Activists See India as New Front in Fight Against Female Genital Mutilation

Washington — A U.N. report released Friday about the prevalence of female genital mutilation around the globe is drawing attention to the practice among the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Muslim minority sect based in India.

India is not on the UNICEF list of 31 countries released Friday. But the extent of FGM in India, although small relative to its population and long shrouded in secrecy, is coming into the open.

The ritual is mostly practiced by the Dawoodi Bohras, a subsect of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam with an estimated 1 to 2 million followers around the globe. Recent surveys show that as many as 80% of Bohra girls undergo genital mutilation as a religious right of passage.

“We are still significant, even if our numbers are few,” said Aarefa Johari, a Dawoodi Bohra activist and co-founder of Sahiyo, an anti-FGM advocacy group. “Injustices and harmful practices must be opposed because they are wrong, not because of the number of people they affect.”

Affluent and politically influential, most Dawoodi Bohras live in India’s Gujarat province, with smaller communities thriving in Pakistan, Yemen, East Africa, the Middle East, Australia and North America.

The World Health Organization defines FGM, also known as female genital cutting, as “procedures involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons.” The organization says the practice has no health benefits and classifies it as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

The UNICEF report, released on International Women’s Day, shows that more than 230 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, an increase of 30 million compared with data released eight years ago. Africa accounts for over 144 million of the total, followed by Asia with over 80 million, and the Middle East with 6 million.

Shelby Quast, an international human rights lawyer, said India should have been “absolutely” included in the UNICEF report.

Noting that FGM is practiced in at least 92 countries, she said the report captures “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“We can’t eliminate FGM by 2030 if we’re not looking at it in all the countries where it exists,” Quast said in an interview.

The method practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra community involves the cutting of a part of the clitoral hood. The Bohras deny it’s a form of genital mutilation. They prefer the term khatna, or female circumcision, and say it is safe. Although not endorsed by most Muslim scholars, the Dawoodi Bohras see it as a religious duty.

Until recent years, the practice was little-known outside the close-knit community. The issue came to light after a 2011 online campaign launched by survivors. Others came forward with harrowing stories of trauma.

Court cases in Australia and the United States exposed its prevalence among diaspora communities.

In 2016, three Dawoodi Bohras in Australia were sentenced to 15 months in prison for violating the country’s FGM ban.

In 2017, four members of the community in the U.S., including two doctors, were charged with performing FGM on at least six minor girls. A federal judge later dismissed the charges as unconstitutional, but the case put the spotlight on the Dawoodi Bohra community’s practice of FGM.

Spurred by the publicity, community activists and human rights advocates sprang into action to shed light on the problem.

Research by Johari’s group revealed that FGM was also practiced by small communities in India’s Kerala state.

Female genital mutilation was long associated with Africa. But the recent “discovery” of FGM in India and other Asian communities has shown that it’s a global problem, Johari said.

“I believe it has important implications for the global movement to end it,” said Johari, herself a survivor.

Like many Dawoodi Bohra girls, Johari was “cut” at the age of 7. The physical effects of the ritual sometimes extend into adulthood. But Johari considers herself among the fortunate; she was spared the complications.

“What impacted me at a later age, however, was the realization and the understanding of what had been done to me,” Johari said via email from Mumbai. “When you are cut as a young child, you have no way of knowing what your original anatomy was like, how much was cut, and how it will affect your sexual experiences later.

“[FGM] supporters in the community like to claim that our type of ‘mild’ cut makes no difference to sexual life; some even claim it enhances sexual pleasure,” Johari said. “But none of them have a frame of reference, and the uncertainty, the not knowing, leaves me feeling frustrated, helpless and angry.”

The discord has divided the community. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the group’s spiritual leader, has defied calls for a ban.

“Whatever the world says, we should be strong and firm. … It must be done,” he said during a religious sermon in Mumbai in 2016.

Meanwhile, Indian government officials have wavered on the issue, and a push to criminalize FGM has stalled in India’s Supreme Court, according to Lakshmi Anantnarayan, a human rights activist and researcher.

Some officials initially backed a prohibition only to change their position and deny FGM’s existence, Anantnarayan said.

A petition filed in 2017 with India’s Supreme Court demanding an FGM ban has triggered strong pushback from the powerful Bohra community.

The petition calls FGM a discriminatory practice and a gross violation of the rights of women and girls. But Bohra leaders, joined by a group of Bohra women, have defended it as an “essential” religious ritual protected under India’s Constitution.

The Supreme Court has tasked two panels with examining the constitutionality of female genital cutting. A decision in the case is still pending.

The delay “clearly demonstrates the lack of political will amongst legal authorities, policymakers and law enforcement to prioritize protecting girls from FGM in India,” Anantnarayan said in an email. “Like so many other issues of violence against women in India, FGM/C too continues to be practiced with impunity as the country just turns a blind eye to the plight of women and girls.”

The Indian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

India is not the only Asian country without an FGM ban. The ritual persists in at least 10 countries on the continent, all without legal prohibition.

In the face of opposition from the powerful Bohra community, many activists view a ban as unlikely. But they don’t see changing laws as a panacea. Instead, they find hope in shifting mindsets.

Mariya Taher, another co-founder of Sahiyo and herself a survivor, noted that the same survey that revealed an 80% prevalence rate of FGM among the Bohras also found that 81% opposed continuing the tradition.

“The assumption was that everyone thought it was important to continue,” she said in an interview.

She said she learned from talking to fellow Dawoodi Bohras in the U.S. that some mosque leaders have been quietly urging mothers to spare their daughters, despite the group’s official stance.

“I think social change takes a long time, but it’s heartening to see that as this issue gets more attention, we are seeing that attitudes towards it are shifting,” she said.

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