Out in the open
What is it like to have undergone female genital mutilation, asks NID student’s film
When a 24-year-old student of film and video communication at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad received a special mention at the 60th National Film Awards, it was for showing nerve.
Although devoid of sting operations and hidden cameras, Priya Goswami’s 27-minute documentary goes where no one has. In A Pinch of Skin, the young filmmaker gets a string of women to openly share the horror of female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice so secretive, often brothers aren’t aware their sisters have undergone it. The one-million strong community of Dawoodi Bohras, a sect of Ismaili Shias concentrated in trade-focused centres of Maharashtra and Gujarat, carry out the practice citing ‘faith’ as reason, although Islamic scholars say Islam doesn’t sanction it.
The World Health Organisation defines FGM as all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organ for nonmedical reasons. The procedure, according to the WHO website, holds no health benefits for women, and consequences can range from severe bleeding and infection to complications in childbirth. About 140 million girls and women worldwide livewith the consequences of FGM.
Unlike male circumcision, khatna as FGM is called locally, is carried out in secrecy by senior women of the community using blades without medical supervision on seven-year-olds, who the film says are “old enough to remember”. The logic is this: as adults, the girls will practice the ceremony on their children, and since they are pre-adolescent at seven, they are unlikely to suffer severe physiological damage.
That Goswami managed to get the women to talk — albeit without revealing their identity — despite being an outsider, is remarkable. It’s also reflected in the approach she chooses; the community becomes irrelevant. It’s the practice and belief she chooses to focus on, as is evident from her statement at the start of the film: For this film, I have no religion nor am I born into any community. All I know is that I am just a woman and that is my only identity.’
Goswami’s interviewees tell her the aim of khatna is simple —to curb “the urge” in women. Satisfied with their husbands, the women are unlikely to seek pleasure outside the marriage.
A young interviewee admits to Goswami that unlike her friends, she isn’t terribly attracted to men. Another articulate woman, angry that a part of her body was removed without explanation or permission, remains silent when asked if circumcision is aimed at denying women orgasm. “Ask the priests,’’ she finally says.
Intercourse is painful, a third admits. “I guess it is so for all women.”
And so, Goswami succeeds in starting a conversation on the practice within the community. She says it amazed her that women themselves justify the practice and have made peace with it. The term used for the clitoris by the women — “haraami boti’’ — reveals a deep-seated revulsion towards their own anatomy and sexuality. This is hardly community-specific, Goswami observes. “Don’t our grandmothers say, women are the root of all trouble?” she asks. “Don’t we banish young widows to Brindavan?”
Although the filmmaker interviewed men, she chose to leave them out of the film. “I wished to depict the practice as one done on women by women, although instituted by patriarchy.’’
Goswami’s film includes strong voices of dissent, although they are outnumbered. A mother who decided to skip the tradition when it came to her own daughters admits she kept her act of defiance a secret. If the film encourages more women to speak out, Goswami says her efforts will be worth it.
The film will be screened at the Al Jazeera International Documentary Festival in April.
- Female genital mutilation: the UK must act now | Carlene Firmin (guardian.co.uk)
- Female Genital Mutilation (wgst303.wordpress.com)
- Female Genital Mutilation on Rise in U.S. (counterjihadreport.com)
- Let’s Get Educated About Female Genital Mutilation (thoughtcatalog.com)
- Female Genital Mutilation Replaced With Alternative Rite in Kenya (theepochtimes.com)
- The Shocking Truth Behind Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (themuslimissue.wordpress.com)