An online petition against female circumcision has gathered increasing momentum and support from this community as it looks to ban this traumatic practice
By Neeta Kolhatkar in Mumbai
The stories are the same—memories of horror, trauma and fear that last a lifetime. Female genital mutilation (FGM), a ritual thought to be prevalent only in Muslim-dominated countries, is practiced in India too among the Bohra community. Called khatna or female circumcision, it entails taking preteen girls to professional cutters. Usually, they are forcibly taken for this ritual by older female members of the family, mostly grandmothers or mothers.
However, a new generation of Bohra women, led by sisters Masooma and Ummul Ranalvi, has now taken a bold stand against this violent practice. They started an online petition in December 2015 to spread the word against it and within 48 hours, received overwhelming support with over 1,800 signatures. This gave the sisters enough courage to start a WhatsApp group which would give a voice to women who were too scared to come out in the open but want to support their cause.
They reached out to Bohra women across India—Nasik, Udaipur, Nagpur and Pune—and also abroad in Canada, the US and the UK. Each shared their experiences, with young girls narrating the trauma their mothers went through.
“We started an online petition in 2015. We first discussed it in a group and began work on it. We have not made Sayedhna (their spiritual head) a respondent, because in 2011 when a petition was addressed to him, he did not even give us a hearing,” said Masooma.
The United Nations passed a resolution in 2012 calling on nations to eliminate FGM, which was signed by 192 countries. “We will wait to build up momentum and become a significant group before approaching the authorities,” said Masooma. “We have highlighted in our petition that it is not a religious issue. We have said that it is not all Muslims who follow this tradition of khatna, but only the Bohras. We strongly believe it is a violation of human rights and child rights.”
Masooma first wrote about her chilling experience in a blog, scared that if it appeared in mainstream media initially, it would not be taken in the right spirit. “Sadly, the Bohra community follows faith blindly and as in the case of FGM, even crudely,” revealed Masooma. Her blog was well-received, both within her family and the community, as it was a catharsis of sorts for women who could relate to this painful tradition. “She had written it so well that it was vivid for all of us. Many women empathized with Masooma,” said her elder sister, Ummul.
While it brought back many haunting memories for Bohra women, what is shocking is that older women of the community still follow the practice of FGM. As the Ranalvi sisters and other Bohra women say, it is a diktat of the Sayedhna that is followed by all.
Ummul recalled the trauma: “My grandmother simply told us that we had to go with her and we tagged along. I was taken to a dilapidated building close to Bhendi Bazar. A lady was waiting in a dingy room where only a curtain was drawn. Within no time, the khatna was done as there is a forcible insertion of a blunt instrument without anesthesia. It is usually done between 3-5 pm when the men of the house are not around. I still recall the blood, pain and trauma.” The girls who are taken for this ritual are usually very young. “I was seven years. One feels the loss of innocence and of being let down by one’s grandmother, who is supposed to be someone who does no wrong. Instead, she is the one who makes the grandchild go through such trauma,” said Ummul shuddering.
While awareness is growing about this inhuman practice and more and more Bohras don’t want their children to undergo khatna, many don’t want speak of it. “I would prefer being anonymous, as my family is related to the high priest’s family. They are very powerful people. They have the power of money and you can’t do anything. The high priest and his core advisors have a junior priest in every area who is supposed to be an informer. He is expected to know everything and goes to the Sayedhna with information,” said a Bohra woman. She said she hadn’t put her daughter through this, despite her mother-in-law’s insistence, as her husband supported her.
Interestingly, while some Bohra men are not aware of this tradition, others are silent spectators while many are scared of the way the system runs in their community. “Recently, a 65-year-old man told us his niece was put through the khatna. It is heartening that men are supporting us. This is a catharsis for them too,” said Masooma.
This coming out has been primarily due to an Australian case where an 11-year-old girl, Emma, was forced to undergo FGM in western Sydney. Her mother was convicted in February 2015.
The Ranalvi sisters believe this is the right time for India to address this issue. “We have two demands — one is to bring a law to ban it and the second is to spread awareness. We will take this petition to politicians as we want ministries to help eradicate this tradition,” asserted Masooma. “I am surprised that I am getting such support online, so maybe it is the right time to bring this issue out in the open.”
Hopefully, this practice may die a natural death, something that Bohra women quietly wish for.
(This article features in India Legal March 31 issue)