In a small, dimly lit room at the back of a decrepit building near the Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai, India, Masooma Ranalvi was told to lie down on the floor and spread her legs. She was only 7 years old at the time.
Holding her grandmother’s hand, Ranalvi, still not understanding what was going on, did as she was told — while another woman removed her pants and underwear. “I started crying, and my grandmother told me not to worry, that nothing will happen to me,” she said.
Ranalvi then recalls an excruciating, sharp pain between her legs. “This woman pulls my pants down, holds my legs and does something which is extremely painful down [there].”
Ranalvi, now 51, underwent female circumcision, or khatna, as it’s referred to in the Dawoodi Bohra community, a subsect of Shiite Islam. And, like so many before her, she too, was lured by women in her family with the promise of an outing for ice cream or a special treat.
It only took a few minutes, but in that short time, Ranalvi was changed, as was her body.
“I was too small to question anyone about it, so I never really knew what happened to me that day,” she said.
Not until she was in her 30s was this memory revisited, after reading about female genital mutilation (FGM) in certain African countries.
"It was horrific. It was something which was really, really bad, something which stayed with me for a very long time." But, she explained, “by then, a lot of time had gone by, and the anger had dissipated.”
Moreover, her grandmother had long since passed away, so she couldn't ask her about the procedure. “What prevails in my family until today is a lot of ignorance about it. Nobody really knows what it is and why it’s done. Nobody has answers.”
Ranalvi was simply told that khatna is an age-old Bohra tradition and not to talk about it. In this, too, she is not alone. “Every girl is lied to when taken to get khatna done,” said Mubaraka Motiwala, a 19-year-old activist and khatna survivor in Mumbai.
According to a recent UNICEF report, more than 200 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to some form of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C). Though Somalia and Guinea top the list with the highest percentage of girls and women who have received FGM/C — 98 percent, and 97 percent, respectively, of women between the ages of 15 to 49 — the practice has been recorded in at least 30 countries on three continents.
And while there's been extensive coverage of FGM in countries like Somalia, Egypt and Nepal, it has been largely kept from the public eye in India, where it is upheld by the Dawoodi Bohra community, whose numbers are estimated between 1 million and 2 million worldwide.
Although there is no mention of khatna in the Quran, many Bohras believe it is a religious obligation, pointing to texts such as the Hadith — describing the words, actions and habits of the Prophet Muhammad.
Perhaps just as important, the Syedna, the community's spiritual leader, is a staunch proponent of the tradition. “Ultimately, the bottom line is that the practice exists because there’s a clear dictate from the Syedna. If tomorrow the Syedna were to say not to do it, they wouldn’t do it,” said Ranalvi.
But for some khatna supporters, it is not as simple as following the words of the religious leader alone. Circumcision is a long-standing tradition in Islam dating back thousands of years to the time when the Prophet Abraham accepted the commandments of God and was asked to purify himself.
This purification required him to cut his hair and his nails and to be circumcised, explained Fatima, a member of Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom (DBWRF), a group of pro-khatna women who asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisal in her community. Since then, circumcision for men has become obligatory in both the Jewish and Muslim faiths.
However, “in some traditions, like ours, we believe this is applicable to both sexes,” Fatima said. “If you do khatna for males, then you do khafs [female circumcision] for females, because both of you have equal right to purity.”
But for many women on the anti-khatna side, the issue is not about gender equality at all. According to Ranalvi, “the issue is that you are tampering with the small child’s genitals, and that is unacceptable.”
Furthermore, there is a growing movement of anti-khatna activists who would also support ending male circumcision. “There are many of us who do feel that boys, too, should not be cut without consent, but as women, our focus is on [FGM/C],” explained Aarefa Johari, a khatna survivor, activist and journalist.
Thanks to a small group of Dawoodi Bohra women and anti-khatna activists who formed WeSpeakOut and Sahiyo, two support groups that give khatna survivors space to talk about their experiences, the secrecy around the procedure is beginning to dissipate.
