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Sri Lanka FGM/FGC Victims speak out

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Save the Girl Child, a group of concerned citizens representing the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka and Mumbai-based ‘Sahiyo,’ a transnational organization working to end Female Genital Cutting (FGC) among the Dawoodi Bohras in Asian communities, provided Ceylon Today with testimonials based on interviews conducted with females who have themselves undergone and experienced or witnessed the performing of and practice of the khatna (circumcision) ritual, which the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies as a certain type of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

On the subject, a Muslim woman who wished to remain anonymous wrote “FGM is a serious problem in Sri Lanka. Almost all Sri Lankan Muslim women are circumcised. Both Moors and Malays (ethnic Muslim communities in Sri Lanka) are of the Shafi school of Islam which regards female circumcision ‘sunnat’, is compulsory. They account for 98 per cent of the local Muslim population.

The Bohras who follow an Indian leader called Syedna also practise it very strictly, as per the latter’s instructions. Local Bohras are loyal followers of Syedna. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) which is the Supreme Council of Muslims of Sri Lanka has declared female circumcision obligatory in a fatwa in Tamil (Pengalukku Khatna Seydal) and is very strict about it. Local Muslim girls are circumcised on the 40th day after birth or a little later. Bohra girls are cut between 7-10 years of age. The amount of genital cutting differs from child to child. The operator is a woman called Ostha-maami. Usually, they nick the clitoris for a little blood to come and leave it at that. Educated families get it done by lady doctors who cut off part of the foreskin of the clitoris. But more severe mutilation also takes place and has been reported to us.”

Excerpts from the testimonials of local Muslim females:

Testimony 1:

“In the room I was alone with the doctor, my grandmother, and the doctor’s wife. I was then put on the trolley bed and even up to this point I was not worried. But then they removed my pants and they spread my legs with each of the women holding down each leg really tight and then I knew something really bad was going to happen. I saw some kind of instrument, a flash of something silver in the doctor’s hand. I think at that point I passed out because I have no recollection of what happened after that. I don’t remember going home. The first thing I remember after that was a cloying and horrid smell of something, which I cannot forget to this day, of dried blood and some yellow colour ointment. And then the excruciating pain every time I wanted to pee. The smell, the clotting, and the pain were there for a week, and it seemed like there was nothing that could be done about it. As a child I guess one does not ask why. And how I felt defiled at what they had done to me and whether I would ever be alright again.” – Bohra woman aged about 40.

Testimony 2:

“I refuse to call it circumcision because what was done to me was no mere ‘prick’, ‘nick’ or ‘cut’. I did not realize the extent of the damage till I got married. My wedding night turned out to be an extremely painful experience, and the pain has not gone away. I was initially in denial because I could not remember the procedure, done when I turned seven by a qualified doctor at his clinic, as being traumatic in any way. But later I thought to connect the two and got myself examined by a gynaecologist. I was then told that part of my genitalia had been extracted and the exposed nerves had become super sensitive and thus painful to the touch.” – A local woman

Testimony 3:

“I remember bits but not the whole experience. I was put on a table and my mother was hovering over me and looking into my eyes. Looking back I guess she did this to comfort me. The doctor looked at my vagina. Even at that time the thought never occurred to me that I had been stripped down to this extent in front of a doctor or anyone other than my mother. I remember thinking that it was odd, but my mother was there, so I thought it must be alright. I can’t remember if it hurt at all. Even through this, I don’t remember my mother forcing me or anything. She was just looking into my eyes. I don’t remember anything after that. Even if it was just a nick, this still shouldn’t have even happened. I visited the gynaecologist. I knew that FGM had been done to me, but I wanted to know to what extent. I had noticed that my clitoris was a bit off – I thought maybe it was like that or maybe it did not develop when I was young, or something. The gynaecologist was shocked but calm. He examined me and told me that a bit of the clitoris and part of the labia had been taken off. In the end he said to reassure me ‘Don’t worry about it.” – A local woman

Testimony 4:

