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FGM in the Bohra Communities of India and Pakistan

June 30, 2017

The practice of female genital mutilation in India and Pakistan remains little known – not least because the Bohra communities which continue with it insist on silence about what they call ‘Khatna’ (male or female ‘circumcision’) or ‘Khafz’ (explicitly the female version). But slowly this harmful traditional practice, like child and early ‘marriage’ (licensed rape of a minor) in wider South Asian societies, is being exposed.

Dawoodi Bohras against FGM
FGM is practised by all Bohra sects but it is Dawoodis, originating in a Shiite branch of Islam based in Gujarat, who are leading the campaigns to end FGM around the world.  Perhaps half a million Indian women and girls are at risk – as are also some in Pakistan.

Dawoodi Bohra clinicians in the USA (here and here) and in Australia have recently been arrested and charged with performing FGM, whilst Bohra FGM survivors in India and the USA – including individuals in the WeSpeakOut (formerly Speak Out On FGM) and Sahiyo organisations, formed in 2015 by survivors such as Mubina Jamdar, Zehra Patwa and Mariya Taher, and in Canada, Australia and elsewhere – have raised awareness of this practice.

Activists in Pakistan, amongst them the Blue Veins organisation led by Qamar Naseem, also campaign against FGM and other gendered violence.

Activists have also petitioned the Indian Government to make FGM illegal in that country; and as in other cases around the world, this legal approach is not uniformly welcomed, but it is surely necessary?

So now we have a situation in which, thanks to determined EndFGM activists, the previously well-obscured issue of FGM in parts of India and Pakistan has become global knowledge – as have the parallel facts in other parts of the Middle-East and South-East Asia.

Thus we see media reports of the occurrence of FGM in India and, very worryingly, also of its medicalization, both in that country and (above) in Indian diaspora locations, as also in Pakistan: one rather puzzling aspect of Bohra adherence to FGM is that there is also an emphasis for men and women alike on education and professions such as medicine and the law, yet FGM continues.

Nonetheless, a Guide to Eliminating the FGM Practice in India has been produced by Indira Jaising and colleagues of the Lawyers Collective and Masooma Ranalvi of WeSpeakOut (published March 2017).  In Pakistan Blue Veins, as a partner of SafeWorld for Women, conducts continuing programmes to challenge harmful traditional practices, emphasising the necessity to engage men as well as women in these activities.

Quietly continuing with FGM?
But progress towards making FGM history is slow, especially in societies where silence is the order of the day. One leader who continues to promote FGM is the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq, Dr Syedna Mufaddal Salfuddin, head of the Dawoodi Bohras in Mumbai, who says that FGM (Khatfz) must be carried out unless prohibited by national law.  And even then, activists suggest, despite an official statement (from his office, 6 June 2016), he actually means ‘do it anyway, but do it quietly’.  Here are quotations from the (translated) text of his recent sermon:

“And whoever, whatever the world wants to do, we, we should keep our things strong, we should stay firm, keep our feet firm, we should not be knocked, that they say this, whatever they say, even the big sovereign States, whatever it is they say, but if it makes any difference to our things, then we are not prepared to understand! Whoever it may then be, whoever it is, whoever it is in the world, it can never make a difference to us any day. We are not prepared to even talk to them.
What can they say to us! That if you do this, it is not right, – I will not go into detail about what I am saying, – they say that this is not right, you should not do it. What! Who are you to teach us!  He needs to understand, they all need to understand, that alcohol, which is the enemy of intellect, why do you not do it to that. Why do you not prohibit those who drink alcohol, prohibit those who smoke cigarettes, why do you not tell them, those who do adultery, you do not tell them!  They do these bad deeds, is there any humanity in them. It is such a bad act. They fall from humanity. And they come to tell us, that we do this!
The procedure, the procedure, the procedure has to happen! If it is a man, then it is right, it is openly, and if it is a woman then discretely but the deed must be done. You understand what I am trying to talk about, you understand properly about. In the man it is open, in women it is discrete, but the procedure must be done! Whoever it is, whoever says it.
But we will do according to our shariat says, according to the Prophet has said, the Prophet will never say anything against humanity. He will only say that in which there is benefit. Our Imams and our Dais will only say that, in which there is benefit and in which there is good. In terms of bodily things and the soul.  That which benefits the body, apart from that won’t be.
The Prophet has said it. Who are these people to tell us! That you do this. That this is harmful! Never mind what they say! If necessary then tell them whatever is needed, that we are not scared of anyone!”

Make FGM illegal
Pressure is being applied to make FGM illegal under Indian law (though, as the lawyer Linda Weil-Curiel successfully established in France, it must surely already be illegal anyway, since it is non-consensual and assault?). The Indian government minister Maneka Gandhi gave a commitment to bring about anti-FGM legislation, but has since backed off under pressure from (women) traditionalists and the perhaps from the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who has sought common beneficial cause in economic and financial matters, despite differences across the Hindu – Muslim divide.

Campaigners hope that judiciously curated international pressure might be helpful in persuading Ms Gandhi to re-energise her ambition to make FGM history.

We each have our own public and private contacts, and sometimes discretion will procure more progress than overt demands.  But on the other hand, if there is one thing to be learnt from anti-FGM programmes over the past few years, it is this:

What people don’t know about, or perhaps know about but don’t realise the horror of, will more likely continue. The unrelenting light of day however delivers change, perhaps with backlash on the way; but bringing into vision what was previously hidden will have effect.

There is a tipping point, a time when public opinion consolidates around what is for the good and positive.  The media and political leaders can do much to speed up this process, speaking out for progress to end FGM, Khatna (or ‘cutting‘, whatever euphemism you will).  Every voice helps in securing the determination that FGM must stop.

FGM in India and Pakistan has persisted in the cloak of silence for centuries.  We must speak out now for those, the children, the vulnerable women, who have no voice.

. . . . .

This blog post is written in parallel with a similar one more specifically focused on Indian, UK and USA lobbying and political considerations, entitled FGM (Khatna / Khafz) Persists In Bohra India – UK Politicians Can Help To Stop It


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This NoFGM website is owned and edited by Hilary Burrage, an authority on female genital mutilation (FGM).  Hilary’s introduction and general information about FGM can be found here, or for a more detailed, referenced discussion of FGM, you may like also to read her post Female Genital Mutilation: An Introduction To The Issues, And Suggested Reading and see her two books on this subject:

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).   Contents and reviews  here.
FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).   Contents and reviews  here.


One Comment leave one →
  1. June 30, 2017 7:49 pm

    Tobe Levin adds: Among the ways people can help raise awareness is by showing A Pinch of Skin (on FGM among Bohra Muslims). Hosted by Modern Abolitionist, I was fortunate to dialogue with the producers via Skype in Studio 294 in Frankfurt am Main on 20 January 2017.

    Facebook page: A Pinch of Skin

    Liked by 1 person

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