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What is female circumcision?

Female circumcision and female genital mutilation (FGM) have often been confused. They are both completely different things.

Traditional practitioners define it as the removal of a speck of superficial skin, a simple gentle process in which there is negligible if any, pain.

From the religious point of view, female circumcision is considered equivalent but biologically it is far less invasive than male circumcision. Whilst in male circumcision, the entire foreskin is removed, in female circumcision, a nick or cut, or a tiny excision is made on the foreskin (prepuce). Like male circumcision, the purpose of female circumcision is done to satisfy the religious requirement of taharat (religious purity).

Both have claims to secondary advantages.


Is the scraping of mucous membrane an acceptable form of khafz?

Yes, provided the scraping is only done on the prepuce, which is composed of mucocutaneous tissue. Traditional circumcisers even just wipe the prepuce and call it a completed circumcision, depending on the anatomy of the genitalia.


What is female genital mutilation (FGM)?

FGM is a term coined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to describe all the various processes that different cultures in the world practice as a rite of passage on their girls. These vary from the slight, almost symbolic nicks to the dramatic infibulation of those who live in the Horn of Africa.

The definition is challenged for many reasons. To begin with, it fails to distinguish between harmless and harmful procedures. Then, some philosophers and academics argue that there is an inherent cultural and racial imperialism in the way the anti-FGM debate is framed. One of the consequences of this flawed approach is that procedures that have nothing in common are clubbed together to be the same thing, and therefore the consequences of harmful procedures are routinely and regularly applied to harmless ones, such as that practiced by the Bohras.


Is female circumcision not FGM?

Despite being harmless and despite the lack of any clinical evidence of harm, female circumcision is included in WHO's definition of FGM. This inclusion is now being challenged. FGM is categorised as Types 4, 1, 2 and 3 in order of severity, with 4 being the least invasive and 3 being the most invasive. Islamic female circumcision, as practiced by the Bohras and other Muslims is regarded as a Type 1a procedure if an excision of the prepuce is carried out, or Type 4 if the prepuce is nicked or cut. The clitoris or the labia are not touched by this procedure.

We do not accept that female circumcision is a mutilation. It is a harmless procedure and as such should not be termed FGM.


Does even a small nick or excision not damage the genitalia and cause trauma?

When the two girls at the centre of the trial in Australia were examined by two of the country's top gynaecologists, who carried out a deep examination using a colposcope, the experts failed to distinguish their genitalia from those of an uncircumcised girl of the same age. This shows how mild the procedure is. Thousands of educated Bohra women are a testimony to its harmless nature.


What is your stand regarding other forms of FGM/C?

There is no place in our religion for mutilation. Any kind of mutilation.

Our religious books are clear that as far as circumcision is concerned, only the prepuce can be nicked or cut. No other part of the genitalia can be touched. So any surgery or cutting done on the clitoris, labia minora or labia majora would be prohibited in our religion.

Therefore, we cannot support any other form of genital procedure, whether done for cosmetic or cultural reasons, and also cannot support any activity of any kind that is designed to curb sexuality or oppress women.


Is female circumcision in the Dawoodi Bohra community misogynistic?

Misogyny is the hatred of women by men. Given that Dawoodi Bohra religious texts state clearly that female circumcision is meant to "increase her radiance", which may well be a poetic way to describe what biologists describe as sexual glow; and that "it a source of pleasure for her with that of her husband," which may well be the pleasure of sexual reciprocity - it is preposterous to describe circumcision as misogynistic.

In fact, by the same logic, to withhold female circumcision may be misogynistic.


Is female circumcision the result of a patriarchal society?

Patriarchy is a society that is dominated by men in which women have an insignificant role to play. Anti-circumcision lobbyists base their accusation of patriarchy on the totally incorrect assumption that the practice is designed to curb the sexuality of women, so it must be imposed upon them by men. This narrative may be applicable to some forms of FGM but certainly not to the female circumcision practiced by the Dawoodi Bohras.

