Female circumcision is no different from other forms of violence against women

on 5 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Filzah Sumartono

So I was talking to my friend the other day and I brought up the issue of sunat perempuan or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). And my friend seemed pretty nonchalant about it.

Yeah, well…it’s something that is done when the child is very young, all kids have to do it, right? – No, only Malay kids. – Yeah, okay, so what’s the problem? I think there are bigger problems out there.

Well, the problem to me is that sunat perempuan is something that does not need to be done. There’s no medical basis for it, it’s not something that is taught in medical school, there are no health benefits from it. By cutting the child, you’re taking away something from the child that is not yours to take in the first place. And all this because of some vague notion of “culture” or to “prevent promiscuity” or a misunderstanding of “religion” or a misunderstanding of how the female body works.

I recently found out that someone I know sent her infant daughter to be cut. My heart broke when I heard the news. It doesn’t matter if the procedure that is done in Singapore is “just a small cut” or “won’t hurt very much”. The very idea that something is wrong with female reproductive organs or that it is not good enough the way it is and that it has to be cut reflects a deep-rooted idea that girls and women have to be controlled and subjected to many restrictions and etc.

Sunat perempuan is no different from other forms of violence against women. It is just one of the many ways society tries to control the female body, sexuality and being. In our Malay community, we begin the process at infancy. To not see it as a problem is to deny that this is part of a bigger picture of how society condones violence against women and removes women’s rights to live on their own terms.

My father did not allow khatna to happen to me

By Aiman

Age: 26

Country: United States

I am a 26-year-old Indian female born and raised in the United States. I come from a Dawoodi Bohra family. I only recently found out about khatna, or female genital cutting, when my cousin exposed me to the issue. It came as a shock to find out that this practice had happened to many of the women in my family.

I was overcome with horror and sadness at learning that information. I wondered why khatna hadn’t happened to me. After all, I went to India so many times as a child and stayed with my mother’s family, who supported this practice. Wanting to learn more about it, I decided to reach out to my mother.

My mother told me that at the time it was a very common practice and they all had it done. She also told me that she didn’t know why it was performed. She told me she was mad when it happened to her because it hurt her, but she was not mad at her mother. Her mother didn’t know any better, my mother said, it was tradition and no one questioned it.

My mother went on to tell me that the reason it did not happen to me was because my father was against it, and would not allow it to be done to me. I feel extremely lucky to have such a progressive father, who did not support this practice. But knowing that this has happened to my cousins, in India, and in America, is heartbreaking.

I am in full support of my family members speaking out against the practice and letting the world know that this is not right and should not occur anymore.

‘I am relieved more parents are saying no to female circumcision’

on 5 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Zuby Eusofe 

I was six years old when I was forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) aka sunat perempuan. I was in a deep sleep and all of a sudden, I felt a sharp prick on my clitoris. I was shocked, clueless and traumatised. I didn’t know what was happening to me. When I opened my eyes, I saw my late mum, my aunt and an old lady, who seemed to be in her sixties, gathered around me. I was still wearing my baju kurung (Malay traditional clothes) but my underwear was gone. After putting me through that ordeal, they asked me to get up and try to walk in my clothes but without my underwear.

The thought of going through this so-called “religious ritual” traumatized me for quite awhile. I remember having nightmares about it too.

I am relieved that more and more parents are saying no to FGM. Now that I have a son, I will educate him not to practice FGM when he has a daughter with his future family. This practice has to end. Even though there are still quite a handful of Muslim parents who practice the ritual just to please the elders, I think they should also prioritise their child’s well-being.

A recent study by Oxford University [1], suggests that babies feel pain just like adults. The researchers found that 18 of the 20 brain regions active in adults when they experienced pain were also active in babies. MRI scans also showed that babies’ brains had the same response to a weak ‘poke’ (of force 128mN) as adults did to a stimulus that was four times as strong (512mN) which actually suggests that babies have a much lower pain threshold.

Therefore, I believe that as parents we should not practise such traumatizing birth rituals. We should strive to abolish the practice of FGM for the sake of our next generation of daughters.

[1] http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-04-21-babies-feel-pain-adults

FGM/C from an artist’s perspective: Art for cultural change

By Owanto

How can art promote change? How can it transform the lives of millions of young women and girls?

Art offers another platform to increase visibility and raise awareness about this global issue. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In the U.S., more than half a million women and girls are estimated to be affected or at risk of FGM. This number of those at risk has more than doubled in roughly the past decade.

