Three members of the Bohra community in Australia were recently convicted for performing FGM on two little sisters, bringing to global attention continued existence of the condemned practice among this global community whose origins is India. Five Bohra women are working hard to end this practice, as they discuss in this interview.
It was little known, until recently, that Female Genital Mutilation is practiced also in India. The only known community who performs it is the Dawoodi Bohra, a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Islam, who trace their roots back to the Fatimid Dynasty of Yemen in the 11th century. It is estimated that its population is between one and two million, half of whom live in India and the rest in the diaspora. A sizeable community lives in East Africa.
One of the traditions that the Bohras carry is khatna, Female Genital Mutilation. Normally performed on girls at the age of 7, khatna is meant to moderate a woman’s sexual urges preventing her from having pre-marital or extra-marital sexual affairs.
Known as a well-educated community that empowers women as well, the Bohras differ from other Shia Muslims, having their own practices and traditions. They are the only known Muslim community in India who perform khatna and they have never been outspoken about it, at least not much until three members of the community based in Australia were recently prosecuted for having performed FGM on two little sisters. This event has helped other Bohras to take a stand and become open to discuss the issue.
In 2012 Indian activist Tasleem started a petition on the platform Change.org to ask the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the religious leader of the community, to put a ban on khatna. Later last year another petition End FGM in India collected almost 50,000 signatures.
In 2012, Indian filmmaker Priya Goswami was awarded the National Film Award for her film A pinch of skin, about khatna within the Bohras. Later last year together with Insia Dariwala (filmaker), Aarefa Johari (journalist), Shaheeda Tavawalla Kirtane (researcher), Mariya Taher (social worker), she has co-founded Sahyio, a nonprofit organization to address FGM within the Bohra community and widely in other communities in South East Asia.
Sahyio (www.sahyio.com) is the Bohra Gujarati word for Saheliyo, meaning friends. The name reflects the organization’s mission to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution towards ending khatna.
Since it started its public activity Sahyio has launched several campaigns which have raised a public dialogue on khatna among the Bohras. This February Sahyio started, along with Speak Out FGM, Each One Reach One (EORO) campaign in which one woman reaches another one talking openly about khatna and her experience undergoing it. The campaign gained success inspiring many women worldwide to share their experiences of khatna.
More recently Sahyio promoted the I Am Bohra Photo Campaign where Bohra members are invited to post on social networks and media their photo with a placard telling the world why they would like the community to stop practicing khatna. More and more Bohras are speaking out against the practice, in the media, in blogs, on social media and, most importantly, among their friends and families.
Following the recent conviction of three Bohra members in Australia for having performed khatna on two little sisters, some Bohra Jamaat (Assembly) have explicitly stood against FGM as it violates the law of the country where they have migrated and live. Up to now the Sydney, Melbourne, London, San Jose/California, Tampa, NY, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Orange County have banned FGM. The movement is spreading. We invite all the Jamaat of every country in the world where Bohras are to ban khatna as it is a violation of human rights. The most important step would be the complete ban announced from the central headquarter in Mumbai, the Badri Mahal.
VALENTINA MMAKA - In 2012 Tasleem, and Indian activist, launched the first online petition to ask the entire Bohra community to sign against the khatna and address the issue to the religious leaders of the community. Can you say that has been the starting point that turned attention on khatna within the Bohra community in a public space? What has changed since then within the Bohras in India and in the diaspora?
MARIYA TAHER: Actually, women have been bringing the topic of khatna to the forefront of the Bohra community for years before Tasleem did. Mariya (one of the co-founders of Sahiyo) wrote an article discussing this movement. Here is a section from her article published in the Huffington Post:
“Over the years, there have been various attempts by Dawoodi Bohra women around the world to speak out against female genital cutting and to call for an end to this practice. One of the first studies that I am aware of regarding the practice of FGC in the Dawoodi Bohra community is "All for 'Izzat': The Practice of Female Circumcision Among Bohra Muslims in India." This small case study documenting the practice was done in 1994 by Rehana Ghadially.
