The global campaign against female genital mutilation has made headlines in recent months due to high-profile activists like Gambian-American Jaha Dukureh. Now, members of a small Muslim community in India are speaking out against the brutal practice.
In December, 17 women belonging to the Dawoodi Bohras community formed an activist group called Speak Out on FGM, and created a Change.org petition urging India to outlaw the practice. By going public, the women risked excommunication from their close-knit community.
"FGM is a practice steeped in patriarchy," Masooma Ranalvi, a 49-year-old publisher who was circumcised as a 7-year-old in Mumbai and who's leading Speak Out on FGM, told The Huffington Post. "The basic idea behind it is that the sexuality of a girl/woman has to be controlled by the man. It perpetuates the idea that women’s bodies have to be altered, their sexuality has to be curbed, she should be denied the right to love, and the right to enjoy sex or even have an orgasm."
The Bohras number about 1 million in India, and they are the only Muslim community in the country to practice FGM, according to Ranalvi. She estimated that up to three quarters of Bohra girls are cut by religious women, midwives or doctors, usually before age 10. The community conducts the kind of FGM in which the tip of the clitoris is removed, which is classified as "Type 1" FGM by the World Health Organization.
FGM, which refers to the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, comes with numerous physical and psychological risks, including urinary tract infections, bleeding, complications in childbirth and infertility.
Ranalvi said that a previous, anonymous petition to the Bohra high priest was ignored, and that religious leaders have not engaged with their recent efforts.
"The reception from the Bohra religious leaders to our campaign so far is that of silence. It seems that their thinking is by keeping quiet on the issue, it will vanish and can be wished away," she said.
Speak Out on FGM's campaign aims to target men, who tend to avoid talking about FGM, as well as women. Currently, the petition is close to reaching its stated goal of 35,000 signatures.
"This is being made out to be a women’s issue. But that is not the case. It is a social issue, and it affects marriage and family," Ranalvi said.
FGM among Bohras made the news last November when an Australian court convicted a pair of Bohra immigrants for cutting two girls.
Government action aside, Ranalvi is hopeful about advancing the conversation on FGM within the Bohra community.
"It continues to be taboo," she said. "But I feel there are far more women who are willing to talk about it today than two years ago."