During a TED Talk in 2015, Khadija Gbla recalled how she was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as a child in Sierra Leone. “She took hold of what I now know to be my clitoris, she took that rusty knife, and started cutting away, inch by inch.”
Globally, around 200 million girls have already been cut, most of them before they turn 15, making FGM one of worst kind of attacks on women’s bodies. One usually associates the cruel practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) with what are thought of as primitive societies in places like Africa. The truth – the practice exists and continues even in modern day India.
And for the last year and a half, activist Masooma Ranalvi has been raising awareness about this inhuman ‘rite-of-passage’. Which is why she was appalled to learn that her own cousin had subjected her young daughter to FGM in 2016.
Ranalvi, an FGM survivor herself, had asked her cousin why she’d done it, and the cousin simply replied that it was her mother’s idea.
“She did not even think it necessary to question her mother,” says the activist. “And that’s what surprised me – a slavish kind of acceptance.”
Despite being recognised by the World Health Organization as a human rights violation, FGM continues in the name of tradition in many parts of the world. FGM prevalence is particularly bad in some countries, such as Somalia, where 98% of women and girls have been cut.
Alarming figures like these are precisely why ending FGM has been listed under sub-goal 5.3 of the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda for gender equality. The goal, in fact, specifically requires all governments work towards ‘elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation’ by 2030. While infibulation (where the clitoris is removed, and the vulva is stitched up to prevent intercourse) seems to be the most recognised form of FGM, the World Health Organization recognises several procedures that constitute FGM. And it happens differently in different communities.
In India, Ranalvi says it typically involves cutting the tip of the clitoral hood. This process is called “khatna” by the Bohras, a sect of Shia Muslims. And according to Syedna Muffadal, the community’s current religious leader, the practice has been going on for 1,400 years.People are quick to peg FGM as a ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ practice, but Ranalvi explains why that theory doesn’t hold: “You have doctors, you have museum and art gallery owners, engineers – you name it, and you’ll have professionals in the Bohra community. So it’s educated, it’s rich, and it has FGM.”
There is no valid excuse for why this violent, traumatic practice should have a place in 21st century India, but the reasons given for it are ample. Many claim (without scientific evidence, of course) that it maintains genital hygiene, prevents uterine cancer, increases sexual pleasure, and even enhances a person’s complexion.
“But the predominant position,” Ranalvi says firmly, “is not to let your girls go astray. It is to control a girl’s sexuality, because ultimately the clitoris is the centre of pleasure, and you’re cutting a part of it.”
To that end, she draws a distinction between the practice of khatna on girls, and “khafz” on boys. Also referred to as male circumcision, Ranalvi says khafz is markedly different: “it’s a celebration, and there’s a public announcement, you’re feted, you’re garlanded, the works!”
Khatna, however, begins with the complete betrayal of a child’s trust. Usually, a Bohra girl’s own mother or grandmother take her, in secret, to a place where she is physically restrained while the practice is carried out.
Recalling her own and others’ experiences, Ranalvi says: “Not only are you not prepared, you are told a lie. You are told you’re going to get a candy or given a dream, and then this happens. It’s a double whammy.”
Trauma like that stays with you. While campaigning, she once asked a young Bohra woman about her experience of FGM, and the response was palpable: “She started shivering and sweating profusely. She told me that after the incident she would always shriek at the sight of blood, and couldn’t go swimming for a long time.”
It’s easy to see why many countries have banned FGM. So why hasn’t India? Because all known instances of FGM happen within a single community. And so, our government does not recognise FGM as a larger human rights issue.
Except that that’s exactly what it is.
“The reason behind FGM is a deep-seated inequality between men and women. Women are to be contained, curbed, crushed.”
And as a signatory to the UN’s sustainable development agenda, India cannot achieve its goal of gender equality without taking targeted, measurable action to end FGM. And that’s why Ranalvi’s campaign, ‘Speak Out On FGM’, started by petitioning the Government of India, with over 80,000 signatures, to ban the practice. It also petitioned the UN to recognise India as an FGM prevalent state, hoping for more involvement from the government and UN agencies, as well as research and policy-level changes.
But while the government continues to drag its feet, activists like Ranalvi seem to be doing the bulk of the work. In India, FGM survivors are gradually opening up, and building safe spaces to share their stories. Ranalvi says she has met so many young Bohra women who are confronting elders who support FGM.
“But what makes us very hopeful,” says Ranalvi, “is that a lot of older survivors of FGM also coming forward today. They’re the ones who are going to advise their daughters, daughters-in-law, and sons to take a stand against the practice.”
Her campaign hopes to bring on board medical practitioners because many doctors and nurses are involved in performing FGM. There’s also the ‘Not My Daughter’ campaign, where Bohra parents are pledging not to practice FGM.
Like ‘Speak Out On FGM’, Sahiyo is another Bohra women-led organisation working to end FGM. And groups like Bohras For Change and the Reformist Bohras are bringing men to the fight as well.
Even Syedna Taher Fakhruddin, the cousin and rival of the current Bohra religious leader, came out in support of her campaign, issuing a statement that FGM should not be practised on children.
While the Indian government is yet to make its plans clear on how it will tackle FGM, Ranalvi says that people facing FGM do have at least a couple of options at their disposal.
“We have some extremely good laws which could be expanded to include FGM in their purview, like the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The Indian Penal Code also has sections for causing grievous hurt using a weapon on instrument.”
India can end FGM by 2030, but it needs to pick up the pace. There are a growing number of anti-FGM activists in the country, there is no dearth of alliances that could be formed – between people and government – to root out this old, unjust practice.
As Ranalvi says, “It’s going to be a long, drawn-out battle.” But it’s one we can win if we work hard enough.