Thaal Pe Charcha: A Sahiyo flagship event where Bohra women bonded over food

In February, Sahiyo held an event titled Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as ‘discussions over food’), in which 16 Bohra women from Mumbai came together to discuss – for the first time – the challenges of living as young girls and women in the tightly knit Dawoodi Bohra community.

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Invitations were sent out through word of mouth, and 16 women in their 20s and 30s signed up for the unique event. A few came with their friends, two with young children, one with their family member, while others ventured alone, but all of them attended Thaal Pe Charcha with a desire to bond with other women from the community and discuss a variety of issues affecting their lives.

Over a traditional Bohra lunch (one mithaas, one kharaas) the women opened up with their opinions on topics such as the pressure to marry early, the extreme control exercised by religious authorities on family life, the fear of social boycott and the consequent lack of freedom to speak out against social norms.

What was evident during the three hours of food and bonding was shared sense of pride the women felt about being able to stand up for themselves within their families – to stand up for their right to an education of their choice, to choose a certain career or spouse, or to have their own set of individual beliefs.

Sahiyo will be organizing more Thaal Pe Charcha events in Mumbai during the course of the year, for Bohra women of different age groups. If you are interested in attending a Thaal Pe Charcha event and would like to be kept informed, mail us at info@sahiyo.com

After all, why should all charcha happen over chai?

Four American survivors of FGC speak out

Four American survivors of Female Genital Cutting have broken the culture of silence around the issue through a new video. These women, from diverse backgrounds, illustrate that FGC is not restricted to any one geography, religion, or socioeconomic class.

The four women featured in the video produced by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs include Renee Bergstrom, F.A. Cole, Aissata Camara, and Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher.

In order to realize the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending FGC by 2030, we need not only more courageous survivors need to speak out, but we also need religious leaders, men and boys, health practitioners, and young people to join the global campaign. To watch the video, click here.

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Law alone cannot end the practice of Female Genital Cutting

By Sabiha Basrai

Country: California, United States
Age: 34 years old

It is important that the issue of FGC or Khatna, as known to the Bohra community, is brought out from the shadows and discussed openly. Many people do not understand how brutal the practice is and simply prefer not to discuss it because of the entrenched shame around women’s sexuality and reproductive health that is enforced through patriarchal social structures. I hope that the Detroit case in which a Bohra medical doctor was arrested on charges of performing FGC on minor girls, encourages more families to say no to the practice so that future generations of young girls will be shared.

This harmful practice is not an issue of being religious or not religious. Neither is it an issue of right and wrong. Khatna is just wrong.

The Detroit case does, however, raise concerns about the surveillance of Muslim Americans. Our mosques and community centers are already targeted by law enforcement who racially profile us and infringe upon our civil rights. It is important that all Bohras understand that law enforcement does not necessarily have our best interests in mind and could exploit the issue of Khatna to justify further harassment and surveillance of our communities. Khatna should end, but I believe the practice will only truly end through community education and organizing within the jamaats (Bohra congregations).

None of us want to see violence occur in our communities, but we must be conscious that law alone is not the answer, and in some instances, the negative action of some law enforcement officials have been detrimental to the safety and security in our communities. Therefore, I caution all Bohras living in America to never speak to law enforcement without a lawyer present. And, I encourage Bohras to also find ways to work within the community to end harmful practices such as Khatna.

Let us not vilify the Detroit doctor as we work to end Female Genital Cutting

By: Anonymous

Country: United States
Age: 34

Shortly after my seventh birthday, I went to visit my grandmother in New York. My mother told me this visit was going to be special because I turned seven and I had to have something “important done”.  “All girls have to have it done when they turn seven,” I was told, just as my older sisters had it done before me.  My mother said it was to ensure a “good marriage” when I am older. At the age of seven, this was a more than sufficient explanation for me. I just took this explanation as the norm, and even believed that women of all faiths and cultures must undergo the same experience. At the time, I had no idea that day would be life-changing for me on so many levels.  

