Intern Spotlight: Sahiyo Social Media Intern Farhan Zia

Farhan Zia joined Sahiyo’s team as a social media intern in 2019. He is an undergraduate student reading the law at Jindal Global Law School, in O.P. Jindal Global University, India. He researches the intersections of law with human rights, gender and religion, and has a deep interest in engaging with theology and religion from a feminist and modern perspective. He is a student researcher at the FGM Project which seeks to draft and present a bill against female genital cutting in India, a member of the Legal Aid Clinic of Jindal Global Law School.

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

While I had heard bits and pieces about female genital cutting (FGC) in college, I was not exposed to the full magnitude of the issue. In August 2019, my friend Kavya Palavalasa, who was an intern at Sahiyo, told me about the organization. Following this, when I went through the Sahiyo stories and resources, I came to understand the extent and nuances of FGC. I decided that I must work on this issue, and joined Sahiyo in October 2019. 

What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a social media intern, I help create, schedule and manage content for the social media handles, for the daily feed, as well as specific campaigns. I also watch out for any news about FGC that Sahiyo should write on.

How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

As a student of law interested in religion and gender, I often notice how activists and authors trying to bring about legal or social reforms end up alienating the very people they seek to help by not understanding their culture and values. It is very difficult to speak against institutionalized cultural practices like FGC. But at Sahiyo I noticed how their advocacy is respectful and compassionate in its language and not condescending in any manner. The Sahiyo resources were a great help for me to grasp how effective reporting of an issue as nuanced as FGC must be done.

I am always in awe of the solidarity and bravery of the many women involved with Sahiyo and who share their stories in its various storytelling campaigns. It really brings into clear focus how patriarchal practices harm women and how too few men try to understand this or contribute to the feminist cause. It has prompted me to read and explore FGC more and work toward contributing to legal reforms in India.  

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Sahiyo is a wonderful organization to work and learn since the people here are incredibly helpful and understanding. I believe that fighting for equality is not just women’s responsibility. I implore more men to support Sahiyo’s cause against FGC. If you are passionate about working toward gender equality, I really encourage you to get involved.

How Melinda Gates’ Moment of Lift addresses female genital cutting

By Kristin Pepper

In December 2019, our book club discussed Melinda Gates’ book, Moment of Lift, and experienced firsthand Melinda’s process ourselves. One of our members knew that the book mentioned female genital cutting (FGC), and asked Mariya Taher, an expert on FGC, to join our discussion using Skype. Just as Melinda looked into how to empower women and grew to understand women’s issues in a whole new way, our book club read a book about how women can help and learned many facets of a problem most of us barely knew existed.

Mariya presented some facts to help us understand that FGC happens everywhere, including in the United States. We also had a member who knew that girls in our own town were being cut. Our book club is made up of mothers who live in an upper middle class, educated area in which all parents want the very best education for girls and boys alike. Most of our members had not realized girls, both Christian and Muslim living in the US, were being cut, much less in our own town. We were shocked and had an especially hard time understanding why a woman would be involved in cutting a girl. When discussing Moment of Lift, we kept coming back to why women perpetuate any customs that hurt other women. The story of girls tricked into child marriage made us angry at the mothers. Mariya showed us a video of a woman who used to hold down girls to be cut but later helped her community to reject FGC. Some of us had trouble forgiving that woman despite her courage and activism. 

We had followed Melinda Gates into discovering a problem happening in our area, as well as globally. We had to understand why FGC exists, how damaging it was to girls, and what we could do about it. Mariya helped us understand some of the social, medical and educational roots of the problem, as well as its true danger. She showed us videos of women describing the effect cutting had on their lives, but we also learned that not all women had problems from cutting. We learned the different methods of cutting.   

We tried to understand why educated women who clearly loved their children would have their girls cut. Mariya and the other book club member were invaluable in sharing their knowledge with us, just as the people who were closest to the problems were most valuable to Melinda. They helped us understand the loss a woman and her entire family faces if she speaks out against FGC in a community that accepts it. She and her family may no longer be valued members of the community. They may still go to their places of worship, but people may no longer talk to them, and they may no longer be invited to community gatherings. The ostracism and loss of support they have felt their whole lives is an extreme deterrent. 

This tied into Melinda’s journey of speaking out in support of birth control, despite being Catholic. She felt she had to publicly support family planning in order to have any impact on communities. It took courage to talk out against something her faith supported, and she was worried about wading into politically charged waters. 

We spoke about what the Gates Foundation did in one community to stop cutting, but to the members who understood FGC best, it was complicated. There might be a lesson in the MeToo movement. For years, women kept quiet about workplace sexual harassment, but then the MeToo movement supported speaking up and the society began to stop blaming the victims. It was very important that the women who spoke up were believed, welcomed and told they were brave. We need to support those who do speak up about FGC. Those brave women could break the notion that FGC does not hurt women’s health, and they could inspire their friends to speak out. Women who have been cut speaking up and denouncing the practice would have a powerful effect on their own communities, but they will need to be supported by people who understand what a loss they face when they raise their voices. Melinda Gates’ positive message that change is possible when women are given the right support to lift was a hopeful message that made a strong impression on our book club. 

