2013 : It was a time of distortion and disruption, it was a time of revolution and revision and it was a time of transition and transformation. The Arab Spring was at its zenith and it was a period of churn. People were still trying to make sense of what was happening, citing its reasons and causes, rationalising its aftermath, predicting future movements and extrapolating its essence.
The Arab Spring triggered the largest transformation in the Middle East and North Africa since decolonisation. It was a reaction against totalitarianism as it was against recession. It was a rebellion against social injustice as it was against human rights violations. It was a revolt against poverty & unemployment as it was against inequality & corruption. It led to the purge of dictators, oligarchs and juntas, regime changes in multiple countries and civil wars that are persevering till today. Contemporarily, the Arab Spring is viewed with disappointment, as a false dawn that accomplished much in its short term but influenced societal collapse in the long term.
The Arab Spring was the first time, I read about Female Genital Mutilation. The naïve idealist in me was appalled by women being sexually harassed, going through virginity tests and being genitally mutilated in Egypt, a country that had displaced its dictator in the name of equality and freedom. Female Genital Mutilation affects 200 million women worldwide (30 countries) according to the UNICEF. It is a practice that has no mention in the Quran but continues to be practiced as a tradition. It involves cutting off the clitoris of a woman before puberty to control her libido and inhibit the potential for promiscuity. It’s an unscientific assumption that has more to do with misogyny than fact.
The #metoo movement has begun to devour India’s elites from diverse professions, but it’s also encountering an unexpected backlash. One of the primary reasons for this is while in the US, it was buttressed by evidence from intrepid investigative journalists; in India, some of the cases are classic, ‘he said-she saids’, without a shred of proof. After the first set of accusations ravaged careers, people are beginning to call out false accusations, defying the ‘believe the woman’ premise and confronting women who implicate without evidence.
After an initially ruthless impetus that dissolved organisations, disintegrated careers and annihilated businesses, the #metoo movement in India has reached a toxic stasis that is birthing a different kind of antipathy towards women. Theories are being promulgated as we speak: lack of internal criticism, illiberalism, domination by the left, hypocrisy, lack of comprehension of what constitutes harassment and what constitutes flirtation, trial by media, mob mentality and many other intriguing rationales. Regardless of the resistance, #metoo has firmly established political correctness as a value in Indian society.
The #metoo movement was the first time, I heard about Female Genital Mutilation in India. It was serendipitous, through a conversation with a Muslim friend about how patriarchal, society really is. It left me deeply disturbed. The pathos of her story left an indelible mark, emboldening me to read, research and awaken from apathy. Until then, I was comfortable in assuming, Female Genital Mutilation occurred in a world far away from mine, where society was violently patriarchal and fanatically chauvinistic. Women there were fighting to be treated as human beings, not equals.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic and premature death commenced a conversation about mental illness among many other motifs. Beneath the vitriol, the trolling and the blaming; parents were finally having conversations with their children about their mental health, friends were checking up on each other, siblings were being kind and looking after one another and people were raising awareness about clinical depression and dismissing the many myths related to it.
This was the first time, I heard another friend of mine talk about her anxiety and how it was partly related to female genital mutilation. She spoke about sleepless nights, nightmares and her abject failure at forgetting ‘the incident’, as she liked to call it. I couldn’t imagine her sorrow, agony or pain; I could just hear her and hope that it doesn’t happen to someone I love or cherish.
The Dawoodi Bohra community is a sect of Shia Islam that numbers 1 million worldwide, majority of whom reside in India. Considered to be liberal, modern, undogmatic and sophisticated, most of them practice diverse professions, a bulk of which is entrepreneurship. The Prime Minister in 2018, called them the backbone of Indian society, for their proficiency in trade. The Bohras trace their heritage to the Fatimid Caliphate (Fatima: daughter of the Prophet Muhammad) which ruled over Medina until the 11th century. The community is devoted to the office of Da’I al-Mutlaq, created by their 20th Imam as a substitute to the rank of the Imam. Today, the position is the highest authority of faith among the Bohras, an authority that is wielded with autocracy, ruthlessness and tyranny.
Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin has been the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community since wading through a succession crisis in 2014. Following the annexation, he has delivered addresses seethed in regression, parochialism, orthodoxy and sexism. In 2016, he came out in support of continuing Female Genital Mutilation within his community and upheld the practice as something that is beneficial for the body and soul.