The procedure harmed me physically. It was, unsurprisingly, botched, being conducted on a basement floor by an untrained older housewife in our community. But the message I was told that day – “this will help your marriage”, and messages I was subsequently told throughout my life “this is to make sure women’s urges are controlled”, “these things are done to make sure you are loyal to your husband”, “women need to appease their husband” – these messages are what truly did the most psychological harm. These messages have caused me to live a life in which I felt inferior to my partner and felt shame for all my natural urges/feelings.  

As I grew more aware of how that day impacted me, I became upset and resentful. I was angry about what I was forced to go through and constantly wondered what would have been if that day never happened. Thinking about other little girls, who would undoubtedly have to undergo the same thing, overwhelmed me with feelings of anger, sadness, and helplessness. I hoped people in our community would stop subjecting innocent girls to this practice. I wished people would wake up and realize they were doing more harm than good – that they were truly doing no good at all.  

A few days ago news broke of a female doctor in Detroit who was charged with illegally performing FGM on two young girls. My first reaction – like that of many who are opposed to this practice was a feeling of vindication. Someone was finally being held responsible for this practice. People might start becoming aware that this is a serious problem, not just abroad, but right here in the US. I also thought this case might act as a deterrent for many other people who are thinking of performing FGC.

After witnessing people’s reaction to the news, my vindication soon turned into disheartenment. People adamantly opposed to the practice or adamantly opposed to Islam, began to vilify this doctor as a cruel heartless sexual predator. But that is not what I saw in her. I just saw a woman, just like my mother, aunt, or grandmother. A woman – a mother who was trying to do what was best.

My mother did not take me for that procedure with some malicious intent to hurt me. She did so, in the same manner, many of us take our children for immunizations, needed surgeries, or even male circumcisions. It hurts us to subject our children to anything painful, but we do so with the firm believe that it is being done in their best interest. We put faith in our medical professional’s guidance because they are widely respected and trusted as experts in a field. Similarly, people living in a Bohra community – those constantly surrounded by those of similar faith – put their faith in the guidance of their religious leaders. In their world, these leaders are widely accepted as trusted “experts” who know what is best for each one of us. For them, the divine rules set forth by these leaders well supersede standards set by medical communities or politicians.  

So I look at this woman and I don’t see a villain – I see a victim. A victim like myself who has undoubtedly also been unjustly cut as a child. A woman who was not only physically abused in the past but also continues to be mentally manipulated into acting against her better judgment. I am not completely absolving her from the choices she made – everyone must take responsibility for their actions, and she could have acted differently. I am just attempting to explain, from the perspective of her world, how it often might seem like there is no choice for her to do otherwise.  

So by villainizing her, punishing her – you may scare some other doctors from conducting the practice. You may deter some other mothers from having their children undergo the procedure. But punishing her does not punish the true abusers. As long as the male leaders continue to advocate for this practice and maintain its importance in religious doctrine, followers will continue to adhere to the guidance of their respected leaders. My worst fear is that this public case mixed with continued pro-FGC messaging from our community will drive this practice underground even more. So instead of having doctors illegally practice in their sanitized clinics after hours – our girls will be subjected to experiences similar to mine – being cut by their grandmothers on an unsanitary cold basement floor.  

Detroit FGM/C case: Why two more arrests have left me feeling bittersweet

By: Anonymous

Country: United Kingdom
Age: 32

Today is a bittersweet day.

The news of two more arrests linked to the first FGM case in the US has left me torn between elation and sadness; while a part of me feels like justice is being served to those who perform, aid and abet FGM, another part of me is saddened by the effect that these arrests have had on the perception of the community and Islam.

Gone are the days when I would tell people that I belonged to the Dawoodi Bohra community and would receive the response, “Oh, the women who wear the colourful clothes with embroidery?” Now, I hear “Oh, isn’t that the community that practices FGM? I read about them in the paper.”

