Female genital mutilation is being practiced not just in Africa but in the heart of Mumbai. Hindustan Times speaks to several ‘victims’ who are becoming the face of a brave fight back


Imagine being taken to a room in a dark decrepit building. Imagine being pinned down on the floor. Imagine your underwear being taken off. Imagine seeing a knife being heated on the gas stove. Imagine the same hot knife slicing your clitoris. Imagine young girls shrieking in pain.

The cruel practice of female genital cutting or female genital mutilation (FGM) is not happening only in far away Africa. It’s not just being practised in tribal societies. Young girls aged six and seven are regularly being cut right here, in India. Mumbai abounds with untrained midwives who continue to scar young girls from the Bohra community, a Shia sub sect.

For long, FGM or khatna as the Bohras call it remained a well-kept secret, a taboo, a subject never to be discussed. But now a few women – victims at the hands of the Bohra tradition – are choosing to speak out and create awareness. Masooma Ranalvi, a Delhi-based publisher – who has put her name to an online petition  against the practice along with 17 other women – has decided it’s time to come out in the open. The pain has become a trigger and the passion to save other girls from being cut have made her and the others fearless.

Masooma was cut 42 years ago but says the day is etched in her mind. She narrates her personal story haltingly but with clarity. “My mum told me come; I’ll take you out and buy you chocolates. I happily went with her. She took me to Bohri mohalla (in Mumbai), a cluster where 90% Bohras live. We went into this dark decrepit building. I remember being taken into a room. The curtains were drawn. She said lie down. Like an obedient child, I lay. My grandmother was holding my hands. An oldish woman pulled down my pants… I started crying. Grandmom said don’t worry, it will be over in a jiffy. I shrieked in pain… I experienced a sharp, shooting pain and she put some black powder there… I came home and cried and cried and cried...”

For a long time, Masooma did not understand what had happened to her or why she had been cut. The realisation that she had been so betrayed shattered her. The reasons why khatna is so common in the community shocked her.

Aarefa Johari, a young, articulate journalist is another petitioner. Like most women in the two million-strong Bohra community, Aarefa was cut too. Without consent and without too much thought. Why, she asked herself for a long time. The answer to that question is stark: Tradition is not easy to slay. Slaying young girls is easier.

Masooma and Aarefa were both cut because their mothers were pressured into taking their daughters to Bhindi Bazaar in Mumbai by older women in the family; either by aunts or mothers-in-law. The beliefs that the clitoral head is ‘unwanted skin’, that it is a ‘source of sin’ that will make them ‘stray’ out of their marriages are reasons that lie at the heart of a practice that predates Islam but thrives amongst Bohras. One woman this reporter spoke to referred to the clitoral head as ‘haraam ki boti’ or immoral lump of flesh.

The sad truth to this painful process is the fact that it is a practice being done to women by other women. Most women we spoke with blamed their mothers initially. Till they realised they too were victims of the same mindless tradition. “There was pain and I cried. I was aware that there is a thing called khatna and the main intention is to curb sexual desire… The first target of my anger was my mother,” said Aarefa.

Aarefa, like other women, has had long conversations with her mother who now supports her in her fight against FGM. “When I got it done for my daughter, I did it because it was a custom to be followed,’’ says Aarefa’s mother Sophie Johari. She read an article by a Bohra woman some years later and made Aarefa read it too. “It struck me that I should have thought about it more. I’m a science student. I really should have thought about it,’’ says Sophie who now lends support to her daughter’s campaign on Facebook.

Unlike Aarefa, Zehra Patwa, a 45-year-old US-based Technology Project Manager found out only a year ago that her most private parts had been tampered with. She had dealt with the childhood trauma by just blocking it out completely, which psychologists say is common.

For the past year, Zehra has been struggling with questions flooding her mind. “I wasn’t aware this is happening in my community. A year ago, someone from my family spoke about it publicly. Lack of understanding of why it’s done bothers me the most. It goes against everything I know about my community which is educated, progressive, modern,’’ she says. She feels violated and says, “There is no openness about it. We don’t know what was done. Was it a nick, a big cut, what was it?”

Few will be able to answer a question so relevant because there are no medical norms to determine the cut. Untrained midwives use blades and knives that recently left a seven-year-old bleeding for six days. “She had to use a sanitary pad,’’ an aunt told us on condition of anonymity.

