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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.
“One may perhaps cite health benefits to male circumcision. But for women, there’s nothing but pain,” says Tasleem.
What happened to Bano was never openly talked about within her household. “Whenever I asked my mother about it, she would say it’s nothing and that it’s done to all,” she says. The efforts of a 42-year-old Bohra woman from Mumbai, however, may finally bring the taboo subject to light, despite the cold indifference of orthodox members. Tasleem (who doesn’t want to reveal her surname), the mother of a 19-year-old girl, launched an online petition this October to try and get Bohra high priest Mohammed Burhanuddin to put an end to this archaic ritual. She sent her campaign material, including a large cardboard blade embossed with a photograph of a wailing girl being circumcised, to Burhanuddin’s office, but got no response. This campaign has now been picked up by Indian Muslim Observer, a website dedicated to Muslim affairs, for broader dissemination amongst other Muslims. According to Tasleem, khatna is still widely practised. “It still happens among rich, poor, the middle class,” she says. “I’d say 90 per cent still practise it.” Bohra reformist and scholar Asghar Ali Engineer too acknowledges that female circumcision is still very much prevalent. “But it would be difficult to ascertain the scale as it is a very hush-hush affair. In big cities like Bombay, it is done is hospitals right after birth and in smaller towns it is done around the age of six.”
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.