How Do You Write about Your Community’s Hard Truths?

In her new novel, Farzana Doctor defies a long-standing culture of silence around female genital cutting

The cover of Farzana Doctor's book, Seven, against an orange background with a pattern resembling vines.
Dundurn Press/The Walrus

“There was a time when I couldn’t say, ‘Khatna happened to me,’” Farzana Doctor admits. The award-winning writer and psychotherapist is referring to the secretive Dawoodi Bohra tradition—a procedure that involves ritualistic injury with a sharp object to the female genitalia when a girl turns seven years old. A member of the Dawoodi Bohra community and a survivor of its version of female circumcision, Doctor knows both subjects well. Her new novel, Seven—a generational story about indoctrination and the ordeal of khatna—is a powerful example of reclaiming the narrative of survivorship and turning a critical-yet-compassionate eye on communal duty.

Seven, Doctor’s fourth novel, weaves between two timelines. The first is an eight-month period in 2016, during which the protagonist, Sharifa Bandukwala; her husband, Murtuza, a university professor; and their young daughter temporarily move from New York to India for work. The second timeline begins in 1866 and spans roughly five decades. It follows Sharifa’s great-great-grandfather Abdoolally, the patriarch who created the family’s wealth and eminence, and his four wives. The two characters are tied not just by lineage or DNA but by the legacy of trauma. Despite his progressive mindset and enthusiasm for education, Abdoolally is a supporter of khatna—an inheritance Sharifa is unable to escape.

Various characters in the novel have different memories—and different results—of their khatnas. Sharifa spends a lot of her time in Mumbai with her two favourite cousins, Fatema and Zainab. Both cousins had khatna done as seven-year-olds and are now middle-aged women on opposing sides of the debate. Zainab is convinced that khatna is simply part of their culture. “It’s just a tiny cut,” she argues. “It doesn’t do any real harm. And it helps Bohra girls stay pure, loyal.” Fatema, on the other hand, is livid about “the unhygienic conditions, the lies we were told, the pain, the negative impact on sexuality.” Khatna’s cyclical, intergenerational nature complicates the community dynamics even further. Traditionally, in a woman’s lifetime, she is likely going to be both victim and accomplice. “I don’t think any aunt or grandmother or mother who takes their daughter for this ever thinks that they’re going to wreck their child’s life,” Doctor says, clarifying the layered nature of the practice. “This is not intentional harm.” It’s much more emotionally intricate than that. One of the reasons Bohra women take their girls to have khatna done is in order to protect their identity as virtuous members of the community. The tradition is enacted out of love and social preservation, creating a deeply conflicted understanding of family, trust, and personal boundaries.

Writing about her own community was a complicated process for Doctor, and it’s taken her time and therapy to work through her feelings. “As the book was nearing completion, I got very scared about what it would mean to be public about this issue,” she says. Up until that point, she had kept her activism behind the scenes. This is the first year she’s gone public about being a survivor. “If you’re told you’re not allowed to talk about this,” she explains in reference to khatna’s clandestine nature, “there remains some part of you that says, ‘Don’t talk about this!’” Speaking openly about their experiences has become an important way for women like Doctor to break the long-standing silence around the topic.

Doctor is an acclaimed author—her second novel, Six Metres of Pavement, won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award, and All Inclusive, her third, was one of the National Post’s best books of 2015. She’s not new to promotional activities or interviews, yet speaking about Seven presented a new challenge. “I would get very flustered and wasn’t sure of my boundaries,” she says. In discussing the book, she’s learned to control the conversation, to move it away from personal inquiry and toward the systemic Dawoodi Bohra dynamics she’s working to change for the sake of all the community’s girls and women.

Khatna has no documented health benefits. In fact, its list of risks and detriments is long. Short-term effects include severe pain, excessive bleeding, and problems with urination and wound healing. The long-term effects are also severe: decreased sexual desire and pleasure; anorgasmia, or the absence of orgasm; post-traumatic stress; and other psychological conditions, like depression. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes khatna as an unequivocal violation of human rights—one that “constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.”

But, while endemic patriarchy encourages khatna to exist and persist, it’s often women from the community who perform the procedure. From listening to other survivors, Doctor has learned that traditional cutters are usually important female figures. More than that, the procedure happens at the beckoning of women. The girls are usually misled into a stranger’s home, where the khatna is to take place, by beloved women in their lives, such as mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. During the procedure, the girls are surrounded by them. But they are never intellectually prepared for khatna: it’s a surprise act that’s often followed by a consolation treat, like ice cream. Afterward, they are often told to never speak of it to anyone. It’s for this reason, says Doctor, that khatna often leaves survivors with a pervasive sense of betrayal and shame—and why many report having difficulty trusting and opening up to sexual partners as adults.

The Dawoodi Bohras, of which there are about 1 million worldwide, are a subsect of Ismaili Islam within the Shia branch of the religion. Roughly half of the Bohra community is from India. Some live in the Gujarati region; others, like Doctor, her family, and the characters in Seven, live in major cities like Mumbai. As a community, they’re very insular. But, in the last few years, the Bohras began making headlines when activists within the subsect started calling to ban khatna.

