The Unkindest Cut: Of Gore, Agony and a Traumatic Adolescence
The drive from Toronto Pearson Airport was slow. The car crawled in the Friday morning rush-hour traffic. Zoya, our seven-year-old daughter, exhausted, slept in the backseat. My husband Juzer had taken the morning off to pick us up. Shielding my eyes from the bright late August sun, I was thankful to be back home, relieved to leave behind the chaos and squalor of Mumbai. The travails of the long-haul flight and cramped seats in cattle class – as a friend describes it – were soon forgotten.
On reaching home, no sooner had I entered our house in Richmond Hill than my mother-in-law asked, “How did it go?”
I said, “Good,” without looking at her, and clutched Zoya tighter in my arms. I carried her to her bedroom upstairs, put her in bed and sat beside her and stroked her head. Zoya was precious, she was born after two miscarriages. Each time it happened I felt depleted. Who but only a woman can understand what it means to lose something growing inside you. A life drains out of you, literally. If it were not for my work which kept me busy I would have easily sunk into depression.
‘Grim, Suffocating Orthodoxy’
Juzer was very supportive and his mother, though understanding my condition the first time, did not take kindly to me the second time. She said I was too attached to my career, that my priority was not the family. That was not true. What bothered her was the sense of independence my work gave me. But I kept quiet. One did not talk back to her. Nobody did. Hers was a domineering personality, informed by a strict adherence to religious precepts. Her messianic zeal permeated our lives like the way the smell of Indian cooking hung in our house. We breathed in her grim, suffocating orthodoxy.
Juzer feared her, but he couched that fear in the much-vaunted respect for elders. Like all Indian men, he idolised his mother, weaned on the dictum that heaven resided at her feet. He said he would not have married me without her approval. He told me this by way of compliment, to impress upon me that I was good enough to pass her muster. I was amazed that he didn’t for a moment consider how it reflected upon him, how it showed him up as a wimp, as a mama’s boy. Something soured inside me when he told me that.
When Zoya was born, my mother-in-law was satisfied but not exactly thrilled. She would have preferred a boy, she had made it known to Juzer.
“Tell your mother it is your fault, you failed to supply the Y chromosome,” I said.
“You don’t expect her to know that, Zarina,” he said.
“But she should,” I said a little irritated. “For how long we women are going to take the blame for birthing girls. If people don’t know how gender is made then they should be told. Especially, cave-dwelling women who hate their own sex and who cling to the outdated notion of a male heir. And for God’s sake, this 2016, this is Canada. What’s wrong with girls?”
Perhaps that was the first time I had burst out; all the little peeves accumulated over the years found a sudden catharsis, and Juzer became an unsuspecting and, to an extent, undeserving target.
On a Sunday morning, two days after our arrival, I was in the kitchen making breakfast. The mother-in-law came and I felt the temperature plunge. She took a glass of water and sat down at the head of the dining table. “Zarina,” she said. “You took Zoya to Mumbai for a purpose?”
“Yes,” I said bracing myself for what was coming.
“And that purpose was achieved?”
“Yes, I told you that already.”
“You are lying,” she shrieked, banging the glass on the table. I froze.
“You are lying,” she repeated.
“Yes, you are. I saw it.”
“Zoya, she is untouched.”
A rage gushed in me. “You checked her up? How dare you? Have you no shame?” I slammed the spatula on the counter top and rushed upstairs.
Mother-in-law thought I would say sorry and grovel. But my hostile reaction spurred her to greater vileness. She called after me shouting curses and questioned my upbringing. But in an instant, I was out of her earshot. On the landing, I met Juzer who looked like a gosling frightened out of its nest.
“What happened?” he said.
“Ask your mother. If she looks at Zoya again I will scratch her eyes out.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. I’ll not have that thing done to my daughter and you better tell her that.”
“But…,” he stammered.
“You know what she did? She went and checked up on my little Zoya. It’s disgusting.”
