Earlier this week, the Supreme court made its position clear on religious customs that have a debilitating effect on the bodily integrity of women, according to this Times of India report.
“Why should the bodily integrity of woman be subject to religious practice,” the court asked.
In reference to the Bohra ritual of female genital cutting called ‘khatna’ or ‘khafd,’ a bench consisting of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice AM Khanwalkar and Justice DY Chandrachud, said, “Such a religious practice is covered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act,” which explicitly states that touching the genitals of a girl under 18 is an offence.
Representing the Centre, which supports a complete ban on religious practices that sanction female genital mutilation or circumcision, Attorney General KK Venugopal argued that while male circumcision has some potential health benefits, including reducing the risk of contracting sexually transmitted disease, the same couldn’t be said for women.
“It is a crime in the US, the UK, Australia, France and 27 African countries,” he said. Meanwhile, human rights lawyer Indira Jaising supported the Centre’s move arguing that girls undergoing such religious practices often suffered from an intense trauma that carried on into their adulthood.
Making a case for the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association, however, lawyer Abhishek Singhvi argued that practices like ‘khatna’ and ‘khafd’ date back thousands of years and were as harmless as male circumcision.
He appealed for the matter to be heard by a five-judge Constitution Bench since the case entailed a discussion on the fundamental right to religion and religious practices.
“Unlike male circumcision, genital mutilation on a female leads to serious vaginal and uterine complications. Moreover, the fundamental right to religion and religious practice is always subject to public health and morality,” countered Venugopal.
The Supreme Court, however, was seemingly weighing in favour of the AG’s argument. “Why should anyone have the power based on religious practices to touch the genitals of a girl?”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)