In 2012, after more than a dozen activists circulated a petition calling for the Indian government to ban khatna, the issue began to appear in headlines, first only in domestic publications, including the Hindustan Times and Scroll.in.
Later, when two Dawoodi Bohra doctors were arrested for practicing FGM on 7-year-old girls in Detroit, Michigan, in early 2017, the issue started showing up in international media, as well, including the BBC, ABC News and CNN.
Taking advantage of the sudden spotlight, anti-khatna activists began speaking out and calling for dialogue with the clergy and religious leaders. They claimed that the secrecy surrounding this issue was not only damaging to the mental well-being of the women who had undergone khatna, but it also played a key role in perpetuating a crime against women that is banned in most countries.
“If we are not going to say anything, it’s going to continue unopposed,” Ranalvi said.
And although there is currently no law in India that explicitly bans khatna — until recently, there was little known about the tradition in the country — on April 21 the central government told the Supreme Court that FGM was a “crime under existing laws.”
In particular, it asserted that the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act could be invoked to penalize those who continue to carry out this practice, which comes with a minimum of seven years imprisonment. Though anti-khatna activists will have to wait for a more concrete ruling, many still view this as a step forward.
“We did have a big moment during a hearing of the ongoing public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, although the case still has a long way to go,” Johari said in a text message.
But speaking out has its downsides, too. In Mumbai, now the epicenter of the Dawoodi Bohra community, and where the Syedna is based, the effect of this sudden attention in the media was felt immediately, with a strong backlash against those who dared to speak out.
In the Dawoodi Bohra community, Johari says, questioning khatna means you're not only questioning the Syedna, but the entire faith itself.
“There are negative consequences for not following the norm, and you don’t want to stand out,” she explained. “In the case of the Bohras, you can get boycotted. That’s a very real fear.”
According to the women of DBWRF, whose main agenda is to fight for the right to practice their religion, including performing khatna, there is a stark difference between FGM/C and what the Dawoodi Bohras do. “There is a little clitoral hood, and we nick that and sometimes even just wipe it slightly,” said Fatima.
Neither the clitoris nor the reproductive organs are touched, she asserts, and nothing harmful is done to the child. “We don’t accept the concept that this is FGM. It’s khafs, which should be equated with circumcision equivalent to males.”
The idea that men and women are equal, even when it comes to circumcision, is a pillar on which many members of the DBWRF group build their argument. “It’s more gender egalitarian than discriminative; it’s more like gender parity,” said Alifya, a 28-year-old blogger and stay-at-home mom in Mumbai who also asked that a pseudonym be used because the debate has gotten so heated.
The DBWRF insist that khatna is not done to harm or inhibit the woman in any way but rather to “purify” her. It is for the spiritual well-being of women and “definitely not mutilation,” said Bandukwala.
But, as khatna survivor and activist Zehra Patwa wondered aloud during a recent Skype interview: “Is this tiny speck so full of evil that it has to be removed? Do they really think there is so much spiritual power in this tiny bit of tissue?” Patwa now lives in the US but remains firmly rooted in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
Many activists like Patwa maintain that even a "nick" or a tiny "speck" can still be harmful. Though there are Dawoodi Bohra women who claim to have undergone khatna with no negative aftereffects — plenty of DBWRF members are in that camp — it is difficult to deny that many Bohra girls and women worldwide have suffered from this tradition.
In February, WeSpeakOut released the results of a comprehensive study of FGM in the Dawoodi Bohra community. Of the women and girls who were included in this study, 75 percent had had khatna performed on them, and 97 percent of those recalled it as painful.
Nearly 35 percent of the women testified that khatna negatively impacted their sexual lives, and another 10 percent reported urinary problems, recurring UTIs, burning, incontinence and, in rare instances, bleeding of the clitoral hood due to the procedure.
In 2017, Sahiyo also surveyed 385 Dawoodi Bohra women about their experiences with khatna. Participants were asked about who cut them (i.e., a health professional or someone untrained), whether they experienced pain with it and what emotions they felt as well as any longer-term effects.
