Mariya Taher began studying female genital cutting because it happened to her. Growing up in the U.S. Dawoodi Bohra community, a small sect of Shiite Islam, both she and her sister were cut as children, under the ritual practice of khatna, or circumcision, which involves removing a young girl’s clitoris. Taher had the procedure done in Mumbai while visiting relatives and her sister had it done in the United States.
Performing female genital mutilation (FGM) was made illegal in the United States in 1996. In 2013, sending children overseas for the procedure was also made illegal. In April, the first ever U.S. arrests for performing female genital cutting were made in Michigan. The two doctors arrested were part of the Bohra diaspora.
In 2015, Taher and four other Bohra women founded Sahiyo, an organization that raises awareness of khatna in an effort to end the practice entirely. Sahiyo’s members refer to khatna as female genital cutting; many in the Bohra community are reluctant to recognize khatna as a form of FGM.
Sahiyo carried out a global study of the Bohra community, published in February, in which 80 percent of the 385 women who participated said they had been cut. Some experienced trauma, and some didn’t, but 81 percent said they do not want the practice to continue.
Women & Girls spoke to three of Sahiyo’s co-founders, Mariya Taher, Aarefa Johari and Insia Dariwala to understand the challenges of ending the practice.
Women & Girls: How did awareness about the practice of khatna enter public discourse in the last few years?
Insia Dariwala: In 2016, we saw a lot of change happening in the discussion that revolved around khatna [in India]. There was a lot of interest. People from the community, even though they wanted to remain anonymous, started engaging with us online. More NGOs wanted to understand the issue because, though they were dealing with women’s and children’s issues, FGM/C was nowhere in the picture. The media attention gave us the opportunity to speak to a lot more people.
Women & Girls: What are some of the challenges Sahiyo faces in advocating to end khatna in India?
Dariwala: I run an organization on children’s sexual abuse, and I look at this as just another form of sexual abuse. When you think about the trauma a 7-year-old girl is put through – her clothes are removed, her legs are spread – you cannot look at it any other way. And these are often not trained doctors that are performing the procedure.
Our research shows that more women are saying it has harmed them than women saying it has not harmed them. We recently rolled out a petition to the U.N. to recognize FGM/C not just as an African problem, but a global problem, and a very big South Asian problem.
Mariya Taher: India has many laws protecting minority religions, so because this is viewed as a religious issue, that is a big impediment in terms of passing a law. The Bohra community is really wealthy, and that’s a big political factor. Still, people are pursuing avenues to legislation, and one of those is to collect data to show that this is an issue. In India, no large-scale data exists, so we are trying to use our study to show that there is a need to do more research in India.
Women & Girls: One of the most difficult to understand aspects of this issue is that women are both the victims and the perpetrators of the practice of khatna. Can you share some context about this, and where the solutions might exist to reconcile it?
Aarefa Johari: If one looks at the practice of khatna through the lenses of patriarchy and social norms, then it is easy to understand why women perpetuate the practice despite going through it themselves. Within patriarchy, a woman’s role is to uphold and perpetuate the status quo, and all the social norms that come with it. This is why women teach their daughters menstrual taboos, even if they know it restricts their lives; or why they teach their daughters to be domesticated and allow their sons to be “boys.”
Female genital cutting is a social norm, too – something that has been practiced for so long, and normalized so much, that women sincerely believe it is necessary in order to be a good member of the community, in order to be a good mother. And when mothers hesitate or choose not to follow the tradition, other women – like aunts – take it upon themselves to ensure that the norm is observed. There is no malice involved in any of this. They genuinely believe they are doing something good.
The solution is simple yet challenging. We need sustained community engagement and awareness-raising, so that more and more people understand how social norms work, how patriarchy works, learn how to question it all and be empowered to make different choices. We need to slowly create a new social norm: not cutting.
Women & Girls: Are there other organizations or individuals in India working to end this practice within the Bohra community? Where do you see hope?
Johari: There is a group called Speak Out on FGM, convened by Masooma Ranalvi (from Delhi), and their Whatsapp group includes Bohra women from all over the world. Speak Out had started a Change.org petition asking the government to ban khatna in India. The petition has nearly 100,000 signatures now. Besides that, both in India and around the world, many individuals are working in the movement in their own individual capacities, trying to bring change within their circles.
We see hope every day, when more and more women and men from the community join our cause, or parents come and tell us that they are now planning not to cut their daughters. So change is definitely underway, however gradually.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This Q&A originally stated that Sahiyo had given their petition to the Women’s Rights Commission. This comment was in relation to a different petition, and has been removed.