By Danish Ahmad Khan
‘Female khatna’ (circumcision) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is widely prevalent in Africa and the Middle East among sections of Muslim, has come under sharp criticism by a female activist who has termed it grossly ‘inhuman, unjust and un-Islamic’ and is clamoring for a ban on its practice. The activist, who prefers to be named Tasleem, has launched a campaign on Facebook and making sincere efforts to collect signatures to petition the Bohra High Priest His Holiness Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin ordering a ban on this ritual and stop this cruelty being foisted on Bohra females. The activist has urged the people to actively take part in this campaign against FGM and sign the Online Petition [https://www.change.org/petitions/hh-dr-syedna-ban-female-circumcision-ladkiyon-par-khatna-2] to put adequate pressure on HH Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin to finally put an end to this abhorring and ghastly practice. Further details can also be seen on www.stopfgmc.org. Tasleem can also be contacted at email@example.com.
Tasleem further states: “This is an African custom dating back to Before Christ. Even the Christian tribes in some African countries perform this. Some Maulla (Bohri priest) brought it to India and they think it is an Islamic mandatory. The funny thing is that most Bohri men do not even know about this. In most of the cases, it is only after their marriage they are informed about this by their respective wives. I also spoke to some Bohri fathers who didn’t know that it had happened to their wives and daughters. A lot of bullshit reasons like it 'prevents cancer', ‘prevents white discharge’ etc is given. However, the bottomline is to keep the girl in control. And like they say a slave falls in love with his chains, the mother forgets the ordeal she went through and gets it done to her little girl. And so the tradition continues. If you can help me raise awareness and get signatures, I'd be extremely grateful to you on behalf of all Bohri girls.”
The issue of Female Genital Mutilation amongst Bohra Muslims raised by Tasleem is surely an important one, particularly when it is being practiced in the name of Islam. This also brings into sharp focus the unholy and absurd role being played by the Bohra clergy, as well as by the clergy of other Muslim sects on most occasions. This important issue has also highlighted the vulnerability of Muslim masses and the stranglehold that the Muslim clergy seeks to further tighten on the community. And, this sad spectacle by the Muslim clergy is being displayed at a time when Muslims in large numbers are gaining modern education and seeking to empower themselves.
What is Circumcision?
Circumcision is in fact a surgical procedure involving partial or complete removal of the foreskin (prepuce) of the penis. The first evidence of circumcision comes from early Egyptian wall paintings, which are more than 5000 years old. According to recent studies, nearly one-fifth of men worldwide have been circumcised, which has been mostly for religious and cultural reasons. The procedure for circumcision is commonly performed shortly after birth or around puberty.
Female Genital Mutilation
Circumcision to Prevent Future Disease
The main reasons for circumcision includes an immediate medical indication, to prevent future disease, and as an act of religious dedication. The medical reasons attributed to circumcision are to prevent future disease, such as Penile Cancer (Cancer of the Penis). Besides, sexually transmitted infections that cause ulcers on the genitals (syphilis, chancroid, herpes simplex), and are more common in uncircumcised men. Various studies undertaken since 1987 have clearly indicated that uncircumcised male infants are up to 10 times more likely to contract a urinary tract infection (UTI), and one in 100 uncircumcised infants will develop a UTI, compared with 1 in 1000 circumcised infants.
Circumcision as an act of religious dedication
The circumcision of male children is a central feature to both Judaism and Islam. According to Bible’s Old Testament, even Christians also practiced circumcision. Though, Bible’s New Testament strongly disapproves of such a practice.
In the book of Genesis (17: 10-14), circumcision represents the covenant made by God with Abraham and his descendants. Traditional religious circumcision is performed by a mohel, and is usually carried out on the eighth day after birth, unless there is a danger to the child's health, in which case it should be delayed until that danger has passed.
Circumcision is not mentioned in the Quran, but has the status of sunnah. Only the Shafiite school of law regards circumcision as obligatory (wajib), while the Hanafite, Jafarite, Malikite, Hanbalite and Zaidite regard it as only recommended, because it is sunnah. However, even those who consider circumcision an obligatory duty for themselves do not see it as an essential requirement for others to become a Muslim. Though, the procedure is very commonly practiced and is certainly seen as an important external symbol of submission to God's will.
According to Genesis, God told Abraham to circumcise himself, his household and his slaves as an everlasting covenant in their flesh. Those who were not circumcised were to be ‘cut off’ from their people (Genesis 17:10-14). Also, the Mosaic Law commands that if a woman give birth to a male child, he should be circumcised in the foreskin of his flesh on the eighth day (Lev. 12:2-3), on this, the eighth day from His Nativity, our Saviour accepted the circumcision commanded by the Law. According to the command of the Angel, He received the Name which is above every name: JESUS, which means “Saviour” (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31 and 2:21).
Jesus had no problem with circumcising children whatsoever. In fact, he himself was circumcised: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. (From the NIV Bible, Luke 2:15-21)”
“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. (From the NIV Bible, Genesis 17:10)”
However, the New Testament clearly contradicts the Old Testament on the issue and disapproves of the practice of circumcision among Christians saying it in not required of them. The contradictions between the New Testament and the Old Testament also prove the fact that the Bible had been corrupted and altered by man-made cultural laws.
Female Circumcision among Bohra Muslims
The practice of male circumcision is universal in the Islamic countries, while female circumcision (sunna) is not. In Saudi Arabia, which is considered the cradle of Islam, the practice of female circumcision doesn't take place at all. In Asia, the countries where female circumcision is practiced, includes Malaysia, Indonesia, southern parts of the Arab Peninsula, along the Persian Gulf, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, South Yemen and among some sects in Pakistan and Russia. However, in India FGM is widely prevalent among a Muslim sect called the Daudi Bohras, which is an Ismaili Shia sect, numbering approximately half a million and concentrated in the western states of Maharastra and Gujarat. Those residing outside India are primarily found in Pakistan and East. Africa. A highly organised sect, they have a spiritual head known as Dai, Maulana or Syedna. Despite the fact that the sect prides itself on being modern in terms of education, occupation and family planning, His Holiness Dr. Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin continues to exercise considerable control over his followers.
The Bohras practice the FGM sunna variety in which the prepuce or the tip of the clitoris is removed. Female khatna (circumcision) is performed by mullanis, women who have a semi-religious standing, or by dais or midwives, or by any woman with some experience. As some families become more interested in a safe circumcision, they prefer to go to doctors. The circumcision is done when the girl reaches the age of seven. Though, the choice of this particular age is not clear. However, at this age the girl is considered nadan (innocent) and nasamaj (not capable of understanding). She is considered not capable of understanding what is being done to her and at the same time is considered sufficiently mature to continue the tradition when she has a daughter of her own.
Seventy percent or more among Bohra Muslims follow the practice without questioning it. The main reasons for doing circumcision include: it is obligatory on the parents to do it as it is mentioned in the shariat; it is a tradition/custom in the community; and to curb the girl’s sexuality. However, the less commonly cited reasons include: cleanliness and purity; and like male circumcision it represents the attainment of the status of a Muslim.
The main justification for practicing FGM is to curb female sexuality. This is closely related to the sex socialization of Bohra girls. The word sex is simply not mentioned in the community, and it does not exist as far as Bohra girls are concerned. The girls are in fact warned to keep away from strange men. Unlike other Muslim women in India, the sexual desire of Bohra women is curbed both physically and culturally. The task is expectedly accomplished by enforcement from older women of the family.
Even a Bohra doctor admitted that there have been cases of infection, swelling, severe bleeding, shock, tetanus. In some instances circumcision has been a contributory factor in some cases of frigidity as well. However, there has been no systematic attempt to do away with this practice. Though, some of the Bohra doctors working within the confines of the community had tried to take up the matter with the clergy but without success.
An activist of the Bohra Women’s Action Forum, founded in 1989, stated that the practice of circumcising the girl is abhorrent. As it is being seen today reformist women have not come to question female circumcision organizationally, but individually a lot of women are opposed to it, and have made sure that it is not done to their daughters.
