By Humaira Ansari Feb. 06, 2017
The fight against female genital mutilation is led by mainly women, but for change to take place, men need to join the movement.
Eleven minutes into the documentary, a 40-something Bohra woman brought up the subject of men and khatna. “They are clueless that something like this happens in the community,” she says articulately, sitting on the sofa in her living room. The room is dark enough to conceal her identity. Natural light parading in through a distant window casts out her silhouette. “I am willing to bet,” she continues “…ten on ten men are like ‘What? Does it really happen?’”
We were watching A Pinch of Skin, a 30-minute film on Female Genital Mutilation (also Female Genital Cutting) practised by Dawoodi Bohras, the only community in India to do so; a practice they call khatna or khafz. Did men really not know, I began to wonder. Did my boyfriend not know? I wanted to dive straight into his mind, as he sat beside me at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre. My boyfriend was a Bohra, and though we had discussed everything from elections and inflation to politics and pop culture, khatna, somehow, never really came up. That day, for the first time in our five-year relationship, I wondered if he really knew. If yes, what and how much? Had he never asked his mother or sisters or cousins if they had been cut? Did his brother, father, and male friends ever question khatna, its implications, or why it’s perpetuated in the first place? My mind was exploding with questions. But I had no idea what was going through his head, as he watched women from his community recount their experiences of being cut as little girls.
His body language didn’t give anything away, but I knew he was consumed, not in a good way. Finally, when the film ended and the lights came on, he turned to me and said, “We can never do this to our daughter.”
The year was 2013. We got married two years later and now, two years into our marriage, I still don’t have answers to all my questions. My husband has never explicitly articulated his views on khatna except that he won’t let our daughter go through it.
In his community, khatna is a hushed affair and speaking against it puts you in a spotlight that community members don’t appreciate. Most Bohra men, even in 2017, refrain from resisting khatna. From small shop owners and big businessmen, to doctors and lawyers, to those born and raised in liberal homes, will have their daughters, granddaughters or, say, nieces, subjected to khatna because they’d rather submit than question. My husband couldn’t help but wonder if his mother and sister went through the same ordeal. He has never asked them, for several reasons. Khatna, even in the most modern Bohra homes, is still a topic that’s neither discussed over dinner nor is it brought up in private conversations. Khatna is still practised discreetly and any discussion round it still remains a taboo.
The first time my husband learnt about khatna was when he was 14. He thought it was a ritual that involves “a nick down there”. Nothing too big. It didn’t seem anything like the violating act presented to us by the documentary. He didn’t know that what is cut is actually a part of the clitoris; and that it’s cut by a midwife with a hot blade in a non-sterile environment. Most of all, he had no idea that khatna is essentially done to curb a woman’s sexual urge, so that she remains faithful in a marriage or doesn’t pleasure herself by clitoral stimulation. That evening, he said, as he heard stories of little girls being tricked into a dark room under the pretext of a birthday party or an outing to buy chocolates or toys, his stomach turned. For the first time, he realised how extremely regressive and disgustingly sexist that “small little nick” truly was. Even though the women’s identities in the documentary remained masked in silhouettes, behind curtains and in close-up shots revealing only their hands and feet, my husband could feel the pain, anguish, and detestation in their voices
I admired my 28-year-old husband for taking a stand vocally. I wish more Bohra men – especially those whose mothers, sisters, and wives have been cut – would step up.
For my Dubai-born boyfriend, rationale always precedes religion. That evening as he sat in a crammed space, hugging his knees, inside Prithvi Theatre, he couldn’t reconcile how his religion had approved something that was so beyond the act of reason. The documentary had women justifying the practice in the name of tradition and faith. These women, who supported the unquestioned continuation of this ancient, cruel practice on religious grounds, failed to conquer his rationalist mind.
In India, FGC is restricted to the Bohra community. Women, or mullanis as they are called, practice Type 1 FGC wherein they partially or completely snip the clitoris or clitoral hood of girls aged seven, or sometimes even younger than that. Bleeding, pain while urinating, and difficulty in walking or sitting on the toilet are problems girls endure after khatna. It’s not only physically painful but also psychologically scarring. It’s like a permanent scar on your memory.
Given the secrecy with which khatna is perpetuated, no survey has been undertaken to determine how many women have been cut in India, but in the past two years many Bohra women have bandied together, in an organised manner, to fight against it. My husband is happy to see the anti-FGC tide gain momentum. At home, though, he is still wary about discussing khatna. It’s a similar story in most homes. Personally, I have only met one Bohra man, other than my husband, who is somewhat vocal about articulating his views against khatna. Perhaps others are doing so discreetly.
I admired my 28-year-old husband for taking a stand vocally. I wish more Bohra men – especially those whose mothers, sisters, and wives have been cut – would step up. As sons, brothers, husbands, grandfathers, and fathers, they need to do their bit, by speaking about FGC, by speaking against FGC, and by standing up for the rights of little girls in their families who can’t defend themselves.
The fight against FGM is real and it is led by mainly women, but for change to take place at a pace that it should, men need to join the movement. Whether they choose to drop their guard or practice discretion is their prerogative. But they need to distinguish torture from tradition, and the first step is, saying no to khatna.
If my husband and I are blessed with a daughter, we will ensure that all parts of her body remain untouched and unaffected by any tradition that is exploitative, sexist and calls upon us to wilfully harm her. As parents, we will leave our daughter’s clitoris alone.
Previously with Hindustan Times and National Geographic Traveller India, Humaira Ansari is now an independent journalist. But actually she’s just a certified Nihari-lover who has a beef with people who have a beef with the star ingredient in most steaks.