The aunt, like Zehra, fails to understand the dichotomy between the regressive practice in an otherwise progressive community. Bohra girls are educated and have travelled the world. Shaheeda Kirtane, a researcher in public health and policy, was protected by her mother, Dilshad Tavawalla, afamily and child protection lawyer based in Canada.

She was lucky to escape being put under the knife and has joined the fight against FGM to try and stop her community from betraying its daughters. “I’m not able to explain to myself. It’s so ingrained in culture. They unquestioningly do it to be part of the community. If you openly declare you won’t do it, the backlash is considerable and many just won’t do business with you,’’ she says.

Insia Dariwala, a film-maker and child rights activist who has also put her name on the online petition, was also lucky to escape. Her mother put her foot down after her older daughter was taken to one of the dark decrepit rooms by an aunt. But Insia still feels cut in different ways. “My sister was cut after being taken away on the pretext of a movie. I’m not cut but still feel cut off from ritualistic functions, joyous occasions. But saving other children is very important. It’s a form of child abuse.”

The abuse leaves women physically, psychologically and sexually damaged. Boston-based Mariya Taher is pursuing a career in social work and domestic violence because of her own personal experience. Is she emotionally damaged? “No. It’s something I had to come to terms with. It took a long time for me to be okay. It is something that has affected me; it’s affected the kind of work I do. I am a social worker and my work revolves around gender violence. It’s made me the kind of person that I am.”

The mutilation is also affecting marriages. Couples are finally admitting to it but only in one-on-one confidential meetings with the petitioners. One mother who wished to stay anonymous because she lives bang in the middle of Bohra mohalla says, “I support the fight against FGM. I don’t think I ever enjoyed sex in my marriage. I often wonder what it would have been like if I hadn’t been cut. The sad part is I will never know.”

One reason why khatna continues is because the Syneda, or the Bohra high priest, refuses to engage on the issue either with the women or the media. The United Nations has declared female genital mutilation a human rights violation but there is no ban in India. Young girls are still being taken to midwives and to doctors in Bohra-run hospitals. An anonymous Bohra woman petitioned the Syedna in 2011 but drew a blank but the current one in which Masooma, Aarefa and Insia have identified themselves is gathering steam with over 45,000 signatures.

Slowly, the issue is becoming less taboo. In Mumbai, HT approached Nushrat Bharucha, a prominent Bohra face who has hit the Bollywood screen with Pyar ka Punchnama. She initially agreed only to a tape-recorded interview but soon sent a message saying she wanted to be a part of the campaign to stop FGM.

Her parents ensured she wasn’t mutilated and she says, “If I have a daughter, no way is she going through this.” Her mother Tasneem says she was broken after she realised how her mother had plotted her khatna and her father Tanveer, who distanced himself from the clergy by not paying the household tax the clergy fixes, had to pay a huge emotional price. He wasn’t allowed to bury his father till he paid up. The family is united now and willing to withstand any backlash that comes their way in the fight against FGM.

The fight is picking up slowly. A conviction in Australia  in November, where a nurse and a mother are set to go to jail has led to chatter within the community and a decree from the Sydney Jamaat advising all Bohras against being in contempt of the country’s law. Insia and Mariya are part of Sahiyo , an NGO speaking to community members through an ‘each one, reach one’ campaign that is also being promoted on the Speak Out on FGM Facebook page. Masooma and Aarefa plan to finally ask for a ban when they take their petition to the ministries of women and child development, law and health.

Sahiyo members are analysing the results of an online survey they conducted. Preliminary findings show that 80% of 400 respondents have been cut. Non-Bohra women are joining the fight too. Priya Goswami, director of a documentary titled ‘A pinch of skin’ is one of them. “When I saw the film on the big screen, I realised I couldn’t move away from it. It’s great that we have formed a coalition of sorts to try and end khatna.”

Family and child protection lawyer Tavawalla views khatna as a gross violation because children are not able to protect themselves. “Laws play a very essential role in bringing about social change. Gender reforms are slow and hard-fought, even more so when they involve ancient, archaic and cultural practices of a secretive and closed community like the Dawoodi Bohras,’’ she says.

Women from the community agree. The secrecy comes wrapped in deceit and betrayal. And a grave form of abuse on young minds and bodies.

NAIPAUL’S INDIA: "That was a time when there was no intellectual life in India..."

