Articles on Shifting Sands
Khafz – is it being exaggerated by activists?
Thirty three year old Batul Mohammed is a busy housewife, living in a congested part of Mohammedali Road in Mumbai. Educated and hailing from a background of civil engineers and dentists, Batul is today, a dedicated and loving mother to a five year old girl and three year old boy.
Batul is a Dawoodi Bohra – a minority Muslim sect who have today become the target of controversy due to the Khafz ritual. The community’s Spiritual Leader, Dr Mufaddal Saifuddin, who is a global Ambassador of Peace due to his dedication in uplifting the community and maintaining peaceful ties with global leaders, has been at the receiving end by some activists who blame him for a ritual which is well over a thousand years old.
Activists have gone on a rampage, blaming the community for performing a ‘heinous crime and grave human rights violation.’ Some have even gone as far as bashing the community on mainstream media for being responsible for the thousand year old practice which is not only performed as a religious ritual in India, but almost globally, and that too by many other communities and religions.
Certain activists have also, in recent months, taken center stage, claiming themselves to be representatives of Dawoodi Bohra women world wide. However almost all the Dawoodi Bohra women who we interviewed have neither heard of these women nor agree with the policies set out by them. Especially where the Khafz ritual is concerned. The few who knew these activists explained that they were reformists who had broken away from the community and were now using the media stage to spread hatred against the community – all in the name of Khafz.
“I am a Dawoodi Bohra, been raised in a simple family and follow the teachings of the Prophet and all my past and present spiritual leaders. And let me make it very clear to you, that in no way have I or my mother or my grandmother ever been told or pressurized to perform Khafz. Khafz is a ritual performed from the time of the Prophet. It did not emerge today. And it is certainly not being practiced by only the Bohras. In fact today many other communities practice it for religious purity,” Batul explained.
Khafz is today being labelled as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). An earlier investigation by NewsIn.Asia however found that the World Health Organization (WHO) is yet to provide any records of clinical evidence of harm caused by a procedure such as Khafz.
Medical experts say that Khafz is the mildest procedure performed as part of a religious belief and causes no physical harm, and has been performed for thousands of years by millions.
In an earlier email interview, Dr Alifiya S. Bapai, a practicing gynaecologist in Mumbai explained, “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?”
Forty five year old Arwa Taiyyab from neighboring Pakistan also maintains the same view about the Khafz ritual and blames certain activists for spreading blatant lies. “In recent months, we have watched in shock and disbelief that some women, all under the guise of activism, are using the global forum to tarnish the image of the Dawoodi Bohras. These people do not represent me or the thousands of Dawoodi Bohra women worldwide. Khafz is all based on personal choice and is an exercise of religious freedom. However today it is being exaggerated by some who have a personal agenda to work against the community,” Arwa said.
Arwa explains that although the ritual is extremely minor, causes no harm or damage and is done for religious purity, there are some within the community who chose not to do it. And for this, they are neither shunned or shamed as alleged by some activists. “These activists have taken our silence for granted. We are peaceful community worldwide and it is a shame they are allowed to speak on behalf of an entire community,” she said.
Khafz, is the mildest procedure performed and as explained by medical experts should not fall under the term mutilation. Professor Richard Shweder, from the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago explains that today, anti-FGM activists use the word “mutilation” to describe any non-medical procedure involving the genitals of girls (but not boys) and they simply define each and every non-medical procedure as “harmful” even if the procedure is not damaging and regardless of its spiritual, religious, social and aesthetic benefits.
He says the more reasonable approach is to ask whether a genital procedure is in fact damaging (in the sense of producing a lasting disfigurement) or when customarily performed results in serious harm.
“To date I have seen no evidence that a typical Khafz ritual is a “mutilation” in that sense. Indeed as a physical procedure it is far less invasive than the customary, familiar and typical male “circumcision” of Muslim and Jewish boys,” the Professor told NewsIn.Asia via an email interview.
Professor Shweder further explained that today, it was not just the Dawoodi Bohras who performed the Khafz ritual. He said several Muslim denominations in various parts of the world (Southeast Asia, Kurdistan, Egypt) embrace the ritual and have genital procedures for both girls and boys.
“To the extent Khafz is less invasive than a male circumcision and is based on and motivated by a gender inclusive or gender equal interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17 of the Hebrew Bible) traceable to the views and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, I think it should be protected by principles of religious liberty. India in particular is a multicultural country that has long accommodated cultural and religious diversity and one hopes the spirit of religious liberty is still alive and well in Mother India,” Professor Shweder said.
The UOC Professor further said that today, most coverage on the Khafz ritual has been one sided, ill-informed and demonizing in the use of the “M” word to stigmatize unfamiliar customs and religious minority groups (and their leaders).
“The voices of those for whom the ritual is central to their sense of identity and spiritual well-being have not been well-represented in public discourse. The anti-FGM activists have been given a free ride in the court of public opinion. It a mistake for news organizations and public intellectuals and those who value accuracy in reports about the customs of others to rely too heavily on representations of a custom produced exclusively by activist organizations and other who are opponents of the custom.”
(This article was researched and written by the NewsIn.Asia Investigations Desk). Published 17 Nov 2017.
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