Bringing the taboo of FGM/C into the light will help people understand that these cultural traditions can and should be revisited. Communities can still celebrate the coming of age of their daughters without harm, without cutting, without mutilation. We can, and must, celebrate womanhood in a different way.

The Flower Project

I was inspired to create the Flower Project when I inherited a box of archival photographs from my father and found images documenting an FGM/C ceremony. Shocked by the very disturbing images, I put them back in their place to be forgotten. But I was haunted by it and I could not forget. I made investigations and realised the immensity of the problem. It did not belong to the past but represented the cruel reality of our present. I felt compelled to use those images to condemn the practice of FGM/C in today’s world. I enlarged and edited the photographs and made sculptures in the form of flowers to cover the void and hide the injury.

The flower allows the viewer to maintain his or her gaze on the photographs that would otherwise be very difficult to look at. The metaphor of the flower, a symbol of the efflorescence of young women, transforms the violation of their body into an image of beauty. This symbol envisions a future where feminine energy plays a large role in the progress of society, the world, starting with a loud and resounding ‘no’ to the removal of the most intimate part of our body. The Flower Project was exhibited at Le Conseil National, Monaco’s parliament to celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this year.

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Katya Berger (left) and Owanto (right) with Bohra FGC survivor Alifya Sulemanji, who was featured in The Flower Project. Read Alifya’s story here. Photo courtesy: Owanto.

The Vocal Piece

I am currently working with my producer, my daughter, Katya Lucia Berger on a “vocal piece” that is collecting the voices of survivors that we have interviewed and will interview. Together we will be stronger.

“The Vocal Piece” will involve the participation of 30 women from the 30 countries most affected by FGC. The piece will be a melange of voices, accents, and languages recorded on the iphone to represent that fact that FGC is a global problem that should be addressed on a global scale. The inclusion of women who have not been affected by this practice as a result of families going against the social norm is also crucial to this piece. It is important to recognise their efforts to bring about change.

I have been invited to exhibit at the European Council this coming October, when new recommendations will be passed to protect girls and women against FGM/C. 180,000 girls and women are at risk every year in 11 countries in Europe.

I want to thank all the survivors and activists for their support and contribution to the project. Special thanks to Mariya Taher.

If you would like to add your voice and your story to the Flower Project, please be in touch at owanto1@me.com or at Katya Berger klb2189@columbia.edu.

………….

About Owanto:

Owanto has been working on her art for over 30 years and has taken a multidisciplinary approach in her creative process and works across a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation and performance.

About Katya:

Katya Berger is a former graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and is a producer for Quotidian (TF1) covering the U.S. presidential elections.

I will not let my younger daughter be cut, says a Bohra father

by Hozefa Anik

Age: 40

Country: India

The first time I heard about khatna was some 15-16 years ago, when I was working in Doha, Qatar. I was told that it is a practice prevalent in parts of Egypt, mainly in the villages located in the Nile river basin. The soil of the basin was supposed to be very fertile and had a certain effect on women’s genes, apparently making their clitoris grow ten times bigger than its normal size. Because of this, the women would remain in a constant state of physical arousal – any bodily movement would cause friction and arouse them. To control that, they started cutting the clitoris, which eventually turned into a tradition.

I never thought much about this till, a few years ago, I read about a lady opposing khatna in Australia and discovered that this was being practiced among the Bohras too. And I was against the idea of khatna from the very first time I heard about it. My elder daughter was cut when I was out of India and I was not even informed or consulted.

It is a misfortune that on the one hand, we say that we are advanced and we use the latest gadgets and technology, but on the other hand, we still adhere to age-old rituals and traditions. We are fed such things from childhood, so for us it becomes a way of life and we do not even bother to understand the rights and wrongs. I will give you an example.

When I was in Santo Domingo, we had a live-in maid in our house. She stayed with us during the week and went to her own house on Sundays. One day, I saw her cutting her nails at night and I objected to it, telling her not to do it at night and to try to do it only on Fridays. This was based on the superstition fed to me from childhood that we have to cut nails only on Fridays and never at night. When the maid asked me the reason for this, I was unable to give her a satisfying explanation as I myself am unaware of the logic. I don’t follow it anymore. I cut my nails whenever I want but the problem is I still feel guilty if I cut them at night. This applies not just to Bohras; this is global. Every religion, community, society has some sort of superstitions.

