MUMBAI: A speech by the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community, in which he appears to be urging followers in India to continue the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), has angered and upset campaigners trying to end the centuries-old practice.
The audio clip of Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin's speech at a mosque in Mumbai, has been authenticated by several members of the community. According to a transcript, he said: "The act must be done. It needs to be done discreetly when it is a woman, but it needs to be done."
Calls and e-mails to a spokesperson for the Syedna and the administrative office of the leader received no response.
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A person described as a close friend of the Syedna family told the Times of India newspaper that the remarks were a "general comment" and that people were "interpreting it differently". Campaigners in the city spoke out against the speech.
"The speech is a huge disappointment for us," said Masooma Ranalvi, who was cut as a seven-year-old and leads an online petition as part of the 'Speak Out on FGM' campaign, which has drawn almost 50,000 signatories, including Mia Farrow, who tweeted her support on Thursday.
"Ever since we began the campaign, there has been only silence from the clergy. But now that it's out in the open, at least there's no ambiguity about where they stand," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Little is known about FGM in India where the ritual is carried out in great secrecy by the close-knit Shia Muslim sect thought to number over 1 million.
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.
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India is not included on UN lists of countries affected by FGM. Campaigners say Dawoodi Bohras are the only Muslim community in South Asia to practise FGM, estimating that up to three quarters of Bohra girls are cut.
Although it is not mentioned in the Holy Quran, the Bohras consider khatna -- the removal of part of the clitoris -- a religious obligation, and debate on the subject has long been taboo.
But 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.
Since then, more than a dozen Bohra communities in Europe and the United States have passed resolutions against the practice.
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"The strongest form of opposition to khatna is now coming from within the community," the non-profit group Sahiyo, focused on ending FGM in India, posted on its website on Friday. "Those opposed to the practice have strong reasons for their views."
Campaigners will now focus on petitioning the government, said Ranalvi. "There is hypocrisy in the clergy's stance, so the government is the most important route open to us now," she said. "We need them to step in to protect our girls."