The Practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) amongst the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim Community
By Dilshad Tavawalla and Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) or khatna has been an international cause célèbre and generated remarkable global attention for the past several decades. At international and intergovernmental levels, there is unequivocal consensus that FGM/C represents an extreme violation of the human rights of children and women, a danger to sexual and reproductive health, a harmful practice and a form of gender-based violence, and that it must be abolished.
However, despite worldwide effort to end FGM/C, India, in particular, had escaped much of the focus and global attention due to the fact, khatna, also known as khafd (female circumcision), is pervasive and secretly practiced amongst the members of the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community. The cultural practice of khatna/khafd is non-existent, and virtually unknown in various Muslim sects, sub-sects and communities, as well as other religious denominations found in India, namely, the Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. The Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslims, found in large numbers in India and Pakistan, and to a smaller extent, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are the only Muslim community in the Indian sub-continent that practices FGM/C.
In November 2015, this secretive and clandestine practice attracted worldwide media attention. Three members of the Bohra community were convicted in Australia’s first ground-breaking prosecution of a FGM/C case, where a retired nurse, a mother of the minor girls and a clergy member, illegally participated in carrying out khatna on two minor girls. News of these successful convictions was reported widely in the international media.
We do not wish this article to be seen as a criticism of the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community to which we belong, but rather a voice seeking to secure the most fundamental values that underlie all religions, cultures and traditions – “do no harm to another”, which we believe will promote social reform and gender justice within the community, by ending this form of violence against girl children and women, and by confronting and tackling deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes, and patriarchal interests and structures in society as a whole. The aim of this post is to also offer some cultural insight and understanding of the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community, to throw light, raise public awareness and capture the ancient underground cultural practice of khatna through the words and lens of Dawoodi Bohra women living around the world.
Dilshad and Shaheeda were born in, and belong to the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community. Dilshad knows khatna personally and intimately because it was performed on her when she was seven years old. The horror, trauma, grief and sadness remained with her. She vowed that her only daughter, Shaheeda, would not go through the pain and trauma she experienced as a child as a result of khatna/khafd being forcibly done to her – leaving her with indelible physical, emotional and psychological scars, and painful memories that affect her to this day.
Female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) is the collective name given to several different traditional practices involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural reasons. FGM/C is recognized as a harmful practice, and has no known health benefits. It violates the human rights of children and women. According to the World Health Organisation, FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and even the right to life when the procedure results in death. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. FGM/C is usually performed on girls in infancy or early childhood, mostly before the age of 15, and occasionally, on older girls and adult women as a pre-marriage rite. It is usually performed by traditional practitioners who have no knowledge or training in human physiology, and is done in clandestine circumstances, using unsterilized knife, razor or scissors, and without anaesthesia. The results of this non-hygienic procedure have a devastating effect on the girl’s or adult woman’s health and psyche at the moment that it is performed, and in the years to follow. The procedure is irreversible.
FGM/C is sometimes erroneously associated with Muslims as it is practiced in some communities where Islam predominates. Some Muslims consider that Islam demands the practice to ensure spiritual purity. However, many Islamic scholars disagree, as FGM/C is not mentioned in the Holy Quran. It is a practice that predates the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the religion of Islam. A minority of followers of other faiths, Christians, Jews and animists also practice it, as has been documented in various academic research and articles. Dawoodi Bohras practice khatna/khafd in the ‘sunnah’ or Type I form of FGM/C, which is the approved form mandated by the ‘dawat’ (clergy). It could result in the removal of the prepuce (hood or fold of skin surrounding the clitoris), and partial or total removal of the clitoris.
Recent public disclosures to the media and social networking websites by many brave Dawoodi Bohra women, who have undergone khatna, and from Dilshad’s own personal experience and Shaheeda’s conversation with community women, a common and recurring sad tale emerges; one that is shrouded in secrecy, guile, misrepresentation, breach of trust and betrayal of a young, vulnerable and hapless 7-year-old girl child by the very people she loves and trusts; mothers, grandmothers and aunts. As Rehana Ghadially notes, “The task, as expected, is accomplished by enforcement from the older women of the family.”
