Voices Series: Survivors are more than their stories

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Maryum Saifee

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of Appalachia, I began to unravel. In a story circle with female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors and allies, I began telling a story that by now, I had committed to memory: “I was seven years old…my aunt led me down to her basement clinic… she bribed me with a Toblerone chocolate bar.” I had told the story so often that I stopped crying during the sad parts. And it had become this mantra, much like when I was a kid memorizing parts of the Quran. Yet, unlike Quranic recitation which I found soothing, this mechanized mantra was leaving me numb. On the last day of the retreat, I found myself feeling sick to my stomach, as if everything inside of me was being purged, both physically and metaphorically.   

My physical reaction to the stress illustrated the costs and emotional labor of storytelling. On the one hand, it can be cathartic to liberate personal trauma into public spaces: the flood of support and encouragement from everyone from close family to acquaintances. But there is also the dark side – the backlash and ambivalence, sometimes from unexpected places. Over time, the iterative process can be taxing and reductive. As survivors leveraging our stories to push advocacy agendas, your story can evolve into a personal brand, even when you push back against the pigeonholing. At the retreat, I felt this pressure to produce a story that would compel more people from inaction to action. I asked a friend’s daughter – close to the same age I was cut – to hold a Toblerone bar in her small hands so that I could insert the image into my video. I thought the more graphic, the more visual, the more visceral – the more possibilities for mobilizing a mass audience.  

Blue Ridge Mountains

I was so focused on producing a neatly packaged story that I didn’t step back to think about the costs of production. In other words, the emotional toll the storytelling process was taking on me as the storyteller. How triggered I felt when my friend’s daughter asked me why she was holding a Toblerone bar, and I didn’t have the age-appropriate words to explain why, so I stayed silent and left her confused. Then there was navigating the intense aftermath of the story circle process – absorbing the pain, the trauma, and the heartbreak of the storytellers around me.  

Having had a few months to reflect, I gained perspective in three areas:

  1. Story circles are powerful ways to build community:

The pedagogy around story circles can build community in profound ways. I connected the most with a fellow FGM survivor who grew up in a conservative Christian community and is now settled in Kentucky. Despite coming from a different faith tradition, we shared much in common: growing up in the south, grappling with the emotional burden of sharing our stories, and navigating family structures that are not always supportive. There was also the similarity of being bribed with sweets. Her mother baked a cake for her and her sister after they were cut – and my aunt gave me the oversized chocolates you normally get at Duty Free airport lounges. I empathized with her struggle to engage with family members – particularly in breaking the culture of silence – on an act of family violence. I developed a powerful bond with this participant that has continued well beyond the retreat.

  1. Story circles require trauma-informed support structures:

No matter how many times a storyteller has told his or her story, trauma survivors need to have trauma-informed support structures (including psychosocial support) integrated into the story circle process. I was triggered throughout the retreat and might have navigated the experience better had a trained psychotherapist been integrated into the story circle from the outset. Story circles are sacred and have the ability to develop unbreakable bonds, but should be approached with extreme care. Even for seasoned storytellers like myself, I learned the importance of self-care and setting boundaries. To address this essential, but often overlooked element of survivor-led advocacy, the Dahlia Project, founded by FGM survivor and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein, recently released an essential tool Female Genital Trauma: Guidelines for Working Therapeutically with Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation

  1. Survivors are more than their stories

Over the last three years, as I’ve developed a personal voice on the issue of FGM, I have worried that other parts of my identity have started to recede to the background. Before telling my story, I had an identity that was more nuanced and multi-faceted. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan, which led me to become a United States diplomat with a regional interest in the Middle East. In graduate school, I used to write regularly for the Columbia Spectator and joined an art collective where I exhibited paintings in New York galleries, including one dedicated to South Asian art in Chelsea. I had this robust other life. But after telling my story, I felt I had been reduced to a singular event: an act of violence that happened on a summer afternoon when I was seven years old in the sweltering port city of Surat on the western coast of India. When the retreat ended, I realized I’m more than my story. In fact, all of the participants in the retreat have multiple identities – lives that are both independent from, but also informed by their trauma. And ultimately, survivors are more than their stories.

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