Profile of a Woman undertaking Female Circumcision job
Here is the typical profile of a woman who undertakes the job of female circumcision in Mumbai. She lives in the heart of a Bohra mohalla, belongs to lower middle class, occupies a dilapidated one room plus kitchen flat and lives together with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons. She is 75 years old, uneducated but literate. She has no training in nursing or first aid. Widowed at the age of 30, with three young sons to support, she took the clergy’s permission to become gainfully employed by doing female circumcision. She says that she has inherited this work from her family. Her grandmother used to performed khatna but her mother never learnt the trade as she was married in an economically well-to-do family. Her grandmother therefore taught the trade to another Bohra woman acquaintance. She, however, learnt how to circumcise from her grandmother’s acquaintance and also got some initial instruction from the wives of clergy. She has been doing this job for the next 35 years, and it has remained her major occupation. She stopped only when her eyesight began to fail. She taught her three daughters-in-law to circumcise. They were already assisting her in this work and learnt the procedure by observation. Permission for the daughters-in-law to practice was duly obtained from the clergy. Today, all the three daughters-in-law do female circumcision and supplement their husband’s meager income. She considers that this is honorable work and a perfectly legitimate way for a woman to earn an income. For doing this work the clergy takes care of her and sends her a food ration every month. The community members also take care of her in a similar manner. According to her, no other Muslim group in India other than the Bohras practices it. One of her acquaintances in the mohalla (locality) tells her to stop doing this work and asks her, “Why do you make little girls cry?” She says in her reply that as long as the shariat sanctions it and the clergy support it she will do it but the decision is really that of the women themselves.
Her clients include Daudi and other Bohra subsects such as the Suleimanis and Aliya Bhoras. Occasionally, she has had Arab girls from the Middle East brought to her. When a non-Bohra woman decides to marry a Bohra man and they want a Muslim religious marriage ceremony to be done by the clergy, the woman is asked to be circumcised. In the adult stage the size of the foreskin is that of a channa dal.
History about Bohra Muslims of India
The Bohras of India belong to the Shia Ismaili faith. The Ismailis effectively challenged the Abbasids— the Arab Sunni rulers, and succeeded, with the help of the Berber tribe, in establishing their own state called the Fatimid state, in North Africa which later extended to Egypt and Yemen. The Ismaili movement, from its inception was a proselytizing mission which had spread the network of its missionaries to countries like Persia, Central Asia, Yemen and India. In the eleventh century two missionaries from Egypt and later a few from Yemen landed at the port of Cambay and sought converts to the Ismaili faith. The Bohras imbibed the traditions of the new religion in a thorough manner. Its followers in India have been very scrupulous followers of all the practices prescribed by the shariat.
Besides Bohras, there are similar two other Muslim sects — the Khojas and the Memons. All the three sects are petty business communities from Gujarat, are well structured, and have similar and contemporaneous origin. Though these three Muslim sects hold similarities, but the Khojas and the Memos do not undertake the practice of female circumcision.
The Bohras and the Khojas have a common Shia Ismaili origin, whereas the Memons are a Sunni sect. However, all the three communities have their own distinct identities, important doctrinal differences and generally do not intermarry and have separate closely knit socio-religious structures. Like the Bohras, the Khojas have a highly centralised command structure and are tightly controlled from above. Compared to other Muslim sects, both the Bohras and the Khojas are better educated, culturally well assimilated with other non-Muslim Gujarati communities.
The Khojas or Aga Khanis constitute the Nizari branch of the Ismailis. Most were converted to the Ismaili fold by the Nizari missionaries who came from Iran. The Nizari missionaries used local religious idiom to convert Hindus to their fold. The Prophet and his successor Ali were projected by them as avatars of Krishna and Vishnu. The Khojas for this reason remained highly Hinduised for a long time. It was only during the period of the father of the present Aga Khan that they were encouraged to openly identify themselves with the Muslims in India. The Bohras on the other hand were a highly Islamised sect from the beginning of their conversion. Likewise, the Memons trace their origin to the 700 families, comprising of 6,178 persons belonging to the old and famous Lohana community of Sind in Pakistan. The Lohanas are found in the area where the clitoris is merely nicked.
Worldwide Campaign against FGM
For almost three decades now FGM has remained a top priority for United Nations agencies and NGOs worldwide. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights had adopted a resolution condemning the FGM practice in 1952. The Economic and Social Council invited the World Health Organization (WHO) to study the persistence of customs subjecting girls to FGM ritual operations in 1958. Three years later the call was again repeated. The practice was denounced by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1979. Later, in 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child identified Female Genital Mutilation as a harmful traditional practice. The FGM affects 130 million women in 28 African countries as according to the Demographic and Health Surveys Program, a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development to assist in undertaking medical and reproductive health surveys. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice of FGM in 1997. The World Health Assembly passed a resolution (WHA61.16) in 2008 on the elimination of FGM, emphasizing the need for concerted action in all sectors - health, education, finance, justice and women's affairs. Even with wider United Nations support a new statement was issued in February 2008 to support increased advocacy for the abandonment of FGM. The 2008 statement documents new evidence collected over the past decade about the practice. It highlights the increased recognition of the human rights and legal dimensions of the problem and provides current data on the frequency and scope of FGM. It also summarizes research about why FGM continues, how to stop it, and its damaging effects on the health of women, girls and newborn babies.
