INDIA’S DARK SECRET

Female genital mutilation is being practiced not just in Africa but in the heart of Mumbai. HT speaks to several ‘victims’ who are becoming the face of a brave fight back

By HARINDER BAWEJA

Imagine being taken to a room in a dark decrepit building. Imagine being pinned down on the floor. Imagine your underwear being taken off. Imagine seeing a knife being heated on the gas stove. Imagine the same hot knife slicing your clitoris. Imagine young girls shrieking in pain.

The cruel practice of female genital cutting or female genital mutilation (FGM) is not happening only in far away Africa. It’s not just being practised in tribal societies. Young girls aged six and seven are regularly being cut right here, in India. Mumbai abounds with untrained midwives who continue to scar young girls from the Bohra community, a Shia sub sect.

For long, FGM or khatna as the Bohras call it remained a well-kept secret, a taboo, a subject never to be discussed. But now a few women – victims at the hands of the Bohra tradition – are choosing to speak out and create awareness. Masooma Ranalvi, a Delhi-based publisher – who has put her name to an online petition against the practice along with 17 other women – has decided it’s time to come out in the open. The pain has become a trigger and the passion to save other girls from being cut have made her and the others fearless.

Masooma who was cut 42 years ago is among 17 other women who have decided to come out in the open and create awareness about Female Genital Mutilation happening in India.

Masooma who was cut 42 years ago is among 17 other women who have decided to come out in the open and create awareness about Female Genital Mutilation happening in India.
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Masooma was cut 42 years ago but says the day is etched in her mind. She narrates her personal story haltingly but with clarity. “My mum told me come; I’ll take you out and buy you chocolates. I happily went with her. She took me to Bohri mohalla (in Mumbai), a cluster where 90% Bohras live. We went into this dark decrepit building. I remember being taken into a room. The curtains were drawn. She said lie down. Like an obedient child, I lay. My grandmother was holding my hands. An oldish woman pulled down my pants… I started crying. Grandmom said don’t worry, it will be over in a jiffy. I shrieked in pain… I experienced a sharp, shooting pain and she put some black powder there… I came home and cried and cried and cried…”For a long time, Masooma did not understand what had happened to her or why she had been cut. The realisation that she had been so betrayed shattered her. The reasons why khatna is so common in the community shocked her.

“I EXPERIENCED A SHARP, SHOOTING PAIN AND SHE PUT SOME BLACK POWDER THERE…”

Aarefa Johari, a young, articulate journalist is another petitioner. Like most women in the two million-strong Bohra community, Aarefa was cut too. Without consent and without too much thought. Why, she asked herself for a long time. The answer to that question is stark: Tradition is not easy to slay. Slaying young girls is easier.Aarefa Johari, a young journalist, was also cut in her childhood days. She now is among many vocal voices who are taking a fight against the practice.

Aarefa Johari, a young journalist, was also cut in her childhood days. She now is among many vocal voices who are taking a fight against the practice.

Masooma and Aarefa were both cut because their mothers were pressured into taking their daughters to Bhindi Bazaar in Mumbai by older women in the family; either by aunts or mothers-in-law. The beliefs that the clitoral head is ‘unwanted skin’, that it is a ‘source of sin’ that will make them ‘stray’ out of their marriages are reasons that lie at the heart of a practice that predates Islam but thrives amongst Bohras. One woman this reporter spoke to referred to the clitoral head as ‘haraam ki boti’ or immoral lump of flesh.The sad truth to this painful process is the fact that it is a practice being done to women by other women. Most women we spoke with blamed their mothers initially. Till they realised they too were victims of the same mindless tradition. “There was pain and I cried. I was aware that there is a thing called khatna and the main intention is to curb sexual desire… The first target of my anger was my mother,” said Aarefa.

Aarefa, like other women, has had long conversations with her mother who now supports her in her fight against FGM. “When I got it done for my daughter, I did it because it was a custom to be followed,’’ says Aarefa’s mother Sophie Johari. She read an article by a Bohra woman some years later and made Aarefa read it too. “It struck me that I should have thought about it more. I’m a science student. I really should have thought about it,’’ says Sophie who now lends support to her daughter’s campaign on Facebook.

“I DID IT FOR MY DAUGHTER BECAUSE I WAS TOLD IT IS A CUSTOM. THERE WAS NO ILL INTENTION.”

Unlike Aarefa, Zehra Patwa, a 45-year-old US-based Technology Project Manager found out only a year ago that her most private parts had been tampered with. She had dealt with the childhood trauma by just blocking it out completely, which psychologists say is common.

