Unsuspecting girls, told by their mothers they are being taken some place special. That place, a darkened room, where they are held down, their little legs parted and a blade brought down to slice off the hood of the clitoris or even the clitoris, itself.
This week, lawyers south of the border said they planned to mount a religious exemption defence after a U.S. federal jury indicted two Detroit-area doctors and the wife of one of the doctors in April for scheming to perform Female Genital Mutilation. This is horrifying. FGMwas outlawed in the U.S. in 1996. It is also a criminal offense in Canada.
A cultural practice that began millennia ago and wound its way through Africa, the Middle East and 19th century U.S. medical practice, still affects millions of women around the world. FGM ranges from genital nicks and scrapes to wholesale cutting and stitching up, often by untrained hands.
Among Dawoodi Bohras, a small sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims from India and Pakistan, the 600-year-old practice takes a milder, but still indefensible form of mutilation.
Haram ki boti, is what that delicate part of the body is called in Gujarati. Sinful flesh.
Its removal “moderates the (sexual) urge . . . so there’s less chance of extra-marital affairs,” says a woman in the eye-opening 2012 documentary calledA Pinch of Skin(viewable on YouTube).
Women on various forums recall harrowing experiences of pain, confusion over the duplicity of their mothers and grandmothers and repression from the silence or dismissiveness unresolved: Elli
“It’s an incongruous experience of something terrifying happening and people saying it’s no big deal,” says Toronto resident Farzana Doctor, 46, a registered social worker in private psychotherapy practice and a novelist, who belongs to the Dawoodi Bohra community. “You grow up and never made sense of it, and then you’re told you have to do it to your daughter.”
Although FGM is not considered an Islamic practice, in this sect, which is otherwise known for progressive attitudes on women and education, those who practice it consider it a religious requirement.
How does faith blind you so much that you’d place your little girl on a risk-filled path of pain?
Clearly, a few Bohra women wondered, too. The issue of FGM resurfaced after their concerted efforts to bring the hushed conversation out in the public sphere began to have an impact.
2015 was a seminal year.
Farzana Doctor was one of the original signatories of a Speak Out against FGM petition on change.org in December 2015, which resulted this week in a pledge of support by India’s Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi fora proposed anti-FGM law.
In November of that year, five women from the diasporic community, including a Canadian researcher, set up Sahiyo, a non-profit organization to end genital cutting.
I can only hope no court in the U.S. ever allows girls to be abused under the guise of religion.
Abuse, because we’re not talking about adult women opting for designer vaginas. This is about cutting off a body part of a minor incapable of consent. And it holds true for circumcision of girls — and of boys, a practice that is widely carried out in North America.
But there the equivalence ends.
Circumcision of boys, a controversial and emotionally charged topic, is almost always by medical doctors (and not by a razor blade in a dark room), so you could say there is some comfort in a reduced risk of harm.
Science scrambled to catch up with that cultural practice and has thrown up contradictory results.
Female circumcision has no known medical benefits.
Then there is an added insult in the Bohra community. Circumcision of boys is openly celebrated. For girls, “it’s a very secretive practice,” says Doctor. “Often, the men don’t even know it’s happening to their daughters.”
So shrouded is it in secrecy that a celebration held after the cutting doesn’t even mention the girl has undergonekhatna, the circumcision.
Get wounded, then hide in shame.
Like parents who circumcise their boys, women do this to their girls believing it to be in their interest.
In reality, in whose interest is it?
“It does damage to nerve endings,” says Doctor. “There’s psychological harm that makes them (women) afraid of sex. There’s pain during sex, risk of infections.”
Stories by affected women indicate it’s about male sexual insecurities.
“When a woman’s urge is moderated, many sins are eliminated from society,” says a young woman inA Pinch of Skin.
Urge to do what? To seek attention? To have sex? To have orgasms?
There’s no clarity on this, because talking about sex is taboo, as is talking about genitals.
The taboo allows for vagueness to conveniently mask what is essentially a caging of female desire.
Circumcision, whether it’s a symbolic nick, as some now claim, or a removal of the clitoral hood or clitoris, is a mark of sexual control over female bodies in this traditionally entrepreneurial culture where men travelled far as traders and were away from their wives and families for a long time.
It’s an interference that hoodwinks women into confining little girls in a chastity belt.
No such restraints for the travellers.
Shree Paradkar tackles issues of race and gender. You can follow her @shreeparadkar