For many minorities, what happens in the community stays in the community.
But last winter, 17 Indian women from a tiny sect of Islam blew the lid off a guarded secret, spurring scrutiny, controversy, debate and vituperative abuse. Since then, online and off, they’ve been called sexually promiscuous, non-believers and traitors to their faith.
Their crime? They authored a petition asking the government of India to outlaw female circumcision.
Until the petition went public in December, many Indians didn’t know female genital mutilation — or FGM — happens in the country at all. In India, the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims are the only community that practices female genital mutilation in the form of circumcision, a practice they call khatna that dates back 1,400 years, according to the clergy. There are about a million Dawoodi Bohra Muslims globally; the majority live in India and some in Pakistan, with diaspora populations across the world.
“Nobody talked about it at all. It was never a part of conversation, ever. It was such a secret, such a top secret,” says Masooma Ranalvi, one of the women who spearheaded the petition. “Sexuality is not anything you talk about with anyone. What happened to me as a child, what part of me was cut or why was it cut, was never something I talked about with my mother or my sisters. My elder sisters had both been through it in a similar way — exactly the same procedure, my grandmother took them as well. We never communicated with each other, then or as adults. It remained between you and the grandmother that took you for it.”
Ranalvi, who runs a publishing house in Delhi, says she was in college when she realized what had been done to her.
“I read an article about this practice in Africa, and somewhere in my mind I made the connection that this happened to me,” she says. “And then I read more and realized that this is what it is: It’s called circumcision.”
This is not the first time the women in the community have spoken up against khatna. In 2011, a woman, using a pseudonym, started a petition to stop the practice, aimed at the religious head. People could be counted as supporters without giving their name to avoid backlash. But it didn’t amount to anything.
“I felt great that something like this is happening,” Ranalvi says. “But unfortunately, the leadership never took cognizance of that petition; it was totally ignored.”
Then in November 2015, an Australian court convicted three Bohra Muslims, including a community religious leader, for FGM, all forms of which are prohibited in Australia by law. Soon after, parishes or jamaats in Canada and the UK released statements urging their communities to adhere to the law of the land, which, they said, supersedes religious law. The U.S. has had a law against FGM since 1995.
India doesn’t have a specific law addressing FGM. But the country has signed agreements including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the U.N. Millennium Development Goals and 2015’s Sustainable Development Goals, which mention the elimination of gender inequality and FGM, respectively, as requisite goals for member states. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly recognized FGM as a human-rights violation and voted unanimously to end the practice worldwide by imposing stricter laws and educating stakeholders.
Ranalvi says she started a Whatsapp messaging group called “Speak Out on FGM” for Bohra women to share stories and ask questions. “It was very cathartic,” she says. “Through this group, we have learned so much about ourselves, our bodies, our religion, the practice, the international movement against FGM — it became a space to talk, learn, discuss, debate.”
And this group finally led to the petition in December that became so controversial.
Earlier this year, the women on the Speak Out on FGM messaging group decided to approach the Syedna, Mohammed Burhanuddin, who is the global head of the religious order, in Mumbai. To their frustration, their requests were not considered. In April, the Syedna delivered a sermon saying that: “The act must be done.” His office broached the matter again in a press release in June, saying the practice has a religious sanction and should continue.
So, the 17 women from Speak Out on FGM and Sahiyo, a group that opposes FGM, addressed their petition to the government of India. The women signed their names. They made a very private matter public. And they bypassed the religious head and addressed the state.
The backlash was immediate.
“The reason people don’t speak out, the reason the first petition was anonymous, is a real and valid fear of ostracism,” Ranalvi explains. “We’re a small close-knit community. It’s tough to be cut off. People go to the mosque and social gatherings, marriages, birthdays — you will not be part of it. Burial is sometimes not allowed in the community burial ground.”
And there are other personal costs. “When a Bohra girl is not cut, she is not considered clean, she is not considered a good girl,” says Insia Dariwala, a filmmaker and co-founder of Sahiyo. Dariwala’s mother chose not to have her khatna done after seeing how badly it traumatized her elder daughter. Though Dariwala was spared the cut, she wasn’t spared the slights, figuring out only much later that an uncircumcised girl is not considered a part of the community and is not allowed at certain religious events.
The signatories have been called promiscuous, bad Bohras and infidels, says Dariwala. In early July, they had a Twitter chat with the hashtag #NoMoreKhatna, especially as a response to an Economist editorial from June, suggesting that efforts to ban the practice, which it labelled “a barbaric practice,” have not been successful so an alternative would be for activists to propose “minor forms of genital cutting” as an alternative to procedures that can result in “severe mutilation.”
While many on Twitter defended khatna in the name of cleansing, piety and honor, the petition has gathered more than 50,000 signatures.
“We’re braced for a long battle,” says Ranalvi. “It’s not going to end there. The process of law-making is not going to be easy.”
She says that when the petition closes in a few weeks, they’ll take it to the country’s top minister for women and child development with hopes for a legal sanction against FGM.