A Cutting Tradition
It has been 53 years since she was subjected to the agony. But as Zenab Bano, a retired political science professor in Udaipur, recounts the horror of that day, the wound is laid bare all over again—still raw, still unhealed. Barely seven years old then, she was told to go with her friend and her grandmother to a function for children at the end of which she would get a gift. “Before I realised what was happening, there was this woman pulling down my undergarment,” she says. “I had no idea what she was doing. It hurt a lot and I cried.” What Bano describes is the female circumcision ritual called khatna that most Bohra Muslim girls in India had to go through then. And which is still a rite of passage for many even today.
Khatna is a tradition the Bohras trace back to their origins in Africa, one they continue with because they see this as an attempt to stay true to their faith. However, most Bohra women and men even today would rather keep this practice a secret rather than question a custom that is now universally seen as a gross violation of a woman’s body.
“There has to be zero tolerance for something downright degrading like this,” says Tasleem. “One can argue that there are certain health benefits to male circumcision, but for women there is nothing but pain. In fact, it’s pure gender bias because it’s meant to suppress a girl’s sexual desire (see info box). You don’t really castrate a man, do you? He can go on raping, that’s fine, but a woman must be under control.”
Tasleem herself was lucky to have had parents who spared her the pain and indignity, something her daughter can also thank Tasleem for. Very few Bohras have signed up so far for Tasleem’s campaign; most who have are non-Bohra Muslims and Hindus. It is an uphill task, for it’s not just conservative women who force circumcision on their daughters but, in at least one instance according to Tasleem, even a liberal woman based in Dubai, who even as she sends her daughter to an international school chose to bring her to Mumbai to be circumcised.
When contacted by Outlook, Quresh Ragib, who handles public relations at the high priest’s office, flatly refused to discuss Tasleem’s petition. “I am not interested in discussing this non-issue. The real reason behind this petition is propaganda. They are just using you like tissue paper,” he said.
But even as some within the community may find the ritual abhorrent, they continue to perpetuate khatna because it guarantees support from the Bohra clergy and members. As one Bohra father put it to Outlook, many parents who choose not to circumcise their girls fear being excommunicated from a community that is closely knit under the influence of its clergy, which supports the practice but doesn’t enforce it directly. Not following traditions, like female circumcision, can also preclude important milestones in the life of a Bohra girl, like misaaq (initiation ceremony into adulthood) and exclusion even after death by not being allowed burial at a communal graveyard. “Who wants to take up a fight with the community?” he asks. “We just lie each time somebody asks us if we have got our two daughters circumcised.”
There seems to be no religious sanction for khatna. “It has nothing to do with Islam,” says Asghar Ali Engineer, “as the Quran doesn’t mention it. There may be some controversy about its mention in the Hadith but the fact is that it is an attempt to suppress sexuality so that women do not go astray.” One invalidated theory supports the idea that the Bohras, who are essentially a trading community and would travel often on long voyages, adopted this practice to prevent their women from having extra-marital affairs in their absence. Another prominent Bohra Muslim and a noted social activist, J.S. Bandukwala, tells Outlook that the practice stopped in his family with his mother. “The family felt it was not needed at all. It’s not mentioned in the Quran and even leads to unhealthy consequences.”
Indeed, more than just an abuse of women’s rights, khatna can also cause medical complications if executed in unhygienic conditions or by an untrained pair of hands wielding the blade. Bano, who is researching abuse of women in south Rajasthan for a project sanctioned by the University Grants Commission, is documenting actual instances where female circumcision did go horribly wrong. This includes a case where a Bohra girl had to be hospitalised in Udaipur a few years back because she had bled excessively after suffering a cut deeper than what was intended. It reminded Bano of the time her childhood friend went through the same trauma.
Because it still tends to get done secretly, even Bano has little idea if conditions have improved at all. “One does not really know if the dais use the same kind of razor blade as in my time, if the blade is new or is it sterilised,” she says. In a paper titled ‘All for Izzat’ that she wrote in 1991, Rehana Ghadially, a retired professor from IIT-Bombay and who suffered the indignity herself, profiled a 75-year-old woman who used a “rusted barber’s razor duly blessed by the clergy” and a small stone to sharpen her razor. But even if it is medically supervised and hygienic these days, it doesn’t make the rationale for female circumcision any more acceptable.
The practice finds mention in a 2009 cable on the Bohra community from the US consulate in Mumbai. Detailing an interaction between six Bohra women and consulate representatives, the women reportedly “affirmed that female circumcision was practised in their community, ordained and supported by the Syedna’s decrees”. Terming the practice “medieval”, the cable (among those made public by Wikileaks) adds that they “acknowledged that for males, the circumcision is for health reasons and that for women the procedure is to curb sexual desire and prevent wives from straying from their husbands”. Neelam Gorhe, a women’s rights advocate and member of the Maharashtra legislative council, is cited in the cable as someone who has come across such cases.