“In the last few years, other voices have called for action through articles in magazines, other publications, and blogs by survivors of khatna as well as their supporters. In fact, I have also written about my own experience for the Imagining Equality Project. This tradition does not just happen within Dawoodi Bohras in India, but also to diaspora groups of Dawoodi Bohras that now reside worldwide. For example, Australia recently tried their first case of female genital cutting within the Bohra community there.”
However, the petition might be the first time that social media/internet was used to draw attention to instances of FGC amongst Dawoodi Bohras. And it definitely did add to khatna being talked about within the media. I do think that since that time, social media has had a huge impact on connecting Bohra women who have underground khatna and who have questioned it or have been against it in an easier way on a global level. It has made people able to find one another and support each other. That is really how the origins of Sahiyo came about a few years ago. Now with this second petition, and with the Each One Reach One campaign, even more attention is being placed on the practice of khatna. There is dialogue occurring in larger numbers, and that is always a needed step for change within the community. The religious authorities have yet to comment on the practice, and that is unfortunate. However, we hope that too will change.
PRIYA GOSWAMI: The petition may have been the start of sorts but what actually brought in the change was the continued media attention and work on the subject; be it via films, media coverage or via women who spoke out on this subject openly, over the past five years or so.
Since you mention Tasleem, I would like to share an anecdote here: she was a very interesting starting point for me personally. In late 2011, while still searching for people who would be willing to speak to me for my documentary, I came across Tasleem. I remember her getting in touch and me persuading her to come out in the open, reveal herself and her stance against the practice. While one still doesn’t know who she is (Tasleem is her pseudonym) she kept on working under her hidden identity and connecting a lot of people to me and vice-versa. Even under anonymity, she helped connect a lot of dots by bringing people together via emails, etc. Although I am not in touch with her, I believe that she is still in touch with some of us and still continues to connect dots! In a difficult situation such as this, there are so many covert ways to continue to work towards the goal even under anonymity!
Having said that, as Mariya mentioned, there have been people who have been speaking about khatna before Tasleem’s petition. However, initiated by the petition a lot of media attention ensued which was key in changing things. I remember getting in touch with Bohra women after reading an article as early as 2011. Also having observed the course of change over the last few years now, I feel that the continued attention is the reason why this issue has suddenly gained momentum.
When my film came out in 2012, I remember so many journalists telling me that they had no idea that this happened in India too! And this is when articles had already started pouring in. It is not so today. Today if you dig up the archives, in the last few years will form a continuum comprising news articles, films, in-depth op-eds, etc.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Last year in Australia took place the first trial in which three Bohra people were convicted for having performed khatna on two little sisters. How did this event impact the community and what has been the reaction of the religious leaders? Do you envision India banning FGM one day? What would be the obstacles to that?
AAREFA JOHARI: The Australian trial has definitely been a landmark one for the community. Even though religious authorities did not publicly react to it - so much so that many Bohras around the world were not even aware of it - the case was reported in the international media and was soon picked up by sections of the Indian media as well. This brought in a certain amount of negative publicity for Bohra khatna that must certainly have placed some pressure on community authorities. Initially, the reaction in the community had been very hush-hush, but things suddenly took a different turn on February 9, 2016. The Australian court is in the middle of hearings to decide the quantum of punishment for the accused. In the midst of this, the Bohra authorities headquartered in Sydney sent out a notice to all Australian Bohras asking them to obey the law of the land and not do khatna on girls any more, even by taking girls overseas for the procedure. Within two days, the notice was reported about in the media and was all over Bohra WhatsApp and email groups. We began to hear anecdotes from fellow activists, about loads of Bohras suddenly starting to talk about khatna, many of them expressing support for the cause to end the practice.
Many Bohras are now pushing authorities across the world to make such announcements wherever FGM is illegal. There is renewed enthusiasm to push for a legislation against khatna in India.
MARIYA TAHER: Personally, however, I don’t believe that legislation will be what ends FGC in India or amongst Bohras in other parts of the world. It’s banned already in the United States, but still it is occurring, in secret. So even if India does ban FGM, I don’t believe it will end the practice. However, legislation can be an important acknowledgment that FGC is a form of gender violence that should not occur. It can help pave the way for other support and prevention programs to be created. But it needs to be coupled with community dialogue and education.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Last year Sahiyo was born, an organization based in India which has the aim to "empower Bohra women and other Asian communities to end FGM”. What led you all to found this organization? What motivated each one of you to break the silence around FGM in India which is still a huge taboo subject?
MARIYA TAHER: Sahiyo began more than a year ago as a conversation between five women who felt strongly about the ritual of female genital cutting (khatna) in the Bohra community. Each one of us had been working on the topic of FGC for many years. Our group includes a social worker, a researcher, two filmmakers and a journalist, and all of us had already been speaking out, in our own ways, against the practice of khatna. As our collaboration grew, we realized the need for an organized, informed forum within the community that could help drive a movement to bring an end to khatna. That is how Sahiyo, the organization, was born. Sahiyo is the Bohra Gujarati word for ‘saheliyo’, or friends, and reflects our organization’s mission to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution towards ending the practice of FGC.
This is how we started and from our origin, we realized that the way to end FGC was to build a movement from the ground up. This includes first finding out how widespread FGC is amongst the community. There are no large-scale studies at the moment. Only anecdotal evidence. This is all very important, but we knew to be able to really reach out to our community, we needed to carry out a type of needs assessment, this is why we carried out the first online survey on khatna. Our group also recognized that FGC is not just a problem in India as Bohra who migrated took the tradition with them, hence there was a need to ensure that we were focusing on how to stop the practice amongst Bohra regardless of where in the world they were.
I think we all come from understanding that not everyone is able to or capable of talking about FGC out loud in the community.
MARIYA TAHER: It took me many years to finally come to a point where I felt I could talk about FGC in public without fear for my family members being socially excluded from the community. It’s hard, but I also had a lot of great mentors along the way who helped me think about both the positive and negative consequences of talking out loud. And there are some - you risk being alienated by family members, losing loved ones, amongst many other reasons. In the end, I felt I wanted to be a supportive voice for those who are unable to talk about FGC or for those who are unsure of the practice but want to reach out to someone and talk to them in a nonjudgmental way.
INSIA DARIWALA: For me it was a very different reason. I was never cut. My sister was. And it sort of felt that I was being punished for not being cut. I used to get left out from some of the ritualistic gatherings in which my sister and other cousins used to participate. Possibly since I was not considered ‘clean’ or a ‘good girl’; something that I reasoned out today. But as a young child I didn't know what khatna was, and felt that perhaps I was not good enough, or not pretty enough to be a part of that ‘special’ group. So even though I did not undergo the trauma of being cut, I had to live through the trauma of being cut off.
Today, as a filmmaker and a child rights activist, I choose to address that feeling through my films and art. I find visual art a very powerful means of reaching out and expressing our deepest fears and emotions. In fact, I have a film ready on FGC which is aptly titled The Good Girl.
When all of us decided to come together as a group to form Sahiyo, it just seemed organically right. Here we were, five women, from different walks of life, on the same journey, with the same voice; and that was to reclaim our power. Through Sahiyo, we have not only found our own voices, but also given many women a platform to break the silence within themselves. They might choose to stay anonymous, but at least they are not living an inwardly anonymous life anymore.
