The practice of ‘female khatna’, which is largely seen as barbaric and brutal, isn’t restricted to the Bohras. It also exists among some Sunni Muslim sects in Kerala.
In fact, it is increasing, all thanks to religiosity and pseudoscience.
Any mention of the ritual cutting of clitoris in India evokes the image of Dawoodi Bohra women in their distinct embroidered, colourful burqas. This is because media reports, petitions and lawsuits have associated the controversial practice only with the Bohra community.
But dig deeper, and one is surprised to find that the custom of ‘female khatna’, which is largely seen as barbaric and brutal, isn’t restricted to this Shia Muslim group. It exists among some Sunni Muslim sects in Kerala too. In fact, it is increasing, all thanks to religiosity and pseudoscience.
Its existence in Kerala isn’t a fresh revelation as such. The first time it came into light was in March 2015, when it was discussed publicly in Kerala at a Freethinkers forum event. But for the first time, a study on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in India has documented it.
That said, the practice is prevalent mostly among the Bohras, including its Suleimani and Alvi sects. At least three-quarters of the Bohra women go through it.
The study released on 5 February and has been compiled by a survivor-led movement called ‘WeSpeakOut’, which wants to put pressure on the government to outlaw it. In 2012, the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution to ban FGM worldwide. The UN treats all procedures involving the alteration or injuring of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons as a violation of human rights. It’s illegal in at least 41 countries.
In theory, the ritual that Bohras call khafd, involves a nick or prick of the clitoral hood which cannot really be called “mutilation”. Active supporters of the custom (yes they exist!) use this argument to make the case that it is their cultural practice and must be respected.
However, even this is painful, can be harmful and is totally unnecessary as it is known to offer no medical benefits. The reality is, well, far worse. Most women, who have gone through it recall a much elaborate and traumatic procedure where their clitoris was partially or fully cut by a blade, more often than not by a traditional circumciser instead of a medical expert. Some women have admitted to being scarred for life, others say this made sexual intercourse excruciating.
All this is done in the name of religion and tradition dating back to centuries ago.
Bohras are said to have adopted the custom from North Africa and Egypt, where it is still practised. The community traces its origin to Mustalis, an Ismaili Shia sub-sect that originated in Egypt during the rule of Fatimid Caliphate over large portions of North Africa from the Red Sea in the East to the Atlantic Ocean in the West around 909 CE. The Fatimid dynasty claims to be descendants of Fatimah, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad.
On the other hand, in Kerala, it is said to have been brought by Arab traders.
It’s also done differently in Kerala and called by a different name – female sunnath kalyanam. Unlike Bohras, it’s not done so universally in any particular sect but is just practised in certain families from certain locations. However, its prevalence is reported to be higher amongst Muslims from the Malabar region.
While Bohras usually do it on girls between seven and eight years, in Kerala, the preferred stage is infancy – girls between three months and one year of age. Bohras usually deploy a traditional circumciser, who gains community respect for the job. But among Sunnis in Kerala, it doesn’t enjoy a high status and is carried out by women from the barber community called ozhatis. The cutting is usually clubbed with the hair removal ceremony (mudigalayal).
While the hand is trained lesser compared to the Bohras, the act also carries a greater risk in Kerala. Since it’s done when the child is really small, the chances of cutting off the entire clitoris itself because the organs are not fully developed at that young age are much greater.
However, while the revered clergy among the Bohras openly support the practice as essential to faith, the mosque doesn’t play any role in its propagation in Kerala. The study found that women from the Sunni sects don’t even know why they do it.
The issue created a buzz when a survivor wrote her story in a Malayalam magazine in 2017. The same year, members of an anti-FGM group called Sahiyo posed as interested candidates in a Kozhikode clinic, where they were told that it was done not only on infants but on women of “all ages”.
Actually, it was after this investigation that the group WeSpeakOut included Kerala in its data collection.
Staff at the clinic reportedly said that several local Muslim sects are increasingly coming to them to have sunnath performed for themselves, their daughters and even their daughters-in-law. Surprisingly, it was touted not just as a religious necessity (male doctors at the clinic insisted that the practice is mentioned in “four or five Hadiths”) but a trick to enhancing sexual pleasure. The staff told the members that “some husbands insist on it”.
The reality, though, is just the opposite. Parveen, a 29-year-old Sunni Muslim woman from Kerala, has narrated a very contrary experience in WeSpeakOut’s study,
It was only after my marriage when I had a lot of pain during my first sexual intercourse, my husband told me that I am feeling this pain because I don’t have this part (clitoris) in my body and therefore I can’t feel pleasure while having sex. For almost one year, it was very painful and I was afraid to have sex. That’s when I felt that if my clitoris was intact, my sexual life would have been more pleasurable.
The group is now demanding the Indian government to criminalise the act of performing FGM/C so it primarily targets medical practitioners and circumcisers. It has expressed hope given the “ground-breaking achievement” in the triple talaq case. The study itself was conducted to counter the government’s recently stated stand in Supreme Court that “there is no official data or study which supports the existence of FGM/C in India”.
According to the activists fighting to get it banned, the existence of this practice in Kerala adds to their case. Journalist Aarefa Johari who co-founded Sahiyo and carried out the Kozhikode investigation told Swarajya, “the finding was both surprising and saddening, as it means that more women are being subjected to this as previously thought”.