Friday, February 17, 2017

Another bogus survey

Sahiyo has recently released a report based on a survey that purports to capture Dawoodi Bohra sentiment on khafz. Outfits in the Indian media have been publishing the questionable conclusions from Sahiyo’s survey without their own independent investigation or the ability to recognize a cleverly concealed hate group’s witch hunt.

To fill the gap in due diligence the following is a critique of the Sahiyo survey.

A. Sahiyo’s faulty premise

The World Health Organization’s stance on khafz has been a source of much contention. The fact that WHO has chosen to forego any semblance of neutrality by employing the word “mutilation” to describe a vast range of circumcision practices renders its narrative in doubt at its very conception. It is interesting that Sahiyo begins by conceding that such extreme language advocated by WHO is not useful and replaces the word “mutilation” with what it deems a more appropriate description: “cutting”.[1]

But Sahiyo’s criticism of WHO stops short at a crucial point; instead of exploring WHO’s studies and discussion on the subject to understand the merits of its arguments, Sahiyo has chosen to take WHO’s position as a given.

We make the following observations that seriously call into question WHO’s standing on khafz:

(1) Lack of hard evidence and research: In its many reports and countless discussions, WHO has not produced any research or data to support its claim that Type 1a is harmful. All evidence that WHO provides on the subject focuses on the more advanced types of circumcision (i.e., Types 3 and 4). On the other hand, data from vaginal cosmetic surgery procedures show there is some evidence to show that Type 1a is actually beneficial in that it leads to heightened sensation and sexual pleasure.

(2) Inconsistency in applying the principles of human rights violation: The tenets of human rights as employed by WHO include “the right to non-discrimination on the grounds of sex”, “the right to life when the procedure results in death”, “the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, and “the rights of the child”. Type 1a, which is directly analogous to male khatna, does not violate the rights of young girls any more than khatna violates the rights of young boys. Given the similarities in procedure, potential benefits, risks associated with health, reproduction, and psychological wellbeing, these principles of human rights violations should apply equally to circumcision in both genders yet WHO has chosen to apply them selectively to females only.

(3) A complete ignorance of counter-evidence and criticism: There is an increasing body of academic work (see, for example, the 2012 Hastings Center Report) that shows that WHO’s claims on khafz are questionable and should be reviewed. Unfortunately WHO has, year after year, completely ignored the counter-evidence to its claims and has chosen to remain completely silent on the criticism never mind responding to it with positive evidence and data.

(4) An imperialist, anti-Islamic stance: It is surprising that in its narrative on khafz WHO has chosen to overlook the growing prevalence of hoodectomy in the western world, a perfectly legal elective procedure that surgically reduces the size of the clitoral hood. In other words, khafz. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that there has been an 80% year-on-year increase between 2015 and 2016 of such surgeries among girls younger than 18 years of age. The conclusion one draws is that to the extent that it is carried out under the label of hoodectomy and performed by licensed surgeons in the western world, the practice is fine. Put it under the banner of Islam and call it khafz and immediately WHO andgroups such as Sahiyo cry foul.

In our own comprehensive study titled “WHO’s stance and the criminalization of female circumcision: The protection of or violation of human rights?” we have demonstrated that on the subject of khafz WHO has been completely untruthful, unscientific, irresponsible, and dangerously jingoistic in broad brushing the subject and rallying up blind support by groups such as Sahiyo.

B. Sahiyo’s flawed survey method and unreliable results

The Sahiyo survey departs from what statisticians and researchers refer to as “robustness”. A robust survey is one whose results (a) can be applied to a population as a whole and, (b) do not change if any aspect of the survey (i.e., the sample size, the questions, the rating scales, etc., are tweaked).

In this section we demonstrate that the Sahiyo survey fails all tests of robustness and is therefore a non-measure of Dawoodi Bohra sentiment on khafz.

(1) Research bias: A robust and valid research study begins with asking a question or a series of questions without presupposing the conclusion. Genuine research must therefore be always open minded. Researchers who are passionate about proving a particular outcome or point inevitably lose their neutrality and trustworthiness.

The Sahiyo study, unfortunately, begins on an extremely biased note. According to the report, “[t]he study was done with the intention to establish strategies that can bring [khafz] to an end.”[2]   Further, the report states “The mission of Sahiyo is to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities”[3]  in seeking to abolish the practice.

