On September 14, three years after they were arrested, the Supreme Court of New South Wales began hearing the trial of the girls’ mother, senior clergy member Sheikh Shabbir Vaziri and a 68-year-old nurse who performed the genital cutting on the girls.
The trial could last for six weeks and if convicted, the three accused could face seven years in jail.
The Dawoodi Bohras are a small but influential sub-sect of Shia Islam, between one and two million in number, who predominantly hail from Gujarat. While the majority of the community lives in India, there is a large Bohra diaspora around the world.
In India, the Bohras are the only community known to practice female circumcision – cutting the tip of a young girl’s clitoris – a ritual that is regarded by the World Health Organisation as a type of female genital mutilation. India does not have a specific law against this practice, but in several countries, including Australia, FGM is considered a criminal offence.
What is FGM?
The practice of female genital cutting is said to have originated somewhere in Africa much before the rise of Islam, and finds no mention in the Quran. Most of the communities that practice varying degrees of genital cutting believe it is done to moderate a woman’s sexual desire and prevent her from having extra-marital or pre-marital sex.
The World Health Organisation has classified female genital mutilation into four types based on the degree of severity and damage: while Type 1 involves cutting a part or whole of the clitoris, Types 3 and 4 involve cutting off most of a woman’s external genitalia and, at times, sewing up the vaginal opening.
The Bohras are known to practice Type 1 FGM – slicing off the clitoral hood when a girl is around seven years old – although there are some cases where the damage caused has been more severe. It is likely that the Bohras inherited the practice from Yemen and Egypt, where the sect traces its origins to the Fatimid dynasty of the 11th century.
The Australia case
In Australia, where female genital cutting is practiced mainly among migrants from Africa, West Asia and South Asia, all forms of FGM were made illegal in 1997.
The case of the two circumcised Bohra girls was uncovered in 2012, when the Department of Community Services in New South Wales received an anonymous tip-off about the prevalence of FGM in the Dawoodi Bohra community. The state police began investigating the community by recording phone calls and using listening devices, and found that the two sisters – then aged six and seven – had been circumcised in two separate incidents, in Sydney and Wollongong, sometime between October 2010 and July 2012.
When the girls were interviewed in their school, they revealed that khatna (circumcision) had been done to them by a woman they did not know, and described the procedure as “a little cut down there”. According to the police, one of the girls said she was given some lemonade before the procedure and was asked to imagine a place that she liked to ease the pain during the circumcision. While showering after the cutting, she was also reportedly scared that it would hurt.
In conversations secretly recorded after the girls’ family came to know of the police investigations, their mother allegedly told them, “We told you, my child, this is a secret. Never tell anyone.” In another recorded phone call, the nurse who performed the cutting was heard saying, “I’m in trouble. I do not want to go to jail at my age.”
Initially, eight Bohras were arrested in the case, but charges against the girls’ father and four other relatives were dismissed by the lower courts. Now, in addition to the mother and the nurse who have been charged with arranging and performing the circumcision, a senior Bohra clergy member Sheikh Shabbir Vaziri has been accused of hindering the investigation by instructing community members to lie to the police about the prevalence of FGM among Bohras.
So far, the defence lawyers representing the accused have argued that the cutting was just a “ritualistic ceremony” that did not cause any visible injury to the external genitalia. The lower court did not accept this argument, but the Supreme Court’s verdict is not likely to be out for another six weeks.
All the accused have been granted bail and the next hearing is on September 26. So far, the girls have been in their parents care.
In Mumbai, the administrative headquarter of the Dawoodi Bohras, community spokespersons declined to comment on the Australian case. A senior Bohra scholar, however, confirmed that this is the first instance of Bohras being arrested for female genital cutting.
Community members in India, meanwhile, are ambivalent about the ongoing trial in Australia.
“It is important to follow the law of the land in which you live, so if this practice is illegal in Australia, they should not have done it there,” said a Bohra businesswoman from Mumbai who did not wish to be identified. “But seven years of jail would be too much if they are convicted – what would happen to the children?”
Pious Bohras, say community members, follow the practice not to harm their children but because they believe it is mandated by the religion for the good of their daughters. This, they say, does not make them bad parents.
“I too have had khatna performed on my daughters and initially I saw no harm in it,” said a Bohra mother from Vapi who was told that the circumcision is meant to curb a girl’s sexual energy during puberty. “Now I am ambivalent about the practice. There must be some reason why the Prophet endorsed it, but if it is stopped, then it should be stopped uniformly everywhere.”
Some Bohras in Australia, however, are hopeful that the case will deter the community from continuing the practice.
"I am horrified that this barbaric practice has followed this community overseas," said Rashida Murphy, a Bohra from Perth. "Those little girls will never be the same again and their mother should be made to pay by jail time to deter others contemplating this savagery."