Trigger warning: Graphic description
February 6 is observed as the International Day Of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation.
Let’s take you back to your childhood. Imagine you are a kid again, happily enjoying your Diwali holidays. One fine evening, you come back home after your evening game, and your dadi tells you about an excursion trip to a zoo. You are promised your favorite chocolate and ‘jhoola’ ride. You are so excited that you can’t sleep well at night. You wake up the next day, bathe and get dressed in your best clothes. You set off with your papa and dadi, enjoying the city scenes, waiting for your dream destination to arrive. Instead, you end up in front of a dingy apartment. Dadi takes you inside to “collect your other friends”, which you were not expecting. But well, who doesn’t want friends?
It’s a shady and cold room where another old lady appears. She asks you to lie down, and your dadi helps you. You feel betrayed, confused, and scared to the bones. Does mummy know about this?
They pull down your pants, and you are awestruck with fear. You start to cry and shout, but they won’t let you move. You shout your lungs out, but your father does not come to rescue you. Does he want this too?
And when all this is over, you are doomed to spend your whole life trying to forget about what happened in that shady room that day.
This is not a horror story but based on a real life experience.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains a non-criminal practice that is still observed in our beloved country. Even as the government is endorsing the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign for gender empowerment, many families in the country are practicing this horrific medieval practice. While there are many unnecessary criminalising laws that exist in our law books (such as sedition, and the newly added CAA), the medieval practice of FGM continues unabated. Although male circumcision has been argued (even in science) to carry some benefits, FGM finds none.
FGM is the process in which the ‘unwanted’ parts of female genitalia is removed. Also known as Khatna or Khafz, the practice is backed by culture and has been found to be prevalent particularly in the Bohra Community of India. It is observed more widely in the northern part of Africa, along with a few other communities across the world. In India, it is usually performed by Mullanis, mid-wives, elderly women, and even medical practitioners.
The practice is often linked to chastity of women. Clitoris, one of the parts mutilated in the practice, is known as the most erogenous zone of a woman’s body, and is responsible for her sexual pleasure. Upon stimulation, the clitoris shows erection and produces sexual excitement and orgasm in women.
The clear motive behind this practice is to establish control over female sexuality. It serves as firmer evidence of a woman’s virginity at the time of marriage. Since it takes away much of her sexual desire and pleasure, it also serves as a tool for communities to ensure ‘fidelity’ after marriage.
Bottomline, it’s a patriarchal device.
In Clitoridectomy, a kind of FGM, the clitoris is partially or totally removed. In Excision, the clitoris, along with labia minora, which serves a protective function, is partially or totally removed. Other kinds of FGM include stitching together of the genital parts, which can be opened up later, preferably by the woman’s husband on the first night of marriage. World Health Organisation also acknowledges “all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterising the genital area” in its understanding of FGM.
Due to strict legal sanctions against FGM in western countries, and none in India, members of the Bohra community are flocking to India from these regions to get the rite performed. India is now becoming a hub for FGM, despite the United Nations’ declaration of female genital mutilation as a human rights violation.
The practice predates most of the known world religions, but is often connected with Islam. However, the practice is observed in many non-Islamic countries, and is not seemingly endorsed by Islam.
Some perspectives and myths are also responsible for the practice. A few cultures consider women with cut genitals as cleaner and more beautiful. Some body parts such as the clitoris are seen as ‘manly’ and unclean. For some societies, their belief in myths such as an uncut clitoris growing to the size of a penis, or FGM enhancing fertility, is the reason behind the prevalence of the brutal practice.
If being performed by non-medical practitioners, rudimentary tools such as razor blades without anesthetic or antiseptics may be used. In addition to the excruciating pain that the process includes, FGM has other short and long term effects on the health of women.
FGM may cause shock, hemorrhage, infection, and urine retention. In some cases, hemorrhage and infection can become fatal. It can also have psychological effects and cause complications during childbirth.
Each time a young girl’s genitalia is cut or stitched, Article 14 (Equality before Law and Equal Protection of Law), Article 15 (Prohibition of Discrimination) and Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Indian Constitution are violated.
The act of FGM includes insertion of a sharp object into the vagina of a child, and can be reported under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, as well as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012. As of now, Section 319 to 326 of the IPC, which deal with varying degrees of hurt and grievous hurt, can be used in cases of FGM. In fact, Explanation 1 of Section 375 of the IPC categorically states that the term ‘vagina’ also includes labia majora. Section 3 of the POCSO Act deals with penetrative sexual assault by any person on a child. Although the name of the section says “penetrative”, the court decisions have held that there is no need for complete penetration.
The United Nations Population Fund released a report titled ‘A Qualitative Study on FGM among the Dawoodi Bohra Community’ in 2008. It noted that religious beliefs regarding FGM have not changed, and there has been an increased dependence on medical practitioners (doctors, nurses). The report suggested criminalisation of the offense, and holding those who perform or propagate FGM liable.
Yet, specific legislation outlawing the barbarism is patiently awaited.
Featured image provided by the author.