Aarefa Johari, a 29-year-old Muslim journalist based in Mumbai, comes from the community of Bohras, a sect of Shi'ite Muslims. This community is mostly found in western India, especially in Mumbai and Pune.
Journalist and anti-FGM campaigner Aarefa Johari (image courtesy: womensweb.in)
In recent years, Ms. Johari has emerged as a major voice against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) that is prevalent in many parts of the Muslim world. However, it seems this practice, known locally as khatna, is also prevalent among Bohra Muslims. Bohras are an orthodox community and very little is written about them publicly. Ms. Johari's campaign has now focused on FGM among Bohra Muslims.
In two recent interviews, Ms. Johari discussed her own personal experience with regard to FGM and the response she gets from community members about her anti-FGM campaign.
Times Of India Interview: "Her Frock Was Pulled Up; Her Mother Told Her That Something Would Happen To Her 'Down There'"
"Aarefa Johari was seven when she was taken to a dingy building in Bhendi Bazaar [in Mumbai] for an appointment with a woman she did not know. Her frock was pulled up. Her mother told her that something would happen to her 'down there' that would only take a minute. In hindsight, she's thankful for what little preparation she received before her khatna, the word Bohras [a sect of Shi'ite Muslims] use for circumcision. The procedure fits the World Health Organization's definition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
"The Bohra community, though, would never dream of calling it that. 'Bohras think FGM is one of those terrible things that 'African tribals' do. They only think they're snipping off a tiny bit of skin. But given the unscientific manner in which it's often performed, there's no way of knowing how much skin is cut off. And why should they be cutting off anything at all?' asks Johari (29), journalist and co-founder of Sahiyo, an organization battling khatna.
"She remembers 'something being done between my legs' at the time of her khatna. 'I think I cried and was in pain,' she says, recollecting vaguely a sense of soreness while urinating soon after. But the pain wore off, and she didn't think much of the incident while growing up. 'Bohras use the word khatna for male circumcision as well as for what's done to women. I remember khatnas being celebrated in a big way for boys in the family. It was a little more hush-hush for girls, and was sometimes celebrated with a quiet lunch,' she says.
"Many years later, as an adolescent, she recalls her mother showing her a magazine piece on a Bohra woman talking about her own experience of khatna. That was probably the first time both mother and daughter began thinking of the subject. As a college student exposed to feminist ideas while studying liberal arts, Johari began understanding what had happened to her. She began reading about khatna, a practice that Dawoodi Bohras in western India inherited from Yemen, where they trace the ideological origins of their sect. It was a practice meant to snip the woman's clitoris, a part of the external genitalia involved in sexual pleasure.
"The more she read, the angrier Johari became. It was virtually a case of retrospective trauma as she began recollecting what she went through in that room in Bhendi Bazaar. Initially, her anger and betrayal was directed at her mother. After all, it was her mother who had taken her for the procedure. And isn't your mother supposed to protect you?
"Much later she began to realize that it wasn't her mother's fault. 'Women are often used as a mere cog in the wheel of patriarchy. Men don't always have to be directly involved in the process of controlling women,' says Johari. She figured, over time, that her mother had not intentionally tried to harm her, and had not known the implications of the procedure. While the physical damage that FGM will have on a woman will vary depending on how much is cut off, Johari stresses on the psychological scars. As for whether the practice affects a woman's sex life, Johari says that's something she will never personally know, because she will never have a frame of reference."
Interview: "I Realized That Very Few Other Bohra Women Want To Talk About This Subject Openly - Everyone Is Too Afraid Of Being Ostracized"
Question: "You advocate an extremely important issue. There are few who dare to cross established boundaries. Tell us what made you take this up."
Aarefa Johari: "I took it up because to me, it was the most obvious thing to do. An injustice was inflicted on me and it continues on so many young girls in my community. It's a violation, and the moment I was old enough to understand the meaning and intended repercussions of this act of violence, I found myself outraged. For a long time, I used to take out my anger about circumcision (and other aspects of patriarchy) at home, at my mother and other family members. I only started speaking out in public some three years ago, after an anonymous Bohra woman started a change.org petition to get the Syedna [the spiritual leader of Bohra Muslims] to stop this practice. That is when a lot of media outlets began looking for Bohra women who would talk about the subject openly, without concealing their identity, and I didn't mind doing so.
"Gradually, I realized that very few other Bohra women want to talk about this subject openly - everyone is too afraid of being ostracized and boycotted by the community - although many women do want to discuss the subject anonymously. For myself, I did not think of speaking out against this practice as 'crossing a boundary,' because I am not a religious person and have disconnected myself from the community in many ways. I never for a minute cared about being boycotted because I am not looking for anyone's approval before I speak my mind and call out injustices."
"In India, It [FGM] Is Restricted To The Bohra Community, As Far As I Know; We Haven't Heard Of Any Other Sect Practicing It"
Question: "Is FGM restricted to the Bohra community or is it prevalent in other sects of Islam too? What do religious leaders have to say about this practice?"
Aarefa Johari: "In India, it is restricted to the Bohra community, as far as I know. We haven't heard of any other sect practicing it. In fact, in Pakistan [on a visit there] when I spoke about this topic, a lot of people (Muslims) came up to me in shock, asking, 'Muslims do this? Really?' Across the Islamic world, scholars have clarified that there is nothing about female circumcision in the Koran or in Islam, and yet, the Bohras practice it in the name of Islam. In Africa and other parts of the world where it is practiced, communities often believe it is an Islamic ritual, even though it isn't. And the fact is, in many parts of the world, it is non-Muslims who have been practicing FGC."
Question: "How have your own family and close acquaintances reacted to your raising voice against FGM?"
Aarefa Johari: "Thankfully, my immediate family has been supportive - no one has asked me not to speak out. I do wish more of my family members would join me in publicly denouncing this practice, but among Bohras there is a culture of never upsetting the status quo - even if there is dissent, it is behind closed doors; for the public, there are appearances. I can't say I have done any significant work in this field yet - I have a long way to go - but so far, most of my acquaintances have reacted positively.
"I have had a few people tell me that they would not continue the practice on their daughters. On the other hand, I did have one relative who was very upset with me for speaking out - this is a person (woman) who believes that women need to be circumcised because they have too much sexual energy that needs to be curbed, and that all uncut women become prostitutes."
"Religions Serve To Disempower Women, Even If They Claim Otherwise, Because Pretty Much All Religions Are Rooted In Patriarchy"
Question: "What role does religion play in empowering women?"
Aarefa Johari: "In my experience, none. Religions serve to disempower women, even if they claim otherwise, because pretty much all religions are rooted in patriarchy. As long as patriarchal systems exist, women cannot be truly empowered."
Question: "If there is one thing you could change about the way women are treated in India, what would that be?"
Aarefa Johari: "It's hard to pinpoint one thing. Every problem has its root in a social structure that places men above women. It is a structure that places immense pressure on men as well, because they have to conform to certain ideas of masculinity just as women are expected to subscribe to a specific kind of femininity. If these ideas are wrecked at their very base, then I guess women will be treated as equals."