Instead of asking to what extent the following statements are true:
  • Dawoodi Bohras are empowered in their decision making;
  • Dawoodi Bohras want khafz to continue as their fundamental right;
  • Khafz, like khatna in males, is not a “cultural” tradition but a religiously-ordained practice,
  • Sahiyo wrongly presupposes all the answers and then seeks to “to have a clearer insight into ending this [practice]”.[4]

    This objective is also manifested in the lack of clarity with which the survey has been executed. The questions posed to the participants in Parts 2 and 3 of the survey do not in any way provide support to help with the study’s stated goal to establish strategies to end khafz. Rather these questions are aimed at eliciting predetermined conclusions.

    (2) Survey sample: The Sahiyo researchers use a participant group collected by the snowball sampling method. This method of collecting a sample uses social networks: the first participant refers the researchers to other participants who in turn refer the researchers to more participants. The sample thus snowballs into a large-enough number.

    There are several documented disadvantages to using the snowball sampling method that are especially applicable to the Sahiyo survey:

    Non-random:  According to the Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods[5], snowball sampling violates the assumptions of random selection and representativeness that are necessary for robustness. In other words, a snowball sample is non-representative and leads to incorrect results.

    We also know from the survey that the majority of the participants belong to the middle- and upper-middle class, were recruited using email and WhatsApp, all spoke English, and that the survey was conducted online in English.

    Interestingly, of the 385 participants 46% reside in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand whereas only 34% reside in India. Put another way, the Sahiyo survey sample in no way bears any relation to the experience, cultural background, or the socio-economic status of Dawoodi Bohras the overwhelming majority of whom live in India. In fact, according to Sahiyo 31% of the participants do not even consider themselves to be Dawoodi Bohra.

    Community bias: In snowball samples, the first survey participant or participants have a strong impact on the entire pool of survey participants which lead to manipulated and pre-meditated conclusions. In the Sahiyo survey, the first participant would be a person who would inevitably share the same worldview as Sahiyo. This participant would then invite like-minded friends or colleagues who would invite other like-minded friends and colleagues.

    Indeed there is nothing to prevent a selective choosing of participants and perhaps insidiously to even prepare them to respond to the questions in a way as to ensure the desired outcomes. Thus, such a survey would quickly become an echo-chamber of like-minded participants and clearly fail to capture reality.

    Sampling error: Because of the non-random nature of sampling, it is impossible to (a) determine the sampling error and (b) make any statistical inferences from the sample that would apply to the entire population. Thus it is irrelevant whether or not the survey results are based on Sahiyo’s “sample size of 385 women from which to extrapolate data” since such extrapolation is, by definition, impossible.

    At the end of the report Sahiyo does make an admission albeit as an after-thought, i.e., after the group’s faulty observations and conclusions have been asserted and policy implications put forth:
    Yet, biases do exist in this survey. It is possible that due to the secretive nature of the topic, women who may be in favor of continuing FGC may have chosen not to participate in the survey, increasing the likelihood that survey participants would only include those women who have chosen to discontinue the practice. Future research should include looking at methods of collecting quantitative data in a systematic manner in which participants are randomly chosen from a sampling frame.[6]
    (3) Survey questions: It is well known among researchers that the phrasing of survey questions is among the most challenging and crucial aspects of creating a survey since improperly phrased questions can very easily control and manipulate the outcome.

    Consider the question: “Should dangerous, man-eating tigers be killed?” By using the words “dangerous” and “man-eating” the participant is forced to go on the defensive having to choose between human safety and animal welfare. Instead, the same question phrased differently as “How should we deal with tigers that wander into human territory because of loss of habitat?” is likely to receive an unbiased response.

    The Sahiyo’s perfunctory declaration that “to test for reliability and validity of the [survey], Sahiyo asked fellow FGC experts and NGOs to read through the set of questions to assess for bias”[7] also does not offer sufficient assurance.

    First, all of the experts and NGOs listed in the acknowledgement section of the report have made the abolishment of khafz their raison d’être so that any hope of their impartiality is instantly put into doubt.

