India

Indian women who are fighting to stop genital mutilation

Bohra Muslim women Image copyright AFP
Image caption Female genital mutilation has been a well-kept secret in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where it's practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community

The cruel practice of female genital mutilation is banned in many countries globally, but it remains widespread among the Bohras - a small Muslim community in India. Now, some Bohra women have started a campaign demanding an end to the ritual, writes the BBC's Geeta Pandey in Delhi.

When Masooma Ranalvi was seven years old, her grandmother took her out promising to buy her an ice-cream and some candies.

"I was very excited so I went along happily with her," she told me.

"When she took me to a decrepit old building, I started to wonder what kind of an ice-cream parlour it was. Then she took me to a room, made me lie down on a rug on the floor and pulled my pants down.

Image copyright Masooma Ranalvi
Image caption Masooma Ranalvi was seven when she underwent female genital mutilation

"She held my hands and another woman held my legs. And then they cut something from my vagina. I shouted in pain and started to cry. They put some black powder there, pulled my pants up and my grandmother took me home.

That was nearly 40 years ago, but Ms Ranalvi says she is still to get over the trauma of what happened to her.

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Media captionMasooma Ranalvi on her own childhood experience of FGM

So earlier this month, she and some other Bohra women began a change.org petition calling on the government to ban female genital mutilation (FMG).

Sometimes called female circumcision, FGM refers to procedures including the partial or total removal of external female genital organs for non-medical reasons, often without anaesthesia.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption An earlier petition to the Bohra high priest to ban FGM was ignored

The practice, Ms Ranalvi says, is "steeped in patriarchy" and the idea behind it is the belief that "female sexuality is destructive to patriarchal order and that a woman has no right to enjoy sex and that a woman who has undergone FMG will be more faithful to her husband and not stray".

"The sole purpose is to curb a woman's sexual desire and make sex less pleasurable for her," she adds.

FGM has been widespread in many parts of Africa and the Middle East for centuries, but has been a particularly well-kept secret in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where it's practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community. FGM is also practiced widely in Indonesia.

A Shia sect from Yemen, the Bohras arrived in India in the 16th Century. Today they are found mostly in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The community, with a population of over a million, is fairly prosperous and the Dawoodi Bohras are among the most educated in the country, but they remain the only one to practice FGM.

In December 2012, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution vowing to eliminate FGM and across the world, many countries banned it.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption This picture taken on February 10, 2013 shows an Indonesian mother trying to calm her four-year-old daughter as doctors perform her circumcision
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many Kenyan Maasai women support FMG and have opposed the ban on the practice currently in place in the country

But in India, no such law exists and the Bohras continue to practice FGM - known locally as khatna or female circumcision.

"FGM has mostly been spoken about in whispers, up until now," Preethi Herman, country head of Change.org in India, told the BBC.

"For the first time in India, a group of women, survivors of FGM themselves, have spoken out. The message is loud and clear - FGM needs to be banned," she added.

Art historian Habiba Insaf, a member of the community and a signatory to the petition, says: "The practice is not sanctioned by Koran. If it was, then all Muslims in India would practice it. It continues in our community because no-one questions it."

Image copyright Masooma Ranalvi
Image caption The Bohra women in India are fighting to end the cruel practice of FGM

FGM, she says, can have long-term harmful effects - it can cause psychological and sexual damage.

"Also, since it's not done by clinically-trained people, so often there are complications. I've heard about women who have bled to death after undergoing FGM," Ms Insaf says.

A few years ago, a similar petition was started by a Bohra woman - who refused to reveal her identity - urging the Bohra high priest Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin to ban FGM.

That petition, Ms Ranalvi says, was "consigned to the dustbin" - a spokesman for Syedna advised that "Bohra women should understand that our religion advocates the procedure and they should follow it without any argument".

It's an advice the petitioners are not willing to take and that's why, this time, they have approached the Indian government to intervene.

"It's a form of abuse. And it must stop," says Ms Insaf.

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