The Dawoodi Bohras are an influential Shia Islam sub-sect hailing predominantly from Gujarat. There are around 1.5 million Bohras, around half of whom live in India and the rest abroad. They are the only community in India known to practice FGM, which is also known as female circumcision.
“It is historic that 16 Dawoodi Bohra women who have all been subjected to FGM have signed the petition openly,” said Masooma Ranalvi, the first signatory of the letter and founder of a platform of Bohras called Speak Out on FGM.
This is the first time Bohra women have revealed their identities in signing a petition against the practice. The community is tightly knit and not given to openness about the practice, which is why few outsiders know about it, Ranalvi said. On Wednesday, she had been fielding shocked calls all day from people who had never heard of the practice.
“Because this is a very educated, middle-class community, people think nothing goes wrong,” she said. “But this is a closely knit community over which the clergy has a tight control. A lot of women want to speak out, but they don’t want to be identified because of fear of persecution.”
Members of the community who speak out against the clergy face the risk of a social boycott, being cut off from their families and social circles. Those who are boycotted as not permitted to participate in religious functions and no priest will officiate at their funerals.
This letter is addressed to the Ministers of Women and Child Development, Law and Justice, and Health and Family Welfare. It asks for them to pass a law banning the practice of female genital mutilation. It notes that the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution to eliminate FGM in 2012. Once it has received enough signatures, Ranalvi plans to take this up directly with the government.
An older petition in 2012 was signed anonymously by a woman identified as Tasleem. This letter, addressed to the Syedna, who is the community’s spiritual head and has the last word on community practices, was ignored by the clergy at the time. Ranalvi said that even media enquiries directed at him and people close to him in the hierarchy were ignored. This petition got more than 3,000 signatures of a goal of 5,000.
The legal approach
According to classification by the World Health Organisation, the kind of circumcision practiced by the Bohras is Type 1, where a part or whole of the clitoris is cut. In Types 3 and 4, which are most severe, most of a woman’s external genitalia is removed. This might sometimes involve sewing up the vaginal opening.
Nigeria and Gambia recently banned the practice, to international acclaim. FGM is outlawed in more than 20 countries in Africa, where genital mutilation is most prevalent.
Bohras outside India also practice FGM. In November, the Supreme Court of Australia convicted three Dawoodi Bohras for practicing genital mutilation on two young girls. The girls’ mother, the nurse who performed the operation and a senior member of the clergy will be sentenced in February.
“The whole practice stems from India because this is the spiritual centre,” Ranalvi said. “Bohras wherever they are in the world continue practicing FGM, even if the law of the land says it is not allowed.”
This is why though the group's petition is addressed to the Indian government, she and several others are also working to reach out to their community to discuss why the practice should be ended.
“People have been conditioned for centuries without knowledge of how harmful this is,” Ranalvi said. “You cannot bring change from above. It has to be from within. We are working with the community to educate women, talk to people and raise our voices, but we need a law to support us.”