Just a Slice of Skin
By Mariya Taher & Aarefa Johari
It’s a guarded secret. No one talks about it. Men usually never know. We didn’t understand it until we reached adolescence. We found out we weren’t the only ones. We connected, found our support system. Now we’re seeking to break the taboo and talk about it.
I, Mariya Taher, and I, Aarefa Johari, at the age of seven, went through the Dawoodi Bohra tradition called khatna, known to the rest of the world as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting (FGC).
Mariya was born in the United States. Aarefa in India. We belong to the Dawoodi Bohra community and were both taken to Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai to have just a slice of skin taken from the prepuce of our clitorises. We were too young to understand what happened to us. Too young to refuse. The adult women in our lives made the decision to have us cut not because they meant any cruelty, but because they believed that it had to be done. That if they were to be good mothers, they had to ensure khatna was performed.
This is our story.
Mariya: Do you remember what happened to you?
Aarefa: I was seven, so my memories of that day are quite hazy. I don’t remember the excuse I’d been given when my mother took me to visit Bhendi Bazaar. I remember we knocked on an unfamiliar door and a few minutes later, I was on the floor of a strange lady’s house, my underwear taken off and my frock raised, with no idea what was going on. The only preparation I received was my mother saying things like “Don’t worry, this will only hurt a little bit” and “This will be over in a minute” just before the lady brought the blade between my legs. Someone was holding me down and I was scared. She cut something down there, it hurt and I cried. I don’t remember blood, but I have vague memories of being afraid to urinate for the rest of that day. A few days later, I forgot all about the incident.
Mariya: So much of your story sounds like my own. I was born and raised in the United States but the summer that I turned seven, we went back to Mumbai where my mother was from. I remember being in Bhendi Bazaar, standing in front of a dilapidated building, holding my mother’s hand. My aunt had come along because my mother was afraid she wouldn’t be able to hold me when she saw me in pain. Inside, I remember seeing several older ladies dressed in saris, laughing and talking, as they told me to lie on the bare floor. They lifted my dress and pulled my underwear down. Then it happened. I can’t recall what instrument was used but something sharp cut me and I cried out in pain. Quickly, they comforted me, my mother holding me tight. They handed me a soft drink called Thums-Up to make me stop crying.
Aarefa: Do you think the same midwife could have cut both of us? We’re around the same age and my mother says in those days there was just one lady in Bhendi Bazaar who circumcised Bohra girls.
Mariya: It’s bizarre to think the same woman could have touched us both, that a bond we could share is that we were violated by the same woman. And it’s strange that khatna is so pervasive, even Bohras, who have immigrated to other countries, feel it must be performed on their daughters. Why do you think that is the case?
Aarefa: Isn’t it a stark reminder of how close-knit and insular our community really is? No other Muslim sect in India is known to practice khatna for girls, but the Bohras take it with them everywhere they migrate. So many Bohra women are educated professionals, proud of being able to balance their modernity and piety, but they still perpetuate the genital cutting of their daughters.
Mariya: This is what made me want to study the reasons behind the continuation of khatna. For my graduate school thesis, I interviewed Bohra women living in the US who had undergone FGC. Before conducting my study, I had heard from my mother, that in Islam, women are not supposed to be sexual, and that khatna is done to help curb that sexual desire. But after I did my study, I was shocked to learn that there is a certain justification used by the religious clergy that khatna allows for a kind of knowledge, an ilm, to be passed between husband and wife when they have sex. Essentially, there is a justification that khatna affects sexuality in a positive way. Yet, that isn’t what the majority of Bohra women believe.
Aarefa: It’s striking that you’ve heard such contradictory reasons justifying the practice, but I suppose it’s bound to happen when community leaders give no official explanation for it. The most common justification I’ve heard is that khatna moderates sexual urges. But the very first explanations I heard for khatna had to do with health and hygiene. During my adolescence, my mother came across a magazine article by an anonymous Bohra woman speaking out against khatna. The article cited some studies connecting male circumcision to reduced risk of getting STDs and some kinds of cancer. Sometime later, my mother heard from a Bohra friend that female circumcision supposedly serves a similar purpose: preventing uterine cancer in women. For my mother, this “scientific” backing for khatna offered a reasonable explanation for a practice that her religion expected her to follow without questioning.
That article was also the first time my mother and I came across the term FGM and its prevalence in Africa. My mother was appalled: cutting off large chunks of a young girl’s genitals, sewing up vaginal openings, using unhygienic blades, fatal infections and death during childbirth…no wonder they call it genital mutilation. What a relief we don’t do what those Africans do! We just slice off a little bit of skin, no harm done. And we do it hygienically.
Mariya: Exactly. And this type of thinking completely negates the fact that khatna is being done to little girls who cannot consent to the practice. This is an act that induces trauma for many children and even if the trauma is forgotten, it can surface later, at the time of marriage and one’s first sexual experiences. One friend of mine was 19 when she realized what had happened to her, and says she felt like she was experiencing post-traumatic stress after that. And she had nowhere to go for support. She didn’t feel any of the women’s health services on her college campus could help her.
Aarefa: To some extent, I can relate to that. The implications of my khatna began to hit home only in my college years, when the ritual of snipping a little girl’s clitoris no longer seemed justifiable. Bohra khatna may be different from “FGM” in many ways, but almost everywhere, female sexuality was at stake. It had to be tamed, controlled, suppressed and denied agency or legitimacy, all in the name of women’s honour and chastity.