I scroll down after reading an article online about the current FGM cases and read horrible comment after comment. Heinous things are being said about not only the Dawoodi Bohra community, but also about the wider community of Muslims, the majority of whom condemn FGM. These prosecutions are being used as the fuel to fire Islamophobia, and hurtful attacks are being made on the religion that over a billion people worldwide adhere to.

Other Muslims are distancing themselves from the Dawoodi Bohra community, calling us insular and saying that we stick to ourselves. I feel a further isolation from people who believe in the same God as me and also pray towards Makkah.

While I think of all of the girls and women, including myself, who suffered through this barbaric procedure, I also think of the girls who are now in protective custody, or whose mother is currently behind bars. Those children were and are innocent, and are now suffering due to the criminal actions of their parents.

I question who is at fault here. While the authorities are prosecuting those who are performing, covering up and facilitating FGM, those who endorse and encourage the procedure, both privately and publicly, remain unaffected. There are still articles being posted that defend the Dawoodi Bohra community as being comprised of law-abiding citizens, yet murmurs of FGM fill the walls of masjids throughout the US and other countries where FGM is categorically outlawed. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that a problem exists in the first place, and it seems that there are some in the community who are not prepared to take this step.

I feel a tenseness in the air; I quietly discuss this case among close friends and relatives who share my sentiments, frightened to openly voice my happiness that there is yet another breakthrough in ending this practice. I feel the heavy hand of the community leaders bear down upon me, and feel stifled to openly express my feelings. This is the fear that prevents others to come forward. It is real and it is suffocating.

 

Engendering Progress Event Honours Sahiyo Co-founder

The Manhattan Young Democrats (MYD) held their 8th annual Engender Progress event Photo 5.JPGhonoring women thought-leaders, activists, entrepreneurs, and businesswomen on March 30th. This event is the hallmark of the MYD’s calendar and it honors powerful women, in order to inspire the next generation of young women to follow in their footsteps.

Sahiyo’s Mariya Taher was one of the women honoured at the event. The other honorees included Faiza Ali – Community Liaison, Melissa Mark-Viverito; Lauren Duca – Weekend Editor, Teen Vogue; Melissa Sklarz – Development Director, Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund; Nydia Velazquez – US Congresswoman, NY’s 7th District.

The event was held in Manhattan and provided a forum for honorees to share their stories, their organizations’ missions, and their dreams and aspirations for the future.

 

Engendering Progress Honorees
Engendering Progress Honorees

 

 

 

#NIMBY Reactions to Detroit

By: Anonymous

Age: 32

Country: United States

(Please note #NIMBY – Not In My Backyard)

For over ten years, I have been famously or infamously known for speaking up about a taboo practice within the Dawoodi Bohra community in my social circles. I discovered I was a victim of female genital mutilation or cutting during college and was finally able to put into words what happened to me when I was seven years old.

This time in my adult life was an extremely difficult one as I worked through the five stages of grief. A part of me was missing and gone forever. A part that I had not yet familiarized myself with or experienced while everyone around me was totally unaffected.fgmc-unitedstates-share-1.jpg

As part of my healing process, I took to my social circles to tell my story, to raise awareness, to start a discourse. While I felt supported by some, I was met with apathy by most. I could never understand why others like me who had been victims of this practice didn’t feel the sense of loss that I did. They felt I was being “dramatic”, or that it was just part of our culture and it had not prevented them from living a normal and happy life. Others who agreed it was morally and ethically wrong, were hesitant to speak up about it or even show an alliance with me in my own grassroots efforts.

Until recently, there were not many formal groups in the forefront actively working to end FGM/FGC. The increase in awareness about this issue over the last ten years is astounding.  To think that the investigation of this activity had been taken up by the F.B.I. will likely be an eye-opener for those in the community who think of this as a cultural practice, not a criminal activity. When the story of the Detroit doctor being arrested for performing FGM/C first broke, I was not surprised at all. Yet I was met with several messages of shock and awe from friends and family (knowing my personal interest in this topic) asking if I had seen the news.

