Not The Kindest Cut: Dawoodi Bohras & The Circumcision of Girls

Reformists say it is a barbaric tradition that has no sanction and yet is thrust upon women in the name of religion

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A tiny Muslim sect in India– the Dawoodi Bohras – are debating whether the practice of circumcising girls should be stopped or not.

An online petition seeking redressal awaits at least 25,000 more signatures to be heard. But it is not a burning issue for most others not affected by it and those affected are too scare to speak up.

When Bilqis talks about having circumcised her daughter, she contradicts herself — sometimes within the same sentence.

The slender 50-year-old doctor defends what is widely known as female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Shia Muslim sect in India, saying it was a mild intervention that amounts to “just a little nick. No harm done.” Yet she also feels guilt and regret at putting her daughter through a practice the United Nations calls a violation of girls’ rights.

It’s really nothing, it changes nothing. I have no doubt in my mind that it is not helpful. If I had a young daughter now there’s no way I would have her circumcised.
Bilqis, Doctor
Bilqis feels guilt and regret at putting her daughter through a practice the United Nations calls a violation of girls’ rights. (Photo: AP)
Bilqis feels guilt and regret at putting her daughter through a practice the United Nations calls a violation of girls’ rights. (Photo: AP)

The Struggle Within

The struggle within Bilqis and her Dawoodi Bohra community reflects a growing debate over the best way to address a custom that is proving stubbornly hard to eradicate. At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of female genital cutting, according to the United Nations — 70 million more than in 2014 because of increases in both population and reporting. And the UN predicts that the number of victims will increase significantly over the next 15 years because of population growth.

Faced with this prospect, experts in the respected international Journal of Medical Ethics in February proposed permitting small female genital cuts that “uphold cultural and religious traditions without sacrificing the health and wellbeing of girls and young women.” But this approach is already carried out in the Bohra community and is proving highly controversial.

It Takes Courage to Register Dissent

Masooma Ranalvi, who broke the silence around female genital mutilation in her community last year with a series of online petitions that sought to ban it does not agree.

They always say it’s just a nick and a touch, but there are incidents where things have gone horribly wrong.
Masooma Ranalvi, Activist
Ranalvi remembers when she was 7, her grandmother promised her candy and ice cream. Instead, she was taken to a dingy room in a back alley. Her dress was pulled up and her legs and arms held down. A sharp pain followed. She came home in tears. (Photo: AP)
Ranalvi remembers when she was 7, her grandmother promised her candy and ice cream. Instead, she was taken to a dingy room in a back alley. Her dress was pulled up and her legs and arms held down. A sharp pain followed. She came home in tears. (Photo: AP)

She did not understand what had happened until her 30s, when she read about female genital mutilation. India has no laws banning female circumcision, and Ranalvi says the letters she has sent to Dawoodi Bohra leaders have been ignored.

The Affluent Communities Origins in Yemen, Africa

The Dawoodi Bohras are an affluent trading community of about a million people concentrated mostly in Mumbai, but also seen across the United States and Europe. In the winding lanes of a Bohra neighborhood, observant men are distinguished by white and gold embroidered caps and beards. Women wear a long, colorful tunic down to their ankles, and a scarf over their hair.

The Dynamic Bohra Women

The Bohras are known for their liberal attitude toward the education of women. Yet the community is also tightly controlled by an entirely male clergy, with headquarters in upscale Malabar Hill in southern Mumbai. Here, alongside the homes of Bollywood stars and billionaire business tycoons, sits the sprawling Saifee Mahal, the home of the religious head known as the Syedna.

When they reach puberty, Bohra boys and girls take an oath of loyalty to the Syedna, and he has a say in almost every aspect of their lives, including marriage and funerals. From Mumbai to New York, medical professionals receive the Syedna’s blessings to perform circumcision for girls, known as khatna. The procedure goes back to the community’s roots in Yemen and its proximity to northern and northeastern Africa, where the practice is deeply entrenched. 
Indian Dawoodi Bohra women, scarves on their head, are reflected on a portrait showing three generations of Syednas, or religious head, in a Bohra neighborhood in Mumbai. (Photo Courtesy: AP Images)
Indian Dawoodi Bohra women, scarves on their head, are reflected on a portrait showing three generations of Syednas, or religious head, in a Bohra neighborhood in Mumbai. (Photo Courtesy: AP Images)

Circumcision has become a battleground for the two Bohra men vying for succession, the half-brother and the son of the former Syedna. The half-brother says it is time to end the practice. The son, whom most Dawoodi Bohras accept as their new leader, says the tradition must continue and notes that Bohra men are also circumcised. He declined to comment, but laid out some of his views in an earlier speech.

Dawoodi Bohra women walk past others shopping for clothes in a Bohra neighborhood in Mumbai. The Dawoodi Bohras are an affluent trading community of about a million people concentrated mostly in Mumbai, but also seen across the United States and Europe. (Photo Courtesy: AP Images)
Dawoodi Bohra women walk past others shopping for clothes in a Bohra neighborhood in Mumbai. The Dawoodi Bohras are an affluent trading community of about a million people concentrated mostly in Mumbai, but also seen across the United States and Europe. (Photo Courtesy: AP Images)
Our community is very pure compared to other people, and it’s our duty to keep it that way. Men have to do it, and even women have to do it.
Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin
Sameena, a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community is a student in New York. While living her dream of being a graduate student at an Ivy League school in America, Sameena is also gradually coming to terms with the knowledge that she was circumcised at seven. (Photo Courtesy: AP Images)
Sameena, a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community is a student in New York. While living her dream of being a graduate student at an Ivy League school in America, Sameena is also gradually coming to terms with the knowledge that she was circumcised at seven. (Photo Courtesy: AP Images)

Bilqis is a doctor and has seen various cases of female circumcision gone wrong. She had allowed her daughter to be circumcised too. Her daughter – Sameena, now 22, is a graduate student at an Ivy League school in America.

Sameena says many Bohras are misled to believe that Islam condones the procedure, when no other Muslim community in India practices female circumcision.

“Who the hell are you to control anyone’s sexuality?” she says. “I was very, very pissed off.”

The mother-daughter duo agrees that the custom should be abolished but differ on how. Bilqis fears that the few vocal activists speaking out may only drive it deeper underground. But Sameena does not want slow and silent change — she wants the religious leadership to come out against the practice.

“It’s not going to end by not talking about it. You have to keep bringing it up as something that should not be done,” she says. “That’s the only way to tackle it.”


Also Read: http://www.thequint.com/india/2015/12/05/i-suffered-genital-mutilation-support-me-to-stop-it

http://www.thequint.com/women/2016/05/04/dawoodi-bohra-cleric-syedna-comes-out-in-support-of-fgm

http://www.thequint.com/women/2016/06/07/bohra-leader-breaks-his-silence-on-female-circumcision-in-india

http://www.thequint.com/opinion/2015/04/10/female-gender-mutilation-indias-well-kept-secret

Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
Source: AP Video Hub

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