By Zofeen Ebrahim
January 30, 2012
KARACHI, Jan 30, 2012 (IPS) – “It was a dark and dingy room, where an elderly woman asked me to take off my panties, made me sit on a low wooden stool with my legs parted and then did something…I screamed out in pain,” recalls Alefia Mustansir, 40, of her childhood experience.
Her friend, Sakina Haider, remembers “putting up a good fight” before she succumbed. “I was told by my grandmother that I was being taken to the doctor to address burning in the genital area when soap went there while bathing!”
Both Haider and Mustansir have refused to have their daughters undergo circumcision or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), the Dawoodi Bohras’ best-kept secret until young women from the community first began to speak up against it a few years ago.
Bohras, a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims, are a tight-knit community, with a majority residing in India and Pakistan, and estimated to number two million the world over.
An article in the Dec. 12 issue of the popular Indian weekly ‘Outlook’ says: “Khatna (circumcision) is a tradition the Bohras trace back to their origins in (north) Africa, one they continue with because they see this as an attempt to stay true to their faith.”
The Outlook article goes on to say that “most Bohra women and men even today would rather keep this practice a secret rather than question a custom that is now universally seen as a gross violation of a woman’s body.”
The World Health Organisation defines FGM/C as a procedure that “intentionally alters or injures female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” FGM/C, as practiced in some African countries, may involve removal of the entire clitoris and labia.
The practice persists in 28 African countries, as well as in some Middle Eastern countries with varying degrees of cutting or mutilation. African countries that have banned it include Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Togo, Uganda, Kenya and Egypt.
Bohras insist that their practice is not harmful since it is done with care and moderation. Many justify it as a means to curb a woman’s sexual drive and keep her chaste.
Haider finds that argument “highly problematic” and sees it as a way of controlling women.
Dr. Nighat Shah, former president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Pakistan, finds it hard to believe that a community as “progressive and educated” as the Bohras carries out this practice.
“Medically speaking,” she explained, “a little snip or clip (of the clitoris) may not affect childbirth, but it may rob the woman of sexual pleasure. It is a very sensitive tissue.”
Another gynaecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Shershah Syed, finds no medical benefit to support female circumcision. “I am no religious scholar, so if a community believes it is an Islamic injunction, I’d suggest the girls should at least be old enough to understand the reason so that they can make an informed decision.”
“Why do women’s sexual drives have to be curbed?” Haider asks. “Women who are not circumcised are not necessarily promiscuous!” she says.
A young Indian girl belonging to this Muslim sect, who goes by the name of Tasleem, has now found the courage to initiate an online petition asking the community’s high priest, Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, to have this “cruel, inhuman and undemocratic ritual” stopped.