Sreelatha Menon | February 4, 2016
Many things happen in one’s childhood which are never questioned, or are questioned only with the passage of time. A veil of secrecy had prevailed over the fact that some Muslim and tribal communities in the world have been practising female genital mutilation (FGM) for centuries. The United Nations had termed this practice as “inhuman and having long-term implications on women’s health and psyche” and banned it. Many countries in Africa – where it was common – and the West have also banned it; Nigeria and Gambia are the latest cases.
In India, Masooma Ranalvi was among the first to speak out against this tradition of her community of Dawoodi Bohras, a sub-sect of the Ismaili Shia Muslims. Though among the most educated of the Muslims in India, they continue to practise ‘khatna’, or female circumcision, on their girls till date.
Masooma had kept quiet and pretended to have forgotten her own experience of this brutality in childhood. When she turned 30, she decided to speak out. It was the uneasy memory of mutilation of her genitals as a small child – an act that was supervised by her own grandmother – that had scarred her mind. Today Masooma is at the forefront of a campaign for awareness and protest within the community, seeking to end the age-old custom perpetrated blindly by women on their own daughters.
In December last year, she and 16 other women had decided to come out in the open about their opposition to the practice; they wrote a petition on a website, change.org, addressed to the government of India seeking a law to stop this practice (https://www.change.org/p/end-female-genital-mutilation-in-india). Today the number of signatories supporting it has swollen to over 41,000 and is rapidly growing.
This is how Masooma recalls the incident: “When I was seven years old, I was taken by my grandmother to a house in Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai and made to lie down on the floor. Then a woman came with some crude implement, a knife possibly, and cut off a bit of my clitoris while my grandmother held me down tight. The women sprinkled some powder on the wounded part and asked me not to speak about this ever. What happened that day was a sort of circumcision on a girl.”
The petition begins by recalling that very incident: “At the age of seven, I was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in Mumbai, in a most unhygienic and clandestine manner. The shock and trauma of that day are still with me.”
That incident had made Masooma a link in the chain of tradition that has been continuing for centuries, since the time the earlier members of the Dawoodi Bohra community migrated to India from their tribal origins in Yemen. Dawoodi Bohras are just about a million and a half strong all over the world.
There are other, much smaller Bohra sub-sects too, but it is not yet certain if they also practise khatna, says Aarefa Johari, another signatory to petition. Aarefa, a journalist, is one of the five co-founders of Sahiyo (which means ‘friends’), an organisation that is currently carrying out an online survey on the practice of khatna among Bohras. The survey is likely to add to the resources on FGM and help in spreading awareness.
As the Yemenis came to Gujarat for trade they converted many to the sub-sect. While the Dawoodi Bohras of Indian origin flourished and expanded, the Yemeni counterparts suffered at the hands of more dominant Islamic sects in their country. The sect then expanded and flourished in Gujarat and took on the name “Bohra” which means trader, because those who converted to the sect were mainly Gujarati traders from other Muslim sects. So now a majority of Dawoodi Bohras are of Indian ethnic origin, and they pledge their allegiance to their religious head, known as the Syedna with headquarters in Mumbai.
This is not the first time that Bohra women have spoken out. The first such protest came two years ago, also through a petition by Taslim, which was a pseudonym for a woman who didn’t want to reveal her identity. This was addressed to Syedna Burhanuddin who died in 2014. The petition got no response from the Syedna but 4,000 Dawoodi Bohra women from across the world signed it giving their support.
Masooma reignited the protest with a blog posting in 2015 about her experience with FGM. She followed it up by networking with the people who responded. They were quite a few; numbering 40-50 who are now on a WhatsApp group, exchanging messages only on the issue of FGM, says Aarefa.
Masooma cites some of the stories shared by group members on a daily basis. “These stories boost our morale,” she says. She gives the example of Zehra Patwa who posted a message saying, “I just talked someone out of doing khatna on their daughter and made someone who was absolutely going to do it on their daughter to at least reconsider.” A few days earlier there was a post by Insia Dariwala who said that she convinced a Bohra woman to not do ‘khatna’ on her daughter. “It was like a victory for the whole group,” she says. She mentions the example of Nishreen who has resolved not to subject her two young daughters, aged four and six, to khatna.
The WhatsApp group led to the formation of a platform called ‘Speak Out on FGM’ as 17 of the women decided to come out in the open and sign a petition seeking an end to the practice.
While the latest petition is addressed to the government and seeks a law to end the practice, some of the signatories feel that the action has to come from within the community, from the Syedna and from the women themselves. However, the practice is already illegal as per international human rights norms set out by the United Nations. The fact that this practice has no link with Islamic personal law, Shariat, or religion and is just a tribal legacy is another issue that is being debated within the community.
