New Delhi: Five years ago, when several Dawoodi Bohra women came out publicly with their stories of surviving a painful and traumatic practice called khatna, their family, friends and larger society were made to acknowledge and understand the practice.
Their online petition seeking a ban on the practice, which gathered more than one lakh signatures, created so much buzz that even the likes of former Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had to sit up and take notice.
Khatna/Khafz or FGM (female genital mutilation) involves cutting or altering the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is mostly practised on minor girls.
In India, it is practised predominantly within the Bohra Muslim community — a subsect of Shia Muslims. It has been recognised by the United Nations as a human rights violation that can harm the health and integrity of women.
The struggle for these survivors has been not only to initiate dialogue within their community about khatna, but also shatter the global myth that it is solely an African practice.
Anti-FGM fight in India
In 2020, the United Nations has flagged off a decade-long resolution to end the practice by 2030 through a #youthendFGM campaign centred around the youth being the vehicle of change.
Despite the fact that the UN has long recognised an urgent need to globally eradicate the practice, there are still 4.1 million girls around the world at risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation or cutting.
This is why it remains one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, with 6 February being marked as the International Zero Tolerance to FGM Day.
But this year is important for India because of the Supreme Court hearing on the issue, points out Sameena, a member of anti-FGM advocacy ground WeSpeakOut.
In May 2017, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court by Delhi-based lawyer Sunita Tiwari, seeking a ban on FGM.
In 2018, the court heard the matter partially before it was referred to a five-judge Constitution bench to decide on the issue of freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution.
The matter has now been sent to a nine-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and has been clubbed with other matters — the Sabrimala issue, entry of Muslim women to mosques as well as entry of Parsi women married outside the community into the fire temple. However, the court has clarified that it will not hear specific cases, but address the broader questions.
While the UN’s global campaign against FGM may not address the specific legal, cultural and sometimes religious challenges that come in the anti-FGM fight in different communities around the world, many in India resonate with its charter and its clear zero-tolerance stand.
Activist Sakina, for example, believes “some things are just squarely wrong. Every day for us is a zero-tolerance day but one day to commemorate it helps congregate some energy”.
To mark the event this year, Mumbai-based NGO Sahiyo has launched Voices to End FGM/C — a series of 27 short videos addressing the practise, created by survivors and advocates from countries and communities around the world as part of a workshop.
Articulating personal stories of childhood trauma was how women first broke their silence about FGM and today, too, storytelling remains core to advocacy around the issue.
An extension of the ‘Sahiyo Stories’ programme organised by Sahiyo and American organisation StoryCenter, the films are an outcome of a digital storytelling workshop that was held for nine FGM/C survivors in Berkeley, California, as well as other survivors through Webinars.
For Sahiyo, which strongly believes FGM can truly only be eradicated from within the community, storytelling also offers a way to bring nuance to a complex issue.
“Awareness campaigns are important, but can often be didactic as they often put out a specific point of view,” Sahiyo’s founder Aarefa Johari tells ThePrint.
She believes that personal storytelling then can tread the space between black and white, as women can recount memories of when they were cut as young girls, the moment they came to acknowledge what had happened to them when they became adults or the stigma and anger they carry with them years on.
Apart from building dialogue within the community of survivors, allies and activists, Sahiyo believes it is equally important to engage with naysayers and trolls.
“We hold mock conversations, where we’ll have two people take different sides of the issue and have a conversation and you can see that it very easily descends into chaos. It’s like polarised arguments in online debates,” Johari says.
Listening is key, as others must feel heard too, adds Johari. Efforts are made to argue the issue on all different counts, like health (the physical damage the practice can potentially cause apart from long term trauma) and religion (the fact that the practice actually finds no mention in the Quran and is really a cultural practice).
“We train activists to talk from all perspectives — legal, human, social, child rights, religious. A scientific argument might appeal to some, a religious to some,” she says.
‘It’s a form of intergenerational violence’
WeSpeakOut holds a similar view of taking a multi-pronged approach to tackling the issue in India, and this 6 February, it will focus on the fact that khafz is an inter-generational practice passed down from grandmothers/mothers to their daughters.
“It’s a form of inter-generational violence, that one generation of women passes down to the next because our religious leadership says it’s necessary. Those who practice khatna/khafz are often unaware that it is harmful,” says Farzana Doctor, co-founder and Canada lead of WeSpeakOut.
Their campaign, Be The One, urges the Bohra community to take action to protect their sisters, daughters, granddaughters, nieces and other female relatives from FGM/C/khafz/khatna.
One such image shows two grandmothers talking, with the caption: “Be the grandma who protects her grandchild from khafz.”
Apart from regular social media campaigns, media outreach and commissioning of research looking into the extent of the practice in India, the group has not shied away from pursuing the legal route to address the issue and believes that “political will is essential for any meaningful movement towards elimination of FGM from India”.
“The UN has declared FGM as a clear violation of human rights and more than 30 countries in the world have enacted strong laws banning FGM. It is interesting that despite strong voices of women survivors of FGM, the government in India has shied away from taking a clear stand on the issue,” says WeSpeakOut’s Shabana, who was disappointed when the Modi government changed its initial stance on the issue two years ago.
While survivors continue to face opposition from within the community, even by women in the community who support the practice, they continue to draw strength from the global efforts against the practice — and from each other.