Told by her mother that she is invited to a birthday, the excited little girl puts on her favourite dress and carefully combs her hair. But there are no balloons and no cake in the dingy room she is taken to. She is asked to undress, her cries turning to painful howls as a practitioner takes a knife to her most private parts.
The documentary A Pinch of Skin, an attempt to lift silence on this stifled memory, brings together voices of women who suffered the practice. Like millions of other little girls, this one too is being subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) with a view to suppressing her sexual urges later on in life. The painful process leaves an indelible mark on mind and body and the reasons given are many.
Some say feminine hygiene demands it, while others argue it's tradition, while there are those who don't question it at all. The fact is that genital mutilation is a reality in India — the Dawoodi Bohra community is the only sect practicing FGM in the country — and in other parts of the world. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East.
"When a woman's sexuality is moderated, many sins are eliminated from society," says a woman in the film by National Institute of Design (NID) graduate Priya Goswami that got special mention at the National Awards.
The clitoris is called haraam ki boti (immoral lump of flesh) by some women, and either the hood is removed or the organ taken out in its entirety. Different types of FGM exist, Goswami points out, that this is done because some of them feel "removing the clitoris ensures that the girl does not masturbate or have an inclination to have an affair."
"I knew nothing until I got to the place where it was to happen. I was told nothing. My mother then told me that they would scrape off a bit of skin. She said nothing would happen. I was very scared," says Aarefa Johari, a writer at Scroll.in. A member of the Dawoodi Bohra community, Aarefa has chosen not to follow religious practices. "I've heard of a few cases where a small lunch party is organised for the girl where her friends are invited after the event," she says.
"It happened without any understanding...in the sense that I was not coached for it, I was not told this is going to happen. I was not made to understand the implications of what is going to happen. It was a horrific experience," says another voice in A Pinch of Skin.
The implications of FGM are many. Pain, shock, infection, bleeding, urine retention and injury are some of the immediate problems that may crop up in the short-term. Damage to reproductive system, sexual dysfunction, cysts, difficulty in menstruation, complications in child birth and pregnancy and psychological damage are possible long-term impacts, states the fact sheet on FGM published by forward.org, a UK based organisation working to end the practice.
"Some women internalise the incident so much that they feel comfortable with it. They are okay with the arrangement. Some women told me that they have absolutely healthy sexual appetites though they have been circumcised. However, they feel that their circumcision enables them to feel attracted only to their husbands and to no other man," says Priya. Aarefa confesses, "The thought that I will never have a normal sex life lingers at the back of my mind."
The dichotomy in attitudes is explored at length in A Pinch of Skin. A woman who has circumcised little girls declares that they smile and greet her when they see her. But the next scene shows a girl who has undergone the procedure vehemently state that she would never want to see the woman's face again.
FGM might be an age-old practice that is part of local traditions in several African countries and is practised in the western world as well, but it's largely a hush-hush subject, particularly in India. Men seem to be unaware that their own daughters and sisters are undergoing the cut.
"People fear ostracism in the community and thus FGM is not discussed at all. Even girls don't discuss it among themselves," says Aarefa.
"Unlike other countries where the subject of female genital circumcision is highly debated, India and Indian laws have failed to recognise the operation of this practice within the national boundaries," says Sanya Seth in her dissertation Female Genital Circumcision: A Study of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims in India, which she wrote while a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
"Feminists, human rights activists and the health sector should explore the implications of this discriminatory practice and approach the administrators of justice for legal protection of the class of women vulnerable to circumcision," she adds.
The situation in UK is similar. "We don't have statistics about children affected by FGM, that's why we haven't had prosecutions — although there is to be one very soon. FGM is hidden. Nobody talks about it.
Now that we have the ICD (International Code for Disease) for FGM, we should start getting accurate statistics very soon," FGM activist Fahma Mohamed (pictured below) told dna.
"FGM is child abuse," adds the Somali girl who convinced Michael Gove to write to schools in England to educate children about FGM.
"This isn't just about FGM, it is about all forms of gender-based violence and it's about women's rights. These conversations don't happen at home so they have to happen in schools," she says.
"FGM is a difficult, taboo issue and the reason abuse continues is that people are silent. Raising awareness and campaigning for girls to have a safe space to talk about these issues is the way to break that silence. Children and teenagers must feel able to talk about any issues that affect or disturb them," she adds.
Fahma's endeavour marks a global stir and the ripples can be felt in India as well. Aarefa says that she knows of many families who have agreed to forgo the procedure but don't want to make it public. "People are questioning the practice now… they need to understand and ensure that change comes from within the community."
An elderly woman in A Pinch of Skin says caustically: "We have never had any discussions openly. What is it? What is the logic? Science, physiology, behind it? Chal raha hai to chal raha hai..."
The question is kab tak?
What is Female Genital Mutilation?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures which involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. The age at which girls undergo FGM varies enormously according to the ethnic group practising it. The procedure may be carried out when the girl is newborn, during childhood, adolescence, at marriage or during the first labour. In some FGM practising cultures, women are re-infibulated (re-stitched) following childbirth as a matter of routine. The WHO estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM and that each year, a further 2 million girls are at risk. Most of these women and girls live in 28 African countries, a few in the Middle East and Asia, and among immigrant communities in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and Canada. 24,000 girls in the UK are currently at risk of FGM (change.org and UK Home Office statistics.) Due to the sensitivity of the subject and the non-prioritisation of the issue by the international community, systematic surveys have not been undertaken in all FGM practising communities. It is important to acknowledge the dearth of evidence on the prevalence and health complications and that this lack of information conceals the true extent of FGM.
Information provided in boxes extracted from Female Genital Mutilation Fact Sheet, Forward.org.uk, 2005
Types of FGM:
Type I: Involves the removal of the prepuce with or without excision of all or part of the clitoris.
Type II: Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora (FGM types I and II constitute 80% of female genital mutilation performed world-wide).
Type III: Excision of part or all of the external genitalia (the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora) with stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation). This is the most extreme form of FGM, involving removal of almost two thirds of the female genitalia. Type III constitutes 15% of mutilations performed world-wide.
Type IV: Unclassified: includes pricking, piercing, incising of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterisation by burning of clitoris and surrounding tissue; scraping of the tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice or cutting into the vagina, introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cease bleeding or for the purposes of tightening or narrowing it, and any other procedure which falls under the definition of FGM given above.