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Nearly one in three Bohra women have been mutilated, but why is it never discussed?

By Maariyah Siddiqui for Twocircles.net

It is dark and quiet. The glass window at the higher end of the ceiling lets escape long strands of light running diagonally to the ground. The floor is damp and a faint murmur echoes through the high walls. A stream of red flowing towards the drain can be seen from the corner of her eyes when she tries to lift her head up and register what had just happened.

It is the most memorable day for her family, and the most unforgettable one for Zainab (name changed).

Zainab was only thirteen years old when she was lured into getting a bag full of her favourite chocolates by her aunt and was taken to a desolate building in the lazier half of a summer afternoon. Her mother had promised her that she would be the one taking her back home. She did.

Wrapped in a dark blanket that cloaked Zainab’s slender arms and covered the length of her hair plaited till her lower back, her mother made her sit in a cab parked outside the narrow lane. Tears welling up her eyes, she could only respond with a diffident silence to her mother’s continuous consoling, “It’s okay child. It happens to all of us.”

For the next few hours at home, Zainab was in excruciating pain and she could only stare in disbelief at the cotton pyjamas she was given to wear by her aunt who took her for the ceremonial ritual earlier in the day. She looked at the walls of her room in pink, but the height of these walls only reminded her of those in the apartment she had visited with her aunt, and the colour represented only a faint shade of the stream she saw flowing towards the drain earlier in the day.

“Have you slept sweetheart?” inquired her mother.

Teary-eyed Zainab who couldn’t even move her legs, buried herself deeper inside the blanket as her mother switched the lights off and left the room.

‘Khatna’ or female genital mutilation (FGM) is an age-old practice among the Dawoodi Bohra community in India. Believed to be a Shia Muslim sect who migrated from Yemen to India in the 12th Century, the Dawoodi Bohra community is settled in maximum concentration in West Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. With a present population of about 1 million, they are scattered almost in all parts of the country.

The Bohra practice of FGM involves partial or complete removal of the clitoris, clinically known as Type-I FGM. The ceremonial cut is performed clandestinely when a girl reaches puberty. The act is often done in unhygienic conditions by untrained midwives, sharp razor blades and without anaesthesia. Normally, women from lower economic strata undertake the job.

Zainab expresses that the incident has left her a psychological and mental scar, even though it has been eleven years since the incident took place. What troubles her is recalling the sight minutes before she was cut.

“My aunt handed me a packet of gems and asked me to sit quietly. She went inside a door and came out with two more ladies I didn’t know.”

While she strolled around the dark room looking at the geometrical patterns on the long curtains across the windows, she waited anxiously for her mother. Within moments, her aunt could be seen fetching cotton balls and a box of first aid as the two ladies began holding Zainab tightly by her arms.

Next, she remembers feeling a shooting pain and her inconsolable wailing.

The stream of red flashes bright in front of her eyes as she recalls the horror of that day. It is still clear on her mind.

Her mother had arrived to take her back home as promised, but she was sitting at the other corner, being consoled by her aunt who said, “It’s alright, she will be fine.”

Zainab went through a painful experience – physically, emotionally and mentally in the following years after she was cut. She complained of recurrent pain and infections in her pubic area, difficulty in urine passage and chronic pain during her menstrual cycle. Due to the fear of social exclusion, she couldn’t discuss it with her non-Bohra friends. She wasn’t allowed to see a doctor for the same reason.

Her complaints gradually ended but the wound on her mind stayed. She considers the memory of that day worse than any of the nightmares she has ever had in her twenty-four years of life.

FGM is widely practised in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and within many ethnic communities around the world. According to a 2016 study by UNICEF, an estimated 200 million women in 30 countries are said to have undergone the custom. Among the 30 countries, 27 are African while other 3 are Indonesia, Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and Yemen.

FGM has no grounding in Islam but in fact, the practice finds its roots in the pre-Islamic era known as the ‘Jahiliyyah’ or Age of Ignorance, as regarded by Islamic scholars. It is deep-rooted in gender-unequal societies that aim to keep a woman’s chastity, purity and beauty under the guardianship of the patriarchal head.

The Bohra Muslim belief associated with FGM is that, on attaining puberty, the clitoral hood of a girl becomes a piece of ‘unwanted flesh’ that might heighten their sexual desires and drive them into acts that would result in them being ostracised from their community. Cutting off the piece of ‘unwanted flesh’ would keep their libido in control.

Zainab reveals how her friends got cut when they were only eleven, and one even before she was ten. “It depends on the onset of puberty and differs from girl to girl”, says Zainab.

Presently, there is no law in India against FGM nor the health benefits of the process have been identified of late. In fact, a variety of infections are suggested by medical experts to have been caused due to FGM done in unsuitable conditions: inability to conceive, development of cysts, irregular menstrual cycles, chronic pain in the pubic region, urinary bladder infection, etc.

In 2007, the Al-Azhar Supreme Court of Islamic Research in Cairo had ruled that FGM had “no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions.”

Zainab feels more women from the community need to speak out. “What is shameful is that women get this act done by women themselves, and no one speaks up.”

An online survey against FGM in Bohra community estimates that about 80% Bohra women in the US, UK and Australia have been subjected to the procedure. About 31% of Indian Bohra women have suffered the same fate.

“It’s a way of stopping you from bringing dishonour to your family and community. If you refuse, you will be disowned”, says Zainab.

She further discusses how activists like Masooma Ranalvi, Aarefa Johari and others have launched an online petition to urge more women to voice their dissent and gather support in favour of declaring FGM in India an act punishable by law.

Prominent figures from the Bohra community have recently joined in through an online campaign ‘Sahiyo’, meaning ‘female friend.’ Through the website, women from the community share their stories and extend support to those who are forced to undergo FGM. The founders aim to lobby support for officially banning the practice.

The author is a student of M.A in Convergent Journalism at AJ Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi