Misogyny is a universal game, and its playing field is the female body. It includes regularly ripping out body hair from tender places, and making noses smaller and breasts bigger. From breaking your face to deforming your feet, there is no upper limit on what a culture can demand of women’s bodies.
In a small hall on Marine Drive, eight photographs of women are propped up, holding photographs of themselves as children – a before and after. In the next room, each of these women is vibrantly present. Some have brought their mothers; two have brought their new babies. They are of all ages, in lipstick from a sedate taupe to an unabashed orange. They are bonding over the urge to start a conversation over an area generally avoided in polite company – khatna.
Khatna; Khafd (pronounced khafz); khitaan; female genital mutilation, female circumcision; cutting.
A practice that simultaneously receives too much attention and not enough, female genital cutting (FGC) occurs in India with an insidious regularity. It passes without comment, with the idea of FGC rooted firmly in a vague, threatening geography of a barbaric land, practiced savagely.
The ladies sipping their chai put the lie to this Other. They are of the Bohra Muslim community – one that is rich, educated and routinely cuts the genitals of its seven-year-old daughters. Sahiyo is an organisation that works to empower Asian communities to end female genital cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education and collaboration based on community involvement. Today, it’s holding an exhibition ‘Faces for Change’ to put a face to the numbers, with a petition urging the United Nations to include Asia in its Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate FGC by 2030.
“It hurt. After it happened, my mom said, we don’t tell anyone, okay? I went home and lay down, and I asked her if I could go to the bathroom, and she said yes. I went, and I screamed,” says Fakhera Merchant, a counsellor.
“We don’t talk about it. One woman will ask another, naak vindavanu (nose piercing) is done?” she says, tapping her nose. “I know a friend who said, ‘Yes, but I couldn’t do it myself – I let my mother-in-law take my girls to get it done.’”
Aarefa Johari, a journalist at Scroll.in, says, “Often the fathers disapprove, but some mothers do it without their knowledge.” The men are not included in frank conversations about khatna, even though they know khatna exists.
Khatna is not an action taken with deliberate malice or ill-will. “Our mothers simply did it because it was done to them,” says Merchant.
Eliza Kapadia, a family physician from the Bohra community who has also gone through the procedure, sees millennial mothers coming to her to ask if she will perform it. “It’s not about the culture, it’s a mob mentality. It’s peer pressure, from your parents, from your in-laws. I’ve had girls come to me and say, ‘Auntie I had to do it, my mother-in-law was not listening.’”
Consent is nebulous – it is supposed to rest with the mother, and even that is frequently disregarded by overzealous grandmothers. The consent of the child is irrelevant.
In smaller cities, the organisation WeSpeakOut was informed, some ‘cutters’ would keep track of the families with girls who came of age – and indirectly make it known through the community if girls were not cut. Each girl’s khatna is a source of income – this is both community service and fiscal planning.
It is difficult to pinpoint a locus of blame – the cutters are frequently women from low-income communities who inherit the job within families. One 80-year-old cutter says that in her glory days, she performed 8-10 khatnas every month for 30 years – around 6,000 girls.
Seven-year-old girls do not generally stay still when a strange adult is taking a knife to their nethers. Samina Petiwala, an entrepreneur, survivor and mother says, “I have been filled with guilt since my daughter was cut. Every time I see her in pain, I blame myself.”
The word of the Syedna – the community’s religious leader – is what gives legitimacy to khatna, even though it is not mentioned at all in the Qu’ran. The unspoken ethos behind it revolves around ensuring a woman’s sexual purity and faithfulness by making sure she is not ‘tempted’ to stray.
The fear of being shamed is severe given the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community’s small, tightly-knit design. The community only numbers between 1.5-2 million across the world, with a large number in western India.
In May 2017, a PIL case was filed in India’s Supreme Court seeking a ban on FGC in India. Maneka Gandhi, then the minister for women and child development, said that if the community did not voluntarily abandon the practice, the government would ban it.
The Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), claiming to have 69,000 members, protested this.
The past three generations of Syednas come from a powerful family that has historically fostered close ties with relevant ruling parties, and have continued to do so with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They have a huge influence on the community, which happens to form a large vote bank in his stronghold, Gujarat. He has praised their patriotism, and called them an example for the country.
By December, Gandhi had backtracked, saying there was no data to support the existence of khatna – the ‘69,000’ people clamouring for it notwithstanding. In September 2018, the case was referred to a five-judge constitution bench and has yet to be decided – leaving the practice not yet technically illegal.
One of the DBWRF’s arguments is that khatna is not actually about sexual purity at all, and that khatna does not impact a woman’s sex life, saying, “there is a suggestion in the books that female circumcision would enhance pleasure.”
The data begs to differ.
In a first-of-its-kind report carried out by Sahiyo, of the respondents who said khatna affected their sex lives, 87% said it had done so negatively. In another study, the women consistently noted delayed or absent orgasm and reduced sensation, physical scar tissue, and psychological trauma responses during sexual contact, with a pervasive sense of sexual inadequacy.
“I blamed myself for not being able to satisfy my husband. Over a period of time I let go, and said, “Okay you can do what you want, probably even go out and do what you want because I can’t give you what you want.” I let him go in a way. So yes that did affect my marital life a lot.”
Every khatna is different. Seventy-four percent are done by medically untrained ‘cutters’, with non-surgical instruments; a slip of the blade is the difference in how much of the clitoris is exposed or damaged.
“I remember her sitting in front of me on the floor, asking me to pull down my underpants and looking me in the eyes, cheerfully engaging me in conversation…between questions and answers she snipped of a part of my clitoris with her long nail. She had one long nail; on the index finger.”
∼ Lubaina Rangwala, architect and urban planner
As a result, biological impacts can vary. The scars are not just physical. What remains consistent is the experience of pain and violation a child associates with the process – and consequently, with sexual touch. A few women reported being affected by thoughts about Khafd during sexual intercourse; a significant number reported screaming when they were cut; more than half ranked being cut as a traumatising, terrifying experience; a full 98% reported pain.
From ancient practice to modern medicine
The DBWRF is on record saying that they are training medical practitioners to perform khatna, in a ‘medicalisation’ of the process, an internal contradiction given that they also insist that it is a negligible, inoffensively symbolic procedure.
“It’s a dilemma for a lot of Bohra doctors,” says Dr Kapadia. “On one hand, you don’t want to cause harm. On the other hand, they’ll get it done in some dirty place instead.”
Dr Kapadia gently advocates against it when her patients come to her with their doubts. When asked why she doesn’t take legal action against practitioners she’s aware of, she says, “Unless you know for sure it’s happened, what do you do? You have to prove it. How do you do that when the mothers have asked for it to be done?”
Khatna is unequivocally banned by the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecological Societies of India (FOGSI), and is classified in policy as violence against women.
Dr Nozer Sheriyar, past secretary-general of FOGSI, says, “Until two years ago, as a community, we gynaecologists didn’t know this was happening here. When I first saw it, I had no idea what I was seeing. Until you see multiple patients from the same community and then realise why the genitals look a little different. There is no way we can medicalise this as a procedure – it is not going to be taught in medical schools, as it serves no medical purpose.”
He is ambivalent about being able to conclusively say what biological impact this procedure has on women as a whole, but says, “Listen – if you’re going to scar a person’s genitals, you really don’t know the consequences of how it’s going to affect people.”
Why is this considered an acceptable alternative?
Female circumcision was first prohibited by white English colonial missionaries in Kenya in the early 20th century – the original carriers of the white saviour complex – and when it was eventually banned in 1956, girls would go to the forest to willingly cut each other and themselves, in a protest called Ngaitana. It was an assertion of tribal identity, and a furious protest against its colonial erasure.
An American feminist Rose Hayes was the first to articulate it academically as Female Genital Mutilation – a term with a built in contempt for the community in which it was practiced. Survivors today continue to protest the nomenclature – as Johari matter of factly says, “There are days when I do feel violated and mutilated, but on most days I don’t. We should respect how each survivor views her own khatna, but I understand why mutilation is an offensive term for the community.”
In the global debate on FGC, Type III Genital Cutting – Infibulation – has received the most press. It is the most graphically brutal version of FGC, and reinforced the colonial narrative of the barbaric savage. It also lent the defining flavor to how FGC would be seen by mainstream media ever since. Female Genital Mutilation is the globally accepted nomenclature, and a description of Type III FGC is the first media Google hit for “What is Female Genital Mutiliation” even today.
But Type III constitutes only 10% of the total FGC procedures practiced globally. As a result, the versions of FGC that are less brutal but no less nonconsensual or invasive, are considered a viable alternative. The Economist in 2016 not only diminished, but even erased its harm by going so far as to advocate for its legalisation, calling khatna a ‘symbolic nick’. This kind of normalisation has legal, policy-level repercussions – Indonesia’s Health Ministry made it Iegal in 2010 for medical personnel to perform genital cutting on young girls.
As Mubaraka Motiwala, a student and survivor says, “…why take away our will and consent to decide if we want this to happen to us or not. What gives anybody the right to take away the will to have their own opinion?”
Consent is at the heart of the fight against FGC, regardless of the extent to which it is performed. Khatna is this culture’s expression of policing its women’s bodies – but it is by no means the only one.
One astonishing detail that leapt out of the data Sahiyo gathered from its respondents is when asked about the type of cutting performed, 65% of respondents said, “I don’t know.”
This is not a subjective question. It’s a physical one, easily checked with a mirror, addressed to a grown woman. It suggests that these women – who all had a certain degree of privilege in both internet access and education – were unable to recognise standard vulvular anatomy enough to estimate a difference in their own.
This is not something that’s limited to the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Women do not have the knowledge of their own bodies, particularly when it comes to their sexuality. Curiosity is quashed, conversation is taboo and structures that should know better don’t. This makes ignorance a carefully maintained and disseminated construct, and not just a coincidence.
Ignorance is certainly a construct when the average cis woman wouldn’t recognise her own sex – 44% of British women, couldn’t find a vagina on a diagram of reproductive organs. The concerted gaslighting of women by the medical fraternity when it comes to female reproductive and sexual health is a historic, universal fact.
It is not the same as cutting off a woman’s organs physically, but there is something to be said for how similarly it creates an absence where a whole should be. As the legendary feminist and anti-circumcision activist Nawal el Sadaawi says,
“Here the oppression of women is very subtle. If we take female circumcision, the excision of the clitoris, it is done physically in Egypt. But here it is done psychologically and by education. So even if women have the clitoris, the clitoris was banned; it was removed by Freudian theory and by the mainstream culture.”
Cultural violence against global lady bits are legion – Brazillian waxing and expensive laser hair removal, bleaching, elective invasive surgery to tighten a vagina and reinstate a hymen, the post-birth “husband stitch” and elective cosmetic labioplasties. It is the figurative death by a thousand cuts. FGC is one.
Its critique must centre space for choice, while remembering the reason why women only have so many choices. When women of Sahiyo interrogate khatna, they are questioning the premise on which all women’s bodies can be cut, sucked, plucked or broken into patriarchy’s mould.