Taking the anti-FGC movement forward, with Thaal Pe Charcha participants

On 17th November 2018, Sahiyo hosted its seventh Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India, with a diverse group of 17 participants. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. For the November event, two participants travelled specially from Pune and Kerala respectively.

During this TPC, participants were divided into two groups that drew up plans for taking the movement against FGC forward through two different approaches. One group discussed engagement with lawmakers, medical professionals and other social stakeholders, as well as raising social awareness about FGC through animation videos and other such media. 

The second group discussed taking Thaal Pe Charcha itself forward, by reaching out to more and more members of the community and bringing in new participants along with them for the next TPC. They also discussed plans to reach out to Bohras in rural areas and organising their own TPC events with their friends and relatives. The groups formed separate Whatsapp groups to stay in touch and monitor the progress of their activities.

When Thaal Pe Charcha participants met Mumbai's Veteran Activists

On 4th August 2018, Sahiyo hosted its sixth Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. 

The TPC in August was unique because in addition to several regular and new participants from the Bohra community (five of whom were men), the event also featured women leaders and activists from various non-profit organizations working on women’s rights. They were invited to interact with participants and share their experiences, struggles and the knowledge gained in their journeys as women’s rights advocates. 

One of the activists was Flavia Agnes, a veteran feminist lawyer from Majlis, who was at the forefront of India’s women’s movement in the 1980s. Agnes shared her story of surviving domestic violence and going on to become a prominent lawyer helping other women with legal support in their fight for justice. 

Other guest speakers included Noorjehan Safia Niaz, the co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a prominent Muslim women’s organisation, and her team of two women Qazis (Islamic jurists) from BMMA. The three of them spoke about their struggle to get the practice of unilateral instantaneous divorce or triple talaq to be recognised as unconstitutional in India, as well as their efforts to bring justice to Muslim women by training women to become Qazis — a profession only open to men within traditional Islam. 

Dr. Sheroo Zamindar, a gynaecologist from Ahmedabad, also explained the medical consequences of undergoing Khatna. 

Participants of the TPC were enthusiastic in their interactions with the guest speakers and in their feedback to Sahiyo, mentioned that they appreciated the diverse perspectives that they offered during the event.

'I have convinced my friends to refrain from Female Genital Cutting'

On January 27, 2018, Sahiyo hosted its fourth Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India, with a diverse group of 18 participants. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. 

The participants, six of whom were men, discussed ongoing developments around the movement to end khatna. Men were invited to share their own experiences of male circumcision as well as comment on the Khatna experience of young girls in the community or within their families. The participants were eager to be proactive in raising awareness about the harmful effects of Khatna on girls. One male participant shared that he convinced his mother and wife not to cut their seven-year old daughter by explaining the possible damage it could do to a child’s body and mind. He said, “I have also convinced my friends and their wives to refrain from doing this practice. There is just no need for it.”

Towards the end of the event, Sahiyo organised a special healing session for the women participants, conducted by a well-known alternate healing therapist who specializes in reconnective healing therapy. The therapist, Shabnam Contractor, is a member of the Bohra community and was able to understand how FGC might have affected the women participants. In the hour-long session, she helped participants explore aspects of their lives that may have been affected by undergoing FGC. After the session, most women experienced a sense of relief and expressed an interest in more such sessions in subsequent events.

The movement to end FGM/C: Looking back at the 2010s and looking forward in 2020

By Sahiyo

2020 is here, and we at Sahiyo are excited. 2020 brings with it not just a new year, but the dawn of a new decade of hope and hard work for our global movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). This is the decade in which we must give it our all, because we have pledged to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting by 2030

As we look forward to the 2020s, we cannot help but look back at the 2010s for inspiration. The last decade has been game-changing, not just for Sahiyo or the movement against FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras, but for the anti-FGC movement in Asia as a whole. 

At the start of 2010, FGC was still considered an “African” problem, and Asian countries were barely on the map of the places where FGC is prevalent. Today, we know that FGC is truly and disturbingly a global phenomenon putting 3.9 million girls at risk every year,  as you can see in this map created by Orchid Project:

Nearly half the countries on the map above are not yet included in the UN’s official list of 30 countries where 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC. In the 2020s, let us work to ensure that this information gap is bridged, so that Asian survivors of FGC are officially recognised. 

In fact, you can start now by signing Sahiyo’s petition asking the global community to invest in research on FGC prevalence and advocacy and support services to end FGC in Asian countries. 

But first, let’s take a look back at the biggest milestones of the 2010s from Sahiyo’s perspective.

The birth of Sahiyo:

In late 2011, ‘Tasleem’, an anonymous Dawoodi Bohra woman from India, started a Change.org petition asking the Syedna,  the religious leader of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, to call for an end to FGC in the community. Although there had been scattered attempts to call out the secretive practice of FGC among the Bohras in the 1980s and ‘90s, they drew limited attention and the practice continued to be shrouded in silence. 

