Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Bohras, FGM & Singhvi

Dawoodi Bohras are a Shia sect who settled down in India primarily in Gujarat. Significant numbers of Bohras live in Yemen, Pakistan and East Africa. Large numbers also live in Europe, USA & Sri Lanka. The community itself is small numbering 10 lakhs [1 million] or thereabouts. One feature of the community is that they have a leader. He is the 'Da`I al-Mutlaq' or 'Syedna', the sovereign leader of the Dawoodi Bohras and guardian of the Fatemi 'D`awah' (religious mission). He is the religious leader, temporal guide and both spiritual father and mother to the community

I am reasonably familiar with Bohras. By some curious twist not only have I had Bohras friends from school since 1970, but, over the years almost all my advisors have been Bohras. Two of my 1st standard friends, my architect, my accountant, my financial guide, my jeweler, the guy who maintains my web domain; are all Bohras. . !

As is the case everywhere, my Bohra friend come in all shades of orthodoxy or conservativism or tradition. Some are “full on” with prayers many times a day, beards and caps and strictly maintain dietary restrictions. They attend many community religious gatherings and, of course, fast thru Ramzan. Others are more relaxed and pick and choose from the large plate of Bohra orthodoxy at will. Still others are “emancipated” almost totally, enjoying a sausage, glass of white wine and an after-dinner cigarette. “Emancipation” too has facets with some abjuring pork or not smoking and otherwise being totally unreligious and without wearing a beard or cap.

By and large the Bohras have been a peace-loving community and have been widely accepted in the mainstream. There was a period during the 1970’s and early 1980’s when a reformist movement was started. From what I understand this movement protested new diktats that said all properties owned by Bohras (including mosques) belonged to the Syedna. However, this movement lost steam and a fragile equilibrium was once again in place.

Over the years, especially with the rise of fundamentalism, and, following the death of the previous Syedna with the new Syedna taking over, the Bohras have become somewhat more aggressive, and there has been a rise in fundamentalism. At least, their version of fundamentalism.

I am aware that I have used the word “Fundamentalism”. Many would like to use the word “Orthodox”. I tried to find what each meant and came across this rather good explanation. It says that “Fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic.”

The following passage, in my mind, beautifully bring out the difference. It is used in context of Christianity, but, the principles are absolutely rock solid. My Bohra readers will understand this in a flash. Concepts of social ostracization are as old as the hills and have been used consistently:

“Fundamentalism is (among other things): adding secondary and even tertiary beliefs to basic Christian orthodoxy as NECESSARY for authentic Christian identity (e.g., premillennialism, biblical inerrancy, young earth creationism), insisting that salvation depends on belief in a long list of doctrines including ones NOT PART OF basic Christian orthodoxy, and refusing Christian fellowship with other Christians who are “doctrinally polluted” or “doctrinally impure” because they do not believe everything on the fundamentalists’ long list of essential doctrines.”

In recent years,there has been a fair deal of disquiet in the Bohra community over the practice of Female Genital Mutilation [FGM]. Suddenly you had reports that this was being done. Reports of doctors in the USA being arrested as they had performed FGM on young girls in USA. Similar reports from Australia. Further reports referring to an organization calling itself the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom [DBWRF] where the DBWRF claimed that FGM was an old and recognized Bohra practice and stopping it would impinge on their religious freedom. Here is a link to the DBWRF website.

Over 9th to 11th July 2018, there has been a lot of reportage in the press relating to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation [FGM]. A Public Interest Petition was filed by Sunita Tiwari in the Supreme Court seeking directions that FGM should be declared unlawful and should not be permitted. The Petition is aimed squarely at the Bohras. If you like, you could read the Petition here. Reading it made my skin crawl.

Reading reports of what transpired during the hearing of the Petition made me sick and angry.

First, what amazes me is the stand of the DBWRF. This organization consists of women who insist that FGM should be performed on women! This really beats me hollow. As a woman should you not be outraged by FGM. To inflict it on a child, and to insist that you have the right to so inflict it, is frankly, beyond the pale for me. Not that I would in any way agree nor would my stand change, but if it were a male dominated organization demanding FGM because in their twisted logic it may keep their wives in check, I would have thought that it is somewhat in tune with today’s fundamentalist times. But a women’s organization demanding the right to perform FGM. Sigh!

Second, what in retrospect does not come as a surprise to me, is the fact that Abhishek Manu Singhvi appeared for the DBWRF in the Supreme Court asking for the DBWRF to be added to the Petition so that the stand of the DBWRF could be made clear. For those who do not know, Abhishek Manu Singhvi is a Senior Counsel and a senior member of the Congress Party. Thus, in effect, the Congress supports what the DBWRF stand for. I know that every liberal will be up in arms reading my conclusion regarding the Congress stand. However, in this case, they will find it difficult to justify how the Congress could support this. Actually, if you do read the papers, or follow social media [the home of every liberal who is permanently outraged] you will find little or no reaction to this. They have gone silent. The "middia", by which I mean TV with its daily screaming matches of Nikah Halala, Triple Talaq and Sharia Law have nothing to say on this matter. 

The Congress stand, is, as I written earlier, not surprising. It is almost certain that the Congress will run to defend every attempt at impinging rights of the Muslims. Frankly, there is nothing wrong in this approach, but doing it unthinkingly or as a simple knee jerk reaction is what is sad. I cannot believe that outlawing FGM would do any harm, while if the practice is allowed to continue, it can only be a gross wrong. There are several instances when the Muslims have been truly oppressed, and many more will occur in future. The Congress should join those Petitions. Why this one?

It is possible, thought very sad if true, that the Congress has decided to join this Petition on behalf of the DBWRF [basically an organ of the Syedna] to curry favour with the Bohras. You may recall that in the early days of PM Narendra Modi’s foreign travels, especially in the UK & USA the Bohras were distinctly seen in their caps and beards, forming a significant part of the audience. Joining this litigation may be a cut your nose to spite your face attempt by the Congress to curry favour with the Bohras.

I am also surprised at the line of arguments taken by the DBWRF and consequently their counsel Singhvi. This may be a bit technical but stay with me for a moment. The prayer in the Petition is as under

Directing the respondents [That is the Union of India among others] to place a complete ban on the illegal and inhuman practice of Female Genital Mutilation or Khatna, as the same being violative of the fundamental rights including Articles 14 & 21 and Article 39 (directive principles of state policy) of the Constitution of India.

The DBWRF has instructed Singhvi to argue among other things, and I quote from the DBWRF website; that:

“Khafz/Female Circumcision as practised by the Dawoodi Bohra community is not Female Genital Mutilation and is completely different from Female Genital Mutilation, which is condemned by the Dawoodi Bohra community;

Now, if the submission of the DBWRF extracted above is to be taken at face value, what possible objection could the DBWRF have if the Supreme Court grants the prayers and declares FGM illegal. The DBWRF contends that what they do is not FGM.

This case is yet to conclude.

I sincerely hope that the Petition is allowed and made absolute as we lawyers say, and, FGM is consigned to the garbage bin.

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