“Around 1970s, I was seven years old. I hardly have any memories of my life during this period and most of them are vague, but I do remember almost every waking minute of one particular day. I woke up, I guess like any other ordinary day, had breakfast, and then was told by my mother to get in the car and that she was taking me somewhere. Whilst in the car, my mother who was driving, told me I should not tell anyone nor talk about where I was being taken that day. I was a fairly obedient and non-confrontational child, so obviously didn’t ask too many questions. We arrived at a house, not too far from our own place, and I was taken in by my mum. My favourite aunt was there too. I was happy to see her. Next thing I remember, I was in a room, laying on a table. I remember my aunt by my side, the doctor and his wife were in the room as well (I came to know that this was the doctor and his wife, later on in my life, I didn’t know this at the time). I don’t have a memory of my mother in the room, maybe it is something I’ve blocked out, or maybe she was upset at what was going to happen and didn’t stay in the room. I remember two or more people holding down my legs. I’m not sure if I was screaming or protesting, I don’t have a memory about this, but I do remember pain, extreme pain and unbearable pain. Throughout this ordeal, my favourite aunt was by my side, obviously comforting me. My next memory of the day was arriving home, I remember there being discomfort between my legs. I was kept in my parents’ room the entire day. They were exceptionally caring and sweet to me that entire day, and my naughty mischievous brother was not allowed anywhere near me.”

“I do not have any further memories of the immediate days that followed, which obviously would have been some sort of recovery period. During my mid-teens is when I realized exactly what had been done to me that day as a seven-year-old child – circumcision, the cutting off of the clitoris, also known as FGM. As a young teenager I did not have access to much information about what a terrible act this was, but I knew enough with the trauma I went through, to know that this should never have been done to me. At this point I would like to state that although the responsibility for this act, which we call khatna in our community, lies solely with my parents’, I do know that if they had had access to the right information, that FGM was a heinous act of violation upon the female body, they would not have gone ahead with it. (After all, it was officially banned by the United Nations (UN) only some time during the 1990s, so there must have been so little awareness about this in the mid 70s). I know this, because when my daughter turned seven years old, this topic arose, and we were expected to do this for her as well. Both my husband and I were vehemently against this and were not willing to budge on our decision. We explained our case to my parents and made them aware that the UN had banned it; they realized then that they were not informed of these views and easily accepted our decision. I belong to the Bohra community which has its roots in Mumbai, India, and I am someone who has been born and bred in Sri Lanka. The practice of FGM or khatna has been in our community for many generations. The apologists in our community often argue that we in the Bohra community administer this in a hygienic sterile environment, performed by formally qualified Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) doctors in our community, thus claiming that unlike the ways it is done in Africa, where many of the cases are prone to severe infections and sometimes fatalities, we don’t have such cases. I firmly believe that FGM, regardless of how, when and where it is performed should not be done to children who have no say in it. No one has the right to violate or mutilate the body of young girls and modify them permanently. Many clerics in our community claim that this is done to cull the sexual pleasure in a woman, allowing her to be more devoted and committed to her husband’s desires. From my own experience, there is no truth to that idea. Thus the whole purpose of this practice is not achieved.” -Colombo-based Bohra woman in her 50s

Testimony 6:

“Muslim girls must be circumcised or they will grow up to be loose. I have two daughters and I got them circumcised when they were babies. The local Ostha woman came and did it. She took a large needle and pricked the clitoris till blood came. She then wiped it and put some grey powder. I think it was ash. She told me that the blood had to come out or if not the girl’s clitoris will be big, and she will always touch there and grow up to be a loose woman. I don’t regret it. All our girls must be circumcised. See Western ladies; see Princess Diana, how many men she had affairs with. Our women are much more decent. That is because we take the blood out and make it small. Then they can control themselves.” – A 40-year-old woman

Testimony 7:

“I did not know of this practice till my daughter was born. My mother said that she must undergo sunnat. I told her only boys undergo sunnat. She said no, girls also. Then she brought home the lady doctor, who cut my daughter. My baby cried a lot. The doctor put some kind of white powder on the wound and said it will heal. Later I noticed that the baby’s clitoris was pink and swollen. I got angry and asked the doctor what she had done. She said she removed the skin over it like she did for the small boys. She said there was nothing to worry about. It healed a little later. She is alright now, but I am still angry because my daughter was hurt. I don’t know why they do it. My mother said it must be done for Muslim people.” – A 33-year-old woman.

Testimony 8:

“I was married to an aalim (religious scholar). A few days after my wedding night, he said he wanted to see my private parts before having sex. Then he got angry and said I was not circumcised. He even shouted at my mother. My mother kept saying that she had got me circumcised as a baby, but he did not listen. He brought home an old Ostha-Maami in a taxi and ordered her to cut me. My husband held one leg and forced my mother to hold the other leg while the Ostha-Maami cut me. My mother was crying and told me not to scream as the neighbours could hear. It was very painful. I wish my mother had got it done properly when I was a baby.” – A 29-year-old woman.

By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody/ Courtesy of Ceylon Today.

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