Down To Earth speaks to Mariya Taher, the co-founder and United States executive director of non-profit Sahiyo on Female Genital Mutilation in India
Mariya Taher. Photo: Sahiyo.org
February 6 is observed every year as the ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation’.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and female circumcision, is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia.
It has been practiced in several countries and regions as a method to control women’s sexuality. It almost always results in serious health complications for women, who are usually subjected to it during their tender years.
This year, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on men and boys “everywhere to join me in speaking out and stepping forward to end female genital mutilation, for the benefit of all.”
Mariya Taher is the co-founder and United States executive director of Sahiyo, a non-profit fighting for women’s rights and ending gender-based violence. A Bohra, she was forced to undergo FGM at the age of seven, when her family was on a trip to India from the US to visit relatives.
Down To Earth spoke to Taher about FGM and the discourse surrounding it in India, where media reports have highlighted its prevalence in the Bohra community in recent years. Edited excerpts:
Rajat Ghai: What are the origins of FGM? During my research, I saw that the geographical arc of FGM roughly corresponds to the Islamic World stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. Does FGM have religious sanction in the Quran/Sunnah/Hadiths (or for that matter any other religious text)?
Mariya Taher: FGC is a global issue, and we know today it occurs in over 92 countries around the world. It’s important to also understand there are various ideas around how FGC started from the idea that the Romans forced their slaves to have it undergone to evidence that it was done to Egyptian mummies.
It is very important to recognise that FGC started and predates the origin of both Christianity and Islam. Today, we do hear reasons for FGC being done because of religion. But the bigger idea to understand is that FGC has become a social norm. This means it has been justified in all sorts of ways so it continues.
And yes, some groups will use religious texts to try to justify FGC. It is not stated in the Bible, Quran or Torah. But there may be other religious texts that groups use. I recently learned that a fundamentalist Christian group here in the US has religious texts supporting FGC. I also know the Bohras have a religious text they use to support FGC too.
The bigger idea to understand is that FGC is a social norm.
RG: Which communities have this practice in India?
MT: Within India, we are aware that it occurs in various Bohra sects (Dawoodi Bohras, Alavi Bohras, Suleimani Bohras) and we are aware that it also occurs in some religious groups in Kerala.
We have heard reports here and there of it in other communities. But as of yet, we have not had survivors speak out from other communities.
RG: Is the practice of Khatna /Khafz analogous to the four types of FGM that the World Health Organization talks about?
MT: Khatna or Khafz falls under Type 1 FGM/C as defined by the World Health Organization, as what is said to occur in the Bohra community is that a piece of the clitoral hood is removed. In some cases, we hear that a nick is done and in this case, it would fall under Type IV.
It’s important to recognise that each Type is broad in and of itself. And also it is important to recognise that even though this is what is said to occur, some FGC survivors from the Bohra community had experienced more.
The impact is different for everyone. All forms, regardless of the type, can be harmful and because they are occurring to minors who are too young to consent, they are a form of assault or child abuse.
RG: What are the latest developments regarding FGM among Bohras in India and abroad? Has the intense spotlight brought any change in the mindsets of the clergy and the common Bohra?
MT: In the last few years, there have been four court cases involving the Bohra community and FGC. They have occurred in Australia, India and the United States. Yes, they have helped to bring the conversation out into the public and yes, we are seeing change occur.
RG: Do you think the spotlight, awareness and activism will bear fruit? Will there be a law someday that specifically bans FGM in India? In that event, what will be the reaction of the Bohra community leadership?
MT: Change takes time and we have already seen change occur as more survivors are speaking out. More individuals from FGC-impacted communities are speaking out. Conversations on FGC are public now.
There may also be some opposition to it from religious leaders in the Bohra community. But the fact that the dialogue is at the surface and no longer hidden is a huge step in creating stories.
I hear stories all the time of people who were not cut and decisions by family members not to have their daughters undergo it. I see that change in how many people reach out to Sahiyo to support and who become programme participants, volunteers, or supporters of our work.
Yes, I know activism bears fruit and change occurs. But change is slow.
In terms of having a law in India, yes, I believe one day a law will pass and I know there are many survivors of FGC who are working hard at getting a law passed. WeSpeakOut is one such group that is working for it to pass.
But law alone won’t end it. Law is one important tool to have. But so is community outreach and education. So is having support for survivors. You need a holistic strategy that recognises FGC as a social norm and to change social norms and behaviour, it takes many strategies.
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