In the US and around the world, there are religious sects that mandate female genital mutilation (FGM). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half a million girls in the United States alone were affected by or were at risk of mutilation in 2012. Despite this statistic, the issue is often ignored, which leads to a serious lack of awareness in the American population of a huge issue that many girls face.
Recently, 44-year-old emergency room physician Jumana Nagarwala, an Indian-American doctor, was arrested in Michigan for performing genital cutting on two seven-year-old girls. The story has since been covered by local and national press, making the topic a national concern. Because of this, Tasneem Raja, a contributor for Mother Jones, felt empowered to speak about her own experiences.
Raja belongs to a secretive South Asian Muslim sect known as the Dawoodi Bohras, which has an estimated 1.2 million followers around the world. Though this sect has a large presence, Nagarwala’s case is the first of its kind in the US. The practice of genital cutting, known by the Bohras as khatna, is widely regarded as an attempt to curb female sexuality by making sex less enjoyable, and in some cases painful.
Raja spoke about the dissonance present within her sect about the practice. “Privately, many Bohras have been praying for the clergy to end this practice for years, even decades. More than one mother I know wept when she learned she was bearing a girl, dreading what she might have to do to her child,” she writes.
Though many people privately hope for change, most are unable or unwilling to take action. Instead, women dread the moment when they will have to subject their own daughters to the same suffering that they underwent.
Raja wrote that nearly all of her female Bohra friends underwent khatna, saying, “We were cut. Some of us bled and ached for days, and some walked away with lifelong physical damage.” The physical pain that these young girls face can be temporary or permanent, depending on the method or the quality of the treatment. Though some women take their daughters to medical professionals, others perform the procedure in their own homes.
Raja relates her own experiences, which she only remembered when she was 13 in her freshman year social studies class. “I suddenly flashed back to a dim, chilly house my mother took me to when I was about seven. Two Indian aunties I had never seen before held me down on a mattress and pulled down my underwear as I squirmed to get free. One of them held a small pair of silver scissors, like the ones my dad used to keep his beard trimmed. Then, the sudden sensation of a tight, mean little pinch between my legs,” she painfully recalls.
Raja’s memories are haunting and terrifying, and they are shockingly common in America. Part of the reason for this is the secrecy even within the Bohra sect, in which men are kept in the dark and young girls are told never to speak of it. The importance of Nagarwala’s case is its visibility, which will hopefully lead more girls to speak out about their experiences. The practice of khatna can only be eliminated with awareness, and Raja’s story is a huge step in the right direction.
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