Masooma Ranalvi still recalls the day, at age 7, when she was taken to a dirty apartment in Bhindi Bazaar in Mumbai with the promise of ice cream. The horror of that day remained with her as a shameful secret until, in college, she was able to put a name to her experience: Female Genital Mutilation(FGM).
Masooma later founded an organization with other survivors called ‘We Speak Out’ to end FGM in India.
Like every activist, her journey has also been extremely brave, and unique in many ways.
In India, the practice of FGM is prevalent in the Bohra community, but quite surprisingly, there is absolutely no official recognition or data about the prevalence of FGM in India!
Masooma’s work, thus, doesn’t end in spreading awareness and campaigning against this practice. She and her team have been fighting a relentless battle in getting official recognition of the fact that FGM happens in India, as well as getting policies implemented to ban FGM in India.
Masooma, could you please tell us about your work in ending FGM in India?
The objective of the organization that I built, ‘We Speak Out’ is ending Female genital Mutilation (FGM) in India. This is an organization of survivors – those who have been subjected to FGM are part of this movement to end this brutal practice in our community.
In India, FGM exists within the Bohra community. The Bohras are spread far and wide – all over India and abroad, but the largest concentration is in Western India. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t even know about the existence of FGM in India.
Even within the Bohra community, people lack awareness about FGM – they just blindly and unquestioningly follow the custom without really understanding why it is done, what are the implications, and how it impacts the life of the survivors as they grow up to be adult women.
My primary work is creating awareness and sensitizing people within the community. We promote awareness by talking to women and men, sharing stories and experiences, telling them about how this practice harms the girls, and why it should be banned immediately.
The second part of my work is to engage in legal and policy level advocacy. Engaging with government bodies like the National Commission of Women, National Human Rights Commission and WCD ministry, by bringing this issue out in front of them, and creating opportunities for discussion. FGM is not only human rights violation but also a violation of a constitutional right. We want people to look at it at that level. And it’s very critical that the government takes the responsibility of ending this practice.
The third part of my work is making our voices heard at the global and at the international level. FGM is not an issue in India alone, it is a practice prevalent in all over the world. The United Nations has declared the elimination of FGM as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2030). Target 3 of UN SDG 5 (Gender Equality and Women Empowerment) is Ending of FGM. Thus clearly the world is involved in this whole movement, and we want to put our issue forward because we are part of that global community as well.
What motivated you to start this work?
One of the biggest motivations for me to start this journey was, I was a survivor myself. The trauma never really left me, it’s something extremely deep-seated, personal, and life-changing. It’s not like any other cut or injury that heals after some time and you move one.
Another important factor was that we talk about the equality of women and the rights of women. And yet when it comes to our children, we blindly follow harmful and brutal practices and rituals, in the name of tradition, culture, and religion. I felt that, by keeping silent, we were allowing this practice to perpetuate and to continue. I felt it was the time we started questioning our tradition. I decided to speak out, raise my voice and do whatever I could to end this. That was another reason why I started this work.
Please tell us more about your journey..
My journey started when I began to speak out about my personal story of being an FGM survivor. In the process I had connected with many other women, whose stories were the same as mine. They were women from all over the world, all of us came from a space where we never spoke about our stories of having undergone FGMs.That’s when we decided to create a platform where we could start talking about our issues.
In the beginning, we connected on WhatsApp. Then we realized we could join hands with each other in creating a bigger impact. One of the first things we did was starting a petition in 2015 on Change.org. Today we’ve crossed over 2 lakh signatures on that petition. That was also a moment for us to bond with each other as FGM survivors! We collectively built the campaign and solidarity with each other. Since then, we’ve done several campaigns, we’ve done a research study, we’ve organized programs to spread awareness within the community and workshops with women and girls. We have also gone to international forums where we have presented our cases.
In 2016, we created the organization “We Speak Out” to promote awareness about FGM in India, started putting forward news articles, stories of survivors, etc.
This is primarily how I built up this movement that happened along the way
Can you share some of the major challenges and roadblocks which you’ve faced so far?One of the major roadblocks was in the form of social boycott and instilling fear to women who wanted to speak out against their community. When a woman speaks out about something which is unjust, which is harmful, she faces a lot of pressure from her family, relatives, and from the religious leaders.
Women are not allowed to speak up, to openly protest against things which may be unjust and harmful. That’s the way it is in all communities, not just in my community.
That’s a major roadblock we have in terms of garnering the support of women. A lot of the women from our group don’t openly come out. They support us and work with us without disclosing their identities because of fear of facing opposition at home.
We receive a lot of opposition from a section of the women themselves. These women campaign against us, call us all kinds of names. We get trolled on the internet. They say that we are against religion, but, we talk about religion at all. We talk against one harmful tradition.
The second biggest challenge is that there is no official data on FGM in India. We have done a study where we have shown that 75 percent of the girls in the Bohra community are still subjected to this practice.The type of FGM performed by the Bohra Community is called khatna, which is equivalent to Type 1 or Type 4 FGM as classified by the World Health Organization. It is performed secretly, at home. We also have our own anecdotal data, our own stories of how it affected us, and what happened to us. Unfortunately, Indian government refuses to accept the findings of our study, or the fact that FGM happens in India. Unless there is a survey or research by the government, we will never have any official data. And since India doesn’t have any official data on FGM, we do not have a strong standing on international forums, which proves to be a major problem. We need the support of the government to declare FGM a harmful and criminal practice, and to ban FGM in India. Today, most of the countries and international humanitarian agencies have declared FGM as a violation of human rights. If this is against human rights, against constitutional rights, there should be mechanisms to stop it and mechanisms to punish those who propagate and perpetuate this. Without that, we will never be able to end this practice, These are all the challenges which we are working through to eliminate and ban FGM in Indi
What do you consider as your biggest achievements so far?
My biggest achievement was getting the support of a lot of women in my community who pledged that they would not cut their girls. That was a huge achievement. The fact that we have created that awareness, we have built the confidence in these women to actually think that they are going to stop this practice is a very, very, very big one for us. We would like more and more women to do this.
Another big milestone for our movement, I think, has been that we have brought the issue out from secrecy to the public domain. Today, in India, as well as globally, there is a recognition of the fact that the Bohra Community in India practices FGM. It was possible only because of our movement. This is a true achievement that we have exposed something which was carrying on in India for centuries but nobody had the courage to speak out openly and publicly about it.
Also, the fact that today we are in the Supreme Court and the matter has been under consideration in the Supreme Court of India, in a way is large and was possible because of our movement.
What would you advise to our readers who want to speak out against injustice but are afraid to come forward?
The biggest thing our movement has taught women and girls was – you can actually question things and you can bring change in your own life, in your own surroundings and in your own communities. I think takeaways of our movement were partly raising awareness and partly breaking the barriers as a lot of people never speak about issues that bother them, and are taught not to question or challenge the traditions.
What if anybody wants to get involved in your movement or want to support your cause?
Any kind of support and solidarity are most welcome from anybody who wants to be part of our movement or wants to help us out. You can reach out to us through our website, wespeakout.org. We are always in need of funds as this effort is completely non-profit, most of the time we spend from our own pockets. If you can contribute in-kind as a writer, graphic artist, filmmaker, or you can add to our effort of reaching out to more people you are most welcome to join our movement.
This interview was conducted and recorded by Swagata Sen; transcribed, edited and published by our Editorial Team.