Hanan, UK

A Mother's Daughter

I write this piece as the daughter of an FGM survivor. I have been privileged to have been spared the knife, thanks to the tough stand taken by my mother, Tasneema, in making sure that I was not circumcised. All my cousins and peers my age in the community have had no such luck.

This is the story of my mom, Tasneema, which she shared with me when I became an adult.

When she was 7 years old on the pretence of taking her out for a walk, her grandmother took her to a crumbling building on a side street of Bohri Mohalla, Mumbai. Tasneema was curious about the destination, but all her questions of her grandmother were brushed away. They entered a small dingy room which was divided into two by a screen at the middle. Tasneema was taken behind the screen by her grandmother and another elderly lady and told to lie still. They physically pinned her down, held her hands and legs and told her not to move. Then there was a sharp pain down there and it was done. A sharp unsterilized instrument like a blade was used. A traumatised Tasneema kept this hurtful memory of this day within her. She never knew and was never told as to what had happened to her that day and why did that happen.

My mother realised very late in her life that was had happened to her as a child was known as female genital mutilation or khatna. She read about the implications of this on her body and her sexuality and she inspired me to not take my privilege of not being cut lightly. Instead, she has gently nudged me to take up cudgels for a cause beyond our individual lives and be part of a broader awareness and advocacy against FGM which persists in the Bohra community even today.

From its very inception, I became a part of the Speak Out On FGM whatsapp group.The group was set up as a discreet forum allowing Dawoodi Bohra women to share their opinions and experiences on FGM among the community and to identify ways to end the practice. What was startling about the initial discussions within the group was that only a small percentage of the women involved who had undergone FGM really understood what had happened to them and why.

While the Bohra community predominantly practices Type 1 FGM which involves a partial removal of the clitoris, unlike some African communities which practice more severe types of FGM, the potential negative consequences to the victim’s health still remain. The practice is often carried out by traditional circumcisers in unhygienic conditions which can also result in serious medical injuries. Even when carried out by health care providers, the procedure can lead to urinary infections, menstrual problems and sexual problems and also psychological trauma from being cut. As per the WHO, there appear to be no known health benefits.

With the possibility of these detrimental impacts to the health of perfectly normal girls why has FGM been viewed as controversial by anthropologists?

In western societies where FGM is banned it is practiced primarily only by one part of the population, specifically by migrants from former colonies. Several pro-FGM supporters have called anti-FGM campaigns like Speak Out against FGM as “an extension of colonialism”. They state that depicting circumcision as a harmful practice is simply enforcing western norms on the non-western cultures. This is a view that has been taken up by even some western academics themselves.

To brand a community led movement like Speak Out as ‘colonialism’ is incorrect. The voices that are speaking up against FGM as part of the Speak Out campaign and many other campaigns across the world, are those of women from within the community, many who have themselves experienced the practice and are facing the physical and psychological repercussions today. Yet their voices have not been heard enough. All the petitions within the community have been met by stony silence from the Syedna and other clergy. Many are afraid to speak out, for fear of being excommunicated, cutting them off from friends, family and places of worship.

Those that see anti-FGM campaigns as colonial, have argued that clitoral unhooding, surgery that reduces the size of the clitoral hood is allowed in the west and women can choose to undergo the operation but when practiced by other cultures is termed as ‘FGM’. Western medicine is seen to be prejudicial in differentiating between the procedures based on cultural differences.

This however, is a false equivalence. Although such surgery is allowed, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) states that women looking to get these procedures done must be fully informed of the potential health risks such as surgical-wound infection, nerve damage, pain during intercourse and painful scars. This argument also ignores the fact that FGM amongst Bohras is usually carried out on minors as young as 6 and not women who are fully aware and consenting, as is this case with clitoral unhooding surgery, of the repercussions of this procedure. The victim’s consent, in this case a child, is completely disregarded.

The change that has taken place already is remarkable. Women from the community, like my mother have come out and are now  openly expressing all their repressed anger against the practice and are calling for it to be banned. Yet, as with any social change, a certain amount of momentum is needed to ensure that there is fruition of the desired outcome. To sustain this momentum the Bohra women need the support of both those within and outside the community. This involves doing more than just tip-toeing around the edges for fear of being labelled ‘colonial’. The recent coverage provided by the Indian media has certainly helped, as has the conviction in Australia. Both the external and internal momentum combined will force the necessary and much needed discourse that needs to take place within the community.