In the most comprehensive study yet on female genital cutting in India, 97% of the female respondents who remembered the procedure being done on them as children said that they had experienced pain at the time. This sample included those who support and are against the practice.
The study, conducted by independent researchers Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shabana Diler and Natasha Menon in collaboration with WeSpeakOut, a movement by Bohra survivors of female genital cutting to end the practice, and Nari Samata Manch, a women’s empowerment group, was released Monday in Delhi by Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor. The study calls for the government to ban the practice.
Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia Ismaili sect from western India, are the most prominent group known to practice female genital cutting in India. The ritual, known as khatna or khafd within the community, is typically performed on seven- or eight-year-old girls.
As defined by the World Health Organisation, the Bohras practice Type 1a or Type 1b female genital mutilation, which involves removing a part or all of the clitoral hood or the clitoris. The study also found that a small number of younger women had been subjected to Type 4 female genital mutilation, which involves pricking, piercing or cauterising the genital area.
The authors of the study interviewed 94 men and women, mostly belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community. Others were from other Muslim communities that are known to practice genital cutting, including Sunni Muslims from Kerala, Alavi Bohras and Bahais. Respondents were from 12 big and small cities across Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Kerala, as well as from Canada, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America.
In a significant step towards understanding why the practice is so prevalent in the community, 37% of the respondents support female genital cutting, 43% are against it and 16% have changed their mind from supporting it to being against it.
“As activists, we need to understand the position of those who support it to move forward,” said Anantnarayan, a researcher who worked for nine years in the United States with Equality Now, a group that works against female genital mutilation across the world and who is currently based in India. “We realised we would have to figure out what are the compulsions [of those who support female genital cutting], what is the cultural context, and then we can begin to tackle this.”
Yes, it exists
While India has no law acknowledging female genital cutting or mutilation, other countries do. In 2016, in its first trial under laws prohibiting female genital mutilation, Australia sentenced three Dawoodi Bohras to 15 months in jail. In 2017, United States officials arrested two doctors in Detroit for allegedly cutting at least six girls. The trial is ongoing.
In May 2017, a lawyer named Sunita Tiwari filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court asking for a ban on the practice. In December, the Ministry of Women and Child Development informed the apex court that there was no official data from the National Crime Records Bureau or other sources “which supports the existence of FGM in India”.
However, 88 women respondents in the study released on Monday identified 1,248 others in their immediate family circles who had undergone the practice, indicating how widespread it might be. There are an estimated one million Dawoodi Bohras spread in tightly knit communities in India and the world.
Confirming that the practice continues even today, 75% of the daughters of the respondents aged seven and above were subjected to female genital mutilation or cutting, the study said. Almost all the respondents said that most of the community’s women had undergone the practice.
The study’s data also showed that female genital cutting was linked with economic class. While 64% of women in the upper income group had subjected their daughter to khafd, 100% of those in the lower income group had done so. Many of those in the lower income group, the study said, lived in homes belonging to mosques or religious institutions. Some “reported being under surveillance by the religious authorities in order to monitor their conformity.”
In a series of case studies, respondents speak of how they were lied to as children when taken to get cut and how their relatives pressured them to get their daughters cut. In a particularly disturbing story, Durraiya, 41, mother of an eight-year-old child from a medium-sized city, describes how the cutting known as khatna or khafd within the Bohra community went horribly wrong for her daughter. The traditional cutter who had conducted the ritual made an incision too deep. Instead of healing, Durraiya’s daughter bled for an entire day and had to be taken to two hospitals before a doctor was able to stitch the wound and stop the bleeding.
“I had no memories about my own Khatna and I did not even see what was done to my daughter,” the study quotes Durraiya as saying. “I just thought it was an old tradition that had been happening for years, a kind of Sunnat, and so, ‘let me just get it done for my daughter.’ I almost felt as if I got her back from the hands of death.”
The child is now terrified of injections, doctors and hospitals.
Other respondents spoke of fear, anxiety, shame, anger, depression and low self-esteem they faced as a consequence of being cut.
Among those who support the practice, three are traditional cutters from different economic and social backgrounds. Though families are increasingly taking their daughters to qualified doctors to be cut, no doctor known to practice female genital cutting agreed to be a part of the study, suggesting that the practice might be shifting underground with increased attention on it.
Those who support khafd also speak about their experiences.
Lamiya, 29, from a medium sized city, remembers feeling angry for two years after her khafd was done by a traditional, but later grew out of it, saying that she understands that it was necessary for her “well-being and benefit”.
“I will definitely get it done for my daughter because it is necessary, be it at the level of community or religious purpose or identity purpose,” the study cites Lamiya as saying. “Since all people around me have got it done, I will also get it done for our daughter. […] I know that it is necessary to get it done and so there is no issue of it being optional.”
With time, the practice has become increasingly medicalised, with a shift away from traditional cutters to qualified doctors, particularly in larger cities. Lamiya, for instance, hopes that if a doctor does the procedure for her daughter, her daughter will not suffer the pain she herself did.
The study emphasises this aspect of khafd – that mothers do not intend to bring harm to their daughters.
“The women who cut also love their children,” said Anantnarayan. “They are not out to mutilate them or violate them. But it is important not to sideline or undermine the pain of the women who are impacted. [...] Apart from harm, this is a discriminatory practice based on gender..”
Apart from those who have undergone the practice, the authors also spoke to obstetricians and gynaecologists who have treated Bohra patients. These doctors clarified that rather than being just a harmless nick on the clitoris as supporters claim khafd is, this ritual has a significant physical impact, quite apart from the long-term psychological impact some respondents said they have experienced.
Reasons for support
Some supporters of khafd say it has its roots in Islamic scriptures, apart from being recommended by the Bohra spiritual leader the Syedna, being necessary for purity and to avoid sin.
However, the authors of the study believe female genital cutting among the Dawoodi Bohras originates from customs prevalent in north Africa and Egypt in the latter half of the ninth century.
The authors note that in Saudia Arabia, only Sulaymani Ismailis, who form 10% to 15% of the population, are known to practice this cutting and that they are concentrated in the southern parts of the country near Yemen. Dawoodi Bohras also have their roots in Yemen.
While the Bohras are Shia Muslims, two of the study’s 94 respondents are Sunni Muslim women from Kerala. This first came to light in an online forum in 2015. In 2017, a survivor of the practice wrote about her experience for a Malayalam magazine and in August 2017, Sahiyo, another group working against female genital cutting among the Bohras, published an investigation revealing a clinic that performed female genital cutting on those who demanded it. The study suggests that this might be linked to the medieval influence of Arab traders among Muslims in Kerala.
In an emailed statement, the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom said that it was “deeply disappointed” with the study, saying that it did not represent the views of the community at large.
“Instead of a nuanced, fact-based, holistic study, the intrinsic approach to this alleged study is reactionary and the data presented is too small to offer a holistic understanding of both the matter and parties most affected by it,” Samina Kanchwala, secretary of the association, wrote in an email to Scroll.in.
She added, “The views of these anti-FGM advocates have been incorrectly propagated as the views of the entire Dawoodi Bohra community but in reality, this cannot be further from the truth. Moreover, the Dawoodi Bohra community requests that their cultural/religious practices be treated at par with the cultural and religious practices of other religions and cultures.”