Upstairs Zoya was in the bathroom, brushing. I knelt down and wrapped her in my arms. “What happened Ma,” she said.
“Nothing jaana, and nothing will.” I smothered her with kisses.
"We Are Dawoodi Bohras. The Only Muslim Sect Which Is Pristine"
The following day when I returned from work, picking Zoya from daycare on my way home, we had a guest sitting in the living room: Behn Sahiba, the wife of our priest and potentate. Mother-in-law sat across her on the floor. On seeing me they went silent. I greeted her with a salaam. I knew why she had come. I told Zoya to go to her room, change and wash up and stay there until I came. I gave her an apple from the fridge, realising I might take long.
“Come, Zarina behn, sit,” Behn Sahiba said to me. Few knew her real name, they called her by her honorific. She drew her authority from her husband, who exercised absolute control over the community and was notorious for his short temper and acid tongue. It seemed Behn Sahiba matched her husband’s reputation by terrorising the womenfolk, laid down the rules for them and made sure they were followed. A small coterie of acolytes had developed around her, mother-in-law was one of them. Detractors called them snitching bitches. Wide of girth and short of height, Behn Sahiba sitting on the sofa in her colourful full-body hijab looked like a potted plant flowering out of season.
I too sat down on the floor. Her position, as self-appointed royalty, must always be elevated relative to lesser mortals.
“You know who we are?” she began without preliminaries. “We are Dawoodi Bohras. The only Muslim sect which is pristine, and on the right path. We are destined for heaven. Our infallible Sayedna’s guidance has made us a prosperous and peace-loving community. Do you agree or not?
“Good. So you must also agree that certain customs are good for us. We continue to practice them generation after generation because they are for our benefit, they contain the wisdom of our elders. Are you understanding what I’m saying?”
I nodded, waiting for her to come to the point. “Your daughter, what’s her name?”
“Zoya,” mother-in-law whispered. I clenched my fist, and told myself to remain calm. Anger gets the better of reason. If this woman throws religion at you, you throw religion back at her.
“Yes, Zoya. You know she has come of age. She must have khatna (circumcision) done.”
“No, Behn Sahiba, I’ll not allow it,” I said, and as soon as I said it, I felt unafraid. Ever since mother-in-law had first broached the subject a year ago, I had drawn a line in the sand. I’ll not inflict on my daughter the torture and trauma I had suffered, that all Bohra girls are made to suffer. I had researched on the Internet, read articles and blogs on the subject, scoured online forums and discussion boards, and wrote to Islamic scholars to seek their opinion. I knew this moment would come, and I was ready for battle.
“Who are you to not allow it,” Behn Sahiba raised her voice. “It is in our shariah, our religion decrees it. It is good for our women, it keeps us chaste. Out of harm.”
“Show me where is it decreed in the Quran?” I demanded.
“You are challenging me?” Behn Sahiba sputtered. Accustomed to grown women genuflecting before her, being questioned by a nobody unsettled her well-cultivated arrogance.
“I want you to tell me where it is written?” undeterred I continued. “It is an African tribal custom and our scriptures only recommend it, it is not binding. The majority of Muslims don’t practice it.”
“So you are going to teach me religion now?” Behn Sahiba got up in a huff, shaking with anger. Then turning toward mother-in-law, “What kind of lowlife have you got here?”
She made for the door, and mother-in-law followed her, grovelling, apologising, beseeching her to stay.
“One more thing,” I said feeling emboldened, seeing her run from an argument. “Behn Sahiba, what you are advocating is female genital mutilation. It is a barbaric practice and it is illegal in Canada. You people,” and I glanced quickly at mother-in-law, “keep your hands off my daughter or I’ll report you to the police.”
Behn Sahiba was beside herself with rage. “Sughra behn,” she said to mother-in-law, “You have a traitor and infidel in your house. You are now an outcast. This family is ex-communicated,” she promulgated the fatwa and slammed the door behind her.