These discussions have been raging in social media forums of the community and don’t seem to be reaching anywhere as the Syednas, old and new, have been silent on the matter. “It is done under the veil of religion though it hardly falls under the ambit of Islam,” says Masooma.
Meanwhile, the community is in the midst of a succession battle being played out in the supreme court. After the death of Syedna Burhanuddin, his son as well as his half-brother has claimed to be the rightful successors. The court has asked the brother to prove his claim while the community members are in a dilemma as to whose side they would like to be on.
The Syedna, equivalent of the pope as far as the community is concerned, has commanded absolute obedience from the tightly knit group. So speaking out against community norms is a taboo and can lead to excommunication and worse.
Taslim, who initiated the petition and is yet to reveal her real name, says, “That is the sword on our head. The Syedna will excommunicate you. He will throw you out of the jamaat, that is, the collective the members form wherever they live. The consequence is you don’t get a community priest for marriage and death – the two occasions when one needs the community with you.”
She agrees that no one can track you in a large metro like Mumbai or Delhi but if you are in a community pocket like Bhendi Bazaar then do depend on each other, go to the same mosque: “You can’t afford to be isolated.”
Now this community of mostly Gujarati Muslims have strong pockets in villages in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, and also in some towns elsewhere. Defying the Syedna is unthinkable for these people, she says.
Says Ummul, “We are not asking the Syedna to stop the tradition; he should at least explain this to us. Why it is done? What is the advantage? Silence can’t help.”
The division in the clergy could have given some hope to the reformist elements in the community as Syedna Burhanuddin’s half-brother, who is an underdog in the race, enjoys the image of a reformer. He too, however, has not spoken on FGM, says Masooma.
Syedna Burhanuddin had a tight hold on the community even as he introduced some measures which drew both bouquets and brickbats. He introduced the concept of a community kitchen in every jamaat so that every house ate from a common pool. “It looked romantic and especially good for the poor, but many saw it as another measure to tighten the clergy’s grip on the members. They even send information and notices with the food dibbas,” says Taslim.
The other measure was a ‘smart card’ that members had to swipe each time they went to the mosque. This means the clergy could be tracking your attendance in mosque, and people can use this to arm twist you, says Taslim. These were signs of the Syedna becoming more autocratic, agrees Ummul.
Ummul’s father was a progressive person hence her family had not been part of a jamaat. “When my father died he was buried in a regular Muslim burial ground,’’ she says. She did not have to face khatna, nor did she do it on her daughter.
Decades after these women were subjected to khatna, they say they were made to live with the feelings of shame and violation all these years. Masooma says the practice is linked to the patriarchy and the idea behind it is to control a woman’s sexuality. The purpose is to deny her the right to love or have a complete sexual experience.
“We are left incomplete, violated in the name of tradition and religion,” she says. Uncircumcised girls are seen as immoral and circumcision is seen as necessary to prevent infidelity of women. This has been discussed threadbare by community members who are arrayed on opposing sides on the issue.
“The Syedna has been asking us be law-abiding citizens. So, what about international laws against FGM that the community has been flouting with his blessings,” asks a member of the community on a social networking forum.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as “the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” As it is painful and violent and victims suffer from the impact all their lives, the UN has declared it a human rights violation, say the signatories.
For Aarefa awareness is the key to solving the problem. “I don’t think a law alone could solve the problem,” she says. “Various countries have made it illegal but it does not mean they have stopped genital cutting there. Many traditional communities perceive laws as an attack on their culture and personal beliefs.”
Aarefa prefers the term ‘female genital cutting’, or FGC because “‘mutilation’ is a value-loaded term that many people perceive negatively. Mothers don’t intend to harm or mutilate their daughters when they take them for khatna, and ‘cutting’ is a more neutral term”. For Masooma, the very act of recognising that she had been wronged is a liberating experience as it is for many women who are now telling their stories on WhatsApp and a Facebook forum of ‘Speak Out on FGM’.
“I was never told what was being done and though I bled for ten days it was only at the age of 30 when I read about it I realised that it had happened to me,” says Masooma. “Then my daughter wanted to do a thesis on this and I did a lot of research and I got involved in the issue.” Many of these women have married outside the sub-sect and are relatively free of the restrictions of the sect.
Ummul, for instance, did not do it for her daughter. But all her cousins on her father’s and mother’s side have done it on their daughters, she says.
There are also people who won’t do it but won’t talk about it either, says Ummul. Her sister-in-law, she says, did not do it for her granddaughter and still continues to be part of the jamaat.
Suddenly the women’s movement against FGM is on a roll, assisted by the social media.
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