The Bohra “Tradition”

By Priti Bhengra in Editor's Pick 29/01/2019

We are all creations of the Almighty God, so what right does the man have to tamper with that?


By tampering or removing a part of this pure creation, are we as humans trying to doubt that God, whom we all consider to be perfect, made a mistake.


So will it not be wrong for the Bohra Community, a sub-sect of Shia Islam, to call themselves the children of that very God whose creation they tamper in the name of tradition. “Khatna” as they call it in their religion is saying a lot along these lines. It’s a tradition of the Islamic Bohra Community which in many other countries is called Female Genital Cutting (FGC), to cut off the genitals, or more specifically the clitoral hood, of 7-year-old girls. The reason behind this, as believed in the religion, is hygiene or taharat – not just physically but also “spiritually” and “religiously”.


So what is the purpose of the clitoral hood and why is it important?


To explain it scientifically, the clitoral hood serves an important purpose: it protects the clitoris from over-stimulation, abrasions and injury, and it naturally retracts during sexual arousal to allow exposure to the clitoris. It does not need to be cut in order to expose the clitoris. We need to understand the natural functions of our body parts before artificially altering them with a blade.


Many women in the western countries to carry out a similar operation called “Clitoral Unhooding” but it is a medically performed surgery on women who wish to do it and not in some dark room without any medical appliances on small kids below ten.


Hence, instead of claiming randomly that Khatna is the same as “Western Clitoral Unhooding”, we must understand the difference in the situations and the patient into consideration. It is chosen by some adult, sexually active women only if they have problems such as too much prepuce tissue coming in the way of orgasms, while in “Khatna” minor girls are forced to do it without any knowledge of it.


So where did these beliefs of “haram-ni-boti” or sinful lump of flesh come from?


Although there is no mention of khatna in the Quran, many Bohras believe it is a religious obligation, pointing to texts such as the Hadith — describing the words, actions and habits of the Prophet Muhammad.


One Hadith that is frequently cited is Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, which contains this particular story:


“Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:  A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (PBUH) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.”


In Volume 1 of The Pillars of Islam (Ismail Poonawala’s English translation of Da’im al-Islam), on page 154, a very similar sentence as translated: “O women, when you circumcise your daughters, leave part (of the labia or clitoris), for this will be chaster for their character, and it will make them more beloved by their husbands”. As perceived by many as “increase the radiance on the face of the woman and the pleasure with that of her husband”.


The Bohra community, which is considered by many a community open to adaptation, has yet to move forward from these age-old dark traditions.


Although the rate of FGC is highest in Somalia and Guinea with 98 per cent and 97 per cent, respectively, it is becoming of increasing concern right here in India. Although not in high percentage, a part of the Bohra community resides in India and the Khatna tradition still mars the present situation of young girls in India. It’s a tradition that is a taboo and not spoken even among women who go through it, not given an explanation for or any reason.


However, in recent years, there has been a considerable amount of global discussion on the effectiveness of legislation banning FGC in different countries. In 2013, a paper titled, “Legislating Change? Responses to Criminalising Female Genital Cutting in Senegal,” published in the Law and Society Review found that in rural Senegal, knowledge of FGC being criminalized by legislation does not motivate abandonment of the practice itself – many continue to cut their girls in secret. However, legislation can be a tool to protect women and girls from experiencing FGC, as well as contribute to the elimination of this practice when accompanied by other community programs focusing on education and health.


Effective legislation must also integrate the need for social change. The UNICEF-UNFPA publication, “How To Transform a Social Norm (2018)” also notes that legislation must acknowledge the deeply embedded cultural significance of the practice, and work to integrate social change within FGC practising communities.


When laws have introduced that ban the practice, people are still expected by their families and communities to engage in the practice and the fear of social punishment and unacceptance if they do not, the practice may continue and may be driven underground.


The challenge, therefore, becomes to develop, introduce and implement legislation in ways that contribute to a social change process that ultimately results in the decision by communities to abandon the practice; when these legislations will be accompanied by human rights education programs and community dialogue to encourage an agreement on the abandoning the practice.


In India, it is believed that criminalizing FGC cannot alone get the community to put an end to the practice of khatna. In a communally polarized country like India where personal religious laws of minority groups are prioritized, any push for a law against genital cutting would be seen by the community as an attack on their religious beliefs. It must begin with education and community-based outreach programs, encouraging open discussion between community members and religious authorities, pulling out the topic from the shadows of taboo – and when there is enough demand from within the community to end the practice will any kind of law become relevant.


India has somehow become the hub for FGM because of legal actions taken against FGM among Bohras in Australia and USA. In 2016, Australia sentenced three Dawoodi Bohras to 15 months in jail under the country’s female genital mutilation law. In 2017, United States officials arrested two doctors in Detroit for allegedly cutting the private parts of six girls; the trial is still underway.


Although no direct law has been made against Khatna, in India, the practice of FGM constitutes a criminal offence under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012; Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Criminal Procedure Code, 1973. Estimates suggest 90% of females in the Ismaili Shia Muslim Bohra community in India undergo FGM. From the 2 million Bohras in India, in a survey, over 70% of respondents said an untrained professional had performed the procedure on them. FGC being practised in Kerala was found on August 2017 by Sahiyo reporters.


On May 9, 2017, the Supreme Court of India sought a response from the Centre and four states (Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat and Rajasthan) on the validity of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) when a Public Interest Litigation was passed by some Bohra women to ban the practice.


On July 9, 2018, Attorney General of India K. K. Venugopal emphasized that FGM was a violation of a person’s fundamental rights and that the practice resulted in serious health complications for the girls in concern.


If one thinks that the purpose behind Khatna is taharat, then remember: physical hygiene can be maintained very well with soap and water, and the key to achieving “spiritual” or “religious” purity lies not in a person’s genitals, but in their thoughts, words and deeds.


We are like books, we wait for someone to find us and open us to see what’s inside.


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