Questions & Answers
For the longest time, I believed Female Genital Mutilation was a practice alien to India’s culture or tradition. All of that changed after being confronted by two heartbreaking stories which unveiled Female Genital Mutilation’s abhorrent existence and the pervasive perpetuation of it in the Bohra community. (Sidenote: Female Genital Mutilation is also practiced by Suleimani Bohras, Alawi Bohras, as well as Sunni communities in Kerala)
I fail to understand how or why it still goes on in an Indian community that is proud of its sophistication, education, the standard of living and financial status. In a study published in 2018, over 75% of Bohra women were subject to the cruel practice, 50% of women feel lifelong vaginal irritation and 30% have either lost vaginal sensitivity or feel discomfort while urinating. The study also mentions the risk of infection, bleeding, sexually transmitted diseases and childbirth complications. A Senegalese study showed undeniable evidence of the association of Female Genital Mutilation with mental illnesses like PTSD, anxiety and clinical depression. The UN, WHO and various transnational organisations have called the practise as inhuman and beseeched countries to ban it. It amazes me that while a famously gender unequal country like Sudan has banned it, India hasn’t yet. In fact, criminalisation in countries like Australia and America is transforming India into a hub of ‘khatna’/ ‘khafz’, as it is called in the Bohra community.
This isn’t about faith, spirituality or religion. This is about basic human decency. This is about not physically harming a little girl. This is about not leaving her with the physical and psychological trauma that is eternal. But this isn’t about all those things. This is about control. This is about domination. This is about intimidation. Anybody associated with science will tell you, it accomplishes nothing. Anybody associated with humanity will tell you, it is reprehensible. It shouldn’t be banned for being unhealthy and unscientific; it should be banned because it is sexist, evil and immoral.
While I write this, a movement is simmering inside the Bohra community. A movement driven by victims who are hopeful of having this abominable practice banned and criminalised. Organisations like ‘WeSpeakOut’ & ‘Saahiyo’ have raised petitions in the United Nations, the Ministry of Women & Child Development as well as the Supreme Court. However, all of this has provoked a counter-movement in the form of ‘Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom’ who’ve not just justified Female Genital Mutilation but gone to battle with them in the courts.
Where Are You?
Why hasn’t an issue of this proportion garnered more attention? Why haven’t the liberal feminists deplored such an absolutely vile practice? Where are the women and where is your solidarity? Where are the people who clamoured against Sabarimala? Where are the people who post #blacklivesmatter? Where are the placards and the celebrities and the intellectuals? Where is the liberal intelligentsia that bleeds for Kashmir? Where is the dynast who spoke of women empowerment? Why hasn’t the Grand Old Party halted Mr Abhishek Manu Singhvi in defending this ugly practice at the Supreme Court?
It’s about convenience you see. Not a single word will be uttered against priests in Kerala who sexually harass, against MPs who blatantly misbehave in Parliament, against Maulanas who preach dressing traditionally and against organisations that support Triple Talaaq. Women’s rights don’t exist for minorities. Misogyny is invisible when it comes from liberals. Mr Vinod Dua is still working, Mr Anu Malik is still judging and Mr Salman Khan is still making films. Don’t worry, it’s not just domestic. Do you ever wonder why there is no examination of Joe Biden, accused of sexual harassment, but unanimous disgust over Trump’s disgraceful remarks? Parity does not exist. Equal treatment is a myth.
In 2020, BJP MP Tejasvi Surya was criticised, trolled and castigated for retweeting radical Islamic-sceptic, Tareq Fateh’s tweet on Female Genital Mutilation. I guess Surya naively believed standing up against absolutely immoral acts regardless of which religion it stems from was the right thing to do. Not one single liberal feminist organisation stood up in support of him. Not one liberal media house championed his cause. Not one single intellectual wrote about it.
Imagine a five-year-old girl, imagine her being taken out by her mother with the promise of ice cream, imagine her being taken to a dingy apartment where an old woman asks her mother to hold you down while she removes her underwear. Imagine the pain of a molten hot blade cutting a part of her vagina, imagine the cries for help and the Stops and the Nos, imagine begging and pleading and weeping to end it. Imagine the blood, the shame, the anguish and the mental trauma. Now imagine if that five-year-old girl was your daughter or your sister or your girlfriend or your wife or your mother. Imagine.