Just last year, a similar story broke in Sydney, Australia — have we forgotten already? This prompted several jamaats or religious congregations across the world and the U.S., in particular, to send public resolutions to their members advising them not to carry out the practice in any form or else they would be subject to the laws of the land, and thus not be held liable for any individuals’ actions.

What’s shocking to me is that the events in Sydney didn’t have a strong enough ripple effect for communities in the U.S. to comprehend the sincerity of governments to prosecute those performing this act. After a little bit of buzz, the onslaught of public resolutions, the contradictory statement made by the religious head of the community, everyone went back to being silent.

What we’ve learned in the interim through much back and forth is that the head of the community does not condemn the practice and likely sees virtue in it.  The public resolution sent by the powers that be was a liability waiver, not a condemnation of the act. Until then, devout followers wherever they are in the world will continue to follow his lead and subject their young daughters to what he deems a part of our history and “religious obligation.”

The alarm over this investigation contrasts sharply with the apathy I was met with years ago.  I was told:

“Well, it didn’t happen to me”

“Your [town] is different”

“That doesn’t happen here”

“You are exaggerating”

“I know someone who had it done, and they’re fine”

“I’ve had it done, and I’m fine”

It shouldn’t have to take someone you personally know or are connected to, to go to jail for you to start paying attention. This is something that affects all of us no matter what part of the world we live in. Whatever your personal feelings are about this practice, it is time to start caring one way or another because yes, this is happening…even in your backyard.

 

Detroit arrest: It is time for Bohras to get serious about ending Female Genital Cutting

Sahiyo is shocked and truly saddened by the news that a Bohra doctor in Detroit, USA, has been arrested on charges of performing Female Genital Cutting (FGC) on minor girls in the community. While the allegations in this particular case are yet to be proven, we believe it is a serious breach of medical ethics for any doctor to perform this non-medical procedure that is categorically recognised as a form of gender-based violence and a violation of human and child rights. In countries like the USA where FGC is a criminal offence, we believe that parents, too, cannot be absolved of the responsibility to follow the law.

In the light of this Detroit case, Sahiyo would like to call on the entire Bohra community to make a concerted effort to bring an end to this unnecessary and potentially harmful tradition. We believe it is also imperative for the community leadership to call for a clear, unambiguous, world-wide end to the practice of khatna, khafz or female genital cutting.

What is the Detroit case all about?

On April 13, 2017, a Detroit emergency room doctor was arrested and charged with performing FGC on minor girls in the United States. This is believed to be the first time someone was brought up on charges under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGC. According to the U.S. Federal complaint, Jumana Nagarwala, M.D., 44, of Northville, Michigan performed FGC on 6 to 8 year old girls out of a medical office in Livonia, Michigan. Some of these girls’ families reportedly traveled inter-state to have the doctor perform FGC. At this time, the complaint is merely an allegation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The federal complaint states that phone call records and surveillance video show that in February 2017, two Minnesota girls and their parents came to Detroit for a “special girls trip”. They stayed at a hotel in Farmington Hills and ended up visiting Nagarwala, thinking they were seeing the doctor because their “tummies hurt”. Instead, the girls underwent FGC. The complaint also indicates that other children, including children in Detroit, might have undergone FGC by Nagarwala between 2006 and 2007. To see the official press release, click here.

Bohras have been aware that FGC is illegal in USA

Among Bohras, khatna or khafz, involves cutting a part of the clitoral hood or prepuce of a 7-year-old girl. Many Bohras have argued that this mild, ritual “nick” is not the same as the supposedly “African” practice of FGM, which can involve severe cutting of the clitoris and labia (classified by the World Health Organisation as Types II and III of FGM/C).

