NEW DELHI, India, Feb 06 (IPS) – Survivors of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), are determined to share their stories to end this practice – even though they face ostracisation by their communities.
Masooma Ranalvi, an FGM/C survivor and founder of ‘WeSpeakOut’, an organisation committed to eliminating FGM/C or khafd/khafz/khatna explains that FGM/C is practised by various communities in India but is prominently practised among the Dawoodi Bohras.
However, speaking out against the harmful practice has not been easy for Ranalvi and the many others who have dared to relive their childhood memory of being ‘cut’ and share it with the world to end it some-day.
“There is a culture of fear around this issue, a culture of silence. Many do not speak out as there are social boycotts against who do – unofficially declared but carried out by the community,” says Ranalvi in an exclusive interview with IPS.
“Twenty years ago, even burial rights after death would be denied to those who dared to differ and economic sanctions against families who did not comply and spoke out,” says Ranalvi, who has been a leading voice in pushing for a legal and social end to FGM/C in India and across the globe.
According to a study conducted by ‘WeSpeakOut’, of the two million people who belong to India’s Bohra community and its diaspora, nearly 75%-80% of Bohra women are subject to FGM/C.
Ranalvi is also a petitioner in the legal action initiated in 2017 by lawyer Sunita Tiwari.
Tiwari filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India seeking a ban on FGM/C among the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Community. This practice, which has been the community’s best-kept secret and practised by many others worldwide, is increasingly being spoken about, especially by the survivors.
FGM/C involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Religion, culture, and tradition are often cited as motives for those practising it. There are about 92 countries where FGM/C is practised out of which 51 countries have expressly prohibited it under their national laws in some form or another.
In Asia, however, there is not a single country which has a law enacted to prohibit the harmful practice.
Based in the United States, Mariya Taher has co-founded Sahiyo, a non-profit working to end the practice globally and among the Bohra Community. She is a survivor and has been active passing state-level legislation in Massachusetts against it.
“It took five years to do so, but this past August 2020, we were able to pass a law. I am currently working with a group in Connecticut to pass a state law there. In the U.S., while we have a federal law, we also need state legislation, only 39 states have laws against FGM/C at this point,” Taher told IPS.
Aarefa Johari, journalist and co-founder of Sahiyo, adds that “enacting legislation against FGM/C has to be preceded by, accompanied and after that followed by intense and robust community activism at the grassroots level. It needs education, awareness and dialogue.”
A survivor, she believes that though “a law against FGM/C is vital as a deterrent and as a means of making the State’s stance on the practice clear, laws alone cannot bring an end to deep-rooted social norms.” This would require a long-term commitment and legal intervention to change the community’s mindset, Johari says.
Since many within the various communities use religion to justify the practice, it is important to note that there has been extensive research and writing around the issue by Islamic scholars and others, based on Quranic texts and Hadith (a collection of traditions containing sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad) which discredit the practice as Un-Islamic.
Karamah, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, in a study published on FGM/C, concludes that FGM/C is a harmful practice that lacks religious mandate.
“The Qur’an does not provide a single verse or instance in which female khitan (FGM/C) is mentioned as obligatory or desirable. Furthermore, contrary to general belief, there is no single authentic hadith of the Prophet that requires female khitan.”
Ten-year-old Munira’s (name changed) aunt held her hand and took her to the basement of her empty house one Sunday evening promising to play a game with her. Little did Munira know the prize of this game, where she was asked to lie on a table with her underpants down and her lips sealed by her aunt to prevent her screams being heard, would end in her being scarred for life. She was ‘cut’ by a member of her family. This memory resonates with most survivors of the practice.
“It is never easy for anyone who has experienced some form of gender-based violence to share their story … My process took years, and it involved me first learning about it, then writing about it. The first thing I ever wrote was for the imagining equality project,” Taher says.
“It took many years after that project for me to get comfortable to share it on camera or to be interviewed by the media about my experience. But even as I grew comfortable, I experienced multiple forms of backlash.”
The impact on her immediate community meant that some of her relatives stopped speaking to her.
“Our movement (to end FGM/C) itself has faced backlash both publicly and privately from the community – we are trolled a lot online, there are attempts to constantly discredit the stories of survivors and silence those who speak up,” says Johari.
The trolling has not stopped the campaign to end FGM/C.
“It is important to emphasise that this is a sign of the importance of our work, and we get as much (or more) positive support from community members as we get negative brickbats,” Johari adds.
Many women and some community members against FGM/C sadly choose to remain silent in the interest of the ‘larger cause’, given the Islamophobic climate that exists.
Taher says that it is difficult not to see the intersection of oppressions when working on FGM/C, Islamophobia, unfortunately, being one of them.
“Particularly with the false assumption that only Muslims practice FGM/C. FGM/C is global … occurs in every continent in the world except Antarctica. And where FGM/C does occur in Islamic communities, it is a very small minority,” Taher says.
“The truth is FGM/C is a social norm justified in all sorts of ways – religion, health, social status, marriageability, tradition, culture, etc. This social norm was started before the advent of Islam and Christianity – meaning it pre-dates those religions. Yet, in doing this work today, speaking out against Islamophobia as well as xenophobia is vital when working on FGM/C.”
Ranalvi said the decision to turn to legal action only happened when all else had failed.
“We knocked at the doors of the courts when all attempts at dialogue with the clergy and leadership within the community failed. The support of enacted laws and of institutional bodies to give power to our resistance and enable us to take control over our bodies and help end this violation, is imperative,” adds Ranalvi.
As the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on February 6th nears, it can only be hoped that FGM/C, a widely prevalent but dark secret that violates women’s human rights and practised by various communities across the world, ends.
Mariya Salim is a fellow at IPS UN Bureau
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