In the fall of 2015, five Dawoodi Bohra women came together and decided to organize against the practice, calling themselves Sahiyo—Gujarati for “friends.” Since then, with members based in India and the US, the transnational collective has worked to address the issue from a place of respect and understanding. The organization runs awareness campaigns and offers educational resources, including the first-ever international online survey of Dawoodi Bohra women on female genital cutting (FGC). Another anti-khatna organization, WeSpeakOut, was born around the same time, when Masooma Ranalvi, a Dawoodi Bohra survivor of FGC, wrote and published a scathing article about the ritual. When Doctor and other survivors reached out to her, Ranalvi created a WhatsApp group. The chat grew to include over forty women across India, the UK, Australia, and North America. According to Ranalvi, their petitions and pledge campaigns usually collect thousands of signatures in a matter of days. The Bohra women, it has become clear, will no longer be silenced.

Doctor is a founding member of WeSpeakOut and supports the organization’s emphasis on women sharing their experiences of khatna. But she is also conscious of her privilege in this context. Although she was nervous about how the community might receive Seven, she and her family are safe in Canada. Other activists in her group still choose to remain anonymous out of fear over the potential consequences of speaking out. The Dawoodi Bohras have a habit of socially shunning those within the community who openly criticize them. “If my father owned a hardware store in Bandra,” Doctor says, “and I spoke out about this, people would stop shopping at his store.”

Despite the pressure to stay silent, Doctor is not the first of the anti-khatna activists to turn to the arts as a form of resistance and a path toward open conversation. Through exceptional access, A Pinch of Skin—a twenty-five-minute documentary short by Priya Goswami, an Indian independent filmmaker and one of Sahiyo’s co-founders—features a series of women and their khatna stories, most of whom conceal their identities on camera. For the duration of the film, we are allowed into this guarded space, watching and listening to those who firmly believe the practice is “subordinating women through religion,” as well as others who are convinced of its moral rationale to moderate women’s urges and control their fidelity. The film has circulated within the khatna activist scene, and many Bohra women are familiar with it. Even Seven’s Sharifa receives a link to it from her cousin Fatema, who, as the novel progresses, feels a pressing need to raise awareness of the anti-khatna movement and to help ban the practice in India.

Fundamental to Seven’s project of shedding light on this difficult truth is the fact that it’s written by a community member and survivor of the tradition. Books authored by people who share the identity of the marginalized group they depict—what are known, in publishing, as “own voices” books—have an authenticity and immediacy that is otherwise difficult to accurately reproduce. The correspondence is especially intimate here. “I was keeping a notebook at the time,” Doctor says about the period in which she was working through her feelings about her own khatna, “and entire scenes were pouring out of me.”

Additionally, Doctor is keenly aware of lazy generalizations about Muslims, Dawoodi Bohras, and Indians—a sensitivity that someone writing from outside those identities may not share. “Sometimes, when we’re not writing about our own communities, we unconsciously throw in stereotypes,” she says. In recent years, authors have been publicly called to account for their work’s misrepresentations or appropriations of other cultures—like Kathryn Stockett for The Help, which was criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of Black women. More recently, Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt made headlines after being widely criticized for its depictions of Mexican migrants.

Similarly, when it’s not happening in one’s own community, it can be easy to disregard FGC as a barbaric or primitive tradition that occurs in remote areas of developing countries. According to the WHO, more than 200 million girls and women today, across thirty Middle Eastern, Asian, and African countries, have experienced female genital mutilation. But there is a growing understanding, helped along by activists within the community, of the cultural aspect of khatna and about how to approach the topic with respect. For example, the terminology is increasingly contested. While some find the term “female genital mutilation” necessary to emphasize the cruelty, others think it sounds disparaging and can shut down the lines of communication with those who practice or support it. It’s increasingly popular to use “female genital cutting” or “FGC” in lieu.

Cultural sensitivity also informed Doctor’s approach to the novel’s aesthetics. Based on conversations she had with multidisciplinary artist Vivek Shraya, Doctor made a conscious decision to not italicize and avoid defining the Arabic and Gujarati words in Seven. “Majama chun” and “saya kurta” appear on different pages, stylistically indistinguishable from the English words. “I’ve chosen to not italicize because I think we need to decolonize our novels,” Doctor says. “We need to decolonize our literary world in general. We don’t need to other all of this.”

In A Pinch of Skin, a traditional cutter ends her interview segment by saying, in her defence, “Religion says it has to be done; we are doing it.” The problem, aside from the human rights violation, is that religion doesn’t say it has to be done. Khatna is nowhere to be found in the Quran and is disputed by Islamic scholars. But there are ways of speaking back to this belief that privilege mutual respect. Seven, like the anti-khatna activists, is fighting against khatna by means of compassion and education. Neither Doctor nor the women who populate her novel are attempting to eradicate their community. They are simply making room in tradition for their rights and sexual health. As Sharifa says in the book, “I have always loved my community, my Dawoodi Bohra community. It’s the place I can return to, the place I belong, the one identity that is sure and strong.”

Sheima Benembarek
Sheima Benembarek is a contributing writer for The Walrus.