AAREFA JOHARI: I had been speaking against khatna at home, to my mother, all through my university years. But I think the trigger to speak more publicly came when Tasleem started her petition and the media began to look for Bohra women who would openly give their testimonies without concealing their identities. I realized immediately that I did not mind revealing my identity or publicly condemning this practice - there was a lot of resentment and fury about the practice that had built up over the years. Since my mother has been supportive of my decision from the beginning, it has helped a lot. I realize that my family could face trouble from the authorities, but that hasn’t happened so far, and my mother’s support makes everything easier.
PRIYA GOSWAMI: In 2012, I made a film called A pinch of skin which was on the practice of Female Genital Cutting among Dawoodi Bohras. After making the film and several screenings later, I realized that it was much more than a just a subject for me. In a certain sense it was hard to move away from it, especially since it had a deep-seated impact on me as a filmmaker. It was my most important work and what the film was speaking about was a real-life practice which impacts thousands of women. I want to see this practice coming to an end and I wanted to be a part that change. And this is when Sahiyo happened!
As filmmakers we are told that we cannot affect change but only start a dialogue. A pinch of skin (APOS) for me was that initiation. Today, as a part of Sahiyo I already see so much has changed in these quick four to five years. While making APOS no one across the country was willing to reveal their identity. Today brave women such as Aarefa from India, Mariya from the US, have not only come out in the open but are also fighting their battles openly and are no longer hiding in anonymity. If this can happen only in a span of four/five years, I am hopeful that one day we will be able to usher in the day when FGC is discontinued among Bohras.
SHAHEEDA TARAWALLA KIRTANE: My mother has always been my greatest influence and my strength to work on this as a researcher, and my voice to speak on this comes from her. Not only has she helped shape my views on khatna, but she has also guided my internal moral compass. When I started university, I came across a bag we had brought from India upon our immigration to Canada (my mother is a lawyer trained to practice law in two jurisdictions - India and Canada), and it was full of literature and videos from various organizations like WHO and UNICEF, to whom my mother had written seeking information on FGM. This discovery started a more informed discussion with my mother on the subject of khatna (I had always known what it was as my mother had educated me on the subject as a child, so I couldn't be tricked by anyone from my immediate or distant family to go with them and have it done to me as a child). At the University of Toronto, my interest on the subject sparked after realizing the great injustice to which my mother and my six aunts were subjected to as children. Subject grew from a medical and research perspective and I had approached professors as the university to see if I could pursue graduate work on the subject - but there was very little interest and information available on khatna amongst the Dawoodi Bohras. Irrespective of my being about to pursue graduate work on the subject, I knew research was essential in order to understand the extent of the practice and to come up with holistic and community-driven ways to address khatna.
After connecting with the other girls from Sahiyo, the first thing I told them we must do is some kind of study. Connecting with Mariya, who had already done her masters thesis on this practice in USA, allowed us to brainstorm and put the online survey in place. As a researcher, I am really hoping that the online and on-the-ground survey in India will allow us to throw light on the real-world scenario of khatna amongst the Dawoodi Bohras. Our future need-based interventions that will come forth from the results of both these survey give me great hope that, perhaps, an end to this practice is indeed really possible.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Bohras live in the diaspora, and also in East Africa, how could Sahyio represent a point of reference for those who never really spoke out on the issue of khatna and feel doing it now in the countries they live?
MARIYA TAHER: I think we are already doing that just by the nature of who are the founders of Sahiyo. Mariya was born and raised in the United States and has done extensive work connecting with other NGOs, health workers, governments, etc, to address FGC. She has also connected with other women in the United States who have undergone it and are from the United States. We’ve also heard from Bohra women from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and more places. One of the great things about our survey is that it was open to Bohra women around the world.
SHAHEEDA TARAWALLA KIRTANE: Our Sahiyo blog and volunteer set-up will act as a point of reference to allow women from all over India as well as the world to involve themselves and participate in work to bring about an end to khatna in various ways. Whether it be by simply by penning down their thoughts, feelings and childhood memories of khatna or doing a bit of work, in whatever capacity, for our on-the-ground survey that will follow later in the year.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Does Sahiyo aim to collaborate with organizations in other countries to support the Bohra community or other Asian FGM practicing communities to find a free space to lead a cultural change towards the eradication of khatna?
