FGM: A CRUEL CUT

India Today - - UPFRONT - PETER RON­ALD deSOUZA Peter Ron­ald deSouza is a pro­fes­sor at the Cen­tre for the Study of De­vel­op­ing So­ci­eties. The views ex­pressed here are per­sonal

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

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