This evil must stop

Female genital mutilation

The girl and woman have been the objects of oppression in our society since time immemorial. Most of our cultural values have been strongly patriarchal, thus contributing to their sufferings right from the womb to the tomb. Very often, these inequalities manifest as female foeticide, dowry tortures, at times resulting in death, domestic violence and even in the fact that the representation of women in all political parties and in ministerial cabinets is token at best.

All these are well known to most but the unknown is a new and most inhuman form of violence unleashed on girls and women, called ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM). It is “new” only in the sense that it has got highlighted recently in the Indian context. Previously, it was often knowingly overlooked.

FGM is defined by the World Health Organisation as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the female genital organs”. In December 2012, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously voted to work for the elimination of FGM throughout the world.

FGM has no known health benefits. On the contrary, it is known to be harmful to girls and women in many ways. First and foremost, it is a painful, traumatic, unforgettable and unforgivable sting.

The removal of, or damage to, healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone FGM suffer a higher rate of newborn deaths compared with babies born to women who have not undergone the procedure.

A study done by UNICEF suggests that FGM is rampantly practised in 29 countries all over the world, but it exists in other countries as well, including India, though not to a high degree. The exact numbers are unknown, but it is estimated that globally 100-140 million girls and women are subject to this cruel practice.

In India

Communities that practise FGM report a variety of social reasons. FGM as a traditional practice exists in certain communities, such as Bohras in the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. The whole procedure is a big secret and often even other close family members, such as the brother of the victim, is unaware of what’s being done to his own sisters.

The FGM procedure is carried out by elderly women, but institutionalised by strong patriarchy. The FGM practitioners’ justification is that it is done because of “their faith” and it “moderates the sexual urge.” Currently, there are no laws to end this menace.

But that has not stopped many brave women who have come out boldly against this cruel practice. One such person is Priya Goswami, a student, who has made a 27-minute documentary titled “Pinch of skin”. By using a hidden camera, she has interviewed victims, where they narrate the experience as “horrific”, “gory”, “gross”, etc. The young girls are all taken away unawares and are not explained the procedure before-hand. It results in heavy bleeding, and the sight of blood, especially to young girls, is in itself a painful and traumatic experience. 

The reason behind parents initiating this practice is because they themselves are not able to logically reason about it. They are just blindly following some hearsay that has been passed down for generations.

There are inconsistencies in their thought process. FGM does not find any mention in any religious scriptures but still continues to exist because it has been passed on through generations that it “removes the haraam ki boti”. The agenda seems to be that women should not experience sexual joy. It is possible that the practice took hold among merchants in another era who used to travel often and who wanted to keep under control the sexual desires of women in their households to prevent infidelity. FGM was done to discipline and control girls.

Communities that practise it call it ‘khatna’ or ‘khafd’. If by chance a girl of the community elopes with her lover, community members ask the girl’s family, “Why did this happen? Had she not undergone ‘khatna’?”

It is well-known that some religious practitioners mention that the human body is the creation of god. And one can argue that the female external genitals are also the creation of god and one should not attempt to remove or mutilate it. But this has not stopped families from practising it.

Fortunately, many women of the Bohra community have started to oppose it. A survey done by Sahiyo (derived from Gujarati Bohra word ‘saheliyo’ for friends, an international organisation committed to creating social change by engaging in a dialogue towards ending FGM) mentions that 81% of Bohra women based in the US and India do not like it at all and would never advocate it. Many women in this community are now educated and seek to turn the tide, including by undertaking an online petition.

Currently, even a few medical doctors from the Bohra community practise FGM, including on their own children. So, the real problem is that women have been indoctrinated into doing it. That’s the real challenge. It is with them that the battle has to be won first.

As FGM is a manifestation of gender inequality, the empowerment of women is key to the elimination of this practice. Addressing this through education and debate brings to the fore the human rights of girls and women and the differential treatment of boys and girls with regard to their roles in society in general, and specifically with respect to FGM.

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