When Alifya (Ally) Sulemanji first disclosed on Facebook that she opposed female genital cutting, she got unfriended by a handful of women in her religious community.
But the backlash got worse.
Now, says the New York activist, some women at her mosque won’t talk to her or look at her. And even those who support her views, she says, ignore her at religious gatherings out of fear of being shunned themselves.
Sulemanji is not alone.
In the wake of the federal government’s historic female genital mutilation investigation in metro Detroit involving the Dawoodi Bohra, a small Indian Muslim sect, advocates seeking to end genital cutting say they are getting backlash like never before from fellow members of their sect for speaking out against the practice.
The backlash has largely occurred on social media where, advocates say, they’ve come under attack by a fledgling overseas group of Bohra women who are fighting to keep what they call female circumcision legal in India.
In recent weeks, a group called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom has launched campaigns on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, seeking to preserve female circumcision in India, calling it a religious rite of passage.
“We have been demonized and misunderstood and absent from the narrative that involves us for far too long,” the Dawoodi Bohra group wrote in an e-mail to the Free Press, which has extensively covered the issue. “Our organization was formed as a spontaneous coming together in reaction to the sustained negativity about us. We want to tell you our side of the story.”
The group maintains it does not condone female genital mutilation and that it only practices a form of female circumcision that involves no cutting — just a minor nick of the clitoral hood.
‘This is nonsense’
Advocates working to end genital mutilation, including some Bohra women who underwent the procedure as young girls, dispute that it involves a minor nick. They say the Bohras have launched a hate campaign on those who disagree with them or speak out against them.
For example, according to activists, the Bohra group is telling its followers to put a thumb down on certain YouTube videos that feature genital mutilation survivors talking about their ordeals and condemning the practice. The goal, activists say, is to get so many negative reviews of the video that YouTube will take the videos down.
Similar tactics occurred on Instagram, where anti-female genital mutilation posts were getting inundated with negative comments by those supporting female circumcision.
Some Bohra activists say their families are also getting ostracized by the religious community and pressured into telling their daughters to stop denouncing female circumcision — also known as khafz or khatna.
“We’ve always had backlash, but the intensity of it really increased in the last couple of weeks,” said Mariya Taher, a Massachusetts activist and vocal opponent of female genital mutilation. “Some (Bohras) were really angry that we were speaking out about this.”
Taher, a Bohra who was subjected to genital mutilation when she was 7 during a vacation in India, is cofounder of a group called Sahiyo, which means “friend” in Bohra Gujurati. The group’s mission is to end female genital cutting and empower women in the Bohra community and in Asia.
Taher believes Sahiyo in particular has come under attack by the Bohra community, citing a new hashtag that has cropped up on the Internet: #Sahiyoisnotmyvoice and Instagram images that depict that hashtag. One of Sahiyo’s cofounders in India also was advised by a cousin not to go to mosque because people were unhappy with her views.
“We started getting inundated with messages from people who supported them and angry women claiming that we are putting a bad face on this, that we’re really not Bohras,” Taher said.
Taher, however, is not giving up her fight to end female genital mutilation in any form — be it cutting, shaving or nicking.
“This is violence. This is wrong,” said Taher, who can’t fathom why her faith can’t see that. “It’s still shocking because to me it makes common sense. … I’m trying to do what I feel is right. And so getting attacked like that is — I don’t know — It makes me stop and wonder … but I know it’s worth it.”
She also stressed: “Our intention has never been to put a bad name on the community, but to end a harmful practice and to bring it out to the public from its secretive nature.”
Sulemanji, who was subjected to genital mutilation when she was 7, is also frustrated by the pushback in her religious community. She’s especially outraged by the claims that there’s no cutting.
“I went to the doctor and got myself checked. And she said that they did cut the top of the clitoris.”
“They can say whatever they want, but this is what it is,” Sulemanji said. “They literally cut. … I don’t believe this is scraping of skin — this is cutting the hood of the clitoris.”
And even if it is just scraping, she said, that’s wrong, too.
“Why do you want to scrape? All the little girls around the world who are not (Bohra)… their parents are not scraping their girls. … This is just plain nonsense.”
‘We were judged and damned’
In the criminal case unfolding in Detroit, prosecutors have expressed concerns that the Farmington Hills mosque — where the local Dawoodi Bohra worship — is interfering with the investigation.
As Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward said during the arraignment early this month of a fourth defendant: “We have concerns that obstructive conduct has taken place at the mosque.”
But the organization that oversees the local mosque has repeatedly said that it does not condone its members violating any U.S. law and that it has issued a directive instructing members not to engage in any practice that could be construed as genital mutilation.
“It is an important rule of the Dawoodi Bohras that we respect the laws of the land, wherever we live,” the group, known as Anjuman-e-Najmi Detroit, has stated. “This is precisely what we have done for several generations in America. It is unfortunate if anyone has not abided by the laws of the country.”
Despite these words of caution, the group, however, stops short of condemning female circumcision as practiced by Bohras.
In the metro Detroit case, six Bohra members — including two doctors, a physician’s wife and and two mothers — are charged with subjecting several young girls in some fashion to genital mutilation procedures. So far, the government has identified six minor victims: four from metro Detroit; two from Minnesota. Federal prosecutors believe the chief suspect in the case, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, 44, of Northville, may have performed the procedure on up to 100 young girls over the past dozen years.
It is the first such prosecution in the U.S., though the Bohras were the focus of a 2015 mutilation prosecution in Australia.
A movement also is under way in India’s Supreme Court to criminalize all versions of female genital mutilation, even the ceremonial nick practiced by the Bohra.
The Bohras are fighting back, claiming the anti-genital mutilation movement is putting a bad face on its religion and mischaracterizes female circumcision as practiced by the sect. Their procedure, they maintain, is extremely minor, not harmful and involves only a nicking of the clitoral hood. They say it’s not done to suppress a woman’s sexuality, but as a requirement for purity.
“We hope that the U.S. understands that khafz is not FGM,” the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom said in its letter to the Free Press. “It does not mutilate, it does not harm. Our faith would never advocate anything that harms. Khafz is far less invasive than male circumcision that is legal in the U.S.”
But four Bohra women now living in the U.S., who each said that they had their clitorises cut when they were 7 years old, described the procedure in interviews with the Free Press as painful, horrifying, cruel and “a form of gender violence and child abuse.”
The group also denies attacking Bohra members who have spoken out against the religious practice.
“We have not heard of anyone in the U.S. or anywhere else come under attack,” the group said.
The Bohra organization, however, said it does take issue with Sahiyo’s approach to ending genital mutilation, stating: “What we find wrong with their approach is that they have attempted to discredit the community, and especially its leadership and have shamed the community’s women.”
Moreover, the group claims: “We were judged and damned and portrayed as child abusers and archaic religious zealots. (Sahiyo) might say that they meant no harm but cause harm they did. … Our garb marked us out, and we felt persecuted, vulnerable and stripped.”
Bohra women typically dress in a hooded waist-length cape and a long skirt with colorful embroidery.
The group also insists is it opposed to female genital mutilation.
“Khafz is not FGM,” the group said. “And we live peaceful productive lives as Dawoodi Bohras do — causing neither ourselves nor anyone else any harm. Then the Sahiyo burst upon the scene in a flurry of sensational media reports that clearly targeted Dawoodi Bohra women accusing them of FGM, while ironically claiming to speak for them. We were shocked to find ourselves in the eye of a storm. We were relentlessly bombarded with one-sided articles in most major papers in India that were often accompanied by lurid graphics — like women wearing (our traditional garb) holding a blade dripping with blood or bloody surgical instruments.”
Why the secrecy?
“We are Muslim women. The veil assures our privacy. Obviously any discussion of our genitals is going to be private. There is no great sinister conspiracy about this as seems to imply,” the group states, adding the open discussion by critics about “our most private body parts, is for us, unforgivable.”
Girls were ‘publicly shamed’
According to social activist and child advocate Insia Dariwala, an award-winning international filmmaker who lives in Mumbai and is a member of the Bohra faith, the Detroit case put the community on high alert.
As the movement to end genital mutilation gained momentum and the case made international headlines, she said, the Bohras in India sprang into damage control to protect their image and launched a full-on attack on whoever spoke out against female circumcision.
“The backlash was tremendous. We were trolled on social media. Our personal lives were attacked. Our loyalty to the faith was questioned. And on a more personal level, young girls known to me were publicly shamed,” Dariwala wrote in an e-mail to the Free Press. “Their parents were humiliated and also threatened with ostracism when they spoke up for us. The families were traumatized.”
But she’s not backing down.
“Naturally, it was upsetting for me, but I chose to vent my feelings in an article,” said Dariwila, an advertising graduate of the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “The backlash, in fact, reinstates our belief that we must be doing something right to make them feel so threatened.”
However, she noted, the fight to end female genital mutilation in India appears to have hit a roadblock.
“Honestly, a lot has changed since the Detroit case happened. While in the beginning we were positive that something good was going to come out of it, today we are not so certain of that,” Dariwala said.
According to Dariwala, the movement to ban genital mutilation in India seemed to gain momentum following a declaration last month by India’s Women & Child Health Ministry that the practice is illegal and should be banned in India. However, she said, the government official has since met with Bohra religious leaders and said the government has decided to handle this sensitive issue on its own.
“Needless to say, we are not very hopeful on the outcome of this promise now. There is serious doubt of any legal ban on FGM coming through in India, with the recent developments on the legal front,” Dariwala said, noting pressure to preserve genital mutilation is coming from all over. ” It’s not the just the Bohra community in India, but from all over the world, who have come together to fight for their rights to practice their religious beliefs. Herein lies the biggest problem.”
Dariwala is exasperated, arguing the Koran nowhere mentions female circumcision as a mandatory practice. She believes the Bohras are armored with misplaced religious beliefs and are afraid to question the practice and authorities.
“The faith of a community, or the rights of anyone practicing their religious beliefs, cannot rest on the genitals of a little girl,” Dariwala said. “It’s deplorable, no matter which religion you belong to.”
She added: “We are saddened to see how women are rooting for other women to continue the suffering.”
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