Friday, March 23, 2012

The Blade, The Vagina, The Painful Secret : Female Genital Mutilation in India

“I am 60 years old (Indian woman) now, but will remember that fateful day for the rest of my life. I must have been around 7 years old when my mother told me we were going to my grandma's house to spend the day with her. When we reached my grandma's house, my cousin (my mom's sister's daughter), who was a year younger than me, was also there. We were happy to meet each other.

Then, we were both led to a small room, which had a bed and asked to lie down. We kept asking "Why?" Suddenly, a lady dressed in black came into the room. By now, my cousin and I were terrified, not aware of what was to follow. 

Our dresses were pulled up and our panties pulled off, and we were asked to keep our legs apart. There were our mothers and our aunts holding our legs apart and then I felt something cold being applied to my clitoris, and then to my horror, the lady in black, actually held a scissor-like instrument and cut me there – I screamed and screamed but no one seemed to care. Then this same thing was done to my cousin, who was right next to me on the same bed.”

I came across this blog & found the above story on their home page. At first, I thought it was just another blog protesting against rapes & female feticides. But to my horror, this was something much more terrible. I searched the Google and did find pages related to the topic and then I was forced to write this post on one of the worst practice in human history.

Female genital mutilation/circumcision is a traditional custom practiced by many religious sects of the world. The World Health Organization defines it as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genital organs for non-medicinal reasons.

It is probably one of the best kept open secrets of modern India. In India, it is widely practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sect of the Shia-Muslims, who are led by the Syedna. Locally termed as ‘Khatna’, this practice has no medical justification at all. Some of the reasons include family honor, increasing sexual pleasure for the male, enhancing fertility, social acceptance (especially for marriage) & preservation of virginity/chastity.

Until the 1950s FGM was used in England and the US as a "treatment" for lesbianism, masturbation, hysteria, epilepsy and other "female deviances". Later, The UK Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 makes it an offense to carry out FGM or to aid, abet or procure the service of another person. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, makes it against the law for FGM to be performed anywhere in the world on UK permanent residents of any age and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. But, to date, no prosecutions have been made under UK legislation.

In India, the Bohra community is a very small one compared to the billion strength country, added to that, the girls are generally being circumcised just after/before they attain their puberty. So, the matter even though unjust, gets buried inside the girls’ mind like any normal process like menstruation. Many women believe that FGM is necessary to ensure acceptance by their community; they are unaware that FGM is not practiced in most of the world. A letter to Molly Melching, Chairperson of an NGO named Tostan working against FGM by an anonymous Indian lady exposes how this custom has been practiced for centuries; people are either too afraid or too embarrassed to raise their voice against such oppression.

A young girl undergoing the procedure by force experiences not just immense physical pain and risk of contracting infections due to the unhygienic manner in which FGM may be carried out but also extreme humiliation, and the realization that she must be subject to such torture because of her gender. Further, the basic aim behind FGM is to curb sexual desire in order to ensure that the women are not “unfaithful.” Such suppression is a blatant attack on the right to a dignified life and personal freedom.

Depending on the degree of mutilation, FGM can cause, severe pain & shock, uterus, vaginal and pelvic infections, complications in pregnancy and childbirth, sexual dysfunction, difficulties in menstruation & psychological damages among many consequences. In addition to these health consequences, there are considerable psycho-sexual, psychological and social consequences of FGM.

A typical profile of a woman who undertakes the job of female circumcision in India (covered by is a 75 year old uneducated but literate Bohra woman. She says that she has inherited this work from her family. Her grandmother used to perform ‘Khatna’ but her mother never learned the trade as she was married in an economically well-to-do family. She had done it for 35 years until her eyes stopped supporting her.

She has a rusted box containing five items: a barber’s razor (which she claims has been sterilized), with a broken handle (about 8 to 9 inches long); a small stone on which to sharpen her razor; a pile of 1" by 1" pieces of paper—this is used to wrap up the foreskin which is thrown away; a small box of indigenous medicine called abeer or kapurkanchi powder mixed with silk thread ash (pure silk threads are burnt, grounded and put through a sieve), this mixture is put over the cut over the clitoris, the powder for its cooling effect and the silk ash for its adhesive value; and lastly, a pile of 1" by 1" pieces of cloth to put on the cut in case of bleeding. According to her, the entire procedure takes a few seconds and if the girl is agitated it takes several minutes.

Today, all her three daughters-in-law do female circumcision and supplement their husband’s meager income. She considers that this is honorable work and a perfectly legitimate way for a woman to earn an income. According to her, no other Muslim group in India other than the Bohras practices it. One of her acquaintances in the mohalla (locality) tells her to stop doing this work and asks her, “Why do you make little girls cry?” She says in her reply that as long as the Shariat sanctions it and the clergy support it, she will do it but the decision is really that of the women themselves.

An activist, who prefers to be named Tasleem, has launched a campaign on Facebook and making sincere efforts to collect signatures to petition the Bohra High Priest His Holiness Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin ordering a ban on this ritual and stop this cruelty being foisted on Bohra females. Tasleem states: “Some Maulla (Bohri priest) brought it to India and they think it is an Islamic mandatory. The funny thing is that most Bohri men do not even know about this. In most of the cases, it is only after their marriage they are informed about this by their respective wives. I also spoke to some Bohri fathers who didn’t know that it had happened to their wives and daughters. A lot of bullshit reasons like it 'prevents cancer', ‘prevents white discharge’ etc is given. However, the bottomline is to keep the girl in control. And like they say a slave falls in love with his chains, the mother forgets the ordeal she went through and gets it done to her little girl. And so the tradition continues. If you can help me raise awareness and get signatures, I'd be extremely grateful to you on behalf of all Bohri girls.”

And we cannot just blame the women for it as men are also silently supporting it by paying for it.

Mike Ghouse, a US-based speaker, thinker, writer, optimist, educator and an activist of Pluralism, Justice, Islam, Peace and Civil Societies, writes in his blog “Even if one woman, Muslim or otherwise, is deprived of her God-given pleasures of life, it must be stopped. Standing up against oppression is one big aspect of being a Muslim. Injustice to anyone and particularly women will eat away the morality of the society from within. Oppression cannot go on for long. Every religion has been a medium to restore righteousness in the society”.

The issue of Female Genital Mutilation amongst Bohra Muslims raised by Tasleem is surely an important one, particularly when it is being practiced in the name of Islam. This also brings into sharp focus the unholy and absurd role being played by the Bohra clergy, as well as by the clergy of other Muslim sects on most occasions. This important issue has also highlighted the vulnerability of Muslim masses and the stranglehold that the Muslim clergy seeks to further tighten on the community. And, this sad spectacle by the Muslim clergy is being displayed at a time when Muslims in large numbers are gaining modern education and seeking to empower themselves.

An edited version of this article featured in YouthkiAwaaz. 
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