Curbing women’s sexual desire through genital mutilation: Reality of ‘khatna’ in India

Women who undergo female genital mutilation explain that it leaves them with a physical and mental scar for life.
Curbing women’s sexual desire through genital mutilation: Reality of ‘khatna’ in India
Curbing women’s sexual desire through genital mutilation: Reality of ‘khatna’ in India

For seven-year-old Masooma Ranalvi, going out with elders for a casual walk was fun. It meant an opportunity to pick a candy from a shop nearby. Or she could stop at a children’s park and play. It was on one such usual day when her grandmother promised her that she would buy her one of her favourite goodies and they left home.

Bothering little about where she was headed, Masooma held her grandmother’s hand and walked past a street. A street that she would pass by on usual days.

She was under the assumption that she was in safe hands. But at that point, Masooma was taken into a house where a woman who was in the autumn of her life greeted her. The child was guided into a private room. What followed left Masooma scarred. She was subject to genital mutilation.

“From what I recollect, the old woman just slashed my vulva with a blade. I was told that it would not be painful. But I still cannot get over that experience. It has left me with so much pain, physically and mentally,” the now 50-year-old Masooma Ranalvi recollects.

It was at the age of 13 that Masum had the words for what had happened to her. Talking to her peers, she realised she had been a victim of a practice traditionally called ‘khatna.’

What is khatna?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that some communities across the world follow. In India, it’s mainly the Bohras – a sub-sect of Shias – who practice FGM, or khatna. The clitoris and/or labia of little girls is cut or mutilated with the belief that it would curb their sexual desires, and stop premarital sex.

There are four ways in which khatna is practiced in India. In some cases, the clitoris is either partially or totally removed. (The clitoris is the sexual organ of women – this is where sexual pleasure is concentrated for women, as opposed to the vagina, which is a reproductive organ.) In other cases, the labia (flaps of skin around the vagina) are cut, along with the clitoris. Sometimes, the clitoris is removed and the labia are stitched together, leaving a very small opening around the vagina for menstrual blood to flow out.

Graphic courtesy Dr Meghana Reddy 

“Most girls undergo this at a tender age of seven. It is usually done at home with no medical supervision. More than anything else, it is sheer betrayal of trust. When it is being performed, girls experience pain. The anger comes much later when they realise what they have undergone,” Masooma explains.

Nazima’s* story is similar to Masooma’s. She was taken out on the pretext of getting chocolates.

“I was taken to a dingy room. It was barely lit. A lady stood at one end of the room waiting for us. She just instructed me to lie down and spread my legs. I was told, it will be done in a matter of minutes and would not hurt if I did not move. I was too young to understand what was happening. I just followed what my elders told me. No one asked for my consent,” she says.

Her clothes were taken off next, and she was left with excruciating pain for which a ‘red colour gel’ was applied as a soothing agent.

The risks associated

Dr Meghana Reddy J, gynaecologist at Columbia Asia Hospitals Whitefield, Bengaluru, explains the complications associated with the practice – and says she has seen many instances of FGM in Delhi, and that the practice is not very prevalent in Bengaluru.

“During one of my appointments, I saw a 12-year-old patient. The family brought her to us with a septic shock. She had undergone khatna and contacted sepsis. This led to complications. With great effort, we could revive her,” says Dr Meghana.

The gynaecologist explains that not only are the genitals of such women scarred, but there are also associated complications. “In many cases, women experience excessive bleeding while the procedure is conducted. It is extremely tough to conduct normal deliveries for such women. They also tend to have urinary infections frequently. Many a time, the procedure is conducted so badly that they will need to undergo medical procedures later in life,” she adds.

The women who perform khatna

Masooma explains that it is the women who have been given ‘Razaah’ (a term used for permission) that perform the procedure. These women have no medical qualification and are typically women who have learned to perform the same from their ancestors.

WeSpeakOut, a Delhi based group of victims of FGM which Masooma started, spoke to one such woman – 50-year-old Zubeida – for a report they compiled. Zubeida said she had an experience of over 20 years, and had performed 6000 khatnas in that time.

“In our community it is said that we earn a lot of sawaab (spiritual rewards) by doing khatna for girls. I told my daughter (to learn to perform khatna) but she lives abroad and so it is not possible for her to learn and take over the practice. So, after me there is nobody to continue the practice in my family,” she said.

“Totally I must have done roughly 6000 khatnas in the 20 years that I have been practicing, about 300 per year. I am aware that this practice has been banned in Australia and in America too,” Zubeida confessed in the survey.

Petition against FGM

Masooma, along with several other women from the Bohra community, has now started a petition on, an online platform, seeking to end FGM in India.

“At the age of seven, I was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Mumbai, in a most unhygienic and clandestine manner. The shock and trauma of that day are still with me. Like me, there are thousands of my Dawoodi Bohra sisters who have been subjected to genital cutting as children and even today thousands of Bohra girls are being subjected to this practice, since it has been ordained by the clergy of our community,” she says in the petition.

The post petitioning a number of Union Ministers including Law Minister DV Sadananda Gowda, has gathered support from over one lakh people. You can read and sign the petition here.

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