she was seven. Her mother took her to an auntie’s house. I asked her if she would do it to her daughter and, like other respondents mentioned above, she too replied in the positive. Her mother did it to her, and she would do it to her daughter because it was for her own good. 
  1. This respondent has undergone circumcision. She was a working woman and her mother-in-law took her daughter for khatna. She said that male and female circumcisions are compulsory in their religion. They just remove a little skin; a specialist doctor from the community does it. There are no side effects and nobody questions it as the girl is too young to question it.
  1. She is circumcised and did it to her daughter. Her daughter came all the way from the USA to get circumcised as it is illegal there. In a prescriptive tone, she said that loose clothing and coconut water help to heal the wounds. She also told that there are various hospitals in Mumbai that perform khatna. Calling it a religious practice, she said that it is sunnat (not compulsory, but essential. Also, sunnat practices are attributed to the Prophet). She said that if a girl does not undergo circumcision she is not a part of the religion. 
  1. She was circumcised at the age of seven. She lives in Mumbai, but during her vacations she went to Surat (Gujarat) to her grandmother’s place where khatna was performed on her. She is a well-educated girl and did her graduation in Sociology in which she also did a project on FGM in Africa. She revealed that in comparison to India; African countries perform a harsher form of FGM. She has a daughter and intends to circumcise her because she wants her to enter the masjid (mosque) like a male. For her daughter to be treated as an equal to men, she justifies the practice of khatna.

These interviews show that there are many stereotypes attached in performing FGM. It is necessary to educate and spread awareness among the masses to stop performing FGM as it is a human rights violation and there is no scientific reason for it.

Many African and western countries have been working together to ban it. For example, African countries such as Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania have passed laws to ban this practice. Recently, Nigeria and Gambia have also passed laws against FGM. Various local, regional, national, international organizations as well as NGOs in Africa are making efforts to eliminate this practice. The Australian case about FGM among Bohras, where the practitioners were punished by law, has set a good example and highlighted the issue in a positive way.

In London, Bohra residents are warned to stop practicing FGM as it is illegal. Now it’s time for India to take similar actions as Africa and other Western countries are spreading awareness to stop FGM (khatna). In fact, steps towards the eradication of FGM have recently begun in India through the initiatives of Sahiyo and several other groups. But change can only be possible if victims themselves raise their voice against it. The immediate onus lies on the mothers of this generation who should refrain from practicing it on their daughters.

Bio:
Ms. Chandni Shiyal
has recently published a book titled, Female Circumcision/ Female Genital Mutilation: A Human Rights Violation, A Case Study of Ethiopia. Ms. Shiyal is currently a Ph.D. student researching Gender Inequality and Women’s Health: A Comparative Study of Ethiopia and India.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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