A friend of mine once described ‘female circumcision’ as “it’s just revenge on women, dude, that’s it”. That was the first time I’d ever heard of cutting a woman ‘down there’, and it was only a few years later that I came across the term ‘Female Genital Mutilation’. Today, February 6, is the International Day for Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation- a crime for which India still lacks any laws or punishments.
In 2018, a report was published by WeSpeakOut, titled “The Clitoral Hood, A Contested Site- Khafd or Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in India”. WeSpeakOut is one of the largest survivor-led movements that aims to end the practice of FGM in India. In the report, one fact stands out clearly: that India is a hub for FGM/C (Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting) among expat members of the Dawoodi Bohra community due the absence of any laws against the practice.
Among the Bohras, the practice is called ‘khafd’ or ‘khafz’ or ‘khatna’, and it consists of type 1 FGM/C (partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or clitoral hood/prepuce)- universally recognised as a violation of human rights, as well as of the UN Convention on Rights of a Child, specifically Article 19 (and yes, India has signed that particular convention).
In 2015, Masooma Ranalvi spoke to fellow survivors of ‘khafz’ in the Bohra community in India; the shared outrage and trauma from their experiences led to the creation of a WhatsApp group for survivors of ‘khafz’, which soon included Bohra women from the USA, Canada, UK and Australia as well. This was the precursor to the organisation known today as WeSpeakOut.
That same year, a retired nurse and the mother of two seven-year-old girls were both convicted of carrying out FGM on the children, in Australia’s first prosecution of such a case. A spiritual leader in the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim sect (to which the women belonged) was also convicted as an accessory to the crime. Barely a month later, Ranalvi and a number of other women started an online petition directed at India’s then Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, to demand a law against FGM in India. Offline, advocate Sunita Tiwari filed a PIL in the Supreme Court in 2017.
Why isn’t there a law against FGM in India? Is it because such a law would interfere with the traditions of a minority community, and we must appease the minorities at all costs, even at the cost of the women of that community? The Ministry of Women and Child Development, in response to the 2018 Reuters report marking India as the most unsafe country for women, denied the existence of FGM in India- this, after its Minister, Maneka Gandhi, said in 2017: “We’ll write to respective state governments and Syedna, the Bohra high priest, shortly to issue an edict to community members to give up FGM voluntarily as it is a crime under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act, 2012. If the Syedna does not respond, then we’ll bring in a law to ban the practice in India.”
Frankly, this about-face is tantamount to betrayal.
The Supreme Court itself has questioned the practice of FGM, asking “Why and how should the bodily integrity of an individual can be part of a religion and its essential practice”; because, of course, it’s a matter of religious freedom. But claiming the freedom to oppress, hurt or in any way negatively impact others is essentially claiming freedom to oppress. Especially when the targets are children- when they ‘agree’, it’s usually their parents who do the agreeing.
The contention of the body of Bohras opposing Tiwari’s plea is that the Quran and certain ‘hadiths’ require both males and females to be circumcised; the counter-contention, of course, is that the Quran contains nothing on female circumcision, and the ‘hadiths’ in question cannot be interpreted to mean female circumcision either. There are over 70 sects of Islam, all with their own interpretations- but this author, on speaking to three members of different sects, was assured that the Quran and ‘hadiths’ are both silent on the matter.
At any rate, there are some lines that need to be drawn, with regards to religion’s place vis-a-vis fundamental rights. India is in dire need of a law that summarily bans all types of FGM, and the IPC must include stringent punishments for violating that law in any way, shape, or form. The fact that the world’s largest democracy still cannot guarantee the bodily integrity of its women is pathetic.
Bodily integrity cannot come second to religion- if it is, we send the message that a person’s human dignity is second to someone else’s need to demonstrate their devotion. And as usual, it’s a woman’s dignity that comes second.