Speak out on Female Genital Mutilation

The very first federal case of prosecution of a Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) crime in the United States of America, under its Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1997, happens to be one involving 3 American Dawoodi Bohras. This is a community which has its headquarters in India, Mumbai. Dawoodi Bohras are a Shia Ismaili sect of Islam with the majority living in India and a small section have immigrated to western countries and are now part of its global diaspora.

The arrest of a Detroit emergency room doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, 44 of Northville, Detroit USA on April 13, 2017 under the charge of performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on 2 minor girls aged 7, and subsequently of two more people, Dr Fakhruddin Attar and his wife Farida Attar both of Livonia for conspiring to perform FGM on the minor girls by allowing the doctor to use their clinic, namely Burhani Medical clinic to perform the procedure has not only brought to the limelight the undeniable fact that FGM exists and is thriving within the Bohra community, but the inescapable conclusion that members of the community are hoodwinking the authorities and continuing the criminal practice of FGM.

According to the press release of the US Justice Department, Dr Nagarwala performed FGM on girls who were approximately 6 to 8 years old.

“This is believed to be the first federal case brought under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGM  “knowingly circumcis[ing], excis[ing], or infibulat[ing] the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.”

Nagarwala was arrested and is scheduled to appear in federal court in Detroit. If the charges get proven in court, she could be facing a long time in prison.

The case against Dr Nagarwala dates back to February this year when the FBI launched an investigation after receiving  a tip that Nagarwala had performed female genital mutilation on 7 year olds at a Livonia medical clinic according to the complaint.

As part of this investigation the FBI obtained a court order to review Nagarwalas phone, which indicated several calls to a Minnesota number. Furthermore hotel records show two families each with a young girl stayed there on February 3 and this was confirmed by the surveillance video footage. Seven days later an FBI child forensic interviewer talked to one of the girls, who said she was brought to Detroit for a “special girls trip”. According to the complaint, “ a procedure “to get the germs out” was performed on the first girl. Both the girls were asked to identify the photo of the doctor which they identified as Dr Nagarwala. The girls were also asked to keep the practice a secret.


FGM in India

FGM also known as khatna is widely prevalent in the Bohra community in India and world wide even today. It is portrayed as a religious and cultural practice and is rooted in the patriarchal belief that the sexuality of girls has to be curtailed so that they do not become “promiscuous”. Sworn secrecy is the hallmark of this practice and girls of seven who are barely in a position to oppose this act are almost always lied to when they are taken for this procedure by their parents. The procedure almost always leaves strong physical and psychological scars on these girls which last through life.

The one million strong community based out of India is largely located in western parts of India. Large numbers of Bohras have immigrated to different countries in the world and have taken this practice along with them.

“The practice is known as khatna or circumcision in the Bohra community and involves removal to the tip of the clitoral hood, the prepuce to the clitoral hood in a very secretive procedure which is done by either a local, community appointed cutter or a doctor nominated by the clergy to do so. It involves taking a girl child of seven to a secret destination , with a false explanation and reason about the nature of the trip. For instance I was told that I would be given some candy at my trip, some others have been promised a goodies or some gift, but never ever told about the real nature of this outing. The cutter uses implements like a razor or a blade which is more often than not very unhygienic. There is no specifics of how much is to be cut. The pain is excrutiating and results in a severe psychological trauma which lasts through life. The girl is sworn to secrecy and almost never ever talks about this to anyone including her mother or grandmother who take her for this procedure.”

Most of the women  in the community are ignorant about the reason and type of practice, a small section of women elders often refer to the piece of flesh cut as “haram ni boti” , sinful lump of flesh, which is essential to remove to maintain chastity, contain promiscuity in women,and fidelity in a marriage.

Amongst all the Muslims living in India, only the bohras practice FGM.

