The Stories Of Change

‘I Underwent Genital Mutilation Right in the Heart of Mumbai City’

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the practice we thought didn’t happen in India anymore or happened in the lesser developed areas of the country. But, young girls of the Bohra community are regularly being snipped in the heart of Mumbai. Bohra Sisters speak up against the FGM.

“At the age of seven, I was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Mumbai, in a most unhygienic and clandestine manner. The shock and trauma of that day are still with me,” said Masooma Ranalvi, an activist and founder of We Speak Out, an organization who is running a fight against FGM in India.

 Masooma is not the only one. Thousands of girls in the Muslim Bohra community still undergo FGM. The trauma lingers with them for life. 

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

FGM has no health benefits, in fact, it harms girls and women in many ways. | Photo: Sahiyo

FGM is one of the darkest secrets in modern India is FGM. This cruel practice involves partial or complete removal of the external genitalia young girls. 

The practice is done to all the girls in the community when they turn seven without their consent. The alleged reason for this tradition is to curb the sexual drive of women and ‘control’ them. Also called Khatna, the procedure is performed secretly by midwives or old women of the community.

They tie the girls to a bed and take off their pants and cut the clitoris part of the woman by a sharp blade, knife without anaesthesia.

“FGM has no health benefits, in fact, it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies,” said Masooma. 

Why is FGM practiced?

Girls who have not undergone FGM are considered as unclean and are not allowed to handle food or water. 

As per the traditions of the Bohra community, a girl is not considered as an adult unless she undergoes FGM. Female external genitalia is said to be ‘unsightly’ and ‘dirty’. Girls who have not undergone FGM are considered as unclean and are not allowed to handle food or water. FGM is practiced mostly to reduce sexual desire and to lessen temptations to have premarital sex as women’s virginity is an obligation for marriage and family’s honour. 

These procedures can cause severe bleeding, infections, painful urination, menstrual problems, sexual problems, complications during childbirth and as well as physiological problems according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Zehra Patwa, victim and co-founder of We Speak Out said: “I never knew that I had been cut until I was 42. My father shared a video with my husband in which one of my cousins spoke about her Khatna for a social cause. It was pretty shocking and I spoke to my mother about it and she said that yeah it was done to me as well. I have no recollection of that day. I was angry at my mother for doing this to me.”

“I was born in the UK. We had been to India when I was seven for a family holiday, at that time in Pune my maternal aunt had taken me to a place where the Khatna was done. My mother says she couldn’t watch me in pain and she had sent my aunt with me,” Zehra added.

What does the government say?

Photo: WeSpeakOut

In an ongoing case at the Supreme Court, the judges on the bench have made remarks stating that FGM/Khafz prima facie appears to be a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution, and the bodily integrity of the child. The case has now been referred to a Constitution Bench and is pending before the Court.

The Attorney General, on behalf of the government, has argued in Court that FGM/Khafz is already a crime under existing laws, punishable with seeven years’ imprisonment.

The Minister for Women and Child Development, Mrs. Maneka Gandhi had asked the religious head of the Bohra community to take measures to put an end to the practice.

It is time for the government to back up its words with concrete action. It cannot wait for the Supreme Court to issue a verdict. The Government has the responsibility to protect girls from being the victims of this horrific practice. There is a need to ensure this human rights violation does not continue to take place even after it has publicly recognized as a criminal offence under the law.

A lifelong trauma

Photo: WeSpeakOut

Samina, a victim said: “Khatna, for me, had panned out like this. My mother didn’t trick me into believing I was going for a birthday party or someone was going to buy me a lollipop, I was too smart for that. She told me that everyone in the building had undergone this procedure and it had been long due. I was already seven, really old. She told me that a lady would come home, and just remove some extra skin from down there. I clearly remember constantly asking her why was it even necessary, but I don’t remember what she said to convince me. Then the day came, my great grandmother was holding me down on her bed. The Mullani first cleaned the area with cotton, she did it with no care. Cut to, sitting on the toilet seat, crying of unbearable pain, too scared to even pee.”

Yasmin, another victim recalled her horrific memory. She was seven when she was taken to her relative’s place. 

