While Centre seeks 'justice' through triple talaq bill, activists question inaction over female genital mutilation

The BJP has been strident in its opposition to triple talaq, including attempting to push through legislation criminalising the practice, but the saffron party has chosen to tread with caution on female genital mutilation (FGM), which is practised in the Bohra community, saying the case should be referred to a Constitution bench

Neerad Pandharipande January 02, 2019 15:59:06 IST
While Centre seeks 'justice' through triple talaq bill, activists question inaction over female genital mutilation

Last week, the Lok Sabha passed the contentious Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2018, with law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad saying that the proposed legislation is not about politics, but about empowerment and justice for women. The Centre's attempt to highlight abusive practices against Muslim women has brought the spotlight on another less debated practice — female genital mutilation/cutting or khatna — which affects a section of the community.

The BJP has been strident in its opposition to triple talaq — the party has attempted to push through legislation criminalising the practice, issued strongly-worded statements in the mainstream media and social media, and its leaders have even raised the issue in election rallies. In comparison, the party has chosen to tread with caution on female genital cutting, which is practised in the Bohra community.

While Centre seeks justice through triple talaq bill activists question inaction over female genital mutilation

Representational image. Reuters

The World Health Organisation describes female genital cutting (or female genital mutilation) as being a part of procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Half of the 28 countries where the practice is said to be “endemic” have passed laws banning it.

Speaking to Firstpost, Aarefa Johari, an activist working to end female genital mutilation, said, “A public interest litigation demanding a ban on this practice is presently being heard by the Supreme Court. In this case, the Central government has taken a stand that the case should be referred to a Constitution bench. Thus, the Centre has taken the same stand as the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom (a litigant in the case seeking that the practice should be allowed). This means that the case will now be heard from the point of view of religious freedom. That is a strange position for the government to take, and it has not taken a similar standpoint when it comes to triple talaq.”

The statement of the Centre in court had come ten days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a gathering from the community and met its religious head Sydna Mufaddal Saifuddin. In an earlier hearing of the case in July, Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the Centre, had said that the practice causes “irreparable harm” to girl children and needs to be banned.

The petition which is currently pending in the apex court has been filed by a Delhi-based advocate, Sunita Tiwari.

During the proceedings of the case, the Centre has stated that the practice may be said to be illegal under some sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. However, Johari believes that these legal provisions are inadequate in themselves. She said, “Female genital cutting cannot be equated with other kinds of criminal activities. After all, this is a social norm and thus, ending it requires a change in people’s mindsets. One cannot effectively impose a ban from the outside without a robust movement from within the community.”

Johari further points out, "The POCSO Act contains a provision for mandatory reporting of offences, meaning that if someone comes to know of an incidence of child sexual abuse, the person is mandated to report the matter to the police. Even in child sexual abuse cases, mandatory reporting can end up harming the child. In cases where abuse happens within the family, the bread-winner may go to jail, while the child may end up in a shelter home. Speaking of female genital mutilation, the person who carries out the act is often the child's mother. The child may feel a sense of betrayal with respect to her mother due to this act, but it does not mean that the mother is a bad parent. A nuanced viewpoint is necessary."

Rajeev Pandey, an advocate and spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said, "The government's stand on this issue is clear — the practice must be stopped. The practice is already illegal in many countries around the world."

To a question about the possibility of legislation on the issue, Pandey said, "The case is presently being heard by the Supreme Court. Once the court passes a decision on the case, I believe — as a lawyer and a BJP worker — that there should be legislation to ban female genital mutilation."

The central government, in an affidavit to the apex court, had stated that there is “no official data or study (by National Crime Records Bureau, etc), which supports the existence of female genital mutilation in India.” However, numerous civil society organisations have criticised this statement. Sahiyo, an organisation which Johari has co-founded, wrote an appeal to Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi on its website, saying, “While this (statement) is technically correct, it is dismissive of the many survivor testimonies that have been presented to the ministry through petitions and personal meetings with survivors and activists. The statement is also ironic because ‘official’ data can only exist if the government actually commissions such research studies on FGC, which it has not yet done.

Notably, in the recent debate on the triple talaq bill in the Parliament, Union ministers cited several statistics on the prevalence of the practice, particularly the number of cases that have been reported after the Supreme Court’s judgment declaring it illegal.

According to a study done by civil society organisation WeSpeakOut, 75 percent of daughters (aged seven years and above) of the respondents were subjected to female genital mutilation. Apart from short-term pain, some women were also said to suffer from recurrent urinary tract infections and incontinence in the long-term.

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