The ritual of khatna is a pre-pubescent coming-of-age ceremony that is typically carried out when the female child is seven years but may be done in later years. “The choice of the particular age is not clear. The girl is considered nadaan (innocent) and nasamaj (not capable of understanding). She is considered not capable of understanding what is being done to her and, at the same time, she is considered sufficiently mature to continue the tradition when she has her own daughter…In Sabak (Sunday School), women are instructed by the wives of the clergy that if the girl is not circumcised she will bring disgrace on the family and the community” (Ghadially, 1991).
Most commonly, khatna on girls is “performed by mullanis, women who have semi-religious standing, or by dais or midwives, or by women with some experience” (Srinivasan, 1991). Ghadially interviewed a mullani who stated that she received some “initial instructions by wives of the clergy.” These women are usually literate but uneducated, and lack knowledge or understanding of the female anatomy, nor do they have any formal training in medicine, nursing or first aid. Khatna is carried out without anesthesia in the closed confines of a “darkened” room. The tools used are usually an ‘astro’ – a barber’s razor or a shaving blade depending on the preference of the mullani.
In Mumbai, some of these mullanis also make home visits for an additional fee because it is considered to be less of a hassle and more convenient than taking the girl child to Bohri Mohalla (neighbourhood) where these mullanis usually live. Some families, though, who have become more interested in safe circumcision for their little girls, have opted for medicalized khatna/khafd, and girls are taken to pediatricians or family physicians from the community who may or may not perform the procedure under anesthesia in a clinic or hospital setting. In small towns in India, where there is a smaller Bohra population, the girls are brought to larger cities like Mumbai to be circumcised. The winter months are preferred, especially during the Christmas school holidays, as the wound heals faster during winter, and the girl will not miss school-work if she has to miss school for a few days.
Within the Dawoodi Bohra community, there is a lot of social pressure and cultural intimidation to continue the practice of khatna/khafd, and to withhold and safeguard our cultural and religious identity. The fear of ex-communication, and the generally rigid control exercised over community members by the clergy, ensures that few people openly speak out against the practice of FGM/C. Many mothers who are educated and well-informed, but do not want or wish to subject their little girls to khatna, bow down and succumb to the strong pressure from their own mothers, grandmothers, in-laws and other elderly ladies of the family who are very difficult to oppose. Another contributing factor for the perpetuation of khatna is the joint-family system prevalent in the community which is also a reflection of Indian society, and to a larger extent, that of the Indian sub-continent. Some Bohra families living abroad such as in North America, UK or elsewhere, where FGM/C is prohibited by law, circumvent and evade these laws by taking their girl child back home during summer and Christmas school holidays, usually to India, Pakistan, UAE and countries in the Middle East, for ‘vacation cutting’.
The Dawoodi Bohras are a unique denomination of Indian Muslims with a worldwide population numbering over 1.5 million. The sub-sect is also known as the Western Ismailis of India, and form a large, rich and flourishing ethno-religious trading community. The sect adopted Islam from Egypt, spread to Yemen and traces its ancestry to early conversion to Ismaili Shi’ism during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph –Imam al Mustansir.
In India and Pakistan, the Dawoodi Bohras can be found living in ‘Bohri Mohallas’ – neighbourhoods which are predominantly populated by them. Most Dawoodi Bohras speak Gujarati – a language spoken in India, and which is also their mother tongue. As traders, entrepreneurs and professionals, they have settled in various parts of the world, and reside mostly in the Indian sub-continent – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Many have migrated to and have a strong presence in over 40 nations around the globe, and are found in countries of the Middle East, South East Asia, East and West Africa, South Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada. The Bohras have over four hundred and eighty community centers known as ‘jamaats’ in all the major cities around the world. The Dawoodi Bohras are a very close-knit group with a strong sense of community consciousness and religious identity they jealously protect and guard. They have a centralized hierarchical clergy known as the ‘dawat’. The spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohras is the Dai-ul-Mutlaq also called the ‘Dai’, and sometimes referred by honorific terms like ‘Maulana’ ‘Aquamola’ or ‘Syedna’. The seat of the religious priesthood is in India, and the Dai lives in Mumbai. They are primarily a mercantile community, and claim 100% literacy in the community. They are educated and enterprising, and many are successful traders and businessmen. The women are literate and equally enterprising, and some amongst them are highly skilled, educated or qualified, and have made forays in business and various professional fields such as medicine, law, social sciences and education.
