Will India ever ban Female Circumcision like Sudan?

Kakali Das

Female genital mutilation refers to any procedure involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or non-cultural or other non-medical reasons. An estimated 200 million girls and women alive are believed to have been subjected to female circumcision –habituating predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Arab states, alongside some select countries, in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. While the exact origin of this practise remains unclear, some scholars have proposed Ancient Egypt (present day Sudan and Egypt) as its site of origin, noting the discovery of circumcised mummies from 5th Century BC. For the region where female circumcision originated, the practice surfaces from the theories behind the ‘marriageability’ of a woman, emphasizing the ideologies of “virginity, purity and sexual restraint” –by reducing sexual pleasure of the girls and women in-order to ‘protect’ them. In the highly structured social framework of the ancient Egyptian empires, female genital mutilation was implemented as a means of perpetuating inequality in between the classes –with families cutting young girls and women –signifying their commitment to the wealthy, polygamous men in the society.

With the news of Sudan government criminalising and putting a ban on the practice of female genital mutilation in the country, while making it punishable by three years in Jail, the question that arises is “Has female genital mutilation banned in India?” Although there has been a global trend towards banning the practice, however, according to an UNICEF report carried out in 29 countries, the practise is still being widely carried out. In India, this practice is known as ‘Khatna’ or ‘Khafz’ in the Muslim Bohra community, mostly located in Maharashtra and Gujarat –doesn’t have any law in India banning it. The Muslim Bohra community is spread over the western cities of India, Pakistan, Yemen, East Africa and some strewn parts of Australia. Because of the recent ban on these abhorring practises in Australia and USA, India has become a hub for female circumcision. Just weeks after the Ministry of Women and Child Development in Dec, 2017 reported that there’s no official data to support the existence of female genital mutilation in the country, there were reports of 75% incidents across the Bohra Muslim Community.

“We are really flummoxed that after all that, the ministry should now say this”, said Masooma Ranalvi, a survivor of the Bohra community, who has spearheaded a campaign, SPEAK OUT, to end this hostile practice. “There is no official data because it’s a secret practice but hundreds have spoken about it publicly and signed petitions recently”, Ranalvi said after the lukewarm response of the government against it.

 “My mum told me that a lady would come to remove some extra skin from down there. When the day came, my great-grandmother was holding me tight on her bed,” a 26-year-old law student cited in the report, recalling how she had been cut at the age of seven. She remembers “sitting on the toilet, crying of unbearable pain, too scared to even pee”. Her mother had reassured her that “everyone in the building has undergone this procedure”, referring to the blocks of flats in Byculla, in the heart of Mumbai, where the Bohra Muslim community has lived for decades.

The Bohra community in India has been very tight-lipped about the practice –kept it a secret –claimed it to be ‘a mild form of circumcision’ rather than a proper mutilation. The problem, however, lies in the fact that both men and women abide by the practice while considering it as a social, cultural and religious norm. Since the concept of ‘patriarchy’ is so vividly rampant in a country like India, women lack control on their own body and continue affecting their own bodies with no voice or consent of their own. They are nothing but hostages of the cult and their captors. There is a condition named “Stockholm Syndrome” where hostages develop a psychological alliance or emotional bond with the captors. Hence, ever since three Bohras in USA were arrested on charges of mutilation, several Bohra women have taken a stand on social media to defend it –claims that it is done to increase sexual stimulation and that it is ‘scientifically’ and ‘medically’ beneficial –helps maintaining genital hygiene. Infact, several Bohras refer to the clitoris as “haram ni boti” or sinful lump of flesh.  One of the biggest reasons why Bohras might not take a public public stand against Khatna or bindly follow the practice is the fear of the Syedna, the religious leader of the Bohra who advocate Khatna as a ‘religious purity’ –questioning or disobeying him results in social boycott. In fact, to further weaken the fight of the activists against female genital mutilation in India, “The Dawoodi Bohra Women For Religious Freedom”, a group of female Khatna supporters appealed for the practice to be protected. This has resulted in the apex court of India further delaying the verdict on the ban of this practice in India by directing it to a “five-judge bench”, which still remains to be formed.

When Priya Goswami, a filmmaker was researching for her 2012 documentary “A Pinch of Skin”, a woman teacher from a Bohra religious institutions precisely told her that the purpose behind this practise is to curb a girl’s “sexual pleasure” to prevent her from premarital affairs. National Award winner, Priya Goswami’s second film, “Just a small nick or cut they say…”, 2016, produced by Love Matters India, raised the voices against khatna (female genital mutilation) even vociferously. Her focus was to prove that this practise is a widely observed phenomenon in India and many parts of Asia, which gets overshadowed by the belief that it is an ‘African problem’ –she wanted to put in on the map more prominently.

Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, professor of Islamic Studies at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, explained that female circumcision “is not based in Islam and it’s performed solely among the Dawoodi Bohra community”

Referring to the new Sudan government’s ban on this practice, “The law will help protect girls from this barbaric practice and enable them to live in dignity”, said Salma Ismail, a spokeswoman of Khartoum for the United Nations Children’s Fund. “And it will help mothers who didn’t want to cut their girls, but felt they had no choice to say ‘no’ because now, there are consequences.”

Activists in India have seen a change at the grassroots level with several Bohra women and men by taking a personal stand against Khatna by refusing to cut their daughters.

To conclude, it has been strongly evident that female genital mutilation in India is not illegal and not currently on UN’s list of most affected countries by it, although there have been incidents from which campaigners estimate that up-to three-quarters of Bohra girls are lacerated. Ultimately, for khatna to end we need an intervention across sectors –the government, the law and the law enforcers need to be sensitized about it. Now that Sudan’s new government has banned Female Circumcision in their country and that the news has been widely spread across the globe, women in India too may unveil the truths and talk about the practise and their experiences broadly while dismissing it being a taboo.

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