For the past year, Zehra has been struggling with questions flooding her mind. “I wasn’t aware this is happening in my community. A year ago, someone from my family spoke about it publicly. Lack of understanding of why it’s done bothers me the most. It goes against everything I know about my community which is educated, progressive, modern,’’ she says. She feels violated and says, “There is no openness about it. We don’t know what was done. Was it a nick, a big cut, what was it?”

https://youtu.be/Z8TuJyHw7d4

The aunt, like Zehra, fails to understand the dichotomy between the regressive practice in an otherwise progressive community. Bohra girls are educated and have travelled the world. Shaheeda Kirtane, a researcher in public health and policy, was protected by her mother, Dilshad Tavawalla, afamily and child protection lawyer based in Canada.

She was lucky to escape being put under the knife and has joined the fight against FGM to try and stop her community from betraying its daughters. “I’m not able to explain to myself. It’s so ingrained in culture. They unquestioningly do it to be part of the community. If you openly declare you won’t do it, the backlash is considerable and many just won’t do business with you,’’ she says.

The fight is picking up slowly. A conviction in Australia in November, where a nurse and a mother are set to go to jail has led to chatter within the community and a decree from the Sydney Jamaat advising all Bohras against being in contempt of the country’s law. Insia and Mariya are part ofSahiyo, an NGO speaking to community members through an ‘each one, reach one’ campaign that is also being promoted on the Speak Out on FGM Facebook page. Masooma and Aarefa plan to finally ask for a ban when they take their petition to the ministries of women and child development, law and health.

Family and child protection lawyer Tavawalla views khatna as a gross violation because children are not able to protect themselves. “Laws play a very essential role in bringing about social change. Gender reforms are slow and hard-fought, even more so when they involve ancient, archaic and cultural practices of a secretive and closed community like the Dawoodi Bohras,’’ she says.

Women from the community agree. The secrecy comes wrapped in deceit and betrayal. And a grave form of abuse on young minds and bodies.

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21 thoughts on “INDIA’S DARK SECRET

      1. I know Kruti, it’s all cruel but it’s my response to those who say it’s necessary. I have posted on this evil culture before as people have tried to do this in my country too citing their culture. It’s another attempt by men to stamp ownership on a woman. Of course it doesn’t do that, it just mutilates them and possibly removes a way of a woman sharing in the pleasure of lovemaking. I hate it when these practices are cited as Religious as there’s no reason for it but to carry on just because it’s a custom angers and sickens me.
        No woman should accept this for her own daughter/granddaughter. No man should ask it. Would they accept mutilation in order not to stray while married?
        xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  1. I don’t like the post because I like what happens here… I think you know. It made me cry what I read, Kruti! I don’t understand why people are so cruel. It has nothing to do with religion…nothing! I don’t get that. I did not know that this is practiced in India too.

  2. Avery tough read. It’s awful that such stuff still happens, particularly when the population that does it is educated. Hopefully it ends very soon and current generation of mothers refuse to let this happen to their daughters.

  3. I did my small part by signing the petition. We can at least do this much to support the cause.
    This inhuman act should be banned.absolutely cruel and excruciating thing. And unnecessary. Who are they to do it. My heart aches to hear this. I’m with those victims to fight back .

  4. So sad and tragic to see what is done in the “name of religion” but truly it is all about power and control. Even in “civilized” corners of the world, women and children are still viewed as property instead of humans who deserve a voice in their future. TY for sharing this barbaric custom borne out of ignorance and the misuse of so called “religious justifications” for such cruel and inhuman mutilation assaults. The more Light shown upon this, the better it will be to fight against such inhumanity. As a Father and Brother, I cannot imagine the psychological and physical damage for a young girl growing unto womanhood with memories of such a heinous assault. Pray for more attention and action to stop these assaults.

      1. Sadly there’s a lot of bad old customs that have been passed down in the less educated portions of countries. We still have some areas within the US that hide old customs that would be unthinkable in this 21st century. Ignorance and abject poverty should have been cured 50-60 years ago here, but for greed, selfishness, and fear of government officials. We may never eradicate Evil, but we also can’t quit trying to root it out and put a spotlight on it so it can’t hide in the shadows of ignorance and grow stronger each day either. We still foster and reward laziness in our democratic system here. Both parties are afraid if the electorate gets educated, career politicians will be a thing of the past. I’m constantly working to make sure parties are a thing of the past and people vote for the best candidate not follow a party or cult. It seems to be a neverending battle to find an honest and compassionate politician that is strong enough to resist quick money and power. But I won’t give up. Not my nature. Not sure if it’s my hard head or maybe I’m not smart enough to see I can’t win…………………….. I still believe in miracles and hope.
        👀 ♥ * ͜ * ♥ 👀

  5. This is just so sad, and scary that it happens in India… The home of the Kama Sutra. Obviously it is sinethi g that was devised many generations ago by power hungry males,, who wanted to control their women in every way, and this was one way… To curb their desires so they wouldn’t stray… Disgusting…
    Thank you for bringing this to our attention Kruti.

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