FGM: A CRUEL CUT
At the present moment, even as I write, the Dawoodi Bohra community is globally facing a legal pincer movement. In the US, the respected Bohra doctor Jumana Nagarwala is being criminally prosecuted by the FBI on three counts: (i) performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), (ii) transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity (FGM is considered sexual penetration) and (iii) making a false statement to a federal officer. Two seven-year-old girls, on whom the procedure was performed, described to FBI officers how painful the experience was. “It went down to her ankles,” said one. They had been told by their mothers that they were going on a ‘girls’ day out’ but were instead taken to a clinic and had Khatna (the Bohra term for FGM) done to them. Dr Nagarwala was assisted by another Bohra lady, the spouse of the Bohra doctor who owned the clinic. She held the girls down while Dr Nagarwala did the deed. They too are being prosecuted. The defense by Nagarwala’s legal team is that “it was only a nick”, that it is a cultural practice alien to Western culture, and that it is a part of religious practice and thus protected by the laws upholding freedom of religion.
In India, the Supreme Court has admitted a petition by the NGO Speak out on FGM arguing that FGM is a violation of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly women’s and children’s rights. Interestingly enough, although the connection has not been made, it connects with two other cases being currently heard by the Supreme Court, the Triple Talaq case and the Sabrimala Temple entry case. All three raise the following core issues of whether the practice being challenged (i) is an essential religious practice, (ii) needs to be protected by the Constitution even when it produces harm, and (iii) being changed or abolished by the court results in the state determining what a religion is. Incidentally, the Syedna, the spiritual and temporal head of the tightly controlled Bohra community, in a press statement on June 6, 2016, stated that Khatna is a religious requirement and in societies where it is illegal, the community must follow the law of the land, but in societies where it is not illegal it must be practised. In the US, FGM is illegal. In India, it is not.
While the legal cases in both countries raise fundamental issues for a constitutional democracy, I want to focus on one aspect that has received little attention—the sacred relationship between a mother and her daughter. In most cases, when 7 or 8-year-old girls are taken by their mothers, or grandmothers, to have Khatna performed on them, they are taken on false pretenses of “having a girls’ day out”, or “going for ice-cream” or “going to have a worm removed”. Girls join their mothers willingly, and I suspect even joyfully, as they are taken to dingy rooms or posh clinics to have their genitals cut. Healthy and happy girls are transformed, within minutes, into bleeding and pain-filled children, since the procedure is not done using any local anesthesia. Mothers hold them down, aunts hold them down, while some strange woman reaches between the legs and cuts. Imagine the thoughts of the child, imagine her bewilderment. This was supposed to be a girl’s day out. Why did my mother collude with a strange lady to inflict this excruciating pain on me? Imagine the guilt. What have I done to deserve such punishment? WHO regards the pain as both physical and psychological, immediate and life-long. Which makes one wonder at the perverse power of religion, which can make a mother regard this as legitimate, twists her protective instinct and make her an accomplice in her seven-year-old daughter’s pain. Subconscious though it may be, trust is certainly betrayed. One hopes that the sense of betrayal is only temporary.
One is awed by the perverse power of religion, which can twist a mother’s protective instinct and make her an accomplice in her daughter’s pain