However, the Bohra form of khatna very definitively falls under Type I FGM/C, for a good reason. However “mild”, khatna still involves the cutting and altering of female genitals for non-medical reasons. No health benefits of the practice have been recorded, and in fact several Bohra women have been increasingly speaking up about the negative physical, emotional and sexual consequences they have faced.

For the past one and a half years, particularly after three Bohras in Australia were convicted under the country’s anti-FGM laws, there has been increasing awareness in the community about the fact that khatna is considered a violation of human rights by the United Nations. In countries where the practice is illegal, including the US, UK, Australia, Canada and other parts of Europe, Bohra jamaats have themselves issued clear resolution letters, asking community members not to practice khatna or khafz on girls anymore.

In fact, the Detroit jamaat issued such a resolution letter to all its members on May 11, 2016.

So despite all this awareness, why are some Bohras — like the parents of the girls in Minnesota — still choosing to break the law and subject their daughters to FGC?

A deeply-entrenched social norm

The main reason, according to Sahiyo, is that female genital cutting is a deeply-entrenched social and cultural norm for Bohras and all other communities practicing the ritual. A variety of reasons, often contradictory, are cited for following the practice: many say that khatna curbs a girl’s sexual desire and prevents promiscuity, some claim that cutting the clitoral hood enhances sexual pleasure, others claim it is done for hygiene or health.

However, a recent online survey conducted by Sahiyo found that among Bohra women, the most common reason cited for khatna is “religious purposes” or tradition: most people simply continue the practice without questioning, because they believe it is a necessary cultural requirement.

Sahiyo is concerned that these beliefs might be getting compounded by certain mixed messages conveyed by the community leadership.

In April 2016, even as several Bohra jamaats were issuing resolution letters against khatna, community leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin covertly endorsed the practice during a public sermon in India without mentioning the word khatna. He said that “the act” must be done discreetly for girls irrespective of what people say.

Then in June 2016, the Syedna issued a statement to clarify his official stand on khatna. It stated that the resolution letters issued in various international jamaats were still valid for Bohras living in those nations. However, in the same statement, Syedna also endorsed khatna as a “religious obligation” necessary for “religious purity”. These ambiguous messages can be confusing to community members who may then be caught between abiding by the laws of their land and abiding by their leader’s wishes.  

Sahiyo therefore strongly urges the community leadership to unequivocally and unambiguously ask all Bohras across the world to now stop the practice of khatna for girls.

A law is not enough

Overcoming deeply-ingrained social norms like FGC is difficult, but not impossible. Sahiyo recognizes that laws are important to help reinforce that a particular practice is against human rights. However, we also recognize that to truly find sustainable change within a community and to end this form of violence, we must seek ways to change mindsets around this social norm.

First, it is important to recognize that FGC occurs to women and girls coming from all kinds of different backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, country. FGC does not just happen to girls in small villages in Africa as is often mistakenly believed. The US State Department recently came out with a video highlighting American Survivors of FGC to counter this misconception (See American Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Speak Out). In fact, up until the 1950s, clitoridectomy was performed by physicians in the US and in Europe to treat hysteria and mental illness.

It is also important to empower civil society activists and organizations working to end FGC around the globe. Today there is a lack of resources dedicated to preventing FGC in all parts of the world. Sahiyo is working to bring awareness to the fact that FGC occurs in several Asian communities, and has even launched a petition urging the UN to invest in more research and support to survivors from these backgrounds, particularly since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (Goal #5) call for an end to FGC by 2030.

To truly end FGC, we need to educate the general community and collectively let go of this ancient and unnecessary practice. It is heartbreaking that the girls in Minnesota, those in Australia and several other Bohra girls have been subjected to khatna. However, we hope that the indictment of the doctor in Detroit will lead to more awareness and education about the need to end FGC both within the community and globally.

What do Australian Bohras feel about Khatna today?

