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BLOG: Let’s Talk about Female Genital Cutting - The Anti-Khatna movement in India

last modified Aug 24, 2017 04:09 PM
To mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, recognized by the United Nations on 6 February, the CGHR Student Group organised a discussion, led by MPhil in Gender Studies student Reetika Subramanian, about contested realities in the anti-Khatna movement in India.

FGM puts at risk 3 million girls every year around the globe. The UN and other international organisations and governments consider FGM a violation of human rights, including the right to “liberty and security of the person”, the right to not be subjected to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment”, and the right to a “standard of living for health and well-being of himself”, all stipulated to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, FGM is a violation of other international human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Often, FGM is also framed as an obstacle to development, affecting girls' education and health. Khatna, which is a ritual of female genital cutting, is not recognised by the UN as FGM.

Khatna is practised by the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims - a highly educated and influential Indian community with a population of approximately 1 million. Because Khatna is sidelined from the anti-FGM norm, creating and implementing top-down policies to ban this practice is more difficult. In addition, the Indian government is reluctant to take a stance because of Hindu-Muslim politics and religious freedom issues. This is the complicated space that the anti-Khatna movement rests in.

In December 2011, a 45-year-old woman from the Dawoodi Bohra community launched an anonymous online petition seeking signatures to call for a ban on Khatna. Even though the petition garnered merely 400 signatures, it was the first time that someone had initiated a conversation on this rite of passage that has - over the past few centuries - been clandestinely performed on the community's six-year-old girls. The petition snowballed into a full-blown movement with several young Bohri women coming forward to collectively challenge, speak out and create awareness about the ritual using social media activism, news media reports and global collaborations. A petition launched against the practice in 2016 received more than 50,000 signatures. These amplified debates have in turn led to a rift in the community between those calling the practice a violation and others, who are defending it as an act of purity and reaffirmation of a common Bohra identity. 

What makes the anti-Khatna campaign so interesting is the fact that it tries to open up discussions about female circumcision at the global level first. Trying to link Khatna to the global anti-FGM norm, the activists use English instead of their local languages, Hindi and Gujarati. This might benefit their goals of attracting international attention and making the global community recognise Khatna as a form of FGM, but at the same time it makes it difficult for activists on the ground to engender solidarity with their cause within the community. Their online messages are mainly targeting mothers, who are seen as the main agents that perpetuate this custom and system of 'honour'. As one Khatna supporter interviewed by Reetika put it, ‘Our genitals are mutilated not our femininity’. Thus, paying attention to anti-Khatna narratives and how the issue is framed is important in tackling female genital cutting in India and around the globe.

Georgiana Epure, the author of this blog post, is an MPhil candidate in International Relations and Politics. Sign up for future CGHR talks.