“It will take just a few seconds. And it will only hurt a little bit.” That was all my mother told me as I was held down on a stranger’s rug one afternoon, moments before the old lady’s blade-wielding hand came up between my legs and stole the hood of my clitoris forever.
In a few hours, as the pain disappeared, the memory, too, faded from my conscious mind. I trusted my mother and was satisfied to be told that this ritual, called khatna (circumcision), was a must for every seven-year-old Bohra Muslim girl. Now, nearly twenty years later, it is impossible to think of that day without feeling shudders of bitterness, frustration and outrage. My grandmothers were superstitious, true, but how could my mother – an educated, intelligent, urban woman – let them talk her into violating her daughter’s sexuality?
Over time, I have learnt to forgive my mother. I see her now as just another unquestioning victim of the insidious power that a religious community can wield over one’s mind. I could choose, like many other Bohra girls, to come to terms with the ‘minor scraping’ and move on with my life, but in the past few years, I have found that impossible. Why should I let go of the anger?
I come from the Dawoodi Bohra community, a small Shiite sect from Gujarat, India, that remains remarkably close-knit even though its members have spread out all over the world. Bohras pride themselves on being a wealthy and enterprising business community, and on their relatively ‘liberal’ attitude towards women. Unlike most other Muslim sects in India, Bohra women are well-educated, may work outside the house, and are often encouraged to run small businesses from their homes. Yet, in the cramped living rooms of untrained ‘surgeons’ (and now also in small hospitals all over the world), these very women perpetuate a ritual that has no definite sanction in Islam, but one that could permanently alter the sexual lives of their daughters.
Because of the hushed secrecy surrounding the ritual, it’s hard to estimate how many Bohra girls have been circumcised. It could be anything from 60 to 90% of them, and in a large number of cases, men in the family are not even aware of it. Most women, if you ask them, would not be able to tell you exactly why they follow this tradition – there is no written text they can refer to for a justification. But they know they could be ostracised if they don’t follow the practice.
Three months ago, when a fellow-journalist was reporting on an online petition against female genital mutilation (FGM) started by an anonymous Bohra woman, she asked an official from the community’s religious establishment for an explanation. “It’s done to protect a woman’s virtue,” he said. In a menacing tone, he added, “Be careful. Don’t write about this stuff.” More recently, my aunt (a 40-something psychology-graduate who has ‘disowned’ me for vociferously taking up the anti-FGM cause) defended the ritual with these words: “Women have far more sexual urges than men, and it is necessary to control them. Men have to go out and do the hard work; they cannot be having sex with their wives all day. That’s why the Prophet has emphasised khatna for girls – if they are not circumcised, they will all grow up to be prostitutes.”
Her words have echoed in my mind ever since, growing louder every day. Because of women like her – and a whole community that is a willing to be brainwashed – I don’t have the anatomy of a normal woman today. My clitoris was snatched away without my consent, at an age when I was powerless to protest. I look at my friends, at other women outside my little community, and sometimes feel an eerie sense of seclusion. I’m different. I will never get to experience womanhood completely, the way it was meant to be, all because some ancestors decided my ‘virtue’ was more important.
To me, male circumcision is just as hateful, particularly in my community, where little boys’ fates are sealed when they are barely six months old. But women have to protest for themselves, and some Bohras are taking a personal, though covert stand against FGM. But complete change can come only at an institutional level, when we force the community to abolish the practice. I don’t want to ‘come to terms’ with my situation; I want women to fight, without fear. Outrage has got to be our driving force.