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