The situation has rather become grim nowadays. Instead of diminishing even as countries continue to modernize, FGM is fast expanding. According to media reports recently (IRIN, September 1, 2011), guidelines on how to perform female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) was issued by the Indonesian Ministry of Health raising fears among medical experts and rights groups that this could well cause an increase in the FGM practice. Media reports quoted Jurnalis Uddin, doctor and lecturer at Yarsi University in Jakarta, as saying that this will give doctors a new motivation to circumcise [girls] because now they can say the Ministry of Health approves of this, and the Indonesian Ulamas' Council approves of it. “Though FGM/C was banned in 2006, two of Indonesia's Muslim organizations, including the largest and mostly moderate Nahdlatul Ulama, ultimately condone the practice advising "not to cut too much", and, as a result, many continue to perform the procedure. By directing health professionals not to cut a girl's genitals but to "scrape the skin covering the clitoris, without injuring the clitoris", the Ministry of Health stands by the regulations, passed in June, as a medically safe form of FGM/C representing an effort to further regulate the illegal practice and protect women,” media reports said.
Notwithstanding the Health Ministry’s guidelines, dozens of Indonesian groups have questioned the move and raising their voices calling for revoking the guidelines. Frenia Nababan, spokeswoman for the Indonesian Family Planning Association, has vehemently protested the move saying that this gives a justification for health practitioners to damage women's bodies and feared that it will increase control of women's bodies by the state and religious groups. Even Amnesty International has strongly supported the rights groups calling for the guidelines to be revoked partially on the grounds of Indonesia's child protection laws, as well as the government's commitment to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), signed by Indonesia in 1984.
According to the World Health Organization, FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls' and women's bodies. Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue. Long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections; cysts; infertility; an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths; and the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3 above) needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks.
FGM as ever remains a controversial practice, whose origins continue to be as much debatable. Religious experts contend that FGM is a foreign cultural practice which is not sanctioned in any of Islam's religious texts. While, medical experts say that even a scratch or small cut on the clitoris is a dangerous procedure to perform on infants during FGM. The need of the hour is to spread mass awareness against this ghastly practice and strongly support Tasleem's Facebook campaign by signing online petition in large numbers so that adequate pressure is put on the Bohra High Priest His Holiness Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin to ban FGM practice immediately. Such practices like FGM are highly condemnable and should be stopped forthwith.
[Danish Ahmad Khan is Founder-Editor, IndianMuslimObserver.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com]
See Other Publications highlighting IMO Story:
(2.) IMO Story published by International NGO – No Peace Without Justice
(4.) Female Genital Mutilation among Bohra Muslims - A report (IMO Story published by US-based World Muslim Congress)
(5.) IMO Story published in The Ghouse Diary
(6.) IMO IMPACT Story published in The Siasat Daily, Hyderabad (Published: December 8, 2011)
(7.) IMO IMPACT Story Indexed by World News Network (December 8, 2011)
Follow-up on IMO story by Other Publications
(1.) Bohra women go online to fight circumcision trauma (Hindustan Times, December 9, 2011)
(2.) Female circumcision could lead to medical complications (Indian Express, December 11, 2011)
(3.) Women Expose Secret Genital Cutting Rite (Inter Press Service, January 30, 2012)
(4.) Bohra Woman leads petition against female genital mutilation (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, January 31, 2012)
(5.) Islam and Female circumcision (The Milli Gazette, 16-29 February 2012)
(6.) Female Genital Mutilation: An Open Secret in India (Youth Ki Awaaz, April 17, 2012)
(8.) Anger over female circumcision in a Muslim sub-sect in India (NYDailyNews, April 24, 2012)
(9.) Muslims divided over genital mutilation, magistrate says (The Sydney Morning Herald, November 9, 2012)