A widely held misconception is that female genital cutting is solely an African issue. Far from it. FGC is practised in all corners of the globe from Kurdistan to Australia, the Yemen to the UK – take a look at our two previous blogs about the state of FGC in Indonesia and United Arab Emirates. In this week’s blog, Orchid turns its focus to a part of the world where FGC is less well known about. We look at personal testimonies that provide anecdotal evidence of FGC occurring in the Bohra communities of India and Pakistan.
The Bohra Community
The Bohra is a small, tight-knit community made up of approximately one million adherents, the majority residing in west India. Bohra communities have inhabited regions of Gujarat in western India since around the 11th Century. They spread to the Sindh region of Pakistan during independence from India and from British rule in 1947.
The word Bohra is derived from the Gujarati, ‘vohorvu’, meaning ‘to trade’, and Bohras have traditionally been merchants in their communities. The Bohra observe a form of Shi’a Islam. Their ancestry and religious roots hail from the Yemen and from Egypt, where, significantly, FGC is believed to have begun. They are known to cut their daughters, and commonly practice type 1, the removal of all or the tip of the clitoris.
According to some sources, the rise in religious extremism in Pakistan and a stricter adherence to Islam has led to an increase in the practice of FGC amongst the 100,000 Pakistani Bohra community.
Furthermore, due to a strongly (mis)held belief that FGC is a required part of Islam (see our blog on faith and FGC), the practice is likely to continue whilst Muslim leaders support the practice. Blogger Aneka Chohan makes the point that unless the local Bohra chief issues a decree against FGC, the practice will remain entrenched in people’s understanding of their identity, and FGC will continue.
Speaking out against FGC
There is little documented evidence of FGC occurring in the Bohra communities which only heightens the fact that the practice remains unrecognised and unaddressed in these places. However, a number of online sources speak out against FGC from within Bohra communities. The International Campaign for the abandonment of FGM/C narrates the personal account of a Bohra woman who was cut as a child:
“I was circumcised when very young. I do not remember at what age. But I do recall the incident. My mother took me to the house of a woman in our Bohra mohalla. Except for the lady, no one was at home. I was told to lie down on my back on the floor and spread my legs. It hurt me bad and brought tears to my eyes. The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes.”
The accounts we have come across reveal the extent of the entrenchment of female genital cutting within cultural notions of femininity and what it means to be a “good girl” and marriageable. Online site breakthesilencespeakthetruth articulates the story of a woman from the Dawoodi Bohra community and her struggle to come to terms with her mother’s decision to have her cut as a young girl.
“I felt betrayed by and angry with my mother and humiliated, too. I just could not understand how my mother could have been so cruel and put me through this horrific experience. Much later I was told that all Bohra girls must go through it, and that it is ‘good’ for you. I then understood that my mother had no choice, that for her, she was only doing what was expected. She was being a “good mother” because this is a practice that had been carried out in our Bohra group for centuries and was considered essential for a woman’s good reputation and marriage chances.”
The anonymous author of this testimony writes her story as an open letter, and invites the reader to place her written experience of FGC into a public space. She is poignant in explaining why it is so vital to have frank and open discussions about female genital cutting.
“I hope that you will publish this letter to let others know that women suffer greatly from this practice […] Women need to break the silence and support one another in this effort so that our daughters will have a brighter future in the years to come”.
If we at Orchid want to be part of a movement to end FGC, we need first to understand that there are no geographical or cultural borders that confine the practice. Although we do have some understanding of how change around FGC can and does happen in parts of West Africa, we cannot make assumptions about how to engage other practising communities around an end to cutting. There is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution. For social change to happen it must come from within communities, and it must be driven by a very specific understanding of the cultural makeup of that community.
Links to other articles
The Express Tribune blogs – ‘Female genital mutilation in Pakistan, and beyond‘, August 2011
Indian Muslim Observer – ‘Uproar over female genital mutilation: Bohra Muslim woman activist launches campaign on Facebook to ban practice’, November 2011