An astounding 98 percent of the women said they experienced pain after the procedure, and 35 percent reported that it had affected their sexual lives. Most notably, just over 80 percent said they are not OK with the custom continuing in their community, and 82 percent said they would not have khatna performed on their daughters.
Most anti-khatna activists believe that the real reason khatna is performed on women is to control them and curb their sexuality. Forty-five percent of the women included in the Sahiyo study also confirmed that they were explicitly told that the objective is “to decrease sexual arousal.”
Still, the main reason given for khatna is for "religious purposes.” It is commonly believed that if a girl does not receive khatna, she is not considered a part of the community and is excluded from certain religious activities, such as wedding ceremonies and funerals. Worse still, explained Mubaraka Motiwala, the Mumbai activist, “the girl is not approved of and is considered unsuitable for marriage.”
This belief — that without undergoing khatna a woman is not complete, is not pure, and is therefore not suitable for marriage — is echoed in other communities around the world where FGM is performed.
In an article in The New York Times about FGM in the Maasai community — a tribe in Lenkisem, Kenya — journalist Jina Moore describes a similar belief, “that women aren’t women unless they are cut, which means men can’t take them as wives.”
Like with the Maasai, overturning deep-rooted cultural beliefs in the Bohra community is the key to bringing about change. Yet, this is easier said than done.
In the same Times article, according to Christine Nanjala, who leads a special unit for investigating cutting cases in Kenya, “you’re dealing with culture, and when you’re dealing with culture, you’re dealing with the identity of a community,” which is exactly what these DBWRF women feel: Their identity as Dawoodi Bohras is under threat from the anti-khatna movement.
For obvious reasons, there is a real disconnect between the pro-khatna and the anti-khatna activists, yet there remains an urgent need for dialogue. Without it, this issue will become even more divisive than it already is.
“I do think it’s something that we need to do because I think dialogue is really helpful, but I think it scares us a little bit too because they [DBWRF] are really staunch supporters of khatna,” said Patwa.
This fear is on both sides and not easily overcome when taking into account people’s emotional and religious feelings toward khatna, not to mention the online attacks and fighting playing out on social media.
“I think it’s important to have a dialogue, but we are all questioning each other’s intentions here,” said Bandukwala. “So, it’s going to be tough to find a common platform, which, if it can be done, would be great.”
For an issue as complex and divisive as khatna, however, Johari believes that a multipronged approach is needed. “I don’t think there’s any tried-and-true formula because nowhere in the world has this been eliminated yet,” she said.
In a recent email, Johari addressed the very public arguments occurring online between the various groups. She stated that although the dialogue has become incredibly polarized of late, both Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut have, in fact, been actively collaborating on outreach campaigns like Each One Reach One, which is aimed at “getting community members to talk to each other in a nonjudgmental manner about this practice.”
Sahiyo has also started a Thaal Pe Charcha program, where community members from all sides discuss the issue over food. “Just as they [DBWRF] think we don't represent the ‘real' Bohras, we too, think they don't represent the whole community,” explained Johari.
Johari believes that there are many Bohras who find themselves in the middle, “seeking information and a space to share their feelings, their views and their questions.” It is this population that activist groups like Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut seek to engage with. “We don't believe DBWRF is going to set the agenda for all community members, so dialogue with them alone and not other community members does not make sense,” she said.
Ultimately, the goal for the anti-khatna activists is to eliminate the custom altogether, and community engagement is the first of many steps. Most importantly, she said, is that “people have to want to stop doing it and to create a culture where not cutting is the norm.”
As longtime activist Ranalvi points out, community dialogue is not so much about receiving an apology or reparations for the women survivors who have already undergone khatna. “For us, it’s over, it happened, and now, we can’t do anything about it,” she explained. “But at least we can stop it for the next generation, and that’s what drives us. If we can stop one kid from being cut, I think it’s good.”