Why You Should Know About Sahiyo’s Campaign To Stop FGM

Sahiyo founders Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane, Insia Dariwala and Priya Goswami.

Sahiyo founders Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane, Insia Dariwala and Priya Goswami.

In recent months, news reports have cast a light on the little-known practice of female genital mutilation in the Bohra community. It’s astonishing that a custom usually associated with certain African countries is prevalent here, that it remained largely hidden and that it’s practiced by the Bohra community, which is conservative yet highly educated and, in general, prosperous. It’s equally exceptional that people are speaking out against khatna or khafd, the grade of FGM practiced by Bohras.

The Bohra community, also known as Bohris, rarely disputes the official line on religious matters issued by authorities, and resistance is not taken kindly. Among the organisations marshalling these voices of opposition is Sahiyo, a group of five young women campaigning to end khatna. Mariya Taher, Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane, Insia Dariwala, Priya Goswami and Aarefa Johari started Sahiyo in January last year. They’re all Bohras except for Goswami. Here’s what you need to know about their mission.

Why are we talking about khatna only now?
While it’s well known within the community itself, few outsiders knew of the custom until three Bohras in Australia were convicted of performing FGM on two girls in November 2015. After the Australian convictions, the jamaat (group of religious leaders) in that country banned khatna. They were followed by jamaats in the UK and in several states in the US. According to Tavawalla-Kirtane, a Canadian-Indian researcher working with the think tank the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai, the resolutions issued by these jamaats are “face-saving efforts” to avoid similar situations in their countries.

One of the reasons it took a public scandal to prompt a reaction from the community is that conservative members don’t view khatna as FGM. “The community disassociates itself from ‘Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting’ due to the relatively less severity of the cut,” Goswami, a filmmaker living in Hong Kong. In 2013, she made A Pinch of Skin, a documentary about khatna. “Since khatna could be classified as Type 1 FGM/C, the community feels that their practice does not fall under what is termed as ‘mutilation’ which they largely believe to be an ‘African problem’.” The other false belief perpetuated by the community is that male and female circumcision are similar, Goswami said. The jamaat resolutions are significant, she said, as they admit that khatna can be interpreted as FGM, a banned practice in several countries in the West.

How have Bohra authorities in India reacted?
Religious leaders here have been mum. “Publicly, there has been pin drop silence on the issue,” said Tavawalla-Kirtane. “I am sure they are talking about it behind closed doors and the fact that so many jamaats in various countries across the world have issued ‘do at your own risk’ statements is proof enough…it would be difficult to believe that the international jamaats are acting on their own accord without conferring with India.”

Sahiyo founders Aarefa Johari and Mariya Taher.

Sahiyo founders Aarefa Johari and Mariya Taher.

How widespread is khatna?
It’s a common practice that Sahiyo members say cuts across classes. The idea behind khatna, which usually involves excising a child’s clitoral hood when she’s between six and nine years old, is to curb sexual desire in a woman. “There are many reasons given to justify why it should continue, but overall, many believe that khatna is a religious requirement regardless of the reason,” said Taher, who is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Lesley University in Boston and has worked with various organisations on gender violence issues.

Johari, a journalist with Scroll.in in Mumbai, underwent khatna as a seven-year-old. “The memory didn’t stay with me in an active sense through my childhood – the pain of the cut subsided in a day or so, and then I sort of forgot about it but was aware of the practice as something that is carried out on girls in the community, for reasons I didn’t know,” she said.

She said that while khatna was once largely performed in the homes of midwives and women specialising in the practice, it’s carried out in clinics and hospitals today. Many of these are run by Bohras. The service is never spoken about openly. “They don’t advertise it, so it’s mainly through word of mouth that Bohra women find out which doctors do it,” Johari said.

What does Sahiyo do?
So far Sahiyo (an abbreviated form of ‘saheliyon’, which means women friends in Hindi and Bohra Gujarati) has launched two campaigns against khatna that were widely noticed on social media. In February this year, they conducted the month-long ‘Each One Reach One’ campaign along with the Facebook group Speak out on FGM, which urged community members to have a dialogue about khatna with at least one Bohra woman to dispel the secrecy that surrounds the subject. Last month, they ran a photo campaign on social media called ‘I Am A Bohra’. Participants, largely young men and women, posted pictures of themselves holding placards announcing why khatna should be outlawed. A number of Bohra women have boldly come forward with accounts of their own experiences of khatna that have been published on the Sahiyo website.

From the comments on their Facebook page, it seems that Sahiyo’s campaigns have tapped into a vein of disapproval among community members over the practice. Aside from open appreciation, they’ve received tacit support. “We have definitely received plenty of behind-the-scenes support from both Bohra men and women,” Johari said. “Most of them do not want to risk being ostracised by their families or the religious authorities by speaking out publicly, because that is a very real fear.”

How have their families dealt with their involvement in the cause?
They’ve had varying reactions. Mariya Taher was worried her parents, active members of the Bohra community in the US, might have to face the disapprobation of their peers. “However, in the last year, with so much more attention being brought to the issue within the Dawoodi Bohra community, I don’t feel that tension anymore,” she said. Insia Dariwala, a filmmaker living in Mumbai, has a Catholic mother and Bohra father whose side of the family is conservative. “No one except one cousin has supported me and that too without the knowledge of the others,” Dariwala said. “My father is unaware about it. Mom on the other hand does know about this and supports me fully.” Johari’s mother now supports the cause.

What’s next?
Ultimately Sahiyo hopes for the introduction of government legislation banning khatna. To this end, Speak Out On FGM has petitioned minister of women and child development Maneka Gandhi, law minister Sadananda Gowda and health minister Jagat Prakash Nadda. Because the interference of the state in religious issues is a usually fraught, political affair, scoring such a ban might be a never-ending wait. Hopefully, however, the voices against khatna will grow shrill enough for Bohra leaders to take them seriously and put and end to this barbaric practice.

For more information, visit Sahiyo.com and their Facebook page. To sign the Speak Out on FGM’s petition, see here.

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