However, despite the fact that the sect prides itself on being modern in terms of education, occupation and family planning, the Syedna continues to exercise considerable control over his followers, and is greatly revered by them. The Dai exercises spiritual and temporal powers in matters of guidance of the community. In order to exercise spiritual discipline and suppress any theological opposition, the Dai has the spiritual prerogative and right to excommunicate errant community members on religious grounds, which right has been upheld by the Supreme Court of India in the matter of Sardar Saifuddin Saheb v. State of Bombay, AIR 1962 SC 853. Excommunication has grave religious and social consequences – it’s a social or communal banishment for life. Devastatingly, it dissolves marriage, prohibits entry into Dawoodi Bohra mosques and community centers, and bars burial in burial grounds/sites. Ex-communication would even prohibit attendance at events, for instance, marriages and funerals of family, relatives and friends within the community. Newspaper and media reports have narrated stories of excommunicated Bohra families in India being publicly persecuted by orthodox members of the community.
Jonah Blank, a Harvard qualified anthropologist, was the first outside researcher to conduct ethnographic fieldwork among the Daudi Bohras. His findings are distilled in a book entitled – Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam & Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras (2001). Blank found that the Daudi Bohras have been undergoing a neotraditionalist revival of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, and that “the Bohras have used modernity as a tool to reinvigorate their core traditions.” Blank observed that the control of the Dai and the dawat “extends well beyond the realm of theology to encompass all aspects of a believer’s life” such as matters of dress, facial hair, education, and employment. Finally, Jonah Blank briefly alludes to the practice of FGM/C among the Dawoodi Bohra community being occasionally mentioned in the Indian press. Blank found the reliability of the Bombay Census report of 1911 noting the practice of clitorectomy in the Bohra community difficult to gauge, but mentions that contacts within the Bohra community told him compelling stories of the existence of the practice “but none have been willing to give their testimony in public or provide details for publication.”
Unfortunately, Jonah Blank’s research findings of the Dawoodi Bohra community embracing “modernity” and “relative gender equality” are subjective and palpably biased, and fail to expose a dark and oppressive truth. Arguably, the most normative indication of gender justice and social equality are the freedom to choose, safeguarding and protection of physical integrity, safety and dignity, and equality of status and respect afforded to its women and children, especially the girl child. In this respect, the Dawoodi Bohras have failed their girls and women. FGM/C is a gross denial of social equality, and in this regard, the prevalence of khatna/khafd is a shameful blot on the community. It exposes the societal and patriarchal pressures exerted on Bohra women, and their helplessness and vulnerability through the regressive and secretive perpetuation of the cruel, violent and harmful ritual of khatna, which is a clear and undeniable violation of young women’s universally protected human rights. Islam’s core tenets uphold the divine rights of every human being to dignity and well-being, including the bestowed and inviolable rights of Muslim girl children and women by Allah, the Almighty.
On a final note: the ancestral and pervasive ritual of khatna (FGM/C), disguised as tradition and religious teaching, is also a grim and poignant reminder of the unchallenged strength, power and influence of omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient patriarchal hierarchies over the women of the Dawoodi Bohra community. Unfortunately, it is the vast majority of misguided Bohra women who are subjecting their trusting girls to this brutal and barbaric custom and, thereby, condemning these young girls to lifelong emotional pain, suffering and tragedy. They do so by collectively hiding khatna under a communal cloak of secrecy, stealth and silence.
Ms. Dilshad Tavawalla is a family and child protection lawyer practicing in Toronto for the last 17 years. Dilshad strives to create cultural awareness and a better understanding of the harmful and damaging effects of FGM/C on young girls and adult women, and the dangers of perpetuating the abhorrent practice of khatna which is prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community to which she belongs.
Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane is Dilshad’s daughter. She is a researcher who currently works for the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, India. Shaheeda co-founded Sahiyo, an India-based Non-Profit Organization, whose motto is ‘United Against Female Genital Cutting’, and mission is to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end female genital cutting and create positive social change.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.