By: Anonymous

Age: 32

Country: Australia

Khatna is not a topic discussed very often amongst Bohras. Maybe because there is no reason to ever bring it up. However, since the case in Sydney, Australia, in which the aamil, Shabbir Mohammed Vaziri was sentenced to jail for being an accessory to Female australian-44165.jpgGenital Mutilation, the topic has been brought up now and then amongst the ladies. Mostly, the conversation consists of a general curiosity as to what has happened in the Sydney jammat concerning the aamil saab and the midwife who was also found guilty in this case.

I have realized that in the Melbourne jammat, people do not necessarily take the law as seriously as the people in the Sydney jammat do – mainly because the people in Melbourne have no idea about the severity of the case and its effects on the Sydney jammat.

Even in Sydney, the entire ordeal was all very hushed up. People were reluctant to talk about it or even discuss anything regarding the case. So it makes sense and seems natural that people in other cities in Australia would not have much idea of what took place during the trial.

As far as most non Sydney-siders are concerned, khatna is still a religious requirement that needs to be fulfilled.

Most people in the Melbourne jammat have children who are still pretty young. They are not yet of age to have khatna performed. I do not know what parents will do when the time comes for them to decide if their daughters undergo it. I do not know whether they will abide by the legal laws of Australia or if they will still go ahead and have it carried out on their daughters.

There is no way of knowing whether they will have this ‘cut’ carried out on them. You do not ask such questions in the jammat.

The only positive outcome I can think of with regards to the case in Sydney is that it reflects the law of the land and shows that khatna should no longer take place within Australia.

But if people still want to go ahead with it for their daughters, they will still travel elsewhere to have it done. Unfortunately, I feel that unless it comes from the Syedna himself that khatna should end, this practice may still be carried on by those who do not know to question it.

I underwent Khatna but did not let it happen to my daughters

By: Anonymous

Country of Current Residence: United States
Country of Birth: India
Age: 57

It was a day in June, 1966, in India. I was seven years old and sitting with my mother, listening to a story she read to me from a newspaper. Midway through reading the story, she casually mentioned to me that we were going to Aunty R’s house the next evening with my grandmother as well. I was excited to go somewhere with my mother and grandmother, and to take a car ride to get to the place. Out of curiosity, I asked my mother why we were going over to Aunty R’s house, and she told me we were going for something very important that needed to be taken care of. On the car ride there, I heard my mother and grandmother discuss that they could not accept water to drink from Aunty R if it was offered to them, because the work she carries out is considered dirty. Being of an inquisitive mind, I asked my mother what she meant.  She shushed me and said, “You are too little to understand.”

On reaching Aunty R’s house, we were sent upstairs and sat down in a big hall. A few minutes later, she joined us and sat with us and talked for a bit. Then, she went inside another room and came back with a big white sheet which she spread out onto the floor. As she did this, I watched her movements with a lot of confusion. She then asked me to come lie down on the sheet and to shut my eyes, which I did. She covered me with another sheet and pulled my panty down. The next thing I felt was a pinch down there, and I screamed. She told me not to worry.

All was done.

On our way home I felt discomfort and my mother told me that all would be fine and that there was nothing to worry about. When we reached home I needed to use the bathroom and saw some blood oozing out of me. It scared me a bit. Again, my mother convinced me that all would be fine. I asked her what our trip to Aunty R’s was about and why I had to undergo it. She said, “all little girls go through that procedure.”

After a few days, I forgot about the incident.

As I grew older and I went into my teen years I realized that for no good reason something had been done to my private part. Something that was not very much required. After speaking to my mother about it, I realized she had gotten it done to me only because it was a tradition. She had gone through the same process. It had no religious significance.

Years went by and one day, I became a mother too. When my daughter came of age, I made the decision that I would not let her go through this mental torture, which was just a tradition and had nothing to do from a religious standpoint. When I made this decision, neither my mother nor my mother-in-law objected to it; they did not pressure me into having my girls undergo the ordeal. To conclude, I would like to add that it definitely did affect my sex life negatively and I did not want the same to be true for my girls.