By Emma Batha
LONDON, Jan 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of Indian women who were subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) as children are calling on the government to ban the ancient ritual, describing it as child abuse.
FGM, which can cause serious physical and psychological problems, is more commonly linked to African countries which have led international efforts to end the practice.
Little is known about FGM in India where the ritual is carried out in great secrecy by the close-knit Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia Muslim sect thought to number over 1 million.
The campaign is led by Masooma Ranalvi, a 49-year-old publisher who has launched an online petition in which she describes how she was cut as a seven-year-old in Mumbai.
"The shock and trauma of that day are still with me. All of us feel scarred by it. It is there in our psyche," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from New Delhi.
"What makes me really angry is that this continues today. What happened to me is history, but why are we doing this to young girls even now? Someone has to speak up and we have to stop this."
Campaigners said the Dawoodi Bohras are the only Muslim community in India to practise FGM. The ritual - called Khatna in India - involves removing part of the clitoris.
Although it is not mentioned in the Koran, the Bohras consider Khatna a religious obligation. Debate on the subject has long been taboo, campaigners say.
"There is a lot of fear in the community that if you do not obey you will be excommunicated," Ranalvi said.
"It has taken a lot of courage to speak out. Today, a lot of women support us but they are not willing to come out openly because of this fear."
India is not included on U.N. lists of countries affected by FGM, but Ranalvi estimated up to three quarters of Bohra girls are still cut.
The petition, initiated by 17 Bohra women, calls for a law banning FGM in India. Campaigners plan to present it to the Bohra high priest and the government in the coming weeks.
Government officials were not immediately available to comment. Campaigners say a previous anonymous petition to the Bohra high priest was ignored.
One of the 17 women, Aarefa Johari, said FGM was rooted in the partriarchal belief that a woman's sexual desire must be curbed.
"Even where the physical injury is no longer severe, the psychological trauma is really long-lasting," said Johari, co-founder of Sahiyo, a group campaigning to end FGM in the Bohra community.
"We've heard from a lot of women who experience and remember the trauma as a form of sexual abuse," she added.
Worldwide, up to 140 million girls and women have undergone FGM, which is carried out in a swathe of Africa and pockets of the Middle East and Asia.
The practice among Indian Dawoodi Bohras hit the headlines in November when a court in Australia found two members of the diaspora community guilty of cutting two girls. A Bohra religious leader was convicted of being an accessory.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution three years ago in favour of the elimination of FGM. Most African countries where FGM is practised have made it illegal.
(Editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)