The cut unkindest

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 11, 2018
Skin talk: A file image of a procession in Coimbatore, to mark the birth anniversary of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohras. Photo: M Periasamy

Skin talk: A file image of a procession in Coimbatore, to mark the birth anniversary of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohras. Photo: M Periasamy   -  The Hindu

Ambarish Satwik

Ambarish Satwik

Ritual circumcisions, whether of the male or the female, convey the same meaning — that the bodies of children are of less significance than the values of a religious polity

“Saat waras ni chokri thai, tho khafz karwu joiye,” was what Syedna Burhanuddin, the earlier Da’i-ul Mutlaq, the North Star-cum-absolute chieftain of the Dawoodi Bohras, had reportedly pronounced on female circumcision ( khafz). The girl is seven years old, she should be circumcised. Khafz, in the Bohra tradition, is a slight nick to the prepuce of the clitoris that uncovers and exposes the glans of the clitoris. The prevailing consensus amongst orthodox believers and apologists, particularly some who have been subjected to the procedure, is that it isn’t a harmful practice. Some of them say that “a small nick at an early age allows sexuality to blossom in adulthood”. Also, the Syedna wouldn’t have said it if he hadn’t been a pro-clit feminist. The unhooding of the clitoris increases sexual gratification and pleasure. Playgirl, the magazine (we’re told in the comments section of an online Bohra forum), once did a couple of issues endorsing female circumcision (well, not at age seven, but refer to Kellison, Catherine The $100 Surgery for a Million-Dollar Sex Life, Playgirl, May, 1975: 52-55). And you’ll be well advised to visit for the sexual largesse provided by an elective surgical hoodectomy, the medical trade name for khafz, peddled to hypo-orgasmic American women as the kindest cut. There’s a gallery of before and after pictures, a whole litany of patient testimonials and a list of American Board-certified cosmetic gynaecologists. The Bohras, it is claimed, have been unfairly harassed and traumatised by a fallacious WHO definition that unreasonably includes khafz as type 1a FGM (female genital mutilation).

Actually, the Syedna insisted on it because there is a small, genitally preoccupied section in the Daim al-Islam, the 10th-century rule book of the Bohras, that prescribes and notifies the age for female circumcision and the amplitude of the nick.

Dr Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency-room physician at the Henry Ford Medical Center in Detroit, Dr Fakhruddin Attar, an internal medicine physician and proprietor of the Burhani Medical Clinic in Livonia, and his wife Farida, all members of the Bohra community, are currently in judicial custody and facing trial in Michigan for wilfully and knowingly conspiring, confederating and agreeing with each other to commit offences against the US by violating Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 16, i.e. knowingly circumcising the clitoris of two girls who had not attained the age of 18 years. In the Land of the Free, no sharp instrument can be taken to the pudendum of a girl child except under circumstances of medical therapy. The slightest incision on any part of the vulva of a minor, regardless of the piety of intent, is a federal crime.

Dawoodi Bohras are a Shia sect that migrated to India from Yemen in the 12th century and are, in a sense, ethnic Gujaratis. Most scholars of Islam believe that khafz is a pre-Islamic cultural practice that has no religious mandate. It’s not mentioned in the Koran. Bohra reformers think that it’s an anomaly that persists in what is in other respects an extremely progressive sect of Islam.

Male circumcision isn’t an anomaly; it is a rite of passage that has a religious mandate, both in Islam and Judaism. But the amputation of the male prepuce was also a pre-Islamic cultural practice that finds no mention in the Koran. The mandate in Islam comes from the Hadis (traditions of the Prophet), particularly the one where he’s believed to have said that five things are fitrah: circumcision, shaving the pubes, trimming the moustache, cutting the nails and plucking the armpit hair (Bukhari 5891; Muslim 527).

In Judaism, it’s in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 17:10-14). “And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed.” And in Leviticus and the Talmud.

What sort of sacerdotal or scriptural sanction does it take for a certain practice to be declared as having a religious mandate? Brit milah, the covenant of male circumcision, as framed in Judaism, is the amputation of a non-diseased, non-regenerating, functional, protective and erogenous part of an infant’s penis as an ongoing requital for a promise made to Abraham for the future occupation of the whole land of Canaan. Does this sound morally permissible? Traditionally, the Jewish circumcision ritual isn’t complete without metzitzah b’peh, where the mohel (circumciser) applies his mouth on the freshly circumcised penis to suck blood from it (Mishnah Shabbat 19:2). Many orthodox Haredi Jews persist with this practice. Twenty-four cases of herpes (in infants) allegedly contracted through metzitzah b’peh have been reported just in New York since 2000. Two of them died and two suffered brain damage. In 2012, the NYC Board of Health responded by ordering a consent form that parents were required to sign to allow the mohel to perform metzitzah. The requirement for the consent form was repealed in 2015 under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox Jews who called it an infringement on their religious freedom.

Why should the Mishnah or the Talmud carry more canonical force than the scriptures of the Bohras? Why should the piety of the Bohras be a criminal abomination and not the piety of the Haredim? Two out of the four orthodox Sunni Islamic schools regularly cite at least five Hadis that deal specifically with female circumcision. Some scholars of Islam count the one on fitrah as one of them (apparently the rules of the Hadis dictate that if the pronoun used doesn’t indicate a particular gender then it applies to both sexes). An unequivocal Hadis is the one which recounts the Prophet telling Umm Al Ansariyyah, a lady who circumcised girls in Medina: “When you circumcise, cut plainly and not severely, for it is better for the woman and more desirable for the husband.” (Sunan Abu Dawud 41:5251). If a religious mandate could be unambiguously certified, would khafz become morally permissible?

When male and female ritual circumcisions are carried out it means the same thing — that the values of a religious polity have been placed above values of self-determination and autonomy. That the bodily integrity of children means nothing. That we shall mutilate and cripple genitals because God or His messenger or someone down a line of succession told us to.

Perhaps we submit too meekly, without sufficiently parsing Euthypro’s dilemma. First posed by Plato, then recast by the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz: “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just.”

Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer;

Published on May 05, 2017

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