My elder daughter has been cut, but I am not going to do it to my younger daughter. My wife is on board with me about this – we will not let this happen to her.

My Body Is Not Mine – A Muslim woman’s commentary on body autonomy

on 4 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Zarifah Anuar

When I was two weeks old, my mother handed me over to her bidan (traditional midwife), my grand-aunt, to be circumcised. She did not witness the procedure and did not know exactly what was done to me. To her, the sunat was an act that all Muslims, regardless of gender, had to go through. It wasn’t up for discussion or debate. It was a non-issue to her, and it should be a non-issue to me too.

I didn’t know I had been circumcised until more than twenty-three years later when a colleague asked me if I had gone through the procedure. I answered, very confidently, that I would know if I had. I knew my body. Years of struggling with my own body shape, skin colour, and facial features had taken a toll on me, but at the end of the day, I knew my body.

“You should ask your mother,” she told me.

I did, and there is a part of me that regrets asking because I now know just how much my body is not mine. From birth, or perhaps even before that, it was never mine. It belongs to God, the Creator.

Or at least, that is what religious leaders and my parents tell me. I, however, call bullshit.

My body does not belong to God. My body belongs to their perception of God. My body, and their mutilation and policing of it, is part and parcel of their desire to control the female body.

They hide this under many guises, all in the name of God: sunat will make you cleaner, purer, less susceptible to sin, more able to be His servant. When you cover your skin from the eyes of men, you will appear more beautiful in the eyes of God. Lower your gaze and your voice, that way you will be His humble follower.

When you read deeper into the meaning of these messages, it translates into: you are a woman, this is how you will look, this is how you will behave. You will listen and follow because centuries of male leadership has made our community know nothing else but patriarchy and the control of women to feed the male need to dominate and have power.

God doesn’t tell women to be less. Islam doesn’t tell women to be less. Prophet Muhammad himself was surrounded by many strong, assertive women. It is patriarchy and the men who uphold it to this day that tells women to be less, so that they will be familiar with being nothing more than second to men; so that they will not question the norms that have been forced upon them.

I don’t know what was taken from me when I was two weeks old, but I do know that it was without my consent. What would a two-week old infant know, much less understand, about the world around her? An infant that age is barely even able to lift her own head.

“Did I cry?” I asked my mother when she told me that I had undergone the sunat at two weeks old. “Was I asleep? Did I wake up?”

My mother didn’t answer and instead told me that the conversation was over.

I refuse to accept that this conversation is over. Our community insists on owning the bodies of girls and women instead of allowing us to make our own decisions. Sunat marks the start of others deciding and policing what happens to our bodies. From then on some of us are forced into the hijab long before puberty, and we are judged and criticised based on what we choose to wear. Our autonomy over our bodies is restricted, at times even taken away from us.

I want to keep talking about what was taken away from me more than twenty-three years ago. Physically, I will never know what exactly it was, but symbolically it is my ownership over my body, and I will not stop fighting for it.

‘You have no right over your body’: Things khatna supporters have told me

By Saleha Paatwala

Age: 23

Country: India

After watching ‘Reflecting Her’(a film on FGC) that gave me strength to fight, it has now been six months since I set out on this mission to end the hazardous practice of Khatna. In these months, I have had discussions with numerous individuals including my relatives, some of whom have been against the practice and some of whom have been in support of it. From my discussions, I have learned why some individuals support this practice and continue following it.

At first, I was extremely apprehensive to begin discussing this topic in my family group, but I knew that I had to. After my conversation with them, I realized my own relatives were living with misguided knowledge on the topic.

Below are a few reasons given by individuals who support the practice. I have also included my answers to their reasons:

  • Cousin – It is Rasullah’s sunnah (the Prophet’s preaching for the benefit of people, not a compulsion) which has been taken after.
    My response – If Khatna is Sunnah, why has it been made obligatory on all ladies, then?
  • Friend – It is Allah who has made us and as a dedication to him, we should give him something.
    My response – If he has made us, why does he need us to give something back to him? Also, if he truly needs some kind of devotion from us, why not cut a hand or a leg and give him, may be?
  • Grandmother – Women get to be devout and clean.
    My response – Why would Allah send us to earth impious and impure?  So are those who haven’t experienced this practice corrupt and debase?
  • Cousin – If not done on time, she may become promiscuous and destroy her life.
    My response – How does a piece of her body lead her to promiscuity? Doesn’t that depend on her upbringing and not her clitoris?
  • Cousin – You have no right over your body.
    My response – Yes, according to ‘you’, women have no privilege to explore her sexuality. People can touch her without her consent & cut any part of her because she has no right on her own body.
  • Cousin– If she has undergone this practice, she will be faithful to her husband.
    My response – Are women born just to keep her better half fulfilled, to make due in this patriarchal society?

