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Listening to tales of untold sufferings

Kirthi Jayakumar ,Nov 29, 2014 21:39 IST

All around the world, even in India, many women are becoming victims to the vicious practice of female genital mutilation. And this, happening in the

Waris Dirie, in her biographical account, Desert Flower, which released in 1998, told the world a shocking story about female genital mutilation (FGM). With that, people began to understand FGM as largely being an African phenomenon, and especially a Somalian one.

Then, as more stories related to this practice began to emerge, it became clear that it was common in the Middle East as well. However, what the world is yet to know with as much awareness, particularly in terms of numbers, is that, a section of Indian women, too, is no stranger to this brutal tradition.

Hana (name changed), a girl from the Bohra Muslim community in Tamil Nadu, casually mentioned being circumcised. To her, this was a cultural practice she had to comply with, regardless of the consequences. After all, among her people, this is seen as a way of preserving family honour and making sure a girl is ‘fit and pure for marriage’.

In India, the practice is particularly prevalent among Bohra Muslims, a
sub-sect of the Shias, and is referred to as khatna. When girls attain puberty, they are circumcised; but not through a proper surgical procedure, under the influence of anaesthesia. Rather, a senior woman from the community uses a blade or a razor to remove the clitoris, which, Hana says, is called the haraami boti in her community.
Apart from the obvious exposure to
infection from the use of unhygienic
equipment, she is most likely to suffer from a variety of recurrent problems, like chronic pain in the genital area, menstrual complications, difficulty during childbirth and fatal bleeding.

Despite this, women in the community believe that the custom is mandatory. Mothers continue to keep the practice alive by pushing their girls to endure it, and they, in turn, raise their daughters with the same ideology in mind.

As Hana explains, “The practice is ‘normal’ within the community. No one talks about how painful it is or the inconvenience it causes. As youngsters, when we asked questions on why it is done, we were silenced. Then, as we grew, we were told that it was done to preserve our ‘honour’, as we should curb our ‘urges’.”

Unsound rationale
These women, it appears, suffer in silence – if not all, a majority of them. One might be quick to say that they could join forces to end this gruesome ‘tradition’. But it isn’t easy. “How would one be able to fight something like this when the older women are also vehicles that perpetrate these patriarchal practices? We have to keep up with it if we want to remain in the community. This practice is followed as a religious rule. If religion dictates it, nobody can or should question it, right?” remarks Hana.

While this small community of Bohras maintains that their religion sanctions it, Islamic scholars argue otherwise.

In an academic conversation facilitated by Duke University and Coursera, a massive online open course, Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University explains that there is nothing in Islam, its texts or its teachings that professes antagonism towards women, “Unfortunately, one of the stereotypes and misconceptions developed in the last couple of decades concerning Islam is that, it is woman-unfriendly, oppressive, and that its ideology treats them as second-class citizens. I categorically reject that Muslim women are oppressed under the tenets of Islam. In its theology and belief system, it is, in fact, one of the most progressive religions.” He goes on to add that FGM is not sanctioned or permitted as a practice by Islam.

Tasneem Hossein (name changed), another young woman from the Bohra community, is disturbed by the sanction of such a custom in her community. She says, “They can call it whatever they want to, but after reading various books on the subject, I know this is wrong...Today, I face problems with everything from using the bathroom to menstruation.

I shudder to think what will happen when I get married or when I am pregnant. No one listens to the stories of pain that girls like me want to tell. I could give you my real name, but this is such a small community that I would easily be recognised and the repercussions will not be pleasant.”

The roots of a practice like FGM are quite like the roots of patriarchy – it is an attempt to dominate women and control their sexuality to preserve the community’s homogeneity. They are often seen as the bastion of the communal honour.

Practices like FGM evolved as a way to keep women from being raped in invasions and wars. Although the unsoundness of inflicting horrific pain and physical trauma to avoid a crime is like cutting off a hand so it never picks up a weapon.

While the anthropological and policy dimensions of war have changed, these practices have remained – as a manifestation of violence in an attempt to dominate women. FGM erodes the very sanctity attached to a woman’s right over her body. As Tasneem rightly points out, “It is just plain and pure mutilation.”

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