Female Genital Mutilation: The Other Woman’s Narrative

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Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision refers to the procedure which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or any other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons (WHO, 2018). FGM/C is broadly classified into 4 major types by the WHO (1996):

Type I: Referred to as clitoridectomy, where there is partial removal of the clitoris which is a sensitive and small part present in the end of the vulva and is an erectile part of the female genitalia. In some cases, the fold of the skin that is surrounded around the clitoris, prepuce, is also removed.

Type II: Referred to as excision, where there is partial or total removal of the clitoris and the inner folds of the vulva, labia minora, which is performed with or without excision of the outer folds of skin of the vulva, labia majora.

Type III: Referred to as infibulation where the vaginal opening is narrowed through the creation of a seal by the stitching or cutting of the labia minora or labia majora. The process is usually performed with or without the removal of the clitoris.

Type IV: This type of cutting includes pricking, piercing, incising, scraping off the clitoris or labia, stretching of the clitoris or labia so as to widen it and then introducing substances to tighten it.

The practice of Female Genital Mutilation/ Circumcision among the Bohra Muslim Community is considered an important ritual and seen as a practice “for a young girl to become a part of the community”. The surgery is performed on a newborn child and even a few times later. The practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision has a historical background where according to tradition, if a women is not circumcised, she is considered “impure or unworthy of marriage”. Often the debate about female circumcision is contradicted by male circumcision which involves the removal/cutting of the foreskin from the tip of the penis without damaging the organ itself. The practice has different socio-cultural impacts on men and women where the latter is performed and associated often with masculinity and virility.

In 2011, there was an online petition released for banning the practice of female circumcision among the Dawoodi Bohras, under the pseudonomous name Tasleem. The community is Ismaili Shia and culturally can be traced to the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. The cultural practice of “female circumcision” is practiced in parts of Asia and pre-dominantly in Middle East countries. The practice has today gathered significant attention in the realm of international policy. With this online petition, the topic came up for public and official discussion/s for the first time in India.

Post this petition in 2011, three people were convicted of Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision in Australia where one doctor and two of the family members were sent to the jail for trying to cover up the case/act. This incident created a huge cry in the Indian context and in a public gathering, the head of the Bohra Muslim Community, Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin, spoke in favor of the practice, bringing up the cultural, traditional and religious importance of the ritual. In 2005, Sahiyo, a small collective organization was formed  among five women who came together and discussed their shared experiences. Sahiyo, or friends comprised of women from diverse backgrounds and different professions who had undergone the surgery. The main objective of the collective organization was to “empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities and to end Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcison/Cutting and create a positive social change through dialogue, education and collaboration based on community involvement”.

“Why not think of other ways of initiating the rite of passage of women, why should it be painful, why not something positive? In order to beat the system, you have to be part of the system. I/we are very much part of the community but I do not want a group of men (clergy) telling me what to do (Aarefa Johari, founder of Sahiyo). 

The organization has challenged the practice and represented its voices across various public platforms and the online social media handle has gained around one lakh supporters. They have used different means of spreading their message and confronting people about the activity. The platform has conducted different meetings and engaged with testimonies of the survivors as well while also working hand in hand with media for spreading their message.

The rights of women to equality of religious practice has always created space for political challenges as the ‘guardians’ of most religions are men. Thus religion is seen by many feminists as another institution that constitutes patriarchal power. Learning about FGM/C practices from outside the cultures commonly conclude that these practices violates humanitarian values and are harmful in nature. Sussan Moller Okin posed a proactive question: ‘Is multiculturalism bad for women? If these practices are based on traditional cultural values, can outsiders challenge them without challenging the cultural integrity of the people who practice them? Further, under what circumstances and through what means we can attempt to alter the beliefs and practices of others?’

Jomo Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, wrote a book entitled, ‘Facing Mount Kenya’ where he strongly argued in favor of FGM/C, viewing the British colonial criticism of it as essentially cultural imperialism. Historical documents from various parts of colonial Africa depict angry reactions towards the practice specifically in the case of European missionaries. Fran Hosken was accused of ‘inappropriate cultural interference’ as she was a non – African woman. In many parts, the practice became famous because of the European animosity towards circumcision when Africa then claimed it as ‘foreign encroachment and cultural interference’. Joan Scott mentions that for many years now, FGM/C has had ‘only paradoxes to offer’. The perspective of Africanity, expresses the significant tension which erupted between new, imported colonialist structures and old resilient African structures. One of the most significant aspects of this controversy has raged in anthropology, whose tradition of cultural relativism stresses on the importance of understanding the human condition in all its manifestations and variations. Therefore it is important to understand and study the cultural context and background of the practice. Anthropologists have focused on circumcision as a cultural expression that involves the body, its modifications, and the ensuing cultural and social implications. Isabella R. Gunnig argues that as feminists, we must develop a method of understanding culturally challenging practices that preserve the sense of respect and equality of various and different cultures. The focus should be on multicultural dialogue with a shared search for areas of overlap, shared concerns and values. Fran Hosken, who has worked extensively on the abolition of this surgery, has been described by Ellen Gruenbaum as ‘notorious’ not because of all her hard work and probable good intentions but because of the ‘us helping them’ approach. The issue aggravated at an international women’s conference in 1980, where Hosken along with another Western woman, Renee Saurel, presented a presentation which included visual images of the procedure. This created an issue among African feminists who walked out in protest.

Practices like FGM/C are culturally challenging representations for feminists applying international human rights law to the specific concerns of women in the multicultural context. Therefore, we should think of a new alliance or construct ones that do not necessarily rely on the notion of the universal female subject, while on the other hand we cannot reach new possibilities through a simplistic binary freezing of differences and similarities, of women vis-à-vis men, and of the ‘us’ vis-à-vis  minority and/or the Third World communities.

Spriha Shukla is a Blogger at One Future Collective.

Featured image source: The Quint