One comment which was made by a relative still echoes in my ears. “I will soon give birth to a girl, make her undergo khatna before you, and you won’t be able to stop me from doing it”. In the twenty-first century, where ideas are developing rapidly, holding on to such patriarchal thinking is pointless.

I was stunned to hear one of my friend’s thoughts on this issue. He said, “It’s good to make Allah happy by giving him something”. Many people consider it a religious practice. They think it is written in the holy book, the ‘Quran’. But when I ask them to show me where it is written, they provide me no answer.  Many of those who I asked, told me not to go further into this issue as it will lead to my alienation. According to them, I am squandering my time trying to end this practice.

Yet I know that it is imperative to understand the outcomes of this practice when it is considered to be a part of your religion and when it is done on young girls who have no clue why it is being performed on them. It maddens me to imagine that we were sliced just to control our sexuality. Why not permit ladies to live as they are and explore their sexuality without putting confinements on them.

A little seven-year-old girl, who doesn’t yet understand what sexuality is, is taken through this insidious practice which later gives her the feeling of betrayal by her own family members. This cruelty is so important that if she hasn’t got cut in her younger age, she gets asked by her in-laws at the time of marriage to undergo it so that she becomes pious, before the marriage. Many women still can’t speak out against this practice even if they want to do so because patriarchal traditions still consider women as servants of her in-laws and her husband.

From the Twitter debate in July, organized by Sahiyo, numerous arguments came forward that supported Khatna. One such lady said, “I had experienced it and I don’t considerably recall the agony. It was managed without harming me and I have no unforgiving memory of it”. She continued, “I also gave consent to my parents to have my ears pierced & it didn’t harm too”.  I have heard many arguments comparing khatna to ear or nose piercing. While ear piercing doesn’t remove any skin, FGC in the Bohra community includes partial or complete removal of the clitoral hood.

If I didn’t have the support of my folks, it would have been difficult to speak out against this practice. My mom, who couldn’t stop her mother from taking her and us to have this practice performed, now strictly condemns this act and wants me to fight FGC until it ends.

Khatna was considered a secretive act and so I never spoke about it to anyone, not even with my sisters. After gathering more courage, I spoke about it to my father and he said “yes, I knew about this act. Your grandmother was so stubborn that she didn’t listen to me at all.”

When my father tried to stop her, my grandmother told him, “Don’t you want your girl to be pious? Do you want her to become promiscuous?”

He lost that argument which is what prompted my sisters to get circumcised as well. He also now wants me to speak out against the practice so that no other girl goes through such a practice which is neither religiously based nor has any health benefits.

A brief report on Sahiyo’s media workshop on khatna among Bohras

On August 8, 2016, Sahiyo conducted its first media training workshop at The Press Club in Mumbai. The workshop was held in partnership with the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT), and its objective was to train journalists on how to sensitively and effectively report on the practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community.

In the past year, print and television media in India and abroad has played crucial role in reporting and raising awareness about Female Genital Cutting among the Bohras. For decades, the practice has typically been associated with African tribes and was virtually unheard of in India. So far, the Bohras are the only community known to practice khatna in India and for many, it has come as a shock that this small, otherwise-progressive sect follows a tradition that is internationally recognised as a human and child rights violation.

Given this context, news publications in India have taken active interest in breaking the silence and secrecy around khatna through interviews, reports, features and news documentaries. FGC, however, is a very complex and controversial issue that requires well-informed and nuanced reporting that is sensitive to the survivors and communities involved. This, at times, has been amiss.

News coverage of khatna among Bohras has been well-intentioned but often, journalists unwittingly misunderstand and misrepresent facts about the practice, and/or portray the issue in a sensational manner that can end up harming FGC survivors, girls at risk and the movement at large.

Sahiyo realised that this could be addressed only by generating more awareness amongst journalists about FGC in the Bohra community and the pros and cons of various styles of reportage on the issue.

Nearly 30 journalists attended the workshop that Sahiyo conducted on August 8. The workshop included a brief screening of Priya Goswami’s segment from the IAWRT 2015 Long Documentary Reflecting Her, which gave participants a quick visual introduction to the way in which khatna is practiced by Bohras.