I rushed upstairs to Zoya, triumphant and nervous. Ex-communication is equivalent to an attack dog. The clergy deploys it to keep the herd in line. And it always works. The pull of the community, the need to belong is so strong that I had seen the best of them, the boldest of them succumb. They all inevitably came back whimpering like lost puppies. Not me, I resolved. A dull dread settled in the pit of my stomach.
“Why you had to make such a scene? Have you any idea how much trouble we are in now?” Juzer said that night as I came to the bedroom after tucking in Zoya. “And why such a fuss? It’s only a small nick, after all. We men also get circumcised, do we complain?”
“I don’t care about the trouble we are in. And it is not a small bloody nick,” I shot back. “And it’s not the same as male circumcision. Medically it is beneficial for you, at least some claim that. But for the girls it is downright harmful, cruel and so unnecessary. When boys are circumcised there is a big celebration. You should remember yours, don’t you? People bringing you boxes of cracker biscuits? Why cracker biscuits, for heaven’s sake, is that what you boys crave when your willies are snipped? For the girls it is done in secret, a hush-hush thing as if it were a crime, which of course it is. It is a horrendous, soul-searing crime.
“You remember the nights when you turned away from me in frustration, accusing me of being frigid. You think all women are like that. They are not. I don’t enjoy sex. I can’t enjoy sex, and you know why?”
Juzer sat up, his interest suddenly piqued. Holding my hand, he said, “Don’t tell me it is because of FGM?”
“Too Young, Too Confused, Even Frightened”
“What else? I said. “It has scarred me on so many levels. I remember the day it happened. How can I ever forget that? It was summer vacation, monsoon was upon us. One morning my mother said that tomorrow we would go to Matheran. My joy knew no bounds. Then she said we must go to naani’s to say goodbye. I wore my pink and blue frock, and we walked down to naani’s flat which was a block away. There was a woman there whom I had never seen before. She smiled at me and naani hugged me. The woman spread a bed sheet on the floor beside the bed and asked me to lie down.
‘Yes jaana, lie down,’ Mother said reassuringly. I was only seven. I would do anything my mother asked me to do. There was naani, too. What was there to fear? Although it was an odd request, especially in the presence of a stranger, I lied down without thinking much about it.
“The woman was carrying a flat tin box, the kind in which the coveted English toffees came. Its purple colour was fading. She sat down beside me and opened the box, I could not see its contents. Then naani moved my frock and pulled my panties down. Mother held my hands on my chest and naani pinned down my legs. I was too young, too confused, even frightened, I guess, to say anything, to ask what was going on.
Then Mother said, ‘Look, look birdies,’ pointing to the ceiling. There were no birds, and I wondered what was wrong with Mother. Then I felt a sharp, stinging pain down there. I gave out a cry. Mother said, ‘Look, birdies have gone.’ The woman pressed a piece of cloth, I felt a burning sensation. I yelped in pain and started crying. The woman gave me a sweet. When I saw blood I cried more, still not sure what had happened and still too scared, too confused to find out.
“For two days it hurt when I peed. Then it stopped hurting. But deep inside the wound lingered. We never went to the hill station. I was heartbroken, mainly on account of being cheated. Over the years though, whenever I recall the incident it is not the physical pain or the false promise that flashes in my mind. It is the trauma of the violence done to me, to my young body, to my trusting mind. I lost more than my clitoris that day. What hurts the most is that Mother and naani lured me into it. They conspired to inflict a torment that haunts me till today. That is why I recoil when you touch me there, it fills me with dread, as if I’m going to be violated again.”
“Didn’t you ever talk to your mother about it,” Juzer asked.
“I did, when I was in college. She was reluctant to discuss it. Said it was the custom, the option of not doing it was never there.”
After a pause, I said, “But now there is an option, I’ve created one. And I want you to know that it is not just a small bloody nick.” I held back my tears, and looked away.
Juzer took my hands in his and pressed them tight.
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