By Aashika Ravi
Originally published on 16 July, 2018.
The Supreme Court during hearings on the constitutionality of khafz, has said that it is violative of Article 21 and Article 15 of the Constitution (fundamental rights) that guarantees life and personal liberty and rejects discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
16 July is likely to be an eventful day for the women of the Dawoodi Bohra community. Eventful because the Supreme Court will begin hearings on whether the practice of khafz or khatna as it is known in the community, is constitutional or not.
Khafz is a practice of female genital cutting or FGC, which involves cutting or nicking a small portion of the clitoral hood of a female child. Female genital cutting has a long and bloody history, which has led to the WHO’s classification of FGC into four types, as well as their adoption of eliminating FGC as a sustainable development goal. Khafz is classified as Type-I FGC, where the clitoris or clitoral hood is partially or fully removed.
For the longest time, the practice was not discussed openly, and many stories, like this Hindustan Times article and those of survivors who have spoken about their experiences, say it was conducted discreetly in dingy backrooms of buildings, and you’ve probably guessed it already, without pre-intimation or unquestionable consent from the girl child.
But three years ago, Masooma Ranalvi, a publisher and trainer, founded Speak Out on FGM, a platform for Bohra women to share their experiences of FGC and how it had impacted their lives, after the case against three Australian Bohras who were convicted for carrying out female genital cutting, which has been banned in that country since 1997. The resulting response was immense. Scores of Dawoodi Bohra women read Ranalvi’s story and found the courage to come out with their own.
In December 2015, 17 women from the Speak Out on FGM movement signed a petition to call for a ban on FGC in India. The petition now has about 133,000 signatures. Since then, Speak Out has put out numerous petitions, campaigns and research studies.
In February last year, a Delhi advocate Sunita Tiwari filed a PIL against the practice of khafz, saying that it was carried out without medical reason, and that it caused mental and physical trauma to women forced to undergo it. This is the PIL that the Supreme Court will begin hearing on 16 July.
The twist in the story is the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), an association of over 69,000 Dawoodi Bohra women, which has intervened in the proceedings, refuting the claims made by the PIL on khafz and requesting to be made party to it.
The DBWRF’s position is simple, they say. They want to continue this practice because it is deeply rooted in their culture and they believe it is harmless. Samina Kanchwala, the spokesperson and secretary of the DBWRF invokes the notion of taharat or purity, and how circumcision in Dawoodi Bohra culture is ‘gender neutral.” What they’re asking for, as she puts it, is “live and let live”.
For Ranalvi and those trying to have the practice banned, the emergence of this powerful, well-funded organisation into the legal picture poses a significant challenge, because the DBWRF are arguing that their right to practice khafz is protected under the fundamental rights, as the right to freedom of religion.
However, Leah Verghese, an advocate at Amnesty International cites the recent triple talaq case, saying, “The Supreme Court has said that even if a practice is traditional, if it is violative of the Constitution, it can be struck down.” Verghese also warns us against pinning any hopes on the Supreme Court’s observations on khafz on 9 July, where it had stated that the practice was a violation of the bodily integrity of a girl child, saying “it could still go either way, you never know.”
Since 2015, when Ranalvi and others found the courage to speak out about their experiences with khafz, the fallout in the community has been immense. When Kanchwala says ‘live and let live’, it seems as though the DBWRF just want the legal agency to carry out khafz, but it would be naïve to assume that it would not translate to social agency as well. The existence of a social boycott of those who stand up to the practice is well-known.
Yusuf, a member of the Bohra community whose daughter was made to go through khafz against his wishes, ‘chose to hide his face’ at a recent protest ‘because he fears his parents might be harassed by jamaat authorities and his business associates might be forced to cut ties with him,’ an article in The Times of India reports. Of this social boycott, the article said, “It can range from being ostracised from places of worship, denied a burial place or being shunned by family members.”
Ranalvi too, acknowledges this social pressure, but is of the view that a favourable Supreme Court verdict can change things.
“At the moment, [social pressure] exists. It’s very real. But with the Supreme Court verdict, if it’s favourable to us, there is scope to stand up to it. The pressure is not going to go away. But now there is a support system, and a law. So if you want to stand up to it, you can. The way the community is built and structured, the pressure will remain.”
For many people who are on the fence about the issue, the Syedna or spiritual leader of the community’s word would likely nudge them one way or the other. Unfortunately, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin has come out in support of the practice during a sermon in Mumbai in 2016, going as far as to say that it should be done discreetly in countries where it is illegal.
But members of Speak Out and Sahiyo, an international NGO that focuses on elimination of FGC in all countries though, anticipated this resistance to change. But where one would expect to find battle lines crossed or mudslinging, we find a clear and deep understanding and acceptance of opposing perspectives in them, without budging from their own narrative and efforts of change.
What seems to be most important for them, is the sensitisation of the community to the fact that there are experiences that don’t fit neatly into the pre-existing narrative of the religious and personal significance of khafz.
“It’s a question of building the narrative in a way that, ‘this is an age-old tradition but it has harmed women and there are so many cases and so many narratives of women who have shared how it has impacted their life.’ A section of the community is listening to that, because it’s the first time we’re discussing an issue like this. I would like to focus on that part — that there is ignorance, but we are working towards building an awareness on that.” Ranalvi says.
Aarefa Johari, co-founder of Sahiyo and award-winning journalist, voices a similar sentiment. “In a way it’s good this is all coming out into the open, because it was a taboo topic for so many centuries and no one ever spoke about it. The fact that now it’s part of public discourse, that the community members are talking about it, it’s great because if this hadn’t happened, then people would just continue it unthinkingly.”
And the campaigners are quick to call out people who disrespect Bohri women whichever side of this debate they are on. In a Facebook interaction with a name-calling man who declared that all women who’ve undergone khafz have traumatic experiences, Johari said, “There are women who did not experience pain. Or don’t have any memories of the event and don’t think much of it. Dismissing or denying their personal stories is not very different from them dismissing the stories of women who have suffered bad experiences.”
What Johari said later perfectly sums up her approach to a highly polarising campaign, “At Sahiyo, we don’t use words like ‘fight’ and ‘root out.’ We’re not at war with the community, we just want to engage with the community. It’s more of a dialogue, and not a fight.”
Whatever the Supreme Court verdict is, it will not change a centuries-old practice overnight. But it will strengthen the work of Speak Out and Sahiyo, and in the meantime, they are happy to open a dialogue with others in their community and sow the seeds for change.
Co-published with Firstpost