“Whilst the Quran does not mention or refer to FGM, most Muslim authorities stress that female circumcision is not the sunna (regular practice of the Prophet). the Bohra religious leadership refer to a text called Daimul Islam which was written 300 years after the death of the Prophet by al-Qadi al-Nu’manin which khatna of seven year olds is mentioned only once only once on the authority of Imam Ali.”


A strong anti FGM movement has taken root in the community over the last few years, with large number of women who have been subjected to FGM openly speaking out against the practice. The focus of these women has been to create awareness around this issue and appeal to authorities to ban this practice. Speak Out on FGM, spearheading a campaign to end FGM amongst the Bohras has also started a signature petition appealing to the Government of India to pass a law banning FGM in India.

The large media coverage to the anti FGM campaign has in the recent times seen to voices of pro-khatna/fgm emerge too. The supporters of this practice draw on religious leaders open call to continue the practice. They also claim the practice is meant for hygiene and to enhance sexual pleasure, none of which is proven scientifically. The supporters of fgm/c also take severe umbrage to the use of the word mutilation,and refer to the practice as circumcision. They specifically point out that the practice within the community is just so mild that it cannot be compared to the severe types of mutilation, and infibulations which continue in the African sub Saharan continent.

In this context it is important to take note of the World health organisations definition of FGM, which is very comprehensive and scientific as comprising all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The definition covers each and every type of practice which affects 200 million women, in over 30 countries around the world. The definition has also sought to comprehensively bring under its coverage all the varied terminology around the practice all over the world and formulated the term FGM to cover each and every type of procedure that involves the cutting of genitals of young girls. Some of the commonly used terms for this practice among the Bohras are khatna, khafz, khitna, circumcision.


Cases of FGM world over

Interestingly this is not the first FGM prosecution case against the Bohras. In 2011, a case was filed against 3 Bohras in the Australian Supreme Court (New South Wales) for having conducted the procedure on 2 girls aged 6 and 9. The girls mother, nurse, and local priest were tried and convicted in 2015 with a 11 month sentence.

Whilst the case was going on the Bohra religious leader  in India instructed all the jamaats in the western countries to issue resolutions asking the Bohras from refraining  practicing FGM as it is a criminal offence in these countries.  Interestingly on 11 May 2016, the Detroit Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat, Anjuma E Najmi had issued a resolution which clearly stated that the practice of khatna/khafz comes under the  US state definition of fgm and is hence banned, the resolution also said that law of the land should be followed and hence advised parents to abstain from fgm/khatna.

Clearly this resolution was an eyewash and Bohras continued to practice FGM as is evident from the Detroit case. The fact remains that Bohras owe complete allegiance to the Sydena and every word uttered by his holiness is gospel. In April 2017, the Syedna himself stated in a sermon in Mumbai that khatna for girls must be done.


 The Times of India quoted a translation of a recording thought to be from his sermon: 

“It must be done. If it is a man, it can be done openly and if it is a woman it must be discreet. But the act must be done. Do you understand what I am saying? Let people say what they want…they say?…that this is harmful? Let them say it, we are not scared of anyone.”

The worlds leading health body, the WHO categorically states that there is no medical benefit of FGM, on the contrary it causes irreversible bodily, sexual and psychological harm. Due to the nature and consequences of FGM/C, it is also a violation of the human rights of women and children. It infringes on the right to life and physical integrity, the right to health and the right to freedom from torture, cruel and unusual treatment, and violence. Since FGM/C is mostly practiced on girls below the age of 18 years, it is also a violation of rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 (UNCRC) and violates the guarantee of non-discrimination. Hence FGM cannot be justified as a cultural or religious practice.

As the case unfolds in Detroit, the world media is busy magnifying the issue through its lens. A much secret practice is now out in the open with a much needed discourse and debate is inevitable. What is really ironic is that the community which prides itself to be educated and sophisticated continues its open support to a  practice which harms the girls and their very social fabric and is turning its own people towards an activity considered a crime.


Masooma Ranalvi is the convenor of Speak out on FGM, a group of survivors. 

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