By Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin
A federal judge in Detroit has dismissed six charges of Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, against a Dawoodi Bohra doctor alleged to have circumcised girls of the Dawoodi Bohra faith. Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and other defendants were acquitted because the judge concluded that U.S. Congress does not have the authority to make FGM illegal, and that U.S. law preventing FGM is unconstitutional. While the judge’s ruling is no doubt a welcome relief to the defendants, it does little to help the reputation of the Dawoodi Bohras, who have been wrongly accused of “mutilating” their girls. They do nothing of the sort.
With approximately one million followers worldwide, the Dawoodi Bohra are part of the Shia Muslim faith. For several generations, they have come from countries as far as India, Pakistan and Uganda to settle successfully in U.S. cities like Houston, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as in many other Western nations. The Bohras of the United States are enthusiastic patriots who share many of the values of their fellow citizens. They are renowned for prizing and achieving high levels of education among both men and women, and for their entrepreneurial success.
For centuries, the Bohra have practiced ritual circumcision on boys and girls, in accordance with their understanding of God’s law. Abiding by that tradition has mattered to them, much as male circumcision has continued to matter to other Muslims and to Jews the world over. The male circumcision procedure is the same as that performed in hospitals in the USA and around the world. The female procedure, known as khafz among the Bohras, is considerably less invasive than the male version: a small nick on the female foreskin performed by a trained woman in the presence of female relatives. No mutilation is involved. And yet khafz is outlawed in countries like the U.S., Canada, and the UK, on the basis of the World Health Organization’s policy on FGM, which treats nearly every non-Western ritual that involves the genitals of females as “mutilation”, regardless of how innocuous.
The Dawoodi Bohra recoil at the very idea of mutilation of women and girls, and concur with the WHO that any practice that is harmful to children –girls or boys—merits banning. It must be asked, though: why does the WHO’s ethnocentric and gender-iniquitous policy on FGM allow for comparatively invasive male circumcision, but rule against harmless procedures such as foreskin-pricking for females? How can we reconcile the fact that male circumcision, female genital cosmetic procedures, and clitoral piercings are legal and are even enthusiastically marketed in the West, and yet a Bohra female doctor who performs a nick in the name of a valued religious tradition faces the prospect of life in prison? What fairness is there to the continued demonization of Dr. Nagarwala and her community?
Prosecutors continue to cite the WHO’s overreaching definition of FGM. As a result, caring Dawoodi Bohra mothers and doctors in Australia, India, and the United States have faced lengthy court cases, public humiliation, and even time in prison for nicking their daughters’ foreskins in accordance with their religious beliefs. Loving families have suffered the trauma of shame and separation. Ironically, this subverts gender equality, by standing in the way of those Bohra women who wish to exercise their religious freedom and engage in a practice that they really value, the sacred counterpart to male circumcision.
Some courts are now recognizing that anti-FGM laws are ham-fisted and prejudiced. In Australia, a mother, a former nurse, and a Dawoodi Bohra religious leader were recently acquitted by an appeals court because it found no evidence that the girls’ clitorises had been cut or even nicked after undergoing khafz, and because a nick on the female foreskin did not amount to mutilation. The courts, and the court of public opinion, should really slow down, engage critically with the ethnocentric biases of the otherwise worthy WHO, and study rigorously and at length the diversity of forms, extent, reasons, and consequences of different people’s practices of genital alteration. This might actually foster better informed, more tolerant, and potentially more effective conversations about gender equality, health, and cultural change.
Carlos D. Londoño Sulkin is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Regina, in Canada.