Mumbai, India – About 40 years ago at the age of seven, Masooma Ranalvi was lured to a dark alley in a decrepit-looking building by her grandma’s promise of ice-cream. It is a day that she will never forget.
“I remember it so clearly. I was told to lie down, my legs were held and I was cut with a razor. It was a sharp piercing pain. It was so scary and I couldn’t stop crying,” Ranalvi told Al Jazeera English.
After the procedure, black powder was put on the wound and for the next 10 days Ranalvi suffered silently in pain.
“It happened in such a primitive way but we were in the throbbing metropolis of Mumbai. Even to date, what happened was never spoken about.”
Ranalvi, who grew up in Mumbai but has since moved to the country’s capital, is one of the estimated 200 million girls and women alive today that have suffered female genital mutilation (FGM), according to the latest worldwide figures by UNICEF.
But while FGM has been well-documented in countries including Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia, it has been shrouded in secrecy in India, where it is practised among the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia Muslim sect with origins linked to Africa and which is thought to number more than one million.
While Muslims make up about 14 percent of India’s population, FGM only occurs within this specific sect.
It was not until Ranalvi was in her late 20s that she read about the practice in Africa and drew parallels with what had happened to her.
“When I realised I was shattered. It was horrifying to realise that part of my clitoris was ripped out.”
‘Speak out on FGM’
While little was known about female genital mutilation in India, that is all changing thanks to Ranalvi and a group of women who have come together under the forum “Speak out on FGM” to tell of their experiences and to encourage other women to speak out too.
Last month a petition was launched by 17 Bohra women calling for a law banning FGM in India.
“A lot of Bohra women contacted me wanting to speak out and talk about what happened to them,” Ranalvi said.
“I needed to do something about it. All of us are scarred in some way. We were cheated in a clandestine way.”
Although it is not mentioned in the Quran, the Bohras consider Khatna – their name for female genital mutilation – to be a religious obligation. The Syedna, the religious head of the sect, who is based in Mumbai, supports the practice. Ranalvi said that the response of the religious head has been one of “silence”.
“He has decided to keep quiet and the practice continues unabated,” she said.
Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a professor of Islamic Studies at St Xavier’s College, in Mumbai, told Al Jazeera that the practice had nothing to do with religion.
“Nowhere is it mentioned in the Quran, it is a ‘tradition’. It has nothing to do with religion. We always have this tendency to confuse religion and culture,” she said.
“The idea is to suppress women, to dominate them. The practice is not acceptable for other Muslims in India except the Bohra sect. It is really not acceptable.”
Ali added that she was proud of the women who were taking a stand against it.
FGM – ‘a form of abuse’
Tasneem, who didn’t want to disclose her full name for fear of retribution in the community, was also cut at the age of seven. She too was lured by the promise of ice-cream.
“I realised that Khatna is not in the Quran. Why put girls through torture in the name of religion? We need to break the myth that it’s compulsory. If something is advocated in the name of religion, it doesn’t mean that it’s right,” she told Al Jazeera.
She, and other Bohra women, believe that religion is used as an excuse to justify the practice which is done to “prevent promiscuity”. Others in the community label it “female circumcision” as a means of justification – just as baby boys in the community have it done for health reasons.
“God has made us the way we are. So what, sex shouldn’t be for pleasure for women? We are meant to work in the house and act like robots?”
Holding back tears, Tasneem spoke of her regret at having her 15-year-old daughter also cut at the age of seven.
“I told her how sorry I am. If I was aware I would have fought against it. Every woman feels like they’ve been cheated,” she said.
“A revolution has to come and end this practice. Ultimately it’s a form of abuse.”
Al Jazeera repeatedly called a Mumbai-based doctor who is well known for performing the procedure, only to be told several times that the wrong number had been reached.
Stop the cutting
For young Mumbai-based journalist, Aarefa Johari, speaking out against FGM was an obvious course of action.
She said that the psychological impacts on women are vast, ranging from intimacy issues to marriage troubles and social anxiety.
“They don’t have the right to control women’s sexuality. There is a complete lack of consent.”
More than a year ago, Johari and four other Bohra women began a group called Sahiyo which aims to create a safe space for women to speak about their experiences. The final goal is to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end cutting.
Sahiyo conducted a study to determine the prevalence of cutting among the community. The organisation study the incidence to be about 80 percent of girls, including other Bohra women who live outside India in countries including the US, UK and Australia.
“More and more doctors are doing this,” Johari said.
But while Johari wants a law banning the practice, she admits it will be tough to achieve.
“We’ve had no response from the clergy,” she said.
“If we’re able to convince the leaders, maybe it’ll be possible. We just need to build enough momentum and try and engage as many people as possible and then there will be a chance of legislation being effective.”
Ranalvi shares the same concerns.
“Even if a law is passed, the practice is so secret it’ll go underground. We need a change in hearts, minds and understanding. We have a long battle ahead and it won’t happen easily,” she said.
“But even if one woman is stopped from getting her daughter cut, it’s a big victory for us. That will make me happy.”