In sessions conducted by all five Sahiyo co-founders, the workshop emphasised the importance of the media in impacting social change and attempted to chalk out certain do’s and don’ts for journalists, writers, filmmakers and other artists interested in working on the practice of khatna.

Why the media needs to be sensitive

Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher, for instance, spoke about how the media sometimes ends up harming and jeopardising efforts to end gender-based violence, by compromising the safety and interests of survivors, by reinforcing myths and stereotypes, or by sensationalising stories. To ensure the safety of a gender-based violence survivor, the media must not only respect privacy and confidentiality but also consider the retribution survivors could face if their safety is compromised.

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Khatna, like many other traditional and cultural practices, is a social norm that people have followed over time because that is the acceptable thing to do in that society/community. It is important, therefore, that the media doesn’t end up vilifying the community for practicing this social norm – something that many media reports unintentionally tend to do by using words like “brutal”, “barbaric” and “gruesome” to describe khatna. These terms are judgemental, much like the terms “mutilation” and “FGM”, and Sahiyo has consciously chosen to refer to the practice as female genital cutting or FGC instead. (More on Sahiyo’s use of terminology here.)

The importance of visuals and factual accuracy

Priya Goswami’s session focused on the pros and cons of using various types of visuals to represent FGC among the Bohras.

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Most media reports on khatna are accompanied by visuals that typically depict bloodied blades, female figures cut by blades or even stitched up vulvas. These visuals often end up evoking feelings very different from what the journalist or designer may have intended. The intention may be to sensitise readers/viewers, to evoke empathy with survivors, to build dialogue and to bring about change. Instead, such blood-and-gore visuals often merely have shock value and end up alienating the community. They may also end up triggering additional trauma for survivors. Journalists could instead consider using milder, less blatant symbolism in visuals related to FGC.

It is also important that generic photographs used in media reports on khatna must not compromise the identity or invade the privacy of individual community members – journalists could use generic images that showcase the community without highlighting individual faces.

Aarefa Johari’s session highlighted various factual errors that reporters unwittingly tend to make while covering FGC. A major example is when journalists misrepresent the health consequences of Bohra-style khatna (Type 1), by mixing it up with the consequences of other, more severe types of FGC practiced by other communities. Or when media reports generalise the depiction of the way in which khatna is performed on Bohra girls, giving readers the false impression that all girls are held down and cut in dingy rooms by untrained midwives. In reality, khatna is experienced in myriad ways by different Bohras and these differences need to be acknowledged and represented.

Sahiyo looks forward to continuing dialogues with both the community and the media in this important journey to abandon the practice of FGC.

To see the full report on the Media Workshop, click here.

I did not circumcise my daughters, says a Malay Muslim mother

on 3 FEBRUARY, 2016. Republished here with permission.)

Country: Singapore

Community: Malay

By Zubaida Ali

When my daughters were born, I made the decision not to have them circumcised. Female circumcision is one of the most puzzling birth rituals in Muslim society. It has no health or aesthetic value whatsoever.

Circumcision was usually performed by a traditional midwife but now it is performed by a medical doctor at the clinic for a fee. Typically, parents will have it done on their baby one month after birth and like all surgical procedures, it endangers the infant to the risk of infection, pain, and trauma.

Before I made the decision to cut or not to cut, I asked my friends and searched the internet for legitimacy.  Why, where and how was this done, I couldn’t find any valid answers. Then I turned to the one place where Muslims go to for answers, the Holy Qur’an. To my surprise, there are no verses supporting it in the Qur’an. There’s only a vague hadith about male circumcision.

Yet female circumcision is accepted and performed by all Muslim families I know like a sacred duty. It is even surprising for me to discover that it varies with different sects of Muslims all over the world, and with different degrees of severity. From a pinprick to show blood to removal of the clitoral hood (which is what is done in Singapore) to having major parts of the labia removed like in some parts of Africa and Middle-East.

I will require more validity from theological and medical sources before I hand over my child for such a procedure.

As a Muslim and a mother, my reason for not allowing my child to undergo the procedure is why would Allah create an imperfect human body? Why would Allah create a body that requires the tampering and removal of anything so natural?

My two girls now live freely and uncut, and I have never regretted my decision to not violate their bodies for a cultural practice that has no place or validity in our rational society. Just say no to female circumcision.

