By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Nov 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Members of Sri Lanka's Muslim communities have strongly condemned criticism of ancient cutting rituals performed on girls, saying it should not be classed as female genital mutilation.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM includes all procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
The practice has no health benefits for girls and women, says the WHO, adding it can cause long-term physical and psychological harm.
But representatives of Sri Lankan Muslim communities - such as the Dawoodi Bohras, Moor and Malay Muslims - who practice female circumcision or "khatna" - say the procedure their girls undergo cannot be compared to what happens in regions such as Africa, where the practice can involve sewing up the vagina.
"It is completely false to associate FGM in Africa, where the clitoris is seriously damaged or removed, with khatna in Sri Lanka," said Jamila Husain, spokesperson for a body representing the 3,000-strong Dawoodi Bohra community in Sri Lanka.
"Khatna involves making just the mildest of nicks on foreskin of the clitoris as required by our religion. There is no clinical evidence to show that it has negative health impacts or causes any kind of psychological trauma."
A U.N. report on FGM last year listed 30 countries where cutting is practised, almost all in Africa. However, campaigners believe FGM happens in at least 45 countries and is more widespread in Asia than commonly thought.
Members of Sri Lanka's Moor and Malay Muslim community - which number nearly two million and 60,000 respectively - say it is misleading and damaging to their communities to brand "a nick on the hood or prepuce of the clitoris" as FGM.
"We do not mutilate or cut our girls. Our religion requires it and it actually helps to keep the area clean and hygienic and prevents infections," said Asiff Hussein, vice president at the Centre for Islamic Studies in Sri Lanka.
"In fact, this procedure actually helps women gain more pleasure during sexual intercourse."
But two Bohra women interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said when they underwent the ritual as children it involved damage to the clitoris, and vowed that their daughters would not undergo the khatna.
And in India, a group of women from the Dawoodi Bohra community have called for the government to ban the practice.
The WHO classifies FGM into four types - full or partial removal of the clitoris, the removal of the inner folds of the vulva plus the removal of the clitoris, narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a seal and pricking, piercing, incising, scraping or cauterising the genital area.
The United Nations views all forms of FGM as a violation of the rights of women and girls.
The practice among the Dawoodi Bohras hit the headlines in 2015 when a court in Australia found two members of the Indian Dawoodi Bohras diaspora community guilty of cutting two girls. A Bohra religious leader was convicted of being an accessory.
Since then, more than a dozen Bohra communities in Europe and the United States have passed resolutions against the practice.
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.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Emma Batha and Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.