Before he tumbled off his perch in 2014, aged 102, Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, above – leader of a Shia Muslim sect in India – made it abundantly clear that female genital mutilation was a ‘religious duty’, and declared in a sermon:
The act must be done.
According to this report, he was reacting to growing pressure from women with the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim sect to have FGM, or khatna, outlawed.
After his death, an as-yet-unresolved power struggle has been taking place for his title of Dai al-Mutlaq (worldwide head of the sect). One of the claimants, Mufaddal Saifuddin, said:
The act has to happen! If it is a man, then it is right, it can be openly done, but if it is a woman then it must be done discreetly, but then the act has to be done.
His rival, Taher Fakhruddin, disagreed in a statement:
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a horrific and un-Islamic practice and Syedna Fakhruddin condemns it categorically
According to his statement, women may elect to perform a religiously sanctioned clitoral hood reduction or clitoral hood removal procedure upon reaching the age of legal adulthood. Neither of these procedures involve removal of any part of the clitoris and they are not classified as mutilation according to either United Kingdom or US law. However, clitoral hood removal is classified by the WHO as Type 1a female genital mutilation.
Until a petition calling on the Government of India to outlaw FGM was launched a few months back, many Indians didn’t know that the it happened at all in the country.
The Dawoodi Bohra Muslims are the only community that practices a form of circumcision 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.
Said Masooma Ranalvi, above, one of the women who spearheaded the petition:
Nobody talked about it at all. It was never a part of conversation, ever. It was such a secret, such a top secret. 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.
I read an article about this practice in Africa, and somewhere in my mind I made the connection that this happened to me. And then I read more and realised 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 Burhanuddin. People could be counted as supporters without giving their name to avoid backlash. But it didn’t amount to anything.
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 US 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 UN 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 recognised FGM as a human-rights violation and voted unanimously to end the practice worldwide by imposing stricter laws and educating stakeholders.
The second petition, which has garnered over 50,000 signatures, did trigger a backlash.
Ranalvi claimed that the signatories have been called promiscuous, bad Bohras and infidels.
We’re braced for a long battle … 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.