In Farzana Doctor’s latest novel Seven, the Indian-American protagonist – a mother of a little girl in New York – accompanies her husband to India on a research trip. There, she confronts the reality of the tradition of khatna, or female genital cutting, in the Dawoodi Bohra community, and realises the issue is closer home than she could have ever imagined.
The topic of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) is a personal one for the Toronto-based author Farzana, who is the ‘maasi’ behind Dear Maasi, an online sex and relationships advice column for FGM/C survivors, where she gives advice such as, “When we surface and work through our internalised shame about being racialised, or women, or Muslim, or fat or poor or disabled or queer or older or depressed or chronically ill, we liberate ourselves.”
One of the founding members of WeSpeakOut.org, Farzana’s activism often spills over into her writing, and all her novels take up nuanced social and relationship issues: same-sex love and religious conservatism in Stealing Nasreen (2007); a father dealing with the memory of having killed his baby accidentally in Six Metres of Pavement (2011); and swinging couples in All Inclusive (2015).
What unites the four books is that all protagonists are drawn from Farzana’s own community. For the award-winning author, the vision is fair representation of South Asian characters in contemporary English literature.
“I think South Asian characters are ‘missing’ – more so the Dawoodi Bohras,” says Farzana, who turns 50 this month. She believes there is space for feminism and evolution even in her conservative religion.
“You can be Dawoodi Bohra and still be a feminist. You can love and critique your community at the same time. Else, it can never be welcoming and safe for everyone,” she avers.
Born in Zambia, Farzana immigrated to Canada as a baby. Her doctor father had renounced religion, and so Farzana grew up being “naturally critical of aspects of organised religion” though she identifies with being Dawoodi Bohra and a spiritual Muslim with interests in astrology, tarot reading and psychics.
An imaginative, creative child, she was an activist by the time she was 16, when she joined an anti-nukes organisation. Tragedy struck her family when she was 11 and her sister was 14: their mother passed away due to cancer.
“We were forced to grow up quickly and become independent kids,” she recalls, adding that it took her about a decade to come to terms with the grief, more so because their father didn’t know how to talk about feelings.
Social justice was the most important theme of young Farzana’s life. Having inherited her rebellious instincts from her parents, who stood up against racism, she joined human-rights clubs while studying arts and sciences at McMasters University. Her first job, at 18, was at a women’s shelter. She followed it up with a Master’s in social work.
At 22, Farzana came out as a bisexual. “I didn’t see any reflection of people like me in books at the time,” she says, explaining why she thought it important to bring up stories of Asian, Muslim LGBTQ+ persons in her fiction.
“The more you bring up issues such as FGM/C, the more you normalise the conversation and help survivors speak up,” says Farzana, who is also a psychotherapist. “My novel is my contribution to this.”
First published in eShe’s December 2020 issue
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