A note on terminology and why Sahiyo uses FGC

 

By Mariya Taher

When I was in graduate school in 2008 for my Master of School Work degree, I began seriously and thoroughly researching the topic of Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Some of you reading this blog might already be aware of my personal connection to the issue due to the research and writings I have been doing on this issue for close to nine years now. (See more at Underground: American Who Underwent Female Genital Mutilation Comes Forward to Help Others). Upon researching FGC, I learned that there were many different terms given to the practice. Terms such as Female Circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation, Female Genital Cutting, Female Genital Surgeries, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Khatna, and other native terms used by other communities who continued FGC.

The terminology used for this practice has been the subject of debate amongst academics, activists, as well as the communities continuing the practice as well. However, the debate does not revolve around what is the correct name but relates to the viewpoint an individual has towards understanding the practice and their feelings towards the perpetuation of the practice. In other words, for those continuing the practice, colloquial terms like khatna or female circumcision are preferred. Many activists working to end the practice of FGC choose to use the term Female Genital Mutilation, believing that this term correctly identifies the harm being done to a girl child’s genitalia.

None of these terms are incorrect. They all refer to the same practice. And when Sahiyo works with community members, we use the terminology that they use to refer to the practice. This means if someone uses the term ‘khatna’, we use khatna. If someone uses the term female genital mutilation, we use female genital mutilation.

There are reasons, however, that we do choose to use female genital cutting or FGC when referring to the practice.

Dawoodi Bohras use the word “khatna” or circumcision to refer to the removal of the prepuce from the genitalia of both boys and girls. There is a sentiment amongst some in the community, that the form of “female circumcision” practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra community is in no way related to “FGM” as recognized by World Health Organization or as practiced in many African countries.

Sahiyo believes, however, that “female circumcision” cannot be directly compared with male circumcision. We choose, therefore, in large part to use the term FGC or khatna because we are attempting to work with the community and we recognize that if in our everyday language we use FGM, it makes our work much more difficult — we know from research and best practices, that to engage in dialogue and to create social change, we can not come from a hostile position and some community members view the term mutilation with suspicion. This suspicion, in turn, makes it difficult for us to engage with people willing to discuss the topic.

Sahiyo also recognizes that the term ‘mutilation’ comes with the connotation of ‘intending to harm’ and as activists engaging in dialogue with communities to abandon the practice, by not using ‘mutliation’ we recognize that communities are not intending to harm their daughters. Rather they may continue FGC because they truly believe it is in the girl’s best interest and/or they may feel pressured into having FGC done on their daughter by others in the community. The term ‘mutilation’ can be riddled with a judgemental tone which can work against FGC activists working to end the practice as Gannon Gillespie mentions on Tostan’s website:

We should remember that all of us, no matter where we are from, tend to greet judgmental outsiders in similar ways. When our beliefs and actions are challenged or condemned by a stranger, we are likely to become defensive; rather than taking their concerns to heart, we view their accusation as an unwarranted and uninformed attack on our character. We certainly won’t feel inclined to change in order to satisfy this judgmental critic; we may even respond by holding on more tightly to the belief or action being questioned. Our experience has shown us that it is dialog and discussion that can lead to change, and dialog requires a relationship of trust and respect. But calling the practice “mutilation” prevents this relationship from developing and invites defensiveness rather than productive discourse.

Besides these reasonings, a recent report by Islamic Relief Canada, Female Genital Cutting in Indonesia: A Field Study, showcases that specific terminology can also lead to retraumatization of survivors as the quote below from the study demonstrates:

While Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) appears to be the term used most frequently by international agencies, experiences from community-based interventions indicate that the term ‘mutilation’ can, in some instances, actually add to the traumatisation of an individual. Girls and women who have undergone FGC can feel victimised, stigmatised and offended by the word ‘mutilation’ and its derogatory connotations. In general, it is important that any intervention strategies do not actually add to the trauma already felt by females who have had to undergo the practice, and referring to people as ‘mutilated’ – while correctly identifying the severity of the practice – has the potential of traumatising sufferers even more.

Sahiyo recognizes that to work at the community level and to advocate for the abandonment of FGC, we must first acknowledge that FGC is viewed as a social norm in practicing communities. Dialogue and discussion can only occur if communities themselves are willing to engage with us, and through our own work, we have learned to understand the importance of looking at our language choices.

To read more on the use of FGC terminology, please visit Tostan FAQ: FGC vs. FGM.