 “I was wearing a sky blue color frock (my fav) and white pants/pyjamas in some chawl in Bhendi Baazar (the Bohri moholla). I was very happy as I loved to meet new people,” she recalled.

But her excitement soon turned into a trauma that still haunts her.

“I was lying down, my frock was held up, then I don’t remember anything. Just that there was intense pain as I walked back and I was told to keep myself clean, using Dettol water for istinja (wash after urination). I cried a lot,” Yasmin added.

The trauma affected her sexual performance as she grew older. She faced both mental and physical torture and the lingering impact of this impact followed her even after she got married to her boyfriend. 

According to a study, approximately 33 percent of the women subjected to FGM/Khafz had negatively impacted their sexual life. Low sex drive, inability to feel sexual pleasure, difficulty trusting sexual partners, and oversensitivity in the clitoral area were some of the problems identified by several women.

A few baby steps towards change

March for women’s right in New Delhi, India. | Photo: Manish Swarup

A few organizations and women have taken bold steps to come out with their stories in a hope to put an end to this tradition. SAHIYO, an organization educates people about the practice through storytelling. Another initiative, We Speak Out was formed in 2015 to provide women with a platform to come forward and speak about khatna/FGM in the Bohra Community.

Hundreds of women have used We Speak Out’s help to talks about the issues they are facing due to FGM. Together, they are fighting against the harmful practice internationally.

“I initiated the movement We Speak Out on FGM in late 2015. The case against three Bohras in Australia hit home the realisation that FGM exists and is very much thriving in the Bohra community in India as well as overseas,” Masooma said. 

She then went on to write a blog for a leading media house in India, which inspired many women to come forward and empathise with her. This support got Masooma to start an initiative where women could speak about their concerns and campaign for their rights. 

A large collective of Women’s Rights organisations came together this year to plan and celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March 2018. Women marched together in Delhi from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar to highlight the issues of women, which also included Female gentile mutilation ( FGM). We Speak Out, represented by Masooma Ranalvi, marched alongside hundreds of women and raised the demand to outlaw FGM in India.

What do women demand?

The Bohra Women | Photo: We Speak Out

A petition is filed against the practice of Khatna. A collective of women from the community has come forward to speak out and seek justice. The practice is still questionable in India and there are some demands from the Bohra sisters:

  • The government must collect national-level official statistics estimating the prevalence of FGM/Khafz across the country.
  • The Indian Government should pass a separate law that bans FGM/Khafz in India, and makes it a criminal offence for anyone who performs the procedure, aids, propagates, abets or procures any person to carry FGM/Khafz.
  • The law should recognize FGM/Khafz as a human rights violation, a form of gender-based violence, and child abuse. It should prioritise prevention and awareness generation measures.
  • Until a separate law is passed on FGM/Khafz, proactive measures should be taken to prosecute instances of FGM/Khafz as criminal offences of hurt, and grievous hurt, under sections 319 to 325 of the Indian Penal Code. However, existing laws fail to recognize FGM/Khafz as a systematic act of violence imposed as a norm, which is why a stand-alone law dealing with this issue is necessary.
  • The central and respective state governments must issue appropriate orders/directives/guidelines to the police in all states, which provide education and information to law enforcement officials on the existence and effects of FGM/Khafz in India, the applicability of existing criminal laws, and the need to prosecute these offences.
  • The government should immediately issue guidelines and advisories to all health professionals, noting that FGM/Khafz is a crime under existing laws, and direct them not to carry out the procedure.
Masooma at a gender policy conference. | Photo: We Speak Out

“It didn’t affect me much as I grew old. But, all the women I haven spoken with have experienced some kind of lasting trauma after being cut. Women from our community came together and formed We Speak Out to create awareness among people about the issue and educate them,” said Zehra Patwa.

There are many people who still follow FGM in India and it is difficult to convince them.

There are also people who don’t want their daughters to go through the pain they had gone through. There are also women who have not been cut. The religious sector says that since boys are cut, girls have to go through it too. 

“The psychological trauma of FGM never left me. Almost 40 years later I continue to feel anger and helplessness at being subject to the practice. I firmly believe that FGM is a severe form of violence against a child and a woman. It is a deep-rooted form of patriarchy which seeks to control a woman and her sexuality,” said Masooma.

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Chaithra Srinivas

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