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Female Circumcision – communities call for religious freedom to be upheld

Published 13 June 2017 Associated Categories What critics think
Khafz’ performed for religious purity

Myths and facts about circumcision

Female Circumcision, more popularly known today as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has caught international attention, especially since many organisations are calling for a worldwide ban.

But despite the heavy objection, millions of Muslim women, in many countries, in South Asia, Middle East and the African subcontinent, perform it as part of a religious practice. They see it as their religious right and are calling on authorities to respect their religious freedom.

They say that their practice should not be confused with severe FGM practiced in some parts of Africa. Religious scholars say that the latter procedures have nothing to do with Islam. What the Muslims practice, they say, is a mild, almost symbolic, procedure performed for religious purposes.

Dawoodi Bohra version

While the world is being told horrific stories, there is one community who clears many misconceptions surrounding the circumcision they perform. The Dawoodi Bohras, a small minority community scattered in many parts of the world, have been at the receiving end of criticism from many organisations and human rights activists for performing circumcision called  ‘khafz’ on their female children at a young age of seven.

The Dawoodi Bohras say they have been shunned and shamed for performing a ritual which, according to them, does not accord with the activists’ definition of FGM.

Doctors within the community explain that what they perform is a procedure milder than even the Type 1a, but since it is performed for non medical reasons, it also falls under the WHO definition of FGM. Doctors say that the minor procedure is performed as part of a religious belief and causes no physical harm.

Community members are now voicing their concerns about being attacked by certain groups, even some within the community, who they claim have ulterior motives.

“Khafz is mainly Type 4, which is even more minor than the Type 1a. Khafz is definitely a harmless procedure. It’s sad that it is clubbed under FGM. So many women in India and abroad undergo much more severe procedures under the garb of ‘cosmetic surgery’. Why are they then not accused of performing FGM?” Dr Alifiya S. Bapai, a practicing gynecologist in Mumbai, told NewsIn.Asia via email.

“Female circumcision performed by Dawoodi Bohras is absolutely harmless. There are no ill effects,” she added.

Khafz’ performed for religious purity

She explains that Khafz is performed for ‘religious purity’ in the same way as male circumcision is. The procedure according to her has been practiced for generations and there have been no deaths recorded to date, due to Khafz.

So why is the community being targeted if the procedure is so harmless?

Fifty nine year old Fatema (who did not want to reveal her surname), a Dawoodi Bohra in Mumbai said that her community is being unjustly accused of sexual and child abuse especially by some groups who had broken away from the community and are using the Dawoodi Bohra label just to tarnish the image of the community.

Fatema, says Bohra women have never been forced or brainwashed to perform circumcision and that it is based on free choice.

“Some groups go as far to allege that we force it. And they term us as mutilators. This is unfair. Neither what we perform is mutilation nor are we forced to do it. Khafz has been performed for generations and it is a religious belief. It is wrong to say that it is child abuse. If this is child abuse then what is male circumcision? Males are circumcised days after they are born. No one should have the right to enforce unjust laws on religions especially when a practice is harmless,” she asserted.

“Some activists also say that the procedure is against a girl’s right as it is done without her consent. Then is a male child circumcised with consent? When we give vaccinations to our daughters is it with consent? When we have to operate on them for some illness is it with consent? These questions are baseless. A mother knows and does what’s best for her child, especially when harmless procedures for purity are performed. Every religion has its own beliefs. When we practice an age old procedure which is harmless, then the world suddenly sees a problem,” Fatema said.

WHO’s stance 

The World Health Organisation which has been in the forefront of the call for a ban on FGM, when questioned by NewsIn.Asia about the Type 1a procedure said WHO uses the term FGM for all types of circumcision practices to emphasize the permanent nature of the changes and the damage done to healthy, normal, female genitalia.

“FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls,” the WHO told NewsIn.Asia via email.

The Organization added that immediate complications have been documented with all forms of FGM. These can include excessive bleeding, pain, infection, shock or even death.

However, when specifically asked if the organisation has recorded any clinical evidence of harm against the Type 1a, WHO said it does not compile individual reports but rather looks at the body of evidence from scientific literature to develop its positions about health risks and the public health and human rights significance of the practice.

Upon further insistence for specific clinical evidence, WHO was able to provide NewsIn.Asia with links explaining the consequence of all forms of FGM, but within those reports there was no scientific study to prove that Type 1a has caused any clinical harm.

