Guest-Editorial: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
By Rashida Murphy
When I was asked to curate a special issue of Café Dissensus on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in a specific Muslim community in India, I felt a dread that often accompanies a knock on the door in the middle of the night. You know it cannot be good news. Nevertheless you open the door.
When I opened the door, I let into my life a remarkable young woman named Aarefa Johari, who simply asked the question, “Why are young Bohra girls subjected to the heinous practice of clitoral cutting at the age of 5 or 7?” In her erudite essay on a woman’s relationship with her clitoris, Aarefa admits that the practice of female circumcision fills her with rage and “continues to fuel my decision to fight the practice of khatna among Bohras.” In another piece, co-written with her friend Mariya, both women reflect on the lifelong silencing and suppression of what they now accept as a crime against their young bodies.
Aarefa, along with Mariya Taher and Masooma Ranalvi, whose stories appear in this issue, are the co-founders of ‘Speak Out on FGM’ and ‘Sahiyo’, both movements dedicated to ending the silence that surrounds the practice of FGM among Dawoodi Bohras.
The Dawoodi Bohras are a prosperous, fun-loving, educated and liberal branch of Shia Muslims who originated in Yemen and have since settled mostly in India. However, as proven by the diversity of voices in this collection, the Bohra diaspora extends to the U.S.A, U.K, Canada and Australia as well as Africa and Pakistan.
In her thoughtful article, “The Anatomy of a Movement,” Masooma Ranalvi describes the challenges and triumphs of being at the centre of so much publicity towards such a sensitive aspect of women’s lives. Mariya Taher tells the ‘khatna stories’ of the women she interviewed in order to get a better sense of the ‘tradition’ they believe they are following. She concludes that the silence around this act must be shattered. The mother/daughter duo, Dilshad and Shaheeda Tavawala, speak with grace and eloquence of their fight against the practice as well as provide a comprehensive history of the faith and its traditions.
Then there are the testimonies; the stark, unadorned truth that has its foundations in the age-old practice of bearing witness. This happened to me. This must not happen to others like me.
Insia Dariwala speaks of survivor’s guilt, as she describes not just the horror of witnessing what happened to her sister but re-living that horror every time she speaks to her sister. In their interviews with me, Zainab and Sultana, two women separated by a generation, but united by a common horror, describe the ramifications of living with what was done to them. Chandni Shiyal shines a light on the practice from the outside; as a researcher she stumbled across the practice in India and was horrified with the seeming acceptance of the practice among the victims. Fatema, Saleha, Shehrebanu, Zehra, Zarine and Anonymous speak of betrayal, pain, shame and silence. They question their own memories, their sanity, and their wisdom. And this is, in my view, the ultimate tragedy; this betrayal of innocence, this crime perpetrated on these marvelous women when no one was looking.
A mother’s primary function in life is to protect her children, in particular, to protect vulnerable girl children. In every instance and in every testimony that appears in these pages, girl children were betrayed by their primary carers. Mothers, aunties and grandmothers, in every instance, took 5 and 7-year-old girls to the horror that waited for them; often with promises of lollies, movies and other treats.
Of course, this is personal. I, too, was raised in this community. Like Insia, I escaped the cut. And my daughter escaped it, too, because I raised her far away from the community, in a country where my ignorance of the practice saved us both. I do recall an instant, etched forever in my memory as an enduring horror, during a visit to India when my daughter was 5. My sister-in-law walked into the room and announced casually that it was fortunate I had come during the ‘cutting season’ and it was time to ‘do’ my daughter. I found out later that the ‘cutting season’ comment was a reference to the fact that women living overseas came to India during their children’s vacations to get their little girls ‘done.’ I remember scooping my daughter into my arms and never letting her out of my sight for the week that I was there. That was the first time I opened the door and looked into the night. That was the time my sister told me what had been done to her and how I was spared.
All the women who tell their stories here are my sisters, cousins, daughters and nieces because they describe families like mine, speak a language like mine, have a mother like mine, a daughter like mine. They raise their collective voices in a siren call so loud that it must surely be heard, at least by the women in the Bohra community, if not its clergy. As this issue goes online, it has been reported in the Indian media that the Syedna appears to endorse the practice and exhorts followers to continue FGM clandestinely. Apart from making us heartsick, such statements go against faith and tradition and, no matter how many justifications are provided, against Islam. This is misogyny, and a fear of women’s sexuality and their bodies. It is sanctioned violence and it has to stop. We are better than this. We need to be better mothers to our daughters than our own were to us. We need to hear these voices and bear witness to these stories until this practice is forbidden, outlawed and abandoned. Women’s bodies are not a battleground on which socio-political wars are waged in the name of religion.
Dr. Rashida Murphy is a Perth based writer and poet who has written about FGM previously. Her short poem about clitoridectomy titled, Twelve, is forthcoming in Veils, Haloes and Shackles and her novel, The Historian’s Daughter, will be published in September by UWA Publishing.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.