By Maria Akhter
A few weeks ago, I attended the first U.S-based Bohra activist retreat held in Brooklyn, New York. Eleven women from all over the country gathered together in a spacious Airbnb to discuss issues surrounding FGC in the Bohra community as well as to get to know each other a little better.
I joined Sahiyo as a volunteer six months ago with a simple curiosity to explore the traditions in my community that I didn’t agree with. My journey with Sahiyo led me further and further through the organization, and I found myself booking the next flight to New York to meet with other activists and share my own work.
As I sat on my redeye flight from California to JFK, anticipation for the upcoming weekend kept me awake. I wondered how it would feel to be in a room with people who would be able to understand a huge, hidden component of my life. I wondered if I would be able to share my own experiences with the others and if I even had a story worth sharing.
I woke up the next morning to sky rises and a chill that turned my fingers blue. But once I was in the company of the other activists, I felt myself warm up. Each participant had a unique story to share and with each shared story, I felt that my own story was comprised of similar sentiments and experiences. During the retreat, everyone was given a safe space to share how much or how little they felt comfortable with. We talked about everything from Khatna experiences and familial and romantic relationships to our careers and favorite foods. We were able to connect with each other on shared experiences in madrasa, masjid, school or work.
As one of the younger participants at the retreat, I was able to share experiences unique to myself but more importantly learn from the stories of those women who had undergone Khatna and who had made life-altering decisions to confront others about the practice. I was overwhelmed by the courage, strength and free-will that showered over all of us at the retreat.
The retreat consisted of speaker-led workshop sessions, open discussions and reflection
periods. The workshops were profoundly informative. I was given toolkits for dialogue, statistics and graphs, and comprehensive support material.
During our discussions, we participated in healthy debates that sometimes got heated but were never disrespectful. And that became one of my most important takeaways from the retreat. In order to create positive change, I need to be open-minded and receptive to ideas I might not agree with.
Leaving the retreat, I felt like a more informed activist. I have raw data and concrete facts tucked away. I have a support system of friends that I can now rely on to be there as listening and supportive ears. On my flight back to California, I felt unstoppable and empowered. I felt like there were no limits to what a group of strong-willed and fiercely devoted women can accomplish.