To begin with, both male and female circumcision are practiced in the community, and therefore female circumcision can be regarded as an act of gender parity rather than discriminative

Secondly, this is a society in which the daughter of the Prophetsaw, Maulatena FatemaAS is held in great reverence, so much so that the Dawoodi Bohras regard themselves as Fatemi. This means that by the very name they use for themselves, they could be seen, in fact, as a matriarchal society.

In a recent sermon, one of the rectors of al-Jamea-tus-Saifiyah, Arabic Academy, compared a woman's position to that of the brain in the body, and a man's, to the heart. This exemplifies clearly how Dawoodi Bohra culture regards its women and the expectations it has of them.

It is true that gender roles differ and follow Islamic norms, but the esteem and respect for both genders are equal.


Is the purpose of female circumcision to curb sexual libido?

There is nothing in any book of religion to suggest that. Male and female circumcision are spoken of jointly as being for religious purity, which includes, but is not the same as hygiene. If anything, there is a suggestion in the books that female circumcision would enhance sexual pleasure.


Why is it done without informed consent of the girl?

Like male circumcision and many other things that parents do for the good of their child, this procedure is meant to be done, by definition, during childhood. Both male and female circumcision are a rite of passage. It is foolhardy to postpone the rites of childhood into adulthood to appease a hysterical reaction in among people who may have no understanding of this.

Human beings are more than isolated physical selves. We have social and psychological identities as much as physical ones. All cultural procedures need to be looked at holistically and in the context of their culture and religion.


Is it not child abuse?

In all its effects and purpose, female circumcision is the same as male circumcision, which is not regarded as child abuse. To call one circumcision child abuse and not the other is illogical and gender discriminative.


Can there be complications in the procedure?

Like male circumcision, if done correctly, the procedure is completely safe. But like all surgical procedures, if not done properly, complications could arise. As the process is institutionalised to be in line with modern circumstances the risk of this grows less and less. Most medical practitioners say that the use of anaesthesia makes the process painless and the child always walks away without a twinge.


Male circumcision has medical advantages whereas female circumcision doesn't. Isn't that true?

This statement is not true in more than one way. For one, medical advantages of male circumcision are hotly disputed. They are not universally accepted as made out to be. Secondly, the vast majority of male circumcisions done in the world are not done for any medical benefits, but purely for religious reasons or cultural reasons, and therefore medical advantages or disadvantages are irrelevant. The same applies to female circumcision.



Do doctors carry out the procedure?

Whilst the number of people who have the procedure done by a trained doctor is increasing in the cities, many still get the procedure done by traditional circumcisers who are trained by older circumcisers. Who people choose to go to, really depends on who has their personal confidence.


Why is there secrecy surrounding the practice?

There is indeed secrecy in the practice of female circumcision which there isn't in male circumcision. But it is nothing to do with any belief that there is something wrong with the practice, nor is the secrecy there to hide an illegal practice. Islamic norms of modesty surrounding women apply to most matters to do with women, particularly when concerned with their private parts. So throughout the centuries, female circumcision has always been completely hidden from men, and rarely discussed amongst women. It would be culturally immodest to do so.


Do other Muslims practice female circumcision?

Yes. Female circumcision is a requirement in all schools of jurisprudence of Islam, but different schools put varying degrees of emphasis on it. Of the four Sunni schools, the Shafi'i branch follows it with greatest strictness and diligence, and so it is universally practiced in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Kurdistan and Egypt where Shafi'i Sunnis predominate. India is predominantly Hanafi Sunni, in which it is not practiced with strictness.

Unfortunately, due to external pressures, some Muslim ulama have made pronouncements against it despite female circumcision being sanctioned in their books of religion.


Is female circumcision ordained in the Qur'an?

Female circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur'an, but many fundamental practices, such as how to pray, fast and perform the pilgrimage are also not stated in the Qur'an. The Qur'an, the practice and the sayings of the ProphetSAW and the books that describe religious practice jointly contribute to the body of Islam. Female circumcision is mentioned in several books, one being Al-Da'aim al-Islam, written by the Fatimid Chief Jurist, Syedna Qadi Nu'man RA about 1000 years ago. This book is the principal book defining the main beliefs and religious rituals of the Dawoodi Bohras. Female circumcision finds mention in many other books and is clearly a well-established religious practice.


