Shifting terrains: Lessons learnt from the first U.S. Activists Retreat for Bohras against Female Genital Cutting

(This post was originally published on the blog of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the Berkley Forum)

By Mariya Taher, MSW, MFA

In this day and age when social media has penetrated our lives, 24-hour news cycles shape our worldviews, and there is never enough time to process the influx of information coming at you, it’s often difficult to remember that social change is slow, hard work, much like pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill. With the #MeToo movement heavy on people’s minds, it’s easy to feel that change is imminent, that no longer will women cower in fear from the sexual harassment and violence generation after generation has experienced due to their genders. Yet, as someone who has dedicated the past ten years of her life towards ending gender violence of all kinds, unfortunately, the real hard truth is that social change does take time, and the seeds of that social change must be planted in the generations proceeding ours before they can even become fruit for future generations of girls and women.

That message was one I hoped to convey to the ten women who accepted my invitation IMG_4369.jpgto gather in New York on January 19th through January 21st for what my organization Sahiyo called a “U.S. Dawoodi Bohra Anti-Female Genital Cutting Activist Retreat.”

The women who came together, like me, had all been born into the Dawoodi Bohra Religion and Culture. Also, like me, these women felt encouraged to take an active role in preventing FGC or “Khatna” as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community, from occurring on girls of the next generation.

I and my fellow Sahiyo cofounders have been planning this retreat for the past year. (Sahiyo will also host an Activist Retreat in India in mid-February 2018). We planned both these retreats because we had recognized from our own experience, that being an activist is emotionally and physically challenging, and often “we” did this work in isolation from one another.

As activists, the challenges we face are often linked to the fact that FGC in our community developed due to a consistent repetition of the practice generation after generation. This caused it to become a deeply entrenched ritual many followed without question because that’s just the way it is.

To challenge this norm, meant to challenge the wisdom of those who came before us, and in a sense admit that our religious traditions are fallible. Activists who do challenge FGC, often encounter the wrath of those who would simply let live a practice that has always been done. At the U.S. Activist Retreat, many of us spoke about the negatives that come with challenging your family and friends on the issue of FGC, as well as challenging other social norms an individual may no longer want to partake in. Some women at the U.S. Retreat spoke about the economic boycott their husbands’ businesses encountered, others spoke about friends who no longer spoke to them or about how they feared losing friendship (or support systems they have had since childhood) if they openly discussed FGC. Another woman told us about how she had to call the police on her own brother who harassed her for her activism against FGC and for voicing an opinion that contradicted the edict given by the Dawoodi Bohra religious leaders.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was destined to consistently push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down repeatedly. Like Sisyphus, anti-FGC Activist can consistently be in a position where the rock rolls back down despite our valiant efforts to end FGC, particularly because we are struggling against deeply rooted frames about gender and religion, and the terrain is consistently tilted against us.

When you believe you are the only one pushing that rock back up that hill, it can also be lonely. Often the emotional and physical needs of activists are overlooked, as are the struggles they or their families go through so that social change can happen.

Prior to meeting the other women who would be the cofounders of Sahiyo with me, I spoke about FGC individually, and independently. I wrote my own story of undergoing it for Global Fund for Women. It was through writing my story that I connected to the additional women who would be my allies. Years later, I have recognized just how much I needed those women to not only validate the fact that my own feelings around Khatna were justified, but to also share in the emotional hardships that come with being one of a few voices who publicly speak against FGC.  Connecting with the women who would become the other Sahiyo Co-founders had essentially broken the sense of isolation I didn’t even realize I was experiencing in walking the public life of an activist against FGC.

We imagined it might be the same for other activists speaking out against FGC. The U.S and India Retreats, we believed, could be a space where activists could come together to share both the challenges and opportunities they have found in advocating against FGC. It could be a place where activists could gather, share their pain, their fears, and feel less IMG_3784.jpgalone in the advocacy work they pursue. The retreats could also be a safe space where as a team we could formulate action steps on how we could move forward in addressing FGC in our communities. For the U.S. Activists Retreat, as so much attention has been brought onto the topic of FGC since the arrest of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, a Dawoodi Bohra woman who is accused of performing FGC on girls in Michigan, that discussing these next steps felt crucial.

The Activists retreat was the first of its kind in the United States for women who came from the Dawoodi Bohra culture and religion, and it was a step in the right direction in terms of activists recognizing that to truly ensure that FGC is abandoned by the majority Dawoodi Bohra community in the United States, we engage in the long-game. The United States has had a federal law in place banning FGC since 1996, but as the Michigan arrest of 8 people has shown, the law is not a quick fix in getting communities to abandon the practice. As activists, we recognized that we could not continually push the rock up the hill one by one, alone. We needed to reshape the terrain so that gravity is on our side. Or in other words, we need to band together, share our challenges, be a support system for one another, and work collaboratively. We needed to play the long-game because in the end, the work we are doing is to shift underlying values and beliefs associated with continuing FGC, and that was not a task one person could do all alone.

If you are interested in learning more about the challenges Activists in the Bohra Community face, please visit Sahiyo Activist Needs Assessment.

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