On a day like any other, a seven-year-old girl was told by her grandmother that they would be going out. Like any other child, excited at the prospect of an outing and probably getting goodies, she went along. In Mumbai’s Bhindi Bazaar, which is a cluster of Bohra households, she walked into a dark and fairly dingy building, clutching her grandmother’s hand tight, hesitant, and unknowing about what lay in store for her. Masooma Ranalvi, a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) practiced in the Bohra Muslim community remembers that day, four decades ago with astonishing clarity. “I was taken into a one-room tenement, I was asked to lie down and a stranger told me that I would experience a ‘bit’ of pain,” recalls Ranalvi. Her grandmother held down her hands, while the other woman pulled down her pants and she felt a “sharp piercing pain” in her genitals, the woman applied some black powder and said that it would be “fine.”
Ranalvi, in pain, was petrified and confused. She did not know what had happened to her and more importantly why. The only comfort in Ranalvi’s life at that point was her mother’s soothing arms, who consoled her and said that “it would be okay”. For the next few days, Ranalvi experienced pain, especially during urination. “No one told me about this, before and after. I was never given an explanation,” she says. After she healed, she never spoke about it again. As a seven-year-old, Ranalvi was in the dark about what had happened to her own body.
For the past 10 years, 6 February has been observed as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Firstpost spoke to Ranalvi about this horrific phenomenon and how she’s raising awareness about it.
Creating awareness through conversation
Fast forward to 30 years later, when Ranalvi chanced upon an article on FGM in Africa, it brought back a series of execrable memories for her. “The words are different and the names are different; we do not call it FGM in our community, it is known as female circumcision. The procedure and the way it was done that was described in the article, I knew in my mind what had happened to me was FGM,” she says. It is known as khatna in the community. When this awareness seeped into Ranalvi’s mind, she felt shattered and angry. “I did not know whom to turn to and where to vent my anger,” she says.
It was only in 2011 that Ranalvi actively involved herself in the fight against FGM. She connected with those who had started a petition on change.org to stop the practice. Ranalvi signed it and networked with the people who were pressing the Syedna (Bohra community’s religious head) to consider stopping the practice. However, the petition did not yield positive outcomes, the religious head “refused to even consider the petition” and “disregarded it”.
However, last year, Ranalvi took a step forward and decided to speak up because she realised that silence will mean that “young girls will still get cut” in the community. Reading about a case in Australia (where it is illegal to practise FGM) about two girls from the Bohra community who underwent genital mutilation and charges were brought on the parents, Masooma poured her repressed pain into words and wrote a blog, which received tremendous support — most importantly, other women broke the silence about what had happened to them and recounted their own personal agony. Ranalvi through her group, Speak Out against FGM has mobilised a mini-revolution that perhaps, one day could lead to larger social change — she got people talking.
While Ranalvi (fortunately) has not faced any backlash yet, she takes cognisance of the fact that fear is what drives many women into silence. “There is fear that there will be a backlash,” she says. Many women are afraid to disclose their identities because there is a “in-built fear” in women, but because FGM is so prevalent in the Bohra community, there are only a few women who are willing to go the extra mile notwithstanding the consequences.
FGM is not equivalent to male circumcision
Those in support of FGM, usually religious heads and sect heads often claim that the practice is equivalent to male circumcision, however, Ranalvi is vehement that it is a grave misconception. Armed with the extensive research that she has done on the subject, she clearly states that female circumcision causes psychological problems and in some cases, even death. Female genital mutilation or female circumcision is different from male circumcision because female circumcision is damaging to female sexual and psycho-sexual/psychological health. “It is child abuse,” says Ranalvi. Female genital mutilation is entirely about curbing the female sexuality and desire, “to maintain a patriarchal hold over a woman’s body”, she adds.
Bohra community and paradoxes
The Bohra community (a trading community) is one of the wealthiest; men and women from the community are highly educated and yet FGM is rigidly practiced. Ranalvi says that the Bohra Muslim community has a “paradox”. She also believes that the idea that this practice is “religiously ordained” is believed by the community at large — “A lot of them do it blindly as they are ordained by the clergy,” she says. The Bohra community is very “close knit” and there is a complete “indoctrination” within the community to accept any religious decree. There is a general fear to oppose anything or “step out of line,” says Ranalvi. Those who transgress become “very visible” and that ‘visibility’ brings with it, a set of repercussions (excommunication, ostracism).
Secrecy, missing conversations and the need to talk
One of the biggest challenges that Ranalvi and her ilk are hoping to overcome is the absolute silence that prevails on this topic. “The manner in which the practice is carried out is secretive and literally clandestine. Pre or post-practice, there is no discussion about how good it is, what are the benefits, how it is going to affect us as women. It is a practice perpetuated by women,” she says. According to her, women from non-Bohra communities who marry into a Bohra family have to undergo this “rite of passage”. Bohra Muslims are the only Muslim community in India to practice FGM.
Through her work, Ranalvi finds a common pattern among all the women who want to speak out against FGM — they don’t just want to do that, they want speak, share, engage, discuss what happened to them. They want to let out the screams they suppressed as a child and pushed into oblivion. Mothers want to express regret for putting their daughters through the procedure, daughters want to be angry, vent and tell another person their story. The violence that their bodies endured gets a voice of its own in Ranalvi’s online forum and group discussions.
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