By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, March 17 – Men in India and Pakistan are joining a campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM), adding greater heft to the movement in the deeply patriarchal Dawoodi Bohra community.
Little is known about FGM in India where the ritual is carried out in great secrecy by the close-knit Shi’ite Muslim sect thought to number over 1 million.
A petition to end FGM, part of a campaign led by Masooma Ranalvi, a woman who was cut as a seven-year-old, has drawn thousands of male signatories, while its companion group on Facebook has scores of men speaking out against the ritual that remains cloaked in secrecy.
Men have also joined a social media campaign by Sahiyo, a campaign group in Mumbai focused on ending FGM, known as ‘khatna’ among the Bohras.
“The community is patriarchal, so men’s participation makes the campaign that much more effective,” said Ranalvi, who plans to present the petition calling for a law to ban FGM in India to the Bohra high priest and the Indian government.
“While women are spearheading the campaign, we also need men to be involved because decision making in the community is controlled entirely by men,” she said.
In Sahiyo’s campaign that invites Bohras and non-Bohras to post photographs saying why they oppose FGM, one man holds a poster saying it makes him ashamed of his community, while another says it is child abuse. Another says a woman’s body needs no altering and her sexual desires need no tempering.
“This isn’t just a woman’s issue; it’s a human rights issue, and men must start seeing it as such,” said Ammar Karimjee, 24, a Pakistani student in Boston, who realised about five years ago that his sister had been cut as a young girl. He spoke against FGM at the United Nations last month.
“When I started speaking to my friends about it, the men would say: I don’t want to talk about it, or it doesn’t concern me, or it’s probably done for a good reason. There’s a basic lack of understanding of women’s bodies; you can’t empathise if you don’t understand,” he said by phone from Boston.
FGM, which can cause serious physical and psychological problems, is more commonly linked to African countries which have led international efforts to end the practice.
India is not included on U.N. lists of countries affected by FGM, and little is known about the practice in South Asia.
Campaigners say Dawoodi Bohras are the only Muslim community in South Asia to practise FGM, estimating that up to three quarters of Bohra girls are cut. Although it is not mentioned in the Koran, the Bohras consider khatna – the removal of part of the clitoris – a religious obligation, and debate on the subject has long been taboo.
While men are all-powerful in the community, they are seldom consulted before a girl is cut, with the mother, grandmother, aunt or other female elder taking charge, said Ranalvi.
This was the case with Saifuddin Suleman in Pune, near Mumbai, who said he only realised recently that he had unwittingly driven his wife and daughter to an appointment where the girl was cut.
“I did so gullibly, never realising the trauma I was putting her through,” he said. “My daughter is 18 now and she asked me, why didn’t you stop it? I had no answer, and asked for her forgiveness. I want this barbaric and inhuman practice to end.”
For Bohra men opposing long-held traditions, there is a risk of being excommunicated or boycotted socially, hurting their business and their families.
Increasingly though, they have precedent on their side. The FGM practice among Indian Dawoodi Bohras hit the headlines in November when a court in Australia found two members of the diaspora community guilty of cutting two girls. A Bohra religious leader was convicted of being an accessory.
Since then, Bohra communities in London, New York, Washington D.C., Florida and Orange County, California, have passed resolutions against the practice, campaigners say.
“The fact that it is being banned elsewhere means things can change,” said Karimjee. “It won’t be easy, but the movement’s gathering more steam now.”