Female Genital Mutilation in India: A Well-Kept Secret

Female Genital Mutilation in India
Female genital mutilation (FGM) in India is a well-kept secret. Indian girls as young as 7 years old suffer from this human rights violation. On a regular afternoon in Mumbai, locals swarm the streets, completely oblivious of the gross human rights violations devastating little girls in the dingy by-lanes.

Insia Dariwala and Sahiyo

A woman named Fatema experienced this horrifying practice when her aunt lured her out of the house under the pretext of a fun afternoon at the movies. She is the older sister of Insia Dariwala, who later co-founded an organization called Sahiyo with four other women due to the impact Fatema’s suffering had on her. Dariwala avoided FGM because her mother stood up against the practice when she discovered what had happened to Fatema. Sahiyo is now one of the leading Indian organizations striving to end the practice of female genital mutilation. Dariwala shared her older sister’s story and the issue of FGM in India in an interview with The Borgen Project.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation as procedures that partially or totally remove the external female genitalia or otherwise injure the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Female genital mutilation in India is known as “khatna.” At times, it involves removing the entire clitoris and the labia minor, and at other times, it may just include cutting off the prepuce.

Who Practices It?

Female genital mutilation in India exists among the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community as well as other smaller Bohra sub-sects including the Suleimani and Alavi Bohras. This community traces its ancestral and ideological roots to 10th and 11th century Egypt and Yemen. While it is a small community in India, it still amounts to more than 500,000 Indians.

In fact, a Sahiyo study found that 80% of girls in this community had undergone FGM. Moreover, 66% of them were 6 to 7 years old. Traditional cutters, also called “mullanis” (female Muslim religious leaders), performed most khatna procedures. However, healthcare professionals conducted FGM also.

Reasons Behind the Practice

Dariwala explained to The Borgen Project the reasons that many give for practicing FGM. Some say it is for hygienic purposes. Others cite practicing gender equality by circumcising both boys and girls. Some khatna proponents even claim it enhances sexual pleasure for the female. Some mothers believe that their daughters with FGM will not have extramarital affairs.

She emphasized that “through sharing of stories and other community engagement events, we can without a doubt say that female genital mutilation is done to control sexual urges and is one of the most common reasons stated for carrying out this practice.”

Sahiyo’s own survey corroborates these statements. Forty-five percent of Bohra community members believe FGM occurs to decrease sexual arousal. Other reasons community members gave were religious purposes, maintenance of traditions and customs, the possibility of gaining respect from the community, ensuring “taharat” (religious piety and purity) and discouraging promiscuity and masturbation.

The Reason for the Secrecy

Perhaps India has kept FGM in the dark partially because religious leaders have wanted it that way. For example, in 2016, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the religious head the of Bohra community, stated that “the act” must continue “discreetly for girls.” Also, khatna is not illegal in India.

Dariwala emphasized that “We kept the violation of our human rights a secret. Now, we are finally bringing it out of the darkness.”

The Role of Islam

Dariwala noted that khatna is actually a pre-Islamic practice. Not all Islamic groups practice female genital mutilation, and some non-Muslim groups observe the practice. The Quran, the holy book of Islam, does not mention it. However, the Daim al-Islam, a religious text that the Bohra community follows does endorse this practice.

On the contrary, there are Muslim religious leaders including Syedna Mufaddal’s rival Taher Fakhruddin who denounced khatna for children and suggested abolishing FGM. Dariwala underlined that since this practice predates even the origin of Islam, India needs to tackle this issue not by attacking any faith but rather by viewing it as a human rights issue.

The Possibility of Eradication

Organizations like Sahiyo have worked tirelessly to make this a possibility. Sahiyo has conducted conferences and workshops to spread awareness globally. It has also given digital platforms to women to share their experiences and trauma. Sahiyo also believes in the art of storytelling. It uses theatre, films and magazines to spark discussions about gender-based violence. It also conducts media training for journalists to teach them how to effectively report on the practice of FGM. Third, Sahiyo conducts research and data collection.

Eradication of female genital mutilation by 2030  is a United Nations (U.N.) Sustainability target. To eradicate female genital mutilation in India and Southeast Asia, Dariwala and Sahiyo are urging the U.N. to build on the momentum of groups like Sahiyo. There needs to be exponentially more data collection and survivor support.

With leaders like Insia Dariwala spearheading the eradication effort regarding female genital mutilation in India, people will certainly gain more awareness of the issue. Additionally, with leaders like Dariwala at the helm, the 2030 U.N. target could become a reality.

– Iris Anne Lobo
Photo: Flickr