    Second, the introduction to the survey calls into serious question the neutrality of the language used. The underlying bias of Sahiyo is highlighted when the participant is told at the very beginning:
    The sole intention of this research is to shed light on misunderstandings and lack of information surrounding this age-old practice.[8] 
    In keeping with this bias, some questions in the survey have been deliberately phrased to lead the participant in a particular direction. For example, the probe related to Question 23 focuses on only negative outcomes:
    [E]xcess bleeding requiring a visit to the doctor, discomfort/burning sensation while urinating, wound infection, etc.[9]
    Similarly, of the nine possible responses to Question 29[10], six list negative responses, two are somewhat neutral (i.e., “don’t know”, and “other”), and only one lists a positive response.

    (4) Data incongruence:  Robust surveys invariably use “triangulation” to identify and remove any inconsistencies in participant responses. This technique entails asking the same question in a variety of ways to ensure responses are credible and valid.

    There is no indication from the survey report that Sahiyo has taken the necessary care in the phrasing of its questions or has employed triangulation to verify participant responses. Participant responses to Question 22 as shown in Tables 3, and 4 clearly show a bias in that all the responses are worded in extremely strong language with no single response being neutral or positive. Without any triangulation to verify these responses, it is difficult to take them as being valid.

    Further, as we begin to dig deeper into the survey results, it is clear that some observations are in contradiction with each other. To illustrate this point, let’s consider the following two examples:

    Example 1- Participant demographics: We know that all 385 participants are both computer- and English-literate. However, Question 2 in the survey shows that 37% of the participants received only primary and middle school education. Simultaneously, the Sahiyo report somehow manages to claim that 80% of “survey respondents had earned at least a Bachelor’s degree.”[11]

    We also know that 80% of the participants were residents of Western countries (46%) and India (34%). A basic knowledge of the demographic realities of India and those of the Indian diaspora in the West pose a challenge to the 37% primary-to-middle school statistic. Even if we were to assume that all of those with primary and middle school education resided outside India and the West, we would still be left with 17% or 65 participants who live in India and/or the West, speak and read English fluently, are internet-friendly, and yet may not have been educated beyond Kindergarten.

    Example 2 - Impact on sexual life: Questions 26 to 28 focus on the effect of khafz on the participants’ sex lives. Again, we find several contradictions among the reported statistics. In Question 26, only 108 (or 35%) of the 309 respondents report an impact on their sexual lives. In Question 27, of these 108 respondents, 94 report an adverse impact on their sexual lives. This would imply that 94 of the 385 total participants report, i.e., less than 25% of the participants report an adverse impact on their sexual lives.

    Yet the report’s discussion on Question 28 seems to negate the observation from Questions 26 and 27 by stating that 83% of the respondents report “heightened physical stimulation” (which we read to be the opposite of an “adverse impact”). Furthermore, the responses for Question 28 (which allows for more than one response) do not add up or appear to be in conflict with each other: 83% report “heightened physical stimulation” yet 19% report “Lack of physical stimulation” and 29% report “difficulty/inability to reach an orgasm.”

    Clearly, the participants in the study do not show consistency of opinion which is why a need for triangulation in the survey is even more highlighted.

    (5) Deliberate misquoting and sensational reporting of results:  Sahiyo’s approach to the survey appears to be less an exercise in original research and more in creating a sensational piece of marketing.

    In Section B(4) above, we demonstrated in Example 2 that less than 25% of the respondents reported adverse effects on their sexual lives. Yet based on those same statistics, the Sahiyo report makes the following fallacious conclusion:
    Of the 309 respondents, 35% of the women stated that the FGC had impacted their sex life as adults, the majority implying that their sex life had been affected negatively.[12] 
    To blur the line between reality and falsehoods, the report also concludes that with respect to their sexual lives,
    the overall negative reactions of the women points to the need for support services for survivors who have faced emotional trauma/psychological trauma…[13] 
    while simultaneously admitting that the
    Sahiyo’s study was unable to conclude if FGC had caused [the survey participants’] sex life to be unfulfilling.[14] 
    In today’s era of fake news where fiction replaces fact and is lapped up quickly by audiences looking for corroboration of their own worldviews, Sahiyo has chosen to publish its results using the following attention-grabbing statement on its website:
    81% want Khatna to end: results of Sahiyo’s online survey of Bohra women.[15] 
    Without explaining how the participants were recruited using the snowball method and that 31% of the participants claim to not be Dawoodi Bohra, the website continues to display a slew of manipulated numbers that serve the Sahiyo’s agenda.