Is female circumcision compulsory in the religion of the Dawoodi Bohras?

Female circumcision is not obligatory, however it is prescribed by the sunnah (the sayings and actions of the Prophet) and cannot be forsaken under ordinary circumstances.


We understand that in the West where there are specific laws banning FGM, Bohra congregations have instructed their members not to practice female circumcision. Is this true?

Yes. All congregations in such countries have instructed their members to not practice female circumcision in the strictest terms if there is any possibility that it may be against the law. Being law abiding is also a principle in the Bohra religion, a teaching that is attributed to the ProphetSAW himself. Therefore, it is obligatory for Bohras who are citizens of those countries to abide by the law and not to practice it. However, this is not done in the belief that there is anything wrong with the religious ordinance. Our belief dictates that nothing in our religion can be harmful to any human being and therefore religious rites such as male and female circumcision can only be of benefit to those who practice it. However, we cannot break any law of the land, however misguided it may be, (in this case by failing to distinguish our harmless practice from harmful ones and banning it along with the harmful ones) and therefore in those countries where female circumcision is illegal, or there is a possibility for it to be interpreted as being illegal, we no longer practice it.


Does this not cause an anomaly whereby some members practice it and others don't?

Yes it does. But this is not without religious precedence. To perform the pilgrimage to Makkah, for example, is one of the most important obligations on a Muslim. It is a act that one must perform it at least once in their lifetimes. However, it is only obligatory for one who has the monetary means to undertake the journey and only if there is safety in the journey. Therefore, whilst it becomes obligatory on one Muslim (who has the means and safety), it is not obligatory on another who does not have the benefit of means and safety.


You say that female circumcision is harmless, yet there are reports of women who have suffered injury due to the practice. How do you respond to that?

There are indeed such reports, but whilst we sympathise with anyone who has suffered as a result of circumcision, it is important to realise that the reports are anecdotal and cannot be fully relied upon for a number of reasons. The first is that the most of them are from people who have left the fold and have a vested interest in challenging the mainstream religious community and the practices they have disowned. Secondly, none of the presumed injuries have been independently verified by doctors or psychiatrists and are attributed to circumcision for dubious reasons. Many of these women have led normal lives and can't even recall being circumcised, but due to the excessive promotion of the narrative that the practice ought to be harmful, they convince themselves that they too must have been injured or traumatised in some way, despite their completely normal lives.

The other point to make is that WHO has not got a single clinical study to show that Islamic female circumcision, that is a nick, cut or excision of prepuce, leads to any harm whatsoever. WHO and anti-FGM advocates unfairly and incorrectly apply the narratives of extreme procedures to all procedures, including to the harmless Islamic circumcision.

The fact that it is harmless is also evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of Bohra women, and the vast majority of Muslim women in Indonesia and Malaysia do not at all feel that circumcision harms them. The procedure is as regarded in the same vein as inoculation and ear piercing. That is why they see no difficulty in having their daughters and grand-daughters circumcised.


What is your opinion on Speak Out On FGM and Sahiyo, who are campaigning against the practice of female circumcision in the Dawoodi Bohra community in India?

Dawoodi Bohras are a community based on a common religion which defines its traditions, culture, language and history. Religion is the only thing that binds them together. However, of the estimated one million Dawoodi Bohras, there are a few hundred men and women who no longer subscribe to the religion and have therefore left the fold for all practical purposes. Some of these non-religious Bohras have adopted a dissenting stance and attack the community at every opportunity.

The campaigners in India are led by a few women all of who belong to the group that has disowned the religion that defines the community. They have almost no connection with the community and have no understanding of why male and female circumcisions, or for that matter any religious rite, is performed.

Our view is that the campaigns are an attempt by a few non-religious women to forcibly impose their views on the majority mainstream Dawoodi Bohra women who are religious. As a result of their media campaign, the easily identifiable mainstream Bohra women have had to bear the gaze of the public who look upon them as mutilated or mutilators, and unenlightened in turn.

Moreover, the campaigners have received an inordinate amount of media attention and accolades as a result of which the campaign has become a convenient platform for fame and self-promotion.

