The Next Chapter

Farzana Doctor's novel Seven examines a community and the balance between modern and traditional customs

The Canadian novelist and social worker looks at the age-old ritual of khatna, also known as female genital mutilation.
Seven is a book by Farzana Doctor. (Dundurn)

Farzana Doctor is a Canadian novelist, activist, and psychotherapist of Indian ancestry. Her novels include All Inclusive and Six Metres of Pavement.

Her latest is the novel Sevenwhich follows a woman named Sharifa who accompanies her husband on a marriage-saving trip to India. She's also there to research the life of her great-great-grandfather who was a business-owner and philanthropist.

Through her research, she grows fascinated by his four wives, who are never mentioned in her family. At the same time, Sharifa tries to reach a middle ground in an ideologically-divided community.  

Doctor spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why she wrote Seven.

Community origins

"I was born into the Dawoodi Bohra community. This is a subset of Shia Muslims. They are currently based in Mumbai, but this community originally is from Gujarat and even before that, they were originally from Yemen. 

"I grew up in a family that was fairly secular because my father gave up the religion as a young man. But I have a very large extended family, some of whom are quite orthodox. So I'm connected to this community in many ways."

Khatna, explained

"Khatna is a form of female genital cutting that involves cutting the clitoral hood of a girl around the age of seven. It's done with the mythology that it keeps girls sexually pure. But it is a mythology: activists today really believe that it's a form of child sexual abuse. Of course, the people who are perpetrating it don't believe that. They feel that they are just following the dictates of our religious leader who says that it's required.

It's done with the mythology that it keeps girls sexually pure. But it is a mythology: activists today really believe that it's a form of child sexual abuse. Of course, the people who are perpetrating it don't believe that.

"How it works is a very secretive, very taboo subject. It's the women in the family who are the ones who carry this out. They will be responsible for taking a girl to a medical doctor, but more commonly these girls are taken to amateur cutters, people in the community who have been practicing it their whole lives. The practice was likely passed down from one of their relatives." 

The issue of trauma

"In the book, I really tried to offer a very nuanced look at this issue. There is a lot of disagreement within the community. Some people will say there's no effect whatsoever and that it's just a ritual that happens. And then other people will say it's actually the biggest trauma they've experienced in their entire lives. And so the impact can be sexual, emotional, physical, very similar to other kinds of impacts that any sexual abuse survivor would face. 

In the book, I really tried to offer a very nuanced look at this issue. There is a lot of disagreement within the community.

"Generally, most of the people I've spoken to are duped into it. So they're told 'We're going to go to a party, we're going to go do this fun thing, we're going to go for ice cream.' And so girls don't know what's happening. Part of the trauma is the shock of the experience of being in this very confusing, painful situation, and taken there by beloved elders." 

Farzana Doctor's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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