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Bohra activist against female genital mutilation says veil of secrecy keeps women from speaking out

May 1, 2017

Federal officials recently filed charges against a suburban Detroit doctor for allegedly performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on several young girls. They say doctor Jumana Nagarwala performed female genital mutilation on two seven-year-olds from Minnesota. 

The practice of FGM is illegal in the United States and two others are charged with conspiring to perform the act. Nagarwala has pleaded “not guilty,” and her attorney has said she was performing a religious ritual of the Bohra community, not genital mutilation. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes female genital mutilation as the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora. Some of these cuttings go further. 

The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries of the Middle East and Asia, as well as among migrants from these areas. 

Zehra Patwa, an activist with the group “Speak out on FGM,” joined Stateside to talk about the practice and the effort of some Bohras to end it. 

Patwa is a member of the Bohra community, a sect of Shia Islam, which performs this procedure. Bohras are a community of people that live mostly in India, though pockets of Bohras exist throughout the Western world. Patwa said there are approximately 1.5 million Bohras throughout the world.

"[Bohras are] known as a very well-educated community," she said. "Strong business people. Strong in womens' rights, that the women tend to be educated as well and are very much part of the management of the community. There is a very strong connection to the community because, especially with people that have then spread out to various other countries that desire to hold on to our culture and hold on to those wonderful traditions of our community."

While FGM is practiced within some Islamic communities, Patwa said it is not a religious practice. It's a cultural one. In fact, she said the majority of Islamic communities have spoken out against FGM. Patwa points to Christian communities in the U.S. that practiced FGM in the 1950s as proof that the practice isn't limited to one particular religion. 

Those cultures that practice FGM justify the procedure as a way to encourage cleanliness, to reduce a woman's sexual desire, or to increase a woman's sexual drive and keep girls from "going astray."

None of this is backed up by any medical research, Patwa said.

"Because of the prevailing notion that [FGM] will keep your girls from straying from having premarital sex or sexual relations outside of marriage, there is this perception that it will keep the honor of the family," Patwa said. "It's unfortunate because that really isn't what it does. What it does is it shames girls. It hurts girls. It causes psychological issues all through their lives, and it doesn't reduce sexual desire, it reduces the ability to enjoy their sexuality for some women." 

Listen to the full interview above to hear what some women within the Bohra community think about FGM and what Patwa suggests as a compromise to keep this practice from happening to young girls.

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