In reacting to his Nobel Prize laudation, Naipaul averred: “I am utterly delighted, this is an unexpected accolade. It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and to India, home of my ancestors.” While England provided him with a place and a language to express his thoughts, the ethos of his writings is clearly his Indian ancestry. Never before has a writers work been so consumed by the complexities of his origin, compounded by the geographical displacement of his forefathers.

His writings about India, scathingly depreciating at times, have never gone down well with the Indian intelligentsia. His post Nobel Prize remark that he had contributed to India's intellectual development was greeted with profound scepticism and deep antipathy in India. However, a close reading of his works reveals that his three books about India (An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilisation and India-A Million Mutinies Now) are in essence, an accurate, objective picture of the changing scenario in post-independent India.

Naipaul, the son of Indian immigrants to Trinidad, first visited India in the 1960's. He carries in his mind a carefully cultivated image of India-the land of Nehru and Gandhi, the land of a great civilisation. His shock and disappointment at the land of his ancestors finds vent in a harsh and stinging tirade in An Area of Darkness, ostensibly to mask the deep hurt that he himself experiences. Jeffery Paine author of Father India rightly concludes: "Area is the narrative of a young man not finding the India he expected and not liking the India he finds." India does not live up to his dreams and the young Naipaul lacks the maturity to gauge the strength of an ancient civilisation.

Naipaul's disgust at what he sees is exemplified in sentences like this: "Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate mostly, besides the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover."

However his observations are not all gloom and doom. He appreciates the Indian attitude and deep down in his mind exists a glimmer of hope for the country of his forefathers: "Nowhere are people so heightened, rounded, and individualistic; nowhere did they offer themselves so fully and with such assurance. To know Indians was to take delight in people; every encounter was an adventure. I did not want India to sink; the mere thought was painful." (An Area of Darkness)

But does his book depict genuinely the India of the 1960's? The answer is, yes. Naipaul could not have come to India, at a more inappropriate time. It was a country in flux. The initial euphoria of Independence had evaporated, the Chinese war had deflated its confidence and crushed its philosophy of non-violence, the economy was non-existent and at the helm was an aging, crestfallen Prime Minister; certainly not an optimistic picture. So when Naipaul suggests, much to the dislike of some Indians, that there was little intellectual life in India 40 years ago, he is probably right. The guiding principles of India at that time had failed.

Ahimsa (Gandhian principle of non-violence) had fallen flat in the face of Chinese aggression, socialism had failed miserably and the image of India as a beggar with a begging bowl was gaining strength. Resistant and oblivious to the changing world, India’s aging leaders (both political as well as intellectual), proponents of this decaying ideology clung stubbornly to it ruthlessly suppressing any alternative thought process and allowing India to sink deeper and deeper into a quagmire. In the absence of a rejuvenating force, there, indeed existed an intellectual vacuum. Though rather harsh, Naipaul rightly concludes: "India has been a shock for me, because-you know, you think of India as a very old and civilised land. One took this idea of an antique civilisation for granted and thought it contained the seed of growth in this century.... India has nothing to contribute to the world, is contributing nothing."

On a personal note he ends: "It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two" But return he did. Again and again until he had made peace with the civilisation of his origin.

Ten years later (A Wounded Civilisation, 1976) the shock, disgust and anger persist but in an attempt to assuage his own wounds he conducts a root cause analysis of India's plight. He concludes that the Hindu land is "a wounded civilisation", injured by the British Raj and the preceding Islamic invasion. Again his strong emotional links with India come to the fore: "India is for me a difficult country. It isn't my home and cannot be my home; and yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it; I cannot travel only for the sights. I am at once too close and too far."

Towards the end of the first millennium, India had become an inward looking society which arrogantly ignored the outside world and this attitude had brought with it, its inherent weaknesses and prepared the ground for its impending invasions: "No civilisation was so little equipped to cope with the outside world; no country was so easily raided and plundered, and learned so little from its disasters. Five hundred years after the Arab conquest of Sind, Moslem rule was established in Delhi as the rule of the foreigners, people apart; and foreign rule-Moslem for the first five hundred years, British for the last 150-ended in Delhi only in 1947."