When contacted, Gorhe, also a gynaecologist, did affirm she knew women from “certain western states and a certain section of the society whose clitorises—and not just their tips—had been completely removed.” According to her, the first step in trying to deal with this practice is to acknowledge that it actually happens. “Rather than ban this with force, this has to go along with social transformation and be carried out in a manner that’s participatory and democratic,” she says. Tasleem’s petition, whether successful or not at this stage, may just provide the chance to begin a conversation on the subject.
There’s one aspect to female genital mutilation practised by Bohras that goes untouched in your articles (The Yin, Wounded, Dec 5, and A Rite of Wrongs, Dec 12)—the blind, zombie-like obedience to the Syedna, which allows him to keep within his grasp even the most private aspects of their lives.
Yogi Raj, on e-mail
Thanks for highlighting the hush-hush and taboo subject of female genital mutilation among the Bohras. All Bohra women have to take a stand against this, despite the fear of ostracism. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
Rehana Hoosein, on e-mail
Congrats to Debarshi Dasgupta for his reporting on female genital mutilation among Bohras. Many Bohri women like me want to see an end to this senseless ritual. I hope there’s an outrage in the community and the practice ends. Men too must join women in speaking out against this practice.
Haseena Vahanvaty, Mumbai
Hats off to Outlook for the article on female genital mutilation among Bohras. There’s a need for awareness against this practice and more than anything else, it has to come from within the community.
K.V. Raghuram, Wayanad
How can women be treated so inhumanly and shamelessly just to keep them sexually enslaved? Female genital mutilation among Bohras should stop at once. May God help them see good sense.
Kailash Jain, on e-mail
I trembled on reading about the barbarous practice of female circumcision, carried out by rustic, elderly women, using razor blades, among Bohras. I am at a loss to understand why such a practice is still alive.
M. Rama Krishna, Kakinada
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin is 52nd Dai-Al-Mutlaq (Sole Summoner) of Islam-Shia-Ismaili-Mustali-Taiyyeb Sect of Islam and has completed 900 hundred years.
Tasleem should understand that current Syedna follows the same religious practise that has been followed by previous 51 Syedna from Yemen and India. 1st Sydena was appointed in Yemen by 21st Imam Grand son of Mohammed Prophet(PBUH) hence this ritual has direct link to grand son of Prophet and being 21st Imam he also ordains the same practise what his Great Grand father has premitted.
Also FGM has been accepted by Prophet himself and his grand sons.
hadees says Circumcision is obligatory for men, and it is an honour for women
How circumcision is to be performed is mentioned in the hadith narrated by Umm ‘Atiyah, may Allah be pleased with her, according to which a woman used to perform circumcisions in Madinah. The Prophet (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon Him) told her: "Do not abuse (i.e. do not go to extremes in circumcising); that is better for the woman and more liked by her husband.
What taslem has done that she has framed Female Circumsion as Female genital mutilation which carries dark tone in itself.
If we go with the argument then Male circumsion is also not mentioned in Quran, but it is done.
Context is totally different where FGM is totally different thing done in Africa and other god foresaken countries .
Tasleem has just like other so called progressive bohras has invades sancity of our religious fabric and brought in forefront a topic to TRP frenzy media and audience, who have no understanding of our faith and have lamented with abuse and allegations.
Its Tasleem individual pain which she wants to play in public, but her work has caused more pain to US which Allah will only answer
Please don't be discouraged by shmucks like "male unblocked" that want to derail your movement.
They are like leeches who would be happy to hinder the good work done by one and all.
May Allah bless you and provide you strength enough to finish what you have started.
On the record, There is NO mention of FGM at all in Quran and burhanuddin better wake up from his slumber and set right at least THIS wrong.
Fresh news: FGM has started in Northers parts of Kerela. The doctors perform the surgery. Mothers-in-law want it done . Sigh!
please accept my deepest gratitude for highlighting this cruelty. thank you mr.mehta. may god bless you both . i'm sure this article would be a stepping stone for starting something big which can help the innocent girls from being violated.
since you are often on tv nowadays, please bring this out in open on one the news channel. i'm sure you have lots of contacts there. on my part, i'll buy more than enough copies of your new book. but most importantly, you'll be helping to save lots of innocent girls from suffering.
thanks and regards.
"I neither support nor oppose male circumcision"
That is because you are a religious fanatic.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT