Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Circumcision, have bravely recalled their tragic experiences of undergoing the practice, as young girls of 6-7 years of age, taken to ‘mullanis’, or any woman with a bit of experience, to cut the tip of the their clitoris with what is usually a razor blade. Sometimes, it is performed by doctors for ‘safe’ circumcision. These women have spoken up and have moved the public opinion, ministries and the courts for a ban on the practice which is disguising as a religious practice.
Female Genital Mutilation is “altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons” and is most common in countries across Africa, Middle East, Latin America, and in India, the practice is mostly practiced amongst the Bohra community. It has also been found to be practiced by a few Sunni Muslims in Kerala.
The barbaric practice can be broadly classified into four categories, based on the
severity or the extent of cutting. It is performed by either removing partial clitoral hood, partial or total excision of the labia minora, removing part or all of the labia minora and stitching the vaginal orifice or scraping and introduction of corrosive substances into the vagina. If the status of religion or culture is stripped off the practice, it is patent sexual abuse perpetrated by the parent on a girl child.
The underlying reasons for this discrimination is found in the perception that women need to be protected from sexual desires, in this case their own. The practice of cutting a part of flesh in women, is the cost for protecting the reputation of the family and marriages that women may ‘stray’ out. The practice originating much before Islam, but the clitoral hood is still referred to as ‘haraam ki booti’, and has declared a piece of flesh immoral.
“No data on FGM”
Recently, ignoring the brave and heart wrenching accounts of lived experiences of the largest survivor led movement against FGM, WeSpeakOut, the Ministry of Women and Child Development submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court that stated, “At present there is no official data or study which supports the existence of FGM in India.”.
Masooma Ranalvi of Speak Out on FGM, who has spearheaded a campaign to end FGM responded saying that “We are really flummoxed that after all that, the ministry should now say this,” said. “There’s no official data because it’s a secret practice, but hundreds have spoken about it publicly and signed petitions recently. What’s stopping the government from doing a survey,” said Ranalvi.
A ground breaking report by WeSpeakOut in collaboration with Nari Samta Manch, a trust for gender equality released a new report on FGM/C in India titles, ‘The Clitoral Hood a contested site: khafd or Female Genital Mutilation in India’ revealed statistics and trends regarding the practice in India. The report based on one on one interviews of 94 individuals (83 women and 11 men) covered 12 sites where the practice is prevalent. According to the report, 75% of all daughters of the study sample were subjected to FGM/C.
Male circumcision versus female circumcision
There is a misconception that FGM is similar to Male Circumcision and thereby often gets linked to hygiene, purity and cleanliness. That is fundamentally incorrect, owing to the apparent difference in the genital anatomy and the outcome of the procedure. The removal of foreskin cannot be equated to cutting of clitoris as the latter gravely limits sexual pleasure. It could be equated to removal of the tip of the penis, and would have the same effect on a young boy’s sexual experience. Females undergoing forceful circumcision have no known health benefits. Female circumcision is a method of sexual control over women, a harsh intervention, and is inherently sexist and discriminatory.
The report also takes into account medical opinion to state that the misconceptions regarding the clitoris skin being “useless”, is false as it is an erogenous tissue with a protective function akin to the eyelids.
“Moreover, to qualify as ‘mutilation’ the practice of female circumcision there should be no need to pass the test of utility, a body part is removed without any proven advantages in itself should be impermissible. While that argument may hold true for male circumcision as well, it is a movement brewing for a separate cause not rooted in misogyny.”
Lived experiences of the survivors
The impact of FGM is horrific in the terms of physical and sexual discomfort. According to the report, women have experienced disinterest and low sex drive. Difficulty in reaching orgasm, delayed arousal combined with problems in trusting partners was true for most women interviewed during the research.
Ironically, in some scenarios, men have also been known to discriminate against the women for the reasons that the FGM was intended for in the first place,
Zohra, 62-year-old woman from a big city, shares “But now when my elder son wanted to marry, he says I don’t want to marry a Bohri girl. I asked, “Why?” He was smiling. He said most of them are circumcised and they would not be so good at sex.”
While it would be an over-simplification to suggest a causal connection between Khafd and problems with sexual health solely based on this cross-sectional exploratory study, the compelling data collected from diverse respondents does strongly confirm the urgent need for a multi-disciplinary study to analyze the impact of Khafd on women’s sexual health and pleasure, the sexual lives of couples, and sexual experiences of male partners of women subjected to FGM/C. Such feminist research may need expertise in fields including sexual rights, sexology, psychology, urology, and gynecology among other disciplines.
Women have spoken about the isolation, betrayal and the sexual abuse they felt when they recall the experience of being lied to and taken to a lady who caused them pain and bleeding that in some cases lasted for weeks. The silence around it, the discouragement from openly talking about the experience has led to the perpetuating practice left unquestioned.
The feeling of helplessness is highlighted by this episode in the report,
“My aunt took me over there and then she asked me to lie down and she said, “we are just doing a measurement of your waist for your underwear.” I was uncomfortable and unsure and they kept saying, “No, no, no, it’s nothing. They are just doing a measurement. Nothing.” And then they took out my underwear. There were two or three ladies. And at some point I knew that … I felt at that time there was something wrong and something was not quite right and I began to feel a little helpless. I was distrustful. And then I saw the blade. Another thing which hit all of us together was a sense of helplessness – that what the hell. Why did this have to happen to us? Why couldn’t this have been stopped? We became victims of a tradition.”
The use of euphemisms such as “going for nose piercing” or “going to get an ice cream” to lure the young children is a violation of the child’s right to her body and a blind eye to the long lasting impact of early decisions.
Internationally FGM has been recognized as a violation of the human rights of women and children. It infringes on the rights to life and personal integrity, right to health and the right to freedom from torture, cruel and violence. It has been established by the above mentioned report and multiple international reports that the practice is a form of child abuse. Indian legal framework addresses violence against women in the Indian Penal Code and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 but it is inefficient with respect duty to report, regulations on the medical professionals, rehabilitation methods. (Report: Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to eliminating the practice in India by WeSpeakOut and Lawyers Collective).
A report by Lawyers Collective and WeSpeakOut published in 2017, explores the need for a law in india to safeguard the rights of women and girl child also states that the practice of FGM/C is subject to constitutional morality and will have to bow to the constitutional norms of equality and non-discrimination. Such practice will not be protected under Article 26. Gender justice, that is non-discrimination at the very least, is part of the constitutional morality of India. The practice of FGM/C is violative of Articles 14 and 15 to the extent it runs counter to gender justice. It also offends Articles 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution as it runs counter to constitutional morality.
There are reports that the increasing litigation and awareness against the practice in USA and Australia, has caused families to come down to India and continue with the abuse. The urgent need for India to abolish the practice, similar to triple talaq is consistently brought forward by the women committed to raise awareness on the issue. The Government has claimed to be concerned about the Muslim women of the country, and any step in furtherance of the cause, would be in the direction of gender equality. There is evidence of the practice in India, now the only question is how long will the Government selectively acknowledge issues effecting Muslim women?
Shivangi Misra is a legal officer with Lawyers Collective and is interested in issues of gender justice and anti-discrimination law.