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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an act that violates the rights of young girls and women. Aarefa Johari speaks out against this tradition fearlessly.
Aarefa Johari is a journalist with Scroll.in. She works six days a week, nine hours a day and plays the violin in her spare time. But this is not why she is talked about. Aarefa loves to spend her time campaigning and raising her voice against the practice of FGM among the Bohra community. The practice of circumcision comprises procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes it as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a violation of the rights of girls and women.
Aarefa recently participated in the Pakistan US Alumni Network (PUAN) International Women’s Empowerment Conference in Islamabad where she interacted with women’s rights activists and professionals across Asia. She describes the experience as stimulating and recalls how she was completely overwhelmed by Pakistani ‘dildaari’.
In this interview with Nidhi Shendurnikar, she talks about her campaign against FGM, the role of religion in empowering women and how both women and men continue to be imprisoned by power structures of patriarchy. She comes across as someone for whom speaking out against injustices is more than a mere choice, it’s a belief and a consistent commitment for larger social good. She is active on Twitter @AarefaJohari.
What is a routine day for you like? What kind of work brings passion to your life?
Aarefa Johari: Well, my routine is not particularly interesting. I work six days a week and at least nine hours a day, if not more. Work usually begins at 10 am, so before that I try to take out an hour or so for practicing the violin, an instrument that I have been learning for the past six years. Hectic work is the reason I have been so slow taking forward my campaign against female circumcision. What brings passion to my life? Definitely music, my violin – it’s the thing that keeps me going. And of course, my work as a journalist, because it keeps me rooted in the grim realities of the world and helps sustain a certain anger and outrage that I have against patriarchy and all its manifestations, including FGC.
You advocate an extremely important issue. There are few who dare to cross established boundaries. Tell us what made you take this up.
Aarefa Johari: I took it up because to me, it was the most obvious thing to do. An injustice was inflicted on me and it continues on so many young girls in my community. It’s a violation, and the moment I was old enough to understand the meaning and intended repercussions of this act of violence, I found myself outraged. For a long time, I used to take out my anger about circumcision (and other aspects of patriarchy) at home, at my mother and other family members. I only started speaking out in public some three years ago, after an anonymous Bohra woman started a change.org petition to get the Syedna to stop this practice. That is when a lot of media outlets began looking for Bohra women who would talk about the subject openly, without concealing their identity, and I didn’t mind doing so.
Gradually, I realized that very few other Bohra women want to talk about this subject openly – everyone is too afraid of being ostracized and boycotted by the community – although many women do want to discuss the subject anonymously. For myself, I did not think of speaking out against this practice as ‘crossing a boundary’, because I am not a religious person and have disconnected myself from the community in many ways. I never for a minute cared about being boycotted because I am not looking for anyone’s approval before I speak my mind and call out injustices.
I never for a minute cared about being boycotted because I am not looking for anyone’s approval before I speak my mind and call out injustices.
Is FGM restricted to the Bohra community or is it prevalent in other sects of Islam too? What do religious leaders have to say about this practice?
Aarefa Johari: In India, it is restricted to the Bohra community, as far as I know. We haven’t heard of any other sect practicing it. In fact, in Pakistan when I spoke about this topic, a lot of people (Muslims) came up to me in shock, asking, “Muslims do this? Really?” Across the Islamic world, scholars have clarified that there is nothing about female circumcision in the Quran or in Islam, and yet, the Bohras practice it in the name of Islam. In Africa and other parts of the world where it is practiced, communities often believe it is an Islamic ritual, even though it isn’t. And the fact is, in many parts of the world, it is non-Muslims who have been practicing FGC.
How have your own family and close acquaintances reacted to your raising voice against FGM?
Aarefa Johari: Thankfully, my immediate family has been supportive – no one has asked me not to speak out. I do wish more of my family members would join me in publicly denouncing this practice, but among Bohras there is a culture of never upsetting the status quo – even if there is dissent, it is behind closed doors; for the public, there are appearances. I can’t say I have done any significant work in this field yet – I have a long way to go – but so far, most of my acquaintances have reacted positively.
I have had a few people tell me that they would not continue the practice on their daughters. On the other hand, I did have one relative who was very upset with me for speaking out – this is a person (woman) who believes that women need to be circumcised because they have too much sexual energy that needs to be curbed, and that all uncut women become prostitutes.
I have had a few people tell me that they would not continue the practice on their daughters.
How do you deal with criticism and adverse reactions?
Aarefa Johari: Besides that one relative I just mentioned, nobody has so far directly opposed my attempts at activism. But it is disheartening when relatives say things like, “There is no point speaking up. This practice will continue. Over time people will phase it out, but no one will speak out against it in public”. It is a very defeatist attitude that stems from a deep discomfort with upsetting the status quo, because that will mean potentially upsetting one’s entire social life.
What role does religion play in empowering women?
Aarefa Johari: In my experience, none. Religions serve to disempower women, even if they claim otherwise, because pretty much all religions are rooted in patriarchy. As long as patriarchal systems exist, women cannot be truly empowered. That’s my opinion, in any case.
You recently participated in a conference on women empowerment in Pakistan. What do you think about the status of women across the sub-continent? What kind of interaction happened with other women activists?
Aarefa Johari: The experience was fantastic. I met so many women (and men) who are working so hard to challenge male-dominated societies and improve the lives of women. I think the status of women is poor across the subcontinent, even though in some countries, some aspects may be worse than others. Everywhere, women have to struggle for their most basic rights – right to live, education, health, choice for marriage, choice of whether to work or not, career and sexism at work. You name it, I’d say all our countries have those problems.
The challenges women face in different parts of the subcontinent may not be exactly the same, but of course they are similar. There was an Afghani delegate at the conference, for instance, whose family had to face a lot of opposition from extremists for doing what she wanted to do, which is get an education and then take it forward and help improve education for others. We may not have the Taliban in India, but often, how are khap panchayats any different?
As long as patriarchal systems exist, women cannot be truly empowered.
If there is one thing you could change about the way women are treated in India, what would that be?
Aarefa Johari: It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. Every problem has its root in a social structure that places men above women. It is a structure that places immense pressure on men as well, because they have to conform to certain ideas of masculinity just as women are expected to subscribe to a specific kind of femininity. If these ideas are wrecked at their very base, then I guess women will be treated as equals.
A parting message to women and men readers, who are striving for gender justice in this country.
Aarefa Johari: Don’t stop striving. Let’s put an end to patriarchy!
Nidhi Shendurnikar is an independent researcher based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. She has a Ph.D
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