The catastrophic effect that these repeated invasions had on the Hindu psyche are well delineated by Naipaul. Commenting on the decline of the Vijayanagar Kingdom, one of the last bastions of Hindu rule during the Islamic invasion, he astutely observes: "I wondered whether intellectually, for a thousand years India hadn't always retreated before its conquerors and whether in its periods of apparent revival, India hadn't only been making itself archaic again, intellectually smaller, always vulnerable."

This idea is repeatedly emphasized in the book:" Hinduism hasn't been good enough for the millions. It has exposed us to a thousand years of defeat and stagnation. Its philosophy of withdrawal has diminished men intellectually and not equipped them to respond to challenge; it has stifled growth. So that again and again in India, history has repeated itself: vulnerability, defeat and withdrawal."

And for a thousand years (1000 AD to 1947) foreign rule suppressed the native intellect and stymied any growth of the native civilisation. Free of the shackles of alien subjugation, one would have expected to see a positive assertion of ones identity in the post 1947 period. Tragically this was not to be. India's intellectual power fell into the hands of a myopic Indian intellectually community (largely comprised of Marxist oriented historians-sophisticated Pol Pots who desired to erase any reference to India's past) who failed to give a sense of direction to free India.

These armchair intellectuals propounded new fangled philosophies that only accelerated its sense of purposelessness. One such concept was secularism. This 'secularism' did not subscribe to the dictionary definition of the word. But took on a totally different meaning in India. It was a corruption. It led to showering on the non-Hindu communities a set of privileges that could not be justified morally, economically or legally. But more important it expected the Hindu to negate his own identity. Any attempt by the Hindu, however innocent, to assert his identity was dubbed as reactionary and divisive. This proved disastrous in terms of India's self- confidence. Naipaul was probably the first person to make this observation and express it in no uncertain terms: "The loss of the past meant the loss of that civilisation, the loss of a fundamental idea of India, and the loss therefore to a nationalist-minded man, of a motive for action. It was a part of the feeling of purposelessness of which many Indians spoke."

Even an attempt to accurately define India's historical past was frowned upon. Over the centuries India had shrunk physically. Its boundaries had receded from mountains of the Hindu Kush in the West to deserts of Rajasthan forsaking in the process even its traditional cradle of civilisation- the Indus Valley. Academics foolishly contended that the very fact that India existed now was enough to infer that the Islamic invasion was not detrimental to India. They went on to add that invasions had enriched India. Even if India had shrunk to a sliver of land near the southern tip of India-these intellectuals would seek satisfaction that India still existed, totally oblivious of its loss and incapable of appreciating the magnitude of damage. India not only suffered an intellectual depletion but also a crass intellectual perversion that failed to identify the true cause of its backwardness and thus hampered progress.

Therefore Naipaul correctly avers: "The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilisation that has at last become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead." I am not certain whether India had 'become aware of its inadequacies' but certainly it lacked the intellectual means of progress during that period.

Finally when he returns to India in the 1990's (India-A Million Mutinies Now), Naipaul is more mature and discerning: "What I hadn't understood in 1962, or had taken too much for granted was the extent to which the country had been remade; and even the extent to which India had been restored to itself, after its own equivalent of the dark ages-after the Muslim invasions and the detailed, repeated vandalising of the North, the shifting empires, the wars, the 18th-century anarchy."

Naipaul now sees the benefits of independence, a crucial catalyst for human growth: "the idea of freedom had gone everywhere in India." And he observes Indians discovering their own identity (to some extent fuelled by the growth of the nationalist BJP): "People everywhere have ideas now of who they are and what they owe themselves"

Change is present everywhere, "India was now a country of million mutinies. A million mutinies, supported by twenty kinds of group excess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regional excess: the beginnings of self-awareness, it would seem the beginnings of an intellectual life, already negated by old anarchy and disorder. But there was in India now what didn't exist 200 years before: a central will, a central intellect, a national idea. .... What the mutinies were also helping to define was the strength of the general intellectual life, and the wholeness and humanism of the values to which all Indians now felt that they could appeal. They were a part of the beginning of a new way for many millions, part of India's growth, part of its restoration."

In summary, India had changed. India was now something to be proud of. Naipaul had something to be proud of. He is finally at peace with India, the very essence of his origin and his existence.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Naipaul arrogantly claimed he helped effect this change in India. What he overlooks is the fact that he is merely the chronicler of the change and not its instigator. However, one may also look at this remark from a different perspective. Does it reflect a deep empathy for India? Does he badly want to be a part of its success?