MUMBAI (REUTERS) - Women activists campaigning to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in a minority Muslim community in India hailed a minister's pledge to introduce a law to end the centuries-old custom.
FGM is secretly carried out by the close-knit Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shi'ite Muslim sect thought to number up to 2 million worldwide that considers the practice a religious obligation.
Ms Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development, told the Hindustan Times newspaper this weekend she would write to state governments and the Bohra spiritual leader - the Syedna - to issue an edict to end FGM because it is a crime.
"If the Syedna does not respond, then we will bring in a law to ban the practice in India," she was quoted as saying.
Debate on the subject has long been taboo, even as a group of Bohra women subjected to FGM as girls called for the government to ban the ritual, called khatna.
In most cases, part of the clitoral hood is cut, but in some cases girls have had part or all of the clitoris cut.
"This is a huge victory for us," said Ms Masooma Ranalvi of Speak Out on FGM, whose change.org petition to end FGM in India has garnered more than 90,000 signatures. "There is a deep division within the community, and even a law will not end the practice immediately. But at least the issue is out in the open now."
A spokesman for Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin in Mumbai did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
A spokeswoman for Syedna Taher Fakhruddin, who leads one faction of the community, said Mr Fakhruddin stood by an earlier statement that khatna should only be allowed after women "attain legal adulthood" and are free to make their own decisions.
Unicef estimates about 200 million girls worldwide have undergone FGM, which often causes serious physical and psychological problems.
Campaigners say this is an underestimate because it is only based on data from 27 African countries along with Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan and Indonesia.
Earlier this month, India's Supreme Court asked the government and four states to respond to a petition seeking a ban on FGM.
The practice among Dawoodi Bohras captured international attention last 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.
More than a dozen Bohra communities in Europe and the United States have passed resolutions against the practice.
A similar resolution is what is needed in India, not a new law, said Ms Flavia Agnes, a lawyer and co-founder of legal centre Majlis for women's rights.
"FGM is clearly a sexual assault against a minor and can be prosecuted under existing sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "This is an educated, progressive community; they have to resolve to end the practice themselves. It is not the lack of a law that is the problem, it is the lack of a will."