The auditorium dims, and the audience stills. The moderator welcomes the crowd and introduces me as the first speaker. God, why did she have to put me first? I take a sip of water, clear my throat, and click on a slide that shows a compilation of news headlines from 2016 to 2025.
“Much has changed in the last decade. As you can see, khatna was made illegal in India. There have been dozens of court cases — starting in Australia, then Detroit, and later all across the U.S., Canada, Europe, India — cutters and parents prosecuted. There are now hotlines for victims, specialized therapies for survivors.”
I run my thumb down the cool glass of my tablet’s screen, and provide the audience with background information and statistics about Bohras and khatna’s emotional, physical, and sexual impacts. The energy downgrades in the room. I move on to the next slide, a photo of our high priest posed with a dead lion five times his size. I hear a couple of gasps. Good, I have their attention again.
“Anecdotal evidence suggests that khatna is still being secretly practised amongst those who are most closely aligned with the apex leader of the Bohras. Thankfully, he has fewer acolytes now as more Bohras have shrugged off his control and have formed more democratic communities, including a large alternative masjid here in New York City. There is even talk that the Indian government might seize his funds and properties and redistribute them to these new configurations. Fun fact about this photo: it circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook in 2018 and people say it was a catalyst for change.” Finger snaps popcorn through the auditorium as audience members show their support.
I click on the next slide, a photo of me with my mom, her cousins, and my nani, all of us wearing identical orange-and-red tunics. There is a collective “Awww.” I feel a sudden light-headedness. I exhale. Time to get personal.
“So, that’s me, at seven years old, in India with my family. I’d like to tell you a little about my personal connection to khatna. Like every other khatna story you’ll hear, it’s about secrets, lies, and shame.” This last sentence sounded better when I rehearsed in front of my full-length bedroom mirror. Now it seems cheesy.
I click on a photo of Mom and Dad, smiling for the camera. Dad’s holding a placard that reads FGM IS GENDER VIOLENCE!
“My parents were dead-set against the practice, and even attended a rally, the first of its kind in India, while we were there in 2016. Oh, I should give credit to my mom, who provided me with all these old photos.” My gaze slides to the left of the auditorium, where my parents and Nani sit. I told myself I wouldn’t look their way until the end of the speech.
“One day, I was supposed to be babysat by an older cousin, but I ended up with my grand-aunt, for an hour or so. Now, Maasi was fully aware of my parents’ views about khatna.” The audience is quiet, as though holding its breath.
“Maasi told me we were going to the market and then we’d go and get ice cream. I remember feeling excited about that.” I pause, take another sip of water, the reel playing in my mind: we were supposed to buy vegetables, but we didn’t. I remember thinking that the aborted errand was somehow my fault.
“She seemed to be in a rush, and while we were walking, I tripped and skinned my knee.” She scolded me for being clumsy, and her unexpected harshness shocked me. Perhaps she saw it in my expression because she softened then.
“She said, ‘Don’t worry, I know a nurse who lives close by, and I’ll phone her and she can take care of your knee.’ Soon after, we arrived at this so-called nurse’s place.”
A century of dust coated the foyer. The lift was that old-timey kind, with a criss-crossing metal grate that protested with a creak and a sigh when Maasi pulled it closed. I liked watching the cement underside of each floor pass as we ascended.
“An older woman answered the door, and Maasi whispered something to her in Gujarati that I couldn’t understand.”
The air was stuffy with kerosene. I take a breath and continue.
“I was told to lie down. Maasi said, ‘We’ll clean your knee and put on a bandage.’ Then she told me to pull off my shorts so she could check that there weren’t any other injuries. I resisted that, told her it was only my knee, but she shushed me. I didn’t stop her when she pulled down both my shorts and underwear. A part of me wondered if she knew better, and so I complied.”
Later, I’d blame myself for letting her remove my clothing. Mom told me to never let anyone touch me down there.
“Remember, this was a decade ago; I was only seven.” An old man in the front row nods earnestly at me. He resembles one of my great-uncles with his long white beard and topi.
“She said the antiseptic might sting for a second, and told me to look out the window so that it would hurt less. I did, and so I didn’t see what actually happened.”
The sky was smoggy grey. My knee sizzled. At the same time, I felt sharp fingers and a much stronger, searing pain.
“I believe Maasi tended my knee while the other woman cut my clitoral hood, and while I felt pain in both places, I was confused about what was hurting where. And why.” My knee and vulva prickle for a second and I shift from one leg to the other. The old woman’s fingers were thick at the joints, her nails stained turmeric-yellow.
“Maasi said, ‘Look, you are fine now, nothing happened.’ The nurse applied a cream and then they dressed me again. Maasi said, ‘You’ll feel better in a minute and forget all about this.’ I wanted to believe her, and so I did. At least for a while.
“All the way to the ice cream shop, Maasi instructed me to never tell my parents about visiting the nurse, that it was our secret. I thought that I was in trouble for something I couldn’t name.
“The pain subsided. When we returned to her place, I must have been in shock. I didn’t argue when she undressed me, washed my underwear, and then put them back on me, damp.”
She told me, “Chee chee, you’ve dirtied your panties. But that’s good, the bleeding stopped.” I was supposed to read out this last line, but something about it feels too crude to say aloud to a roomful of strangers.
“And so, in that child’s haze of confusion caused by the manipulation of a trusted elder, I kept the secret. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, when we were back in New York, and looking at our digital photo album, that I asked about the protest and what it was all about.” I turn to look up at the projected image of my parents at the rally.
“And that was when I told them what happened. When I was a bit older, Mom and Nani shared their khatna stories with me and I’ve come to see this as a weird sort of bond we share. A trauma bond, but also now an activism bond.” I lock eyes with Mom, but then look down at my page.
“My parents and nani didn’t have much to do with Maasi after I told them what happened. She died a few years ago. I don’t know how I feel about her, still.”
Nani dabs her eyes with a tissue.
“I’m not really sure what the full impact of khatna has been or will be on my life, but I’m glad I can speak to you about it today. I’ll end there, because my time is up, but I’m happy to speak more during the Q and A.”
The room explodes into applause. Mom, Dad, and Nani rise to their feet.
Releasing in Canada and the US this September, Seven is Farzana Doctor’s fourth and most ambitious novel to date. The novel sensitively addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity, intergenerational violence, religion and healing sexual trauma within the context of the insular Dawoodi Bohra (sub-sect of Shia Islam) community. Seven is also the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community.
Seven is “invaluable” (Booklist) and “an intimate, gutsy feminist novel” (Foreword Reviews) that bravely tackles a difficult issue, one that is too rarely considered but is close to Farzana’s heart as she actively campaigns against FGM in her own community. Twitter: @farzanadoctor
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.