I had been cut at an age when I knew nothing about sex or my own anatomy and I had no way of knowing what this would mean for my sexual life as an adult. I felt rage, betrayal and helplessness, and, on many occasions, I confronted my mother. What was she thinking? Didn’t she ask anyone why this ritual had to be followed through? She always taught me to question everything and value science. So how could she? I know now that my outbursts were as painful for my mother as they were for me, but she answered me as honestly as she could. She was told it was a part of Islam and she had faith in her religion.
Fortunately, both my mother and I changed our positions with time: she came to question the need for khatna herself, while my resentment towards her gradually faded away. I realized that individuals like my mother – and me – were merely cogs in the wheel of a larger system that uses religion to justify a cultural practice.
Mariya: I had no real feelings about the khatna when it happened to me, but three years later, my sister was cut, here in the US. I remember being under the impression that she was passing a milestone and that it was a joyous occasion. It wasn’t until high-school that I started wondering about the procedure. In college, I started questioning it and became angry with the Bohra community. But I never became angry with my mother. She believed it was an Islamic requirement and was only following the traditions she had been brought up with. Somewhere along the line, I realized that the passage of khatna from one generation to the next had become a game of telephone – generations continued it but we had forgotten the original message, the reason for its continuation. Yet, this tradition that is rooted in patriarchy also became a secret tradition among women. Men were no longer told about it. My father recently admitted to me that he had never heard of the tradition until my mother brought it up when I turned seven. Why is there so much secrecy around the practice?
Aarefa: Because everything to do with female sexuality is taboo. Women are not supposed to talk about their privates. Our culture spends more time and energy trying to suppress sex and sexuality than a teenager spends thinking about sex!
Among Bohras, there is also the fear factor. Many women are afraid of being socially boycotted by the community if they speak against khatna. Dissenters can have their entire families ostracised. People always ask, “Who will solemnize our marriages if we are boycotted? Who will perform our last rites when we die?” In a community that is so insular, it’s understandable that people don’t want to get their loved ones in trouble with the authorities.
Mariya: You know, Aarefa, I’ve worked in the gender violence field for over eight years now, and I can’t help but see all the connections between the secrecy around FGC and the still-pervasive secrecy around sexual assault. In the majority of sexual violence cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim. The same goes for FGC: it is often a trusted relative who takes the child for khatna. So those who undergo khatna do not report it to authorities for fear of getting loved ones in trouble, even if FGC is criminalized in their country.
Another point about gender violence is that some of these acts have become normalized. Therefore, we have the idea that khatna is not as bad as infibulation, or that if you are drunk and can’t remember having sex with someone, it’s not rape. In both cases, there was no viable way to give consent to an act that is sexually related. So, of course, it is a violation! But we are taught to believe that it isn’t. A woman I interviewed for my thesis said that khatna was like getting your period. But this attitude makes it harder for other survivors (like you and I), who might not feel the same way, to come out and talk about what we have experienced.
Aarefa: I know exactly what you mean. When I’ve tried to question the ritual, I’ve been made to feel like my anger and indignation is an overreaction, as if a “small slice of tissue” is not worth fussing over. What harm can one little nick do? When you have a midwife with no medical training and a terrified seven-year-old trying to possibly fight the blade, where is the guarantee that only a thin layer will be cut? We have both come across some Bohra women who’ve lost all of the clitoris and more women who later freeze up during sex or have to go to therapy before they can feel comfortable in bed. These stories are silenced.
Mariya: I agree. When I speak about my own experience of khatna, I always reiterate that I was fortunate to have only undergone Type I in which only part of the clitoral hood was removed. But, this form of thinking is diminishing the sexual violence that happened to me. Whether the practice is referred to as khatna, female circumcision, genital cutting, genital mutilation, or anything else, it’s done without the girl’s consent and is a crime against human rights. I am glad to know that finally, in the last couple of years, the international community has started to acknowledge that FGC is actually a global issue, and that it has been found to occur in nearly every country on the globe from Africa to Asia, Australia, Latin America, New Zealand, North America and Western Europe.
Aarefa: Yes, that definitely validates so much of the outrage that we feel when we have conversations about our experiences. I may not remember the day I was cut very well, but my pain isn’t any less valid just because it’s retrospective. I may not have had lasting physical injuries but my community, my own people, altered my body in an attempt to control my sexuality. More Bohra women are talking about this now, counselling each other to cope with what they went through and feeling reassured that psychological mutilation does have a place in the hierarchy of legitimate scars. I think it’s cathartic for all of us.
Mariya: For me, it has been a healing experience to learn that there are many more women who feel the way I feel about khatna. I didn’t realize how alone I truly felt about my own experience until I connected with you and a few others, who all went through the same thing. I think we’ve made each other stronger as a result of talking about it. I don’t feel isolated anymore. It helps to have a friend who understands that it wasn’t just a slice of skin that was taken away from me the day my skirt was raised and my underwear came down.
Mariya Taher and Aarefa Johari are the co-founders of Sahiyo, an organization that helps raise awareness of FGM worldwide, and especially its clandestine prevalence within the Dawoodi Bohra community.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.