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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When anthropologist Kameel Ahmady began investigating female genital mutilation in his native Iran he had no idea his own mother and sister had been cut – a reflection of just how shrouded in secrecy the practice is.
Ahmady, who was born in Iranian Kurdistan but moved to Britain in his 20s, took global campaigners by surprise this month when he published a study suggesting tens of thousands of Iranian women have undergone FGM.
Until now Iran has not been widely recognized as a country affected by FGM - an ancient ritual which is internationally condemned as a serious rights violation.
The practice, which causes physical and psychological damage, is commonly linked to 27 African countries along with Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan.
But Ahmady's research, based on 4,000 interviews, shows FGM is also performed in "secret pockets" of four Iranian provinces; West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah in the west and Hormozgan in the south.
The ritual usually involves cutting the clitoris with a knife or razorblade. Some girls are cut as babies, others during childhood.
Parents often believe FGM is a religious requirement and some think it will help preserve their daughters' virginity and therefore the family's honor.
"It needs to be done otherwise a girl would have so much sexual desire it would be scandalous," one elderly cutter says in a documentary filmed during research.
Ahmady said his study initially provoked denials and insults but the backlash stopped when the BBC's Persian service broadcast the film, triggering debate on Iranian social media.
Last week he was invited to speak at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva at a session on tackling FGM, which is thought to affect 140 million girls and women worldwide.
Ahmady decided to research FGM after working with aid agencies in Africa where he came across projects to combat the practice. This awoke vague childhood memories that FGM existed in some parts of Iranian Kurdistan, prompting him to conduct preliminary research.
"I was very shocked to discover that my grandmothers, mother and sister had all undergone FGM," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "That was the trigger - the feeling that, God, something really inhuman has happened here.
"I took the initial data back to London but nobody including UNICEF really believed me, so I went back to Iran with my camera to shoot a short documentary. The research took off from there."
His study, conducted over 10 years with the help of female researchers, shows FGM is mostly associated with Sunni Shafi'i Kurds, although a tiny number of Shia Muslims and other Sunni Muslims also practise it.
Prevalence is highest in parts of the south where up to 60 percent of women in their 30s and 40s have been cut. But outside practising communities very few people in Iran are aware FGM exists.
The report calls on the Iranian government to introduce laws on FGM, develop a national plan to end the practice and incorporate the issue into education and health programs.
Ahmady believes the government in Shia majority Iran has been loath to act because it perceives FGM as largely a Sunni problem affecting Kurdish regions and doesn't want to interfere for fear of stoking tensions.
"Iran doesn't have a brilliant record when it comes to women's rights and is very worried about destabilizing border areas," he says. "It doesn't want a headache with these communities where its motives are generally not trusted."
But Ahmady says Iran can no longer shun its responsibility for tackling FGM under international treaties it has signed on protecting children's rights.
Despite the lack of any national campaign, Ahmady's research shows FGM is declining, partly because of better access to education, increased migration from villages to towns and lack of interest in religion among young people.
Efforts by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to stamp out FGM may also be having an impact on Iran's western provinces.
Ahmady says religious leaders have a big role to play in ending the practice. Although FGM predates Islam and is not mentioned in the Koran, some Sunni clerics believe it is a religious obligation. Others, however, are beginning to speak out, even preaching against FGM in their Friday sermons.
Mala Seyyed Hasan Vazhi, a cleric from West Azerbaijan, argues that FGM not only harms a woman's health, but causes sexual problems in marriage which can lead husbands to "sin and adultery".
"Female circumcision does nothing but hurt your daughter's body," he says. "This practice must stop."
Ahmady, who has already persuaded his own family to abandon FGM, hopes his research will spur Iran's government to take action.
"The wall of denial on FGM has been broken," he said.
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