April 25, 2016. By Anubha Bhonsle
Ashraf and Shazia use the word “guilt” often.* Their voices tremble as they rewind to the day when they read an article in an Indian magazine, Manorama, that opened their eyes to the reality of khatna – the practice of female genital mutilation among their community. “We felt guilt – immense, powerful guilt – when we realized that this was not needed, that we didn’t need to put our elder daughter through this,” the parents say. “We had no idea this was just going on, prevalent, generation after generation.”
It was too late for their first-born, but the couple decided their younger daughter, barely two years old, will not have the procedure.
The practice of female genital mutilation, sometimes called female genital cutting or FGM/C, comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is recognized by the United Nations as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and banned in many countries.
According to the 2016 UNICEF brief, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries, 70 million more than estimated in 2014. Available data shows the practice is highly concentrated in a swath of countries from the Atlantic coast of Africa east to Somalia, Iraq and Yemen in the Middle East, and in some Asian countries like Indonesia and parts of India. Half of the girls and women who have been cut live in three countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, or Indonesia.
The elimination of FGM is included as a target of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, but the complexity of the social environment in which it persists is far from being grasped.
“Look Up, There’s a Golden Bird”
India is not highlighted in the UNICEF report, but the Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of the Shia community predominantly hailing from the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, are known to practice FGM and have been doing so for generations.
“My mother had hers, my grandmother got hers done, and chances are her mother did as well,” Shazia remembers. “We believed it was tradition. Typically, the elder women in the family take the girl when she is about seven years old. Sometimes families go to the same cutting lady. These are old untrained midwives of sorts. They would tell the child, ‘look up, there’s a golden bird,’ and make a small cut. An ointment, or sugar, or some powder would be put to heal and you come back.”
A small nick, a simple cut, a minor procedure; this vocabulary is gaining ground as a rationale among those who continue to stand by the practice in the face of a perceived spread of promiscuity and fracturing of traditional relationships. The medicalization of FGM has helped blunt the brutality associated with it, shifting focus from why the act is performed to making the act itself seem safer and less painful.
This is evident when I speak to Naghma from India over a Skype frame that doesn’t reveal her face. “It is not mutilation as you call it. It is not FGM like it is done in Africa, where they close holes,” she tells me. “It is done in clean places, sometimes under anesthesia and supervision. I call it a small procedure.” Once carried out by untrained midwives with blades and razors, it is now “less painful, less crude, more surgery-like, more acceptable, and therefore just fine,” even in the most educated of families. “It doesn’t hurt, no more than ear-piercing for sure,” Naghma assures me.
When pushed, she does agree, haltingly, that the procedure is ultimately aimed at keeping girls in control, at taming their desires and keeping them happy with their men. “We call it haraam ki boti,” she says, referring to the clitoris as an amorous lump of flesh. “It is just nicked and women have a better control over themselves and are satisfied.”
About 5,000 miles away from Naghma, Kelechukwu Nwachukwu, an anti-FGM activist based in Abuja, has spent a lot of time resisting similar notions. “The medicalization, or if you do it with clean instruments, makes it look fine,” he says. “People used to say, ‘We didn’t do it at home.’ It was then seen as being OK.”
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