FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: UNDERSTANDING KHATNA

PC: Sahiyo & StoryCentre. A screenshot from a video uploaded by The Indian Express.

WHAT IS ‘KHATNA’?

Khatna, a genital cutting in women, is practised by the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sub-sect of Shia Muslims. It involves the removal of either part or all of a woman’s genitalia or clitoral hood or closure of vulva with a small opening only for the urine to pass.

Dawoodi Bohra community came to India as traders from West Asian and African countries and predominantly resided in Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi. They have been practising this secret ritual of female circumcision for centuries. “They describe this as ‘Religious Purity’. They also say that according to Da’im al-Islam (a 10th-century book on jurisprudence), this practice is for hygiene or taharat- not just physical but also ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’.”[1] They believe that the clitoral head is ‘unwanted skin’. It is a ‘source of sin’ that will make them ‘stray’ out of their marriages are reasons that lie at the heart of a practice that predates Islam but thrives amongst Bohras. The Prophet does not consider this practice as a religious requirement and does not ordain it. “The Holy Koran preaches that the Prophet breathes life into each body and that each body is in perfect shape. It is indicative in the following verse: “We have indeed created man in the ‘best of moulds’.” (Qur’an 95:4)[2]

The objective of the practice is to control a woman’s sexual desire and preserve her “honour” before marriage. The community believes that the clitoris causes sexual deviance in women. In a patriarchal society, a woman has no right to partake in sexual pleasure. Sex is a sin and a taboo, which ironically, only men have the freedom to enjoy.

As we know, in India no such practice goes without a challenge. In this article will refer an important case dealing with the matter at hand. It is an attempt to analyse the issues.

SUNITA TIWARI v UNION OF INDIA[3]

The three-judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, found that the practice of Khatna or Female Genital Mutilation (for short “FGM”) is a crime punishable under the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act).

The issues before the bench were-

  1. Whether the practice of female circumcision violates the right to privacy of the girls on whom the procedure is performed without their consent?
  2. Whether the practise violates the right to life and bodily autonomy of women and girls and infringes on Article 21 of the Constitution?
  3. Whether the practise is discriminatory against women and girls, and whether it violates Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution?
  4. Whether the practice is protected as a religious practice under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution?

The Petitioner, Sunita Tiwari, contended that the practice of Khatna, as performed on every girl child within the Dawoodi Bohra religious community, does not have any reference in the Quran and is carried out without any medical reason. It thereby expresses anguish over the atrocity, bodily pain, in-humanness and mental torture faced by the girls and women. All this because of traumatic, unhygienic and illegal surgeries performed on them in their childhood. She also argued that this practice violates women’s right to equality, right to privacy, and the right to personal liberty. She signed to make Khatna a cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable offence. She petitioned so as to declare this practice unconstitutional and illegal.

She also stated that the World Health Organization had declared Khatna or FGM to be a highly degrading practice. It is considered to be a violation of fundamental human rights and integrity of girls and women. It burdens young women with a slew of psychological problems such as trauma, depression, fear of sexual intimacy and nightmares. Also, in December 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution which called for the elimination of FGM.

Hygiene is another appalling issue. Often, Khatna is conducted by untrained midwives without anaesthesia, using unsterilised tools. This may cause infections or in some cases, even death. It is sad to observe that instead of standing strong together, women are guilty of harming other women through this practice. Khatna is a hushed affair, as shame and discomfort shroud female sexuality in a patriarchal society. Due to this secrecy, there is no actual data on FGM in India.

The respondents in their defence said that it is a religious practice and hence is protected under Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution. They also stated that this practice is not discriminatory against women. Both men and women are required to be circumcised. The community considered this practice as an integral part of their religion.

At present day, this judgement is still pending before the Supreme Court. The original court referred the case to a five-judge bench which further referred to a seven-judge bench.

CONCLUSION

They promise you a bar of chocolate, a movie or just an outing; they take you instead to a dingy, dark room, pin you to a bed, take off your pants and cut that tiny part of you that was eventually supposed to make you experience one of the greatest pleasures of being a woman. With blades, knives or anything remotely sharp and long, they cut off your clitoris, and say it’s in the name of culture. All this happens when you are a girl of seven or eight. In spite of being banned by such a big organisation as the UN and WHO, there is no ban on this act in India. This practice prima facie violates the rights of women in India. It’s the worst nightmare a girl can ever have. Even the ones who remember look at sexual intercourse as just an activity they need to do after marriage; the idea of pleasure thrown out of the window. Above all, the irony is, the Bohra Community is known to be a more ‘open’ Muslim community than most others, as it allows for its girls to get an education and travel if they wish to. This case may become a landmark case if it results in banning FGM in India. Just like Talaq e-biddat Judgement, this case may also curb this arbitrary practice in which consent of women is not considered, and exploitation is on its zenith.


[1] Aarefa Johari, Why do Dawoodi Bohras practice Khatna, or female genital mutilation, May 19, 2017, https://sahiyo.com/2017/05/19/why-do-dawoodi-bohras-practice-khatna-or-female-genital-cutting/ (Last Visited on October 4, 2018).

[2] The Indian Economist, Female genital Mutilation: The case of the Bohra Muslims in India, March 24, 2017 https://www.magzter.com/news/764/2674/032017/d7evp (Last Visited on October 4, 2018).

[3] Sunita Tiwari v Union of India, W.P. (C) No.286/2017.