Female circumcision is not enforced and therefore those who do not want to do it can choose not to do it. The entire campaign is therefore completely unnecessary and its main aim is simply to use the prevailing worldwide anti-FGM sentiments to assail the community.

Of the six protagonists, one has never been part of the Bohra community and has not experienced circumcision. Two of them, though born into the community, have said that they have not been circumcised yet claim that they are traumatised, and the rest "discovered" their trauma in adulthood after having lived a normal life. Yet they go about describing their experiences as if they have lived with circumcision induced trauma all their lives.

Their campaign has produced a few other women, also belonging to those who have left the fold, who have said that they have suffered trauma. But only in one case has some indication of the injury been medically verified, though even that is not fully confirmed. Trauma that affects sexual sensuality also exists in uncircumcised women in equal measure and one needs professional analysis to locate the source of a psychological problem.


What is the status of women in the Bohra Community?

Sahiyo and Speak Out on FGM women, seek to portray themselves as representing the liberated, emancipated and educated section of the Bohra community, and the rida-clad religious majority as the uneducated and oppressed.

In reality, mainstream Dawoodi Bohra women, whilst asserting their religious identity and religious practice, are well-educated and play a very strong role in Bohra society. They pursue careers in medicine, teaching, law and many other professions, many of them becoming leaders in their fields. However, their religion teaches them to be mindful of their enormous responsibility of rearing children and holding the family together. In an anthropological study of the Dawoodi Bohras, Mullas on the Mainframe (UCP, 2001), the author Jonah Blank says, "Bohra women are now among both the best educated and the highest-status women of any community on the Indian subcontinent".


Three Bohras were found guilty of practicing FGM in Australia in 2016. Can you comment on that?

The trial was conducted under pressure to prosecute under the FGM law in New South Wales which had, since its enactment in 1994 failed to have a single successful prosecution. Medical examination showed no evidence of any injury or harm to the two girls. Despite lack of any evidence, the mother of the children (a qualified pharmacist), the circumciser (a qualified midwife) and the Amil were found guilty based on circumstantial evidence largely to do with intercepted phone conversations. The trial has been widely criticised as not having served justice. Amongst its many flaws, one was that what was done to the girls, if anything at all, did not fall into the description of criminal activity within the FGM law, so the judge used a new definition of mutilation that had no precedence in case law, nor did it concord with dictionary definition of the word, to ensure that the jury could only return a guilty verdict. Further, whilst the principals were given 15 months of home detention, the accessary, who was not a participant to the alleged crime, was jailed for 15 months. The bizarre judgement is being appealed.


Are there any efforts to exclude female circumcision from WHO's definition of FGM?

Yes. Eminent sociologists, gynaecologists and academics have asked for a review of WHO's classification that feeds false information to anti-FGM policies. Richard Schweder, Juliet Rogers, Fuambai Ahmadu, Lucrezia Catania, Brian Earp, Sara Johnsdotter, Betinna Sheldon-Duncan et al, have widely written that the anti-FGM policies are based largely on emotion and not on fact or scientific study, use narratives and labels that give false descriptions to women who choose to practice it, fail to deliver gender parity, fail to be sensitive to cultural norms, and label it patriarchal and abusive without real evidence. Some of them call for certain harmless types of procedures, including the kind of female circumcision practiced by the Bohras to be legalised in line with as male circumcision. In February 2016, two eminent gynaecologists wrote in the Journal of Medical Ethics to call for a reclassification of procedures by their potential for harm rather than by the detail of procedure itself, and allow the less invasive ones (including female circumcision practiced by Bohras) to be legalised. In June 2016, the Economist also promoted the same view.


What do you say about the arrests made in Detroit for FGM?

The people arrested in Detroit have only been charged. They have not been tried yet and must be presumed to be innocent unless found guilty by a fair process of the judiciary. But the freedom of press in the US allows the media to report such matters in a manner that borders on making a judgement even before the trial. The publication of the photograph of the accused wearing easily identifiable community clothes has stigmatised the entire community. And the manner in which children of families, many of whom are not even remotely connected to the accused, have been interviewed at schools raises questions of civil liberties.

To be loyal to the country of abode and be law-abiding is an important principal of the religion of the Dawoodi Bohras.

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