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Aarefa Johari

Aarefa Johari is a journalist and an activist working on fighting Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Bohra Community in India. Her work has touched the lives of several families - some of whom have come back to Aarefa with the self-promise to the effect that they will not circumcise their girls.

Red Elephant Foundation interviewed Aarefa about her work.

Can you talk about your story, and what inspired you to take to a career in gender advocacy?

I'm not sure I can say that I have a 'career' in gender advocacy, but calling out gender inequalities is definitely my biggest preoccupation most of the time.

I was, fortunately, brought up to question everything, and being a journalist definitely helps keep me grounded to the issues that really matter. But I'd say the rampant sexism and patriarchy all around us is itself a constant "inspiration" for speaking out - I mean, how is patriarchy still a thing? It has been the longest-running human rights violation since perhaps the beginning of time, and it has been decades since large-scale women's movements emerged in different parts of the world, but we're still nowhere near the end of our fight - and that's just for the basics. So I try to do what I can.

What prompted the birth of your activism specifically for FGM? How did the idea come about? 

Bohra girls are circumcised when they are seven, which is too young to give consent or know what is being done to them. I began to understand the implications of my circumcision much later, when I was in my teens, and for a long time, I placed the blame on my mother for letting it happen.

My mother would read articles about FGC and discuss them openly with me, but to a large extent, she used to believe that if the religious leader (the Bohra Syedna) insists on the practice, there must be a good reason for it. I don't hold anything against my mother anymore - I know she was just a part of a larger social system that thrives on religious brainwashing, and it is the system itself that needs to change.

I started talking about FGC among Bohras only around three years ago, after an anonymous Bohra woman started a petition to urge the late Syedna to stop this practice. The petition started getting a lot of media attention, and journalists wanted to speak to Bohra women who would talk about the practice without concealing their identities.

I seemed to be among the very few Bohras who didn't mind speaking out publicly, because this practice is very secretive and controversial, but compulsory, so speaking against the Bohra establishment could mean being boycotted from the community.

I am not religious or involved in community activities, so that was not a concern for me, and fortunately my immediate family has been quite supportive. So far, my activism has not been very intense - I am part of a small group of people fighting this practice (which includes both Bohras and a non-Bohra filmmaker Priya Goswami, who made the award-winning documentary A Pinch of Skin) and we have been trying to bring attention to this issue through the media and having more intimate discussions with Bohras in small groups. 

Could you talk about some of the key challenges you encountered in your journey? 

So far, the Bohra religious leaders or administration have not reacted at all to any of the media discussions on FGC - I suppose by ignoring dissent, they expect it to die out, whereas if they react, it will lead to a more open debate within the community, and they will realise that quite a lot of Bohras are now actually opposed to the practice but haven't been voicing their dissent.

Our attempts to speak to the doctors who perform the cut on young girls in Mumbai have not been very successful, because they have been asked to remain silent on this subject by the religious heads. But we have found out that the community authorities train specific midwives and doctors to perform circumcision on girls and maintain a list of those authorised to do the cutting - a midwife or a doctor not on the list cannot cut a girl.

They are trained to cut just the tip of the clitoral hood (which would qualify as Type 1 FGM by WHO standards). And there are some doctors who genuinely believe that the intention of the practice is to enhance sexual pleasure, and not moderate sexual desire (as most of the community has long accepted as the reason).

The biggest challenge, I would say, is access to the community members themselves. Bohras are a very close-knit, huddled community where all activities are closely monitored by the authorities, so for those who want to belong, it is very difficult to express dissent. And this practice has been so secretive for so long, it is not easy to get people to debate this in larger groups, which is what we aim to do. We also want to make sure we don't antagonise the community by targeting a practice it holds so sacred.

What were some of your strategies in dealing with the challenges? 

For now, we are trying to spread awareness by speaking to community members in small groups, and we have decided to take the path of education, debate and discussions within the community, instead of going in for any kind of litigation that might antagonise people. 

You work closely with women from the Bohri community. What are your primary thoughts about the challenges they face? What are we ignoring in our work towards these women? 

The Bohras pride themselves on being progressive and liberal when it comes to women, and it is true that almost all Bohra women are educated today, many of them working in different careers.

But it is still the only community in Islam that practices FGC, and when you unpack this aspect of their beliefs, all the typical patriarchal attitudes towards women come pouring out - most Bohras believe that women have too much sexual energy that needs to be curbed to keep them clean and chaste.

The patriarchy of the Bohras is no different from that of any other traditional community, and recently, the new Syedna has only made things more blatant by declaring in sermons that girls should not be sent to universities or be allowed to work in call centres, that they should cover up their bodies if they want to remain virtuous and that they should be encouraged to pursue cooking and stitching clothes...

The fact that this is a highly educated community that considers itself elite amongst other Muslims is a grim reminder that education is often not enough to genuinely liberate the mind. The only answer, I think, is more education, but of a different kind that focuses more on critical thinking.

What are your dreams for the initiative, and for women in general? 

I want to see Bohra women - and women in all communities facing all kinds of discrimination and oppression - stand up and debate, question and demand change. I want the community, both men and women, to choose to end the practice of FGC themselves.  

Why does a practice like FGM continue to thrive? What are its key drivers? 

FGC thrives because the powers that be in the community have, through decades of patriarchal social systems, managed to pull of a massive brainwashing exercise that makes women believe and accept that they are the inferior founts of social evil and sexual energy who must be tamed, so to speak, in order to maintain a virtuous society.

Like any other patriarchal tradition, this is engrained deep within our subconscious minds from the time we are young, so that even if we think we are liberal, we continue the practice from mother to daughter because it's just something that must be done. What drives this practice on is an active discouragement of independent and critical questioning of anything to do with religion.

It's really typical - you make religion this sacred island that must not be touched no mater how much the world around it changes, you encourage every kind of modernity but make a virtue out of preserving religion in its traditional form, and then convince people to practice all kinds of nonsense in the name of religion (because FGC is not really an Islamic practice).


Red Elephant Foundation

The Red Elephant Foundation is an initiative that is built on the foundations of story-telling, civilian peacebuilding and activism for gender sensitivity.

The initiative is titled "Red Elephant" to stand out as a vehicle that projects stories that must never be forgotten: stories that show you such courage that you should never forget, and stories that show the world such profound lessons that the world should never forget.

In doing so, the initiative aims at creating awareness and opening up channels of communication towards creating societies of tolerance, peacebuilding and equality.