Women from a small Muslim sect called the Dawoodi Bohras have reported that female genital mutilation has been performed on them in Canada, a study given to the federal government reveals.
The first research of its kind to probe the practice within this tightly knit South Asian community, the study found that 80 per cent of Bohra women surveyed have undergone FGM and two of the study’s 18 Canadian participants said it happened within Canada’s borders.
In Canada, FGM was added to the Criminal Code under aggravated assault in 1997. The study does not provide additional information on the two cases it uncovered.
Most commonly associated with communities in sub-Saharan Africa, FGM is also practised among members of this Muslim sect who trace their roots to Yemen in the 11th century and who migrated to Gujarat, India, in the 1500s.
Authored by Sahiyo, an organization of anti-FGM activists and members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, the study was completed in February. Preliminary results went to officials from Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department in June 2016. The federal government says it is looking into the issue.
The researcher’s findings show that more than 80 per cent of the 385 Dawoodi Bohra women surveyed — including all 18 Canadian participants — want the practice to end and would not do it to their daughters.
Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to external female organs. It can be inflicted on girls as young as 1 and varies in severity from partial removal of the clitoris to excising the clitoris and labia and stitching up the walls of the vulva to leave only a tiny opening.
Khatna is the South Asian term for genital cutting and, according to the study, the sect’s practice of removing a woman’s clitoris is done for reasons including “religious purposes,” to curb sexual arousal, for cleanliness and to maintain customs and traditions.
The Dawoodi Bohras have recently made FGM-related headlines. A Detroit emergency room doctor charged in April with alleged performing of FGM on 100 young girls is a Dawoodi Bohra. The doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, is in jail awaiting trial. In 2016, a Dawoodi Bohra priest in Sydney, Australia, was convicted for his role in performing FGM.
“The findings (of the study) demonstrate that FGC (female genital cutting) is deeply rooted in the community’s culture,” the authors write. Sahiyo means “friends” in Gujarati.
“Understanding the complex social norms and cultural values systems that shape the meaning and significance of the practice within this community is critical work of anti-FGC advocates.”
For this story, the Star also spoke with three local Dawoodi Bohra women who described what it’s like to undergo khatna in their native countries of India and Kenya at the hands of “practitioners,” not doctors, in non-medical environments such as kitchens, with unsterile razors.
A continuing Star investigation has revealed that Canadian girls have been taken overseas to have the procedure and that thousands more could be at risk of being sent abroad to be subjected to FGM.
Practitioners who perform FGM are “almost certainly entering Canada” to engage in the practice, says an internal report from Canada Border Services Agency, as reported by Global News in July.
FGM is a cultural practice dating back hundreds of years, and organizations including the United Nations say that although it is often perceived as being connected to some Islamic groups, it also occurs in other religious communities, including Christians, Ethiopian Jews and certain traditional African religions.
In Ontario, some women have asked their doctors to reverse the most severe type of FGM. Provincial records show that in the past seven years, Ontario has performed 308 “repairs of infibulations,” a surgery that creates a vaginal opening where it has been sewn mostly shut. There are currently no known procedures in Canada that replace tissue.
Canada has recently given $350,000 to a small Quebec organization to fight FGM in at-risk communities, but critics say little has been done to understand the problem’s scope and that Canada is lagging far behind other developed countries in prevention. Experts say there is a lack of support services available for women living with the physical and psychological effects of FGM, regardless of when and where it happened to them.
An email exchange between federal Foreign Affairs officials in Canada and India discussing the report said it will be “helpful” as the government is “in the midst of examining how Canada can engage on this file internationally. One government lawyer, the emails state, is “looking at the domestic implications of this practice.”
Considered progressive in some areas, Dawoodi Bohras have a “high level of education and wealth,” according to the federal emails, and the community has “political and cultural influence that exceeds its size.” The emails — correspondence between government officials over the past two years — were released to the Star through an access to information request. They reference cases the government is aware of in which Canadian girls have undergone or are alleged to have undergone cutting abroad, in addition to the report about the Dawoodi Bohras.
The emails say officials learned from the report how over the past two decades there has been a regression of gender equality in the Dawoodi Bohra community worldwide and there is “significant hidden violence against women.” There are roughly 20,000 to 40,000 Dawoodi Bohras in Canada, according to the federal emails.
Titled “Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra Community,” the Sahiyo study surveyed 385 Dawoodi Bohra women across the globe, including women in Canada, the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom, in an attempt to shed light where “little or no data” exists. It aims to inform policy makers and health professionals in order to “end the practice,” the study said, that has left most of its participants with emotional scars — anger, haunting memories and frustration in their sexual lives.
“I feel robbed and cheated of my sexuality,” one respondent told the study’s researchers.
Shaheeda Tavawalla-Kirtane, Sahiyo’s Canadian co-founder, who works in India to raise awareness about FGM, said she has been tweeting to Canadian ministers because Canada should be aware this “crime” is happening on its soil. The Sahiyo study suggests creating a hotline for at-risk girls and education about FGM for front-line workers, such as teachers.
Some of the study’s participants reported that, typically at the age of 7, they were told they were having the procedure to remove a “worm” and that khatna was part of the religion.
The religious justification for this practice may come from passages in the Da’aim al-Islam, a sacred Islamic text that informs the tenets and traditions of the Dawoodi Bohras. According to The Pillars of Islam, a respected translation of the text, cutting will lead to “greater purity.”
Though most study participants said they do not want the practice to continue, breaking the cycle is a challenge because women are afraid of the backlash they’ll face if they don’t keep up with the social norm, Tavawalla-Kirtane said.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 1.5 to two million Dawoodi Bohras, living mainly on the west coast of Gujarat and Maharashtra states in India, and in Pakistan.
The sect’s India-based spiritual leader, referred to as the Sayedna, enjoys centralized power and access to the properties and assets of his communities around the world, the federal emails state.
As Dawoodi Bohras settled in the GTA, the Sayedna in the early 1990s notably tried — but failed — to incorporate himself in Canada as a “corporation sole,” a company of one person. The designation may have given the Sayedna decision-making power over the resources, land and money, of the Dawoodi Bohra communities in Canada.
A local member of the Bohra community, writing to a Canadian senator about the issue at the time, said the Canadian Dawoodi Bohras had questionable practices, including “actively enforcing” female genital cutting. The writer alleged that “a lady with medical background or qualifications visits Ontario regularly to conduct these procedures on little girls of the community.”
In April 2016, a sermon leaked to the media shows the current Sayedna talking about khatna and, according to the federal documents, reportedly saying: “The act has to happen. If it is a man (male circumcision), then it is right, it can be openly done, but if it is a woman then it must be done discreetly, but then the act has to be done.”
Two months later, as described in the federal emails, the Sayedna released a further statement saying that “male and female circumcision … are religious rites that have been practiced by Dawoodi Bohras throughout history” and religious texts, “written over a thousand years ago, specify the requirements for both males and females as acts of religious purity.” But he noted that Bohras must abide “by the laws of the countries in which they reside.”
Faizan Ali, a member of the Mississauga congregation who said he is overseeing the construction of the community’s new 50,000-square-foot mosque, said local Dawoodi Bohras don’t practise FGM in Canada because it is against the law.
As far as he knows, khatna is not practised in the GTA, he said, but “if someone is going at their own discretion, obviously we cannot control it.”
Ali said he does not agree with pushing the practice on a child. But if an adult woman who is 18 or older consents, he said, it is “fine.”
Unlike in other cultures that celebrate FGM, throwing parties and lavishing money and gifts onto young girls as part of the procedure, the Dawoodi Bohra practice has traditionally been done clandestinely, said Dilshad Tavawalla, a lawyer and anti-FGM activist in Toronto whose daughter is the Sahiyo co-founder.
Tavawalla, who underwent the procedure in Mumbai when she was 7, calls it “a women’s secret” even though today it is being “medicalized” and sometimes done overseas by health professionals in clinics and hospitals.
Women who openly oppose the practice are perceived as attacking the community and culture, Tavawalla said, and could face consequences such as being socially ostracized. Friends and family members cut ties — a fate that feels catastrophic in this small, loyal and closely knit religious sect, sources have told the Star.
The three Dawoodi Bohra women who spoke to the Star underwent FGM overseas before coming to Canada.
They were all about 7 years old when their mothers took them to a “cutter,” an older woman operating in a non-medical environment, such as a kitchen. The women were told to remove their underwear before the cutter swiped a razor at their clitorises.
Two of the women the Star spoke with said they tried to run when they realized what was happening but they were held down, their legs forcefully spread by female elders.
Luby Fidaali was 7 years old when her mother kept her home from school one morning and took her to someone she believed was a healer — an elderly woman who said prayers over her sore tummy from time to time when she was not feeling well.
But when she got to the cutter’s house, Fidaali was told to sit on a small kitchen stool like those traditionally used to knead chapatis, she said, and was instructed to pull her legs apart.
She glanced at the fire burning in a charcoal stove in the corner and didn’t see the cutter take out a razor blade. “Even when I think about it, it hurts,” she said recently, telling the story for only the second time in her life. She was instructed to sit near the stove and “take in the heat to help the healing.”
Fidaali’s mother told her never to speak about her experience to anyone, including her father and siblings. She doesn’t begrudge her mother, she said, because she was simply “following societal norms in order to stay in the community.”
Fidaali’s family was excommunicated several years later for challenging the Sayedna’s orders, and since, she said, she feels emboldened to speak out against an “oppressive clergy.”
“The clergy is very powerful and can intimidate their followers into all kinds of acts for fear of social boycott,” she said.