    It is noteworthy that in all the engineered and cherry-picked statistics, Sahiyo has chosen to not publish its finding that 83% of the participants indicated heightened sexual pleasure because of khafz! Sahiyo makes no effort to relate this very interesting statistic with its conclusion that “81% want Khatna to end”.

    (6) Data non-disclosure:  The survey report underscores the confidentiality of participants by making the following claim in its survey introduction script:
    This is a COMPLETELY ANONYMOUS survey. No identifying information will be asked of the respondents. In other words, NO names, e-mail addresses etc. are required for the purposes of completing this survey.[16]
    As part of the due-diligence effort in writing this critique, I emailed Sahiyo and requested them to share their raw data. Given the declared anonymous nature of the survey I believed that sharing the data would break no confidentiality clauses.

    Sahiyo chose to contradict its position once again. Their email response is documented below.
    From: Khatna Researchers
    Sent: Fri, 10 Feb 2017
    Subject: Re: Survey data request
    You are welcome. Hope you find it informative.
    As for the raw data set, unfortunately, we can not send it as it would violate the confidentiality of our survey participants and the confidentiality of our study. 

    C. In conclusion

    Apart from towing the WHO line and supporting their cause with a faulty survey, the fatal flaw in the Sahiyo argument is that khafz as practiced by Dawoodi Bohras is not Islamic.

    To push their claim that khafz is unIslamic, Sahiyo relies on a singular source:
    Islamic Relief Canada (2013-2016) also states that religion is falsely used to encourage the practice within Islam, and that FGC has no religious or cultural justification.[17]  
    But Islamic Relief Canada is neither a Dawoodi Bohra organization nor a group of Islamic theologians and certainly not an authority on Islam.

    For a religion such as Islam, one that is non-monolithic and has a vast array of interpretations (some will insist there are as many Islams as there are Muslims), it must be underscored that while some interpretations of the religion have chosen to do away with the practice, others such as those of Dawoodi Bohras (as well as those of hundreds of millions of Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.) do in fact continue to consider it to be a religious obligation.

    Among Sunni Muslims the most widely accepted collections of hadith (i.e., the sayings and traditions of Prophet Mohammed) are Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari and both sources list multiple hadith on the topic of khafz.

    Dawoodi Bohra beliefs and practices (including khafz) have their origins in Da’aimul Islam (“The Pillars of Islam”), a collection of works on the Fatimid interpretation of Islam compiled in the tenth century during the reign of the Fatimid Imams. Da’aimul Islam is the principal source of Islamic jurisprudence for Dawoodi Bohras.

    For Sahiyo to casually characterize a formal religious practice as a “cultural development” shows not only an ignorance of Islam and its rich history and theology but to come in from the outside (since Sahiyo are decidedly non-Dawoodi Bohra) and to insist on fundamental changes to a religion is hegemonic, reeks of moral colonialism, and more importantly, is an incredibly dangerous trip down slippery slope.

    Today Sahiyo's point of contention is khafz. Tomorrow it will be the clothes we wear. Or who we marry. And so on. In a world charged with hate espoused in the name of religion where people are declared heretics and persecuted and killed for not conforming to certain worldviews, where, one must ask, will the buck stop?

    [1] Sahiyo Report, p.13. [2] Sahiyo Report, p.6. [3] Ibid. [4] Sahiyo Report, p.4. [5] Atkinson, Rowland; Flint, John (2004). Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods. SAGE Publications, Inc. pp. 1044–1045. ISBN 9780761923633. [6] Sahiyo Report, p.72. [7] Sahiyo Report, p.24. [8] Sahiyo Report, p.84. Emphasis added. [9] Q.23: Did you face any physical or health issues immediately after khatna? [10] Q.29: What would your Dawoodi Bohra relatives and friends think if they knew a Dawoodi Bohra woman had not undergone khatna? [11] Sahiyo Report, p.68. [12] Sahiyo Report, p.65. Emphasis added. [13] Ibid. [14] Ibid. [15] as of February 16, 2017. [16] Sahiyo Report, p.84. [17] Sahiyo Report, p.14