Pronouncing its verdict on Thursday morning, the Supreme Court of New South Wales held the girls’ mother and a retired nurse guilty of carrying out the genital cutting, while Shabbir Vaziri, a senior clergy member, was found guilty for being an accessory to the crime.
The trio could now face a maximum punishment of seven years in prison, but the sentencing will be decided in February. Till then, Vaziri, the nurse and the girls’ mother will remain out on bail. They have been made to surrender their passports so they cannot flee the country.
FGM has been illegal in Australia since 1997, but this is the first case of female genital mutilation that has made it to the nation’s courtrooms. It is also the first instance of anyone being arrested for khatna in the Dawoodi Bohra community, whose members predominantly hail from Gujarat, although many emigrant Bohras have settled all over the world.
The Australia case
The Bohras are the only community in India known to practice female genital cutting or female circumcision. The practice is said to have originated in Africa much before the rise of Islam, and finds no mention in the Quran. The Bohras are known to practice a milder form of FGM which involves cutting the tip of a girl’s clitoris. More severe forms of genital mutilation – practiced differently by different communities around the world – could include cutting large parts of the major and minor labia or even sewing up the vaginal opening.
The case of the two sisters in Australia 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. The trial has been drawing attention across international media.
‘Bring an end to the practice’
While many Bohras continue to support the practice of female circumcision, there has been a growing opposition to the ritual from within the community in the past few years. Those working to bring the practice to an end have welcomed the Australian court’s verdict.
“The parents of the girls should have obeyed the law of the land since they were living in Australia, but even in the wider context of human rights, the practice is not acceptable,” said Masooma Ranalvi, a publisher in Delhi and a Bohra who has been speaking out against khatna.
Ranalvi believes that Bohras everywhere should take cognizance of the fact that there is a worldwide movement against female genital cutting, which has been declared a child rights violation by the World Health Organisation because it is medically regarded as harmful. “It is done in a clandestine, unscientific and unhygienic manner without the consent of the young girl," she said. "I appeal to Bohra sisters and to the community leadership to stop the practice in keeping with changing times.”