Gender Violence: The Health Impact – Female Genital Mutilation in India
November 29, 2014 Leave a comment
by Zubeda Hamid
It’s called the haram ki boti: the clitoral hood that is cut away or nicked before a girl reaches puberty. Known primarily as a practice prevalent in some parts of Africa and among immigrant communities in Europe, the United States and Australia, female genital mutilation, cutting or ‘female circumcision’ as it is sometimes known, is practiced in India too. The brutal, non-medical procedure is carried out for a variety of reasons and causes immense physical and psychological damage. It can even be fatal. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
In India, FGM is practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community, an Ismaili Shia sect who live primarily in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The practice probably originated when the community migrated from Yemen, Egypt or other parts of that region to India some centuries ago, or was brought over by a priest and thus gained religious sanction. The community, about 10 lakh strong are mostly wealthy traders and well educated. Due to the intense secrecy in which it is shrouded, it is unclear how many in the community practice FGM.
Said to be done when the girl is seven, the procedure is usually carried out by an older woman in the community, a dai or a midwife with little or no medical training using crude instruments such as blades and no anaesthesia. Of late though, reports suggest some women take their daughters to hospitals and ask for the procedure to be performed by a doctor or get it done at birth. Accounts by women who have been through the procedure, a recent documentary on the subject titled ‘A Pinch of Skin’, several blog posts and online forums all suggest this is the only Muslim community in India to practice ‘khatna’.
According to the World Health Organisation, female genital mutilation comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is classified into four types:
- Clitoridectomy – partial or total removal of the clitoris
- Excision which is clitoridectomy and removal of the labia minora with or without excision of the labia majora
- Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with the creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora
- All other harmful procedures such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.
The Dawoodi Bohras practice the first type –clitoridectomy. Cutting off the hood of the clitoris exposes sensitive nerve endings and potentially limits the possibility of sexual pleasure through clitoral stimulation. Women who have undergone it describe female relatives holding down their legs, their fear, the excruciating pain and burning as they scream and the applying of a home remedy afterwards. The procedure is then never mentioned they say, and women are expected to ensure their daughters undergo it too.
A number of reasons are given by the community about the practice according to several posts: claims such as it prevents cancer to reasons such as it is compulsory in Islam and that it is tradition and has to be done in order to be respected in the community. It is also considered a means of ensuring that the girl becomes ‘pure’ and that her marriage goes through.The Quran has no mention of female genital mutilation or circumcision, and its mention in the Hadith is ambiguous at best.
Female genital mutilation has no health benefits, says the World Health Organisation. It can cause a number of health problems including severe pain, bleeding and shock, difficulty in urinating, cysts, infections, abscesses, infertility, difficulties in child birth, HIV, scar tissue formation and genital ulcers among others. This is apart from the psychological damage including post-traumatic stress disorder and long-term sexual effects such as decreased sexual enjoyment and painful sexual intercourse.
What the practice attempts to do, much like communities that kill young men and women for marrying outside their castes, is exercise control over women, specifically over female sexuality. As Tasleem, an activist from within the community who, a few years ago, started a petition against FGM has put it, “This is essentially done to prevent homosexuality, masturbation, and to subdue a girl’s desires so that she doesn’t marry out of the community or have extra-marital relationships.” Tasleem claims 90 per cent of the community continues to practice this custom, and that in many cases, the men are unaware it takes place. Maker of the documentary Priya Goswami has said to DNA: “Since the community was predominantly merchants, men travelled a lot. Removing the haraam ki boti, as it is called, was a way to control the sexual urges of women and keep them from infidelity.”
Not just does FGM constitute an extreme form of discrimination against women in deeply patriarchal societies it is also part of a larger culture where violence against women and in this case, girl children is perhaps the norm. In some parts of Africa, women are cut repeatedly: before puberty, before marriage, and after childbirth, in an attempt not just to reduce the woman’s libido, but also to make her vaginal opening tighter for the enhanced pleasure of men and to discourage illicit sexual intercourse. And while in India this extreme form of FGM is not practiced, the fact that a girl’s genitalia is cut to any degree at all points to the extreme mistrust of female sexuality and the need to maintain control over it.
The immense reluctance of the community to talk about this subject even within families has, to some extent, been broken recently, with Tasleem’s petition. Going only by a first name Tasleem launched a campaign online asking for signatures to petition the community’s high priest, Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin to ban this custom. The petition was picked up by the ‘Indian Muslim Observer’, a website on Muslim affairs, whose founder-editor Danish Ahmad Khan has also supported the campaign. “The issue of FGM…is surely an important one, particularly when it is being practiced in the name of Islam. This also brings into sharp focus the unholy and absurd role being played by the Bohra clergy…,” a note of his said, adding that awareness was needed to stop this “condemnable practice”. The late Dawoodi Bohra reformist writer Asghar Ali Engineer had also spoken out about the practice, calling it an “attempt to suppress sexuality so that women do not go astray”, in an interview to ‘Outlook’. As of October 6, 2013, the petition had received 2,500 signatures with a several women who have undergone FGM supporting it. However, so far, the high priest has refused to respond to the petition.
The fact that FGM violates a child’s body makes it an important human rights issue. Globally, there are several campaigns to stop the practice, and many countries have legislations making it an offence. The European Union, the United States, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and several other countries have laws against it, while in Africa several countries including Ethiopia, Togo, Uganda, Kenya and Egypt have banned it. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly included FGM in its resolution on violence against women, and since 2003 has been sponsoring a day on zero tolerance to FGM every year. In 2012, the Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of FGM. On October 30 this year, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, announced a global campaign to end it within a generation. Amnesty International runs an ‘End FGM’ campaign and there are many others in several parts of the world.
These organisations have attempted to get religious leaders to speak out against the practice and tell people that it is not compulsory in any religion. While some leaders have proclaimed it un-Islamic, other local clerics continue to sanction it or turn a blind eye. The fact that many African communities believe their daughters are unmarriageable unless cut, adds to the difficulty of stopping the practice. In July this year, ISIS, the Islamist terrorist group allegedly ordered FGM to be carried out on all women in Iraq between the ages of 11 and 46. A UN coordinator said, this potentially affect an estimated four million women. There were later reports that the ISIS dismissed this order, calling it false propaganda.
In India however, a lack of knowledge about this practice, the fact that it seems to be practiced by just one community and the reluctance of the community to speak out against it has allowed it to continue. While there is no law specifically banning the practice in India, it could be punishable under sections of the Indian Penal Code if a complaint is made, ‘Business Line’ has reported. Section 326 – causing grievous hurt, could be used to penalise the parents and person performing FGM if a minor girl is involved, it said.
Will anyone ever use the law though, is debatable. Members of the community have told publications that they fear excommunication if they defy community traditions, and some of whom do not practice it, lie about the fact to avoid trouble. Because, as one father put it in an interview, “Who wants to take up a fight with the community?”
Clearly, more than just laws are needed – a movement to end FGM both within and outside the community are crucial.
1. Articles in publications:
2. Blogs, Facebook posts and online forums/news portals and agencies:
3. The petition:
4. Campaigns, non-governmental organisations:
5. WHO, UN
Zubeda Hamid is a correspondent with The Hindu covering health and disability rights.