“There are some anecdotal claims of emotional stress, often partly due to the manner in which it was conducted in earlier times or if the parent had not prepared the child, and partly because all surgical procedures however small carry risk of pain. But if it is carried out properly, from an anatomical standpoint, it cannot cause harm,” 29 year old Bohra lady Umaima said.

She also alleged that some claims of horror and trauma experienced by some women are exaggerated.

No clinical evidence of harm or injury

Several community members and other Muslim communities who perform the Type 1a and Type 4 procedures point out that, to date, there has been no clinical evidence of harm. They also dismiss allegations that the procedure is performed to curb the sexual pleasure of a female.

“There is absolutely no clinical evidence anywhere in the world to prove that any of the Type 4 or Type 1a is harmful,” Dr. Alifiya said.

When asked about the sexual aspect of it, Dr Alifiya explained that if anything, it should enhance sexual pleasure because it has the potential of exposing the clitoris.

On the way the procedure is performed by the Dawoodi Bohras, Dr Alifiya said that many organisations are claiming that the procedure involves the removal of the clitoris or cutting of the clitoris. But this is untrue, she said, because it only includes a very small nick on the prepuce.

Prof. Rick Shweder replies

Professor Rick Shweder, Harold Higgins Swift Distinguished Service Professor, from the Department of Comparative Human Development in the University of Chicago, in a 2012 Hastings Center Report essay titled “Seven Things to Know About Female Genital Surgeries in Africa” (a statement written and endorsed by 15 scholars and researchers) said in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, Sierra Leone, parts of Malaysia, and Northern Sudan; it is the dominant cultural view that males and females should be treated alike by modifying the genitals of both; and where the vast majority of females (approximately 80–90% in seven African countries) would be deeply troubled by the exclusion of females from the practice.

The report provided by Professor Shweder to NewsIn.Asia said that in what is probably the most rigorous piece of scientific research ever conducted on female genital cutting and reproductive health – a 2001 study by the British Medical Research Council – comparing ‘cut’ and ‘uncut’ women in the Gambia – 10% of circumcised Gambian women in the study were indeed infertile, but the level of infertility was exactly the same for the uncircumcised Gambian women.

“The same pattern of findings – no significant difference found between ‘cut’ and ‘uncut’ women – held true for most of the reproductive health problems investigated in the study, such as menstrual problems or painful sex.

One or two diseases occurred more frequently among ‘cut’ women; one or two occurred more frequently among ‘uncut’ women. While the women in the study had many troubling health problems, in general, the ill health of a circumcised Gambian woman could not be attributed to her customary genital surgery. The authors caution activists against exaggerating the morbidity and mortality risks of the practice.

The report further noted that whenever global feminist organizations, public policy advocates, politicians or celebrities speak out against customary female genital modifications, denouncing them as mutilations and child abuse, so too they should speak out against customary male genital modifications, morally condemning them in similar terms; even at the risk of offending Jewish and Muslim supporters of anti-FGM campaigns.

“Put even more simply: there should be equal protection for boys and girls before the law. If you are an outspoken critic of FGM but then remain silent about male genital mutilation (MGM) you are either biased against women, insufficiently conscientious in the application of your principles, or a hypocrite.”

On minority communities being targeted without any clinical evidence for performing types such as the Type 1a or Type 4 FGM, Professor Rick Shweder told NewsIn.Asia that groups cannot be called mutilators without evidence.

“Just as one would like to see the experts challenged in court to actually produce evidence that Type 1a genital modifications are harmful to either health or sexuality one might also challenge those in India who are attacking the Bohra with this type of sensational rhetoric to defend their claims and demonstrate that they are not engaged in defamatory activities?” Professor Shweder said.

Prof. Carlos Londono Sulkin 

Professor Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin, Department of Anthropology, University of Regina in Canada, speaking on the social aspects surrounding circumcision said it is important to underscore that there should be some recognition of the fact that persons’ moralities– what they really value, their sense of what is important in life, their sense of how they ought to live, look, and behave–are products of their own life processes, in particular social contexts and at particular times in life.

“I think that many Westerners simply do not imagine that female genital cutting can have such positive moral associations, or be part of a respectable or admirable way of life,” he said.

“However, there are some feminists –pointedly not all of them!–who are absolutely committed to the idea that there is this universal hate of women and women’s bodies, and who are driven to interpret a great many practices of their own and other societies as evidence of that. They’d probably think of themselves as despicable people if they didn’t go to battle against FGM.”

(This article has been researched and written by journalists in the NewsIn.Asia news team). Mumbai, June 4.

 Reproduced here with permission of NewsIn.Asia

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