Female Genital Mutilation /Cutting (FGM/C) is a gender violence and abuse issue that gained attention in India in the year 2017 when India was viewed as a hub for the performance of FGM/C on Bohra ex-pat/foreign girls. This is primarily due to the recent legal action on FGM/C amongst Bohras in Australia and the USA, and the lack of an anti-FGM/C law in India. In fact, until 2018, there was only a single published article and one unpublished study that examined ‘Khaft’, an Arabic term for female circumcision, practiced by ‘Dawoodi Bohras. The practice includes all ‘procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or another injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’.
The practice is an exemplification of gender discrimination against women that is entrenched in traditional social, religious, and political institutions in the country. The United Nations has criticized the practice by stating it a gross violation of ‘human rights ’and also called for its banned worldwide. However, it is in India that the government denies any existence of such a practice due to lack of evidence and study and attempts to justify the lack of legislation on this issue on the grounds that the community which practices FGM/C did not voluntarily abandon the practice. The practice tries to control women’s sexuality and their experience of sexual pleasure and is a reflection of the patriarchal ideas which deny women to be explicit about their sexual desires and pleasure. It stems from the thought that the purity and modesty of women can be prevented by conducting or performing such ritually legitimatized practices. It perpetuates harmful gender norms; some communities believe it is required for a girl’s proper upbringing, marriage or to maintain the family’s honor.
In the first published study conducted by Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shabana Diler, Natasha Menon in collaboration with ‘WeSpeakOut’ & ‘Nari Samata Manch’, leading NGOs in Maharashtra, it was observed that nearly 75% of daughters (aged seven years and above) of all respondents in the sample were subjected to FGM/C. Girls are usually subjected to FGM/C when they are about seven years old. Therefore, it is a violation of the rights of the child, especially the right to be protected from violence and to develop in a healthy manner. The practice is shrouded in secrecy and is often initiated and carried out by traditional circumcisers who happen to be elder women of the community with no medical proficiency. Female genital mutilation of any type is recognized internationally as a harmful practice and a form of violence against women. The study reported that the prime reasons of FGM/C were to continue with an old traditional practice, to adhere to religious edicts (Sunnat/ Shariat), to control women’s sexual behavior and promiscuity and to abide by the rules stated by religious clergy, none of them being drawn from any scientific shreds of evidence or reasons.
The current research revealed very powerful and moving accounts by over 30% of women who strongly felt that Khaft had affected their sexual life. For all we know, more women suffer in silence owing to the stigma surrounding women talking about their sexuality. In addition, several women shared their painful experiences of long-term psychological and physical harm from FGM/C. In this fight of ours against FGM/C, it is important to navigate the temporary landscape to advance the minority women’s right, the banning of ‘Tripe Talaq’, being one example, to try and strive the right balance between safeguarding women while not further marginalizing or stigmatizing the minority community by falling prey to the narrow political interests of anti-Muslim, fundamentalist groups.
It is also the responsibility of the government to work on gender justice by banning or prohibiting such acute gender discriminatory practices and initiate welfare and awareness campaigns to educate the adherents of the same. It is a matter of great shame and concern that FGM/C is largely performed in the otherwise modern city of Mumbai practiced dominantly among the progressive community of Bohras, who live in large numbers, in the area called ‘Bohra Muhalla’ in Mumbai. The Government should stop denying the existence of Khaft and act to end it. The harmful traditional practice violates several of India’s obligations under numerous international treaties and violates many rights of women and girls enshrined in the constitution. Anti-FGM/C legislation must primarily target providers of Khaft. But on the contrary, on December 29, 2017, the Ministry of Women and Child Development responded to an inquiry by the Supreme Court (in a Public Interest Litigation case on FGM/C in India) stating that “there is no official data or study which supports the existence of FGM/C in India. However, it becomes necessary that after such published studies and research, the Government of India must throw some light on this issue of child and gender abuse through welfare programs and legal reformations.
Further, it was observed that all the respondents in the study voiced the lack of sex education within the family. A few respondents did mention perfunctory sex education in school, which was not practical or informative. The main sources of sex education for young women were through friends, books, or pornography. A majority of women did not know what was done to their bodies during their Khaft. It was clear that women (from both big and medium-sized cities) wanted a non-judgmental, safe, and private space to talk and learn about women’s sexuality. This observation throws light on the seriousness of the need to initiate talks around sex education in educational and domestic spaces, to incorporate lessons on gender sensitization and female anatomy in educational curriculums. However, the stigma around women’s sexuality can be defeated by engaging in free conversations around the disastrous psychological and physical impacts of FGM/C. If such measures are undertaken in closed spaces, it gives the survivors of the sexual abuse a platform to openly share and deliberate about their past trauma and to willfully narrate their own stories in order to seek emotional, legal, and political allegiance and support.
In the past five years, the anti-FGM/C movement in India, specifically has shattered Bohra women’s long-held silence surrounding Khaft, politicizing it, and pulling it out of the heavily guarded realm of “privacy”. The educated Bohra women have come out so publicly and vocally against a harmful tradition is perhaps unprecedented in the history of the community, also calling out Bohra men who do participate in Khaft (actively and passively) and have an integral role in its maintenance and/or propagation, both at the personal and the political levels.
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