This article is part 1 of a two-part series on FGM in India
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is traditionally known to be practised in 30 African countries. According to latest reports from international agencies like UNICEF, it is said that FGM has been done on at least 200 million girls.
I recently interviewed Masooma Ranalvi who began a campaign to encourage Indian women from the Bohra community to speak up against the practice. The practice is called Khatna locally and is classified as Type 1 FGM by the WHO. It is estimated that there are nearly 1.5 million Bohras globally who have undergone FGM but numbers on how many have been cut are still unavailable.
GG: I read about the campaign India Speaks Out on FGM through the article highlighting the petition in The Ladies Finger. Till I read this article, I had no idea that the practice existed in India. It is usually portrayed as an African issue. Your thoughts?
MR: Yes that’s true. It is India’s best kept secret. There is a reason behind it. We as Bohra women who were subject to it never spoke about the practice to anyone ever. It is an extremely secretive ritual and a shroud of silence around it. Beginning from the manner in which it is done, by deceit, by not even informing the girl child about what is to happen to her. And of course no information about the WHY of it. The pain and trauma resulting from this is repressed and suppressed and no one wants to reveal or talk about it.
Second factor is the shame behind talking about this. As women we have been taught never to talk about anything sexual, about our reproductive organs, our sexuality and sexual problems. Until we began to speak out in open. This has in turn inspired many women to do so.
GG: How long have you been working on this issue?
MR: Since last year.
[You can read her writing about her experience here]
GG: You have on multiple occasions spoken about your own experience of Khatna. You are also documenting the experiences of other Bohra women who have experienced it. Why do you think this is important?
MR: For one its important for women to speak out about it. It is cathartic. It helps release the anger, frustration, helplessness. Secondly, its important for the world at large to hear these stories of a hidden and secretive ritual that being carried on since centuries in our own backyard. This is your regular educated and savvy women, who are professionals, who do it to their daughters. Sometimes we need to show a mirror to ourselves, to see what and who we actually are. And finally and most importantly these stories are inspirational and help building solidarity with our other sisters and strengthen our anti FGM movement.
GG: What were the challenges you have faced while speaking up?
MR: The biggest challenge is to challenge the control of the clergy over the bodies and minds and lives of the adherents. The control is not just over the religious practices but over secular life as well. The control is deep and absolute and women or men who have even remotely challenged any practice have been threatened with repercussions. There is a strong and real fear of social boycott which has been used in the past to bring dissenters in line. Women fear for themselves and their families, their businesses and their social lives as well. The challenge for us is to break this fear psychosis and give them courage to speak out. Because this is a practice which harms us and our girls. We need to speak about it to banish it from our lives.
From February 6 (which is recognised as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by the United Nations General Assembly) to March 8 (International Women’s Day) India Speaks Out on FGM along with Sahiyo are running a campaign called Each One, Reach one.
GG: Through Each One, Reach One, what do you hope to achieve?
MR: The underlying principle behind it is to help break the silence now. The campaign aims to erase the secrecy around female circumcision and generate a healthy dialogue about it.During our conversation, we want share stories about khatna: memories of the day when the cut was done, feelings and emotions towards the experience, the reasons given for the practice, the reasons behind the silence around the practice, the physical, psychological and sexual impact of the practice for women. A healthy conversation that is respectful, rather than judgmental, moralistic or aggressive.
Apart from speaking out about Khatna, Masooma is also trying to draw the attention to the fact that United Nations doesn’t list India as a location where it is practised. This is a grave oversight and injustice to the women who it has been practised on and those who might suffer it. However the Sustainable Development Goals now make it mandatory for all countries to begin reporting on FGM.
To help, Sign the petition to End FGM in India, and help spread the word and raise awareness!
Featured image courtesy of India Speaks Out on FGM campaign.
*Post has been edited to clarify the number of Bohra women estimated to have experienced FGM and to make a note of the SDG requirement to report on FGM.