MARIYA TAHER: Absolutely and we’re already doing this, as well. Various members of Sahiyo have relationships with organizations such as Wadi, Equality Now, Orchid Project, Tostan, the U.S. Consulate, and more.
INSIA DARIWALA : Yes and recently we were also present at the Asian FGM convention in Singapore which was organized by Wadi and Aware. It was quite an enlightening experience to meet with other women who were cut, to learn about what their thoughts were on khatna, and to understand what legal remedial measures were being implemented to understand/stop FGM in that part of the world.
VALENTINA MMAKA: Is your goal also to mediate between the community and the religious leaders of the community who support the khatna? Did you receive any feedback or sign of dialogue from the leaders since Sahiyo became operative?
MARIYA TAHER: I think we addressed this in earlier answers, but we haven’t heard too much from religious leaders yet, but we do seek to engage them in dialogue later on, as we know that we need to encourage dialogue amongst all members of the community.
INSIA DARIWALA: I think it’s extremely imperative to have room for dialogue with the religious leaders of the community. We are a small faction in this populous world and closely knit to the religious diktats issued by the higher priests. Whatever they say becomes the way of life for the Bohras. So I do feel if the high priests engage in a dialogue with the women and try to understand the ramifications of an outdated practice, good sense may prevail.
VALENTINA MMAKA: You all belong to different areas of competence: film, journalism, writing, health care. Starting from your background, in which way do you think your own personal contribution will change the perception of FGM within the Bohra community in India and abroad and raise a public dialogue around it?
MARIYA TAHER: We all build on each other’s strengths. Priya and Insia understand the power of the visual medium; Mariya and Shaheeda understand the importance of research; Aarefa knows the importance of reportage and publicity - all of these things help Sahiyo understand the various ways in which we can reach the community, engage with them, and provide support to them.
INSIA DARIWALA: Yes we do bring to the table diverse problem-solving methods, which I believe is our biggest strength.
PRIYA GOSWAMI: I agree with Insia and Mariya. Sahiyo’s biggest strength lies in the different mediums we bring to the table.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Goals and expectations of Sahiyi’s work in the next few years?
- To bring an end to the practice of female circumcision, which has been recognized as a human rights violation by WHO, UNFPA and UNICEF.
- To enable a culture in which a woman/girl's body and female sexuality is not feared or suppressed, but embraced as normal
- To recognize and emphasize the values of consent and a child/woman's right over her own body
- Spread awareness about the practice of FGC and its perils; engage in conversations and dialogue about FGC through group discussions, seminars, conferences, workshops, films and other events.
- Provide peer counselling and information to families who are considering khatna for young daughters or grand-daughters
- Connect women who experience khatna-related problems to appropriate social services or individuals such as doctors, counselors, social workers, etc.
- Conduct workshops (art-based and regular) to understand women's experiences of khatna and reinforce feelings of empowerment
- Conduct surveys of various Bohra sects: One of the main intentions for doing this research is to find out more about the practice of khatna in the Bohra community, so that based on the results, we are able to formulate an appropriate strategy that engages all stakeholders to end this practice.
- We would like to work on community-driven awareness and advocacy initiatives that are aimed towards ending FGC, like organizing town hall discussions and dialogue with Dawoodi Bohra women, Dawoodi Bohra clergy, doctors and nurses, midwives and “traditional cutters”, media, etc.
VALENTINA MMAKA - Sahiyo has conducted the first online Study on khatna. Can you give us a glimpse of this work and if /where is it available for readers?
MARIYA TAHER: We’re working hard on analyzing the data and writing up the report. For now we can let you know that preliminary results show that 80% of respondents reported having khatna done. Our goal is to have the report published in May.
* Valentina A. Mmaka is writer and activist: http://valentinammaka.blogspot.com