Tasleem’s petition, however, received nearly 3,500 signatures, triggered a spate of media reports on FGC in India, and inspired a few Bohra women, like Aarefa Johari and Farida Dariwala, to speak out publicly about their experiences of FGC. 

The media reports on FGC at the time also inspired Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami to make A Pinch of Skin, the first documentary film on FGC among Dawoodi Bohras in India. As Goswami’s film won the 2013 National Award for the best documentary in India, the taboo topic of FGC remained alive in the media, sparking private conversations between like-minded Bohra women all over the world who were keen to see an end to FGC.

In late 2014, five of those women banded together to create a formal platform that would work to end FGC among Bohras and Asian communities at a transnational level. That platform — Sahiyo — was eventually founded in mid-2015. 

Breaking the silence, once and for all:  

In 2015, the private conversations on FGC among Bohras also burst into the public sphere with the launch of WeSpeakOut (known as Speak Out on FGM at the time). 

WeSpeakOut started as a private women’s WhatsApp group spearheaded by Masooma Ranalvi. In October 2015, the group launched a Change.org petition addressed to the Indian government, seeking a legal ban on FGC in India. Seventeen Bohra women publicly put their name to the petition, and the response was huge and immediate: media all over India began writing about FGC among Bohras, community leaders were forced to respond, and the silence about FGC among community members was broken for good. More than 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.  

From 2015 to 2019, we have watched the movement against FGC snowball into a global force that communities have not been able to ignore. There are now dozens of Bohra women fearlessly speaking out about their FGC experiences, signing up as Sahiyo volunteers, attending our events and pledging not to cut their daughters. Women and men have faced backlash from their families and communities for speaking out, but the movement has only grown stronger. 

Research and investigations:

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the results of the first-ever research study on FGC among Bohras: an online, exploratory survey that found an 80% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohra women respondents. Among those who were cut, 98% women reported feeling pain when they underwent the ritual. Interestingly, 81% of respondents did not want FGC to continue in the community. 

In 2017, a Sahiyo investigation also revealed that FGC is being practiced by some communities in the South Indian state of Kerala, leading to furore in the region. Before this, it was believed that the Bohras are the only community in India practicing FGC. 

In 2018, WeSpeakOut published a seminal field study on FGC among Indian Bohras. The study found FGC prevalent among 75% of the daughters of the respondents. At least 33% of the respondents who were cut reported that FGC negatively impacted their sexual lives. 

More research on the FGC in Asian communities is the need of the hour, and we are aware of several studies that are currently underway in various parts of Asia. Continuous research can help us better understand not only the prevalence and impact of FGC on women and girls, but also the needs of survivors and trends towards abandonment of the practice. 

Developments on the legal front:

The 2010s were a landmark decade for FGC on the legal front, particularly for the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Australia: In 2015, three Bohras — a mother, a nurse and a community leader — were convicted for performing FGC on two minor girls in Australia. This was Australia’s first case under its 1997 law banning FGC. However, the legal ups and downs did not end with the conviction in 2015. 

In 2018, an appeals court overturned the convictions and acquitted the three accused Bohras, on the grounds that the girls’ genitals did not show any visible scarring after the ritual, and because the Australian law did not clearly define what kind of rituals qualify as FGC. In 2019, however, an Australian High Court once again flipped the verdict, overturning the acquittals, convicting the three Bohras again, and asserting that all forms of genital cutting are illegal. 

India: In 2017, an Indian lawyer filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking a legal ban on the practice of FGC. Other FGC survivors also joined in the petition and to counter it, a pro-FGC group called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom filed a petition defending the practice of FGC on the grounds of religious freedom. 

The Indian government responded to the petition by stating that FGC would be considered a crime under Indian laws dealing with child sexual abuse. However, the Indian government has made several contradictory statements about FGC since then. 

The Supreme Court has now referred the FGC case to a larger bench that will look into matters of gender equality versus religious freedom. Will 2020 be the year in which India’s highest court picks women’s right to bodily integrity over religious freedom? We will have to cross our fingers, wait, and see. 

United States: In 2017, two Bohra doctors from Michigan were among eight Bohras prosecuted for carrying out FGC on several minor girls. This was the first prosecution under the U.S.’s 1996 federal law banning FGC. In 2018, however, a U.S. district court judge ruled that even though the practice of FGC is “despicable” the federal law itself is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be regulated by individual states rather than by the federal or national law. 

Currently, 35 out of 50 U.S. states have laws against FGC. Among them, 17 states introduced anti-FGC laws in the 2010s, including Arkansas, Florida and Iowa.

In the 2020s, we must campaign for laws against FGC in every U.S. state, as well as in countries across the world. 

Community engagement in 2020: 

It is now globally acknowledged that laws alone cannot be effective in ending FGC. A deep-seated social norm can be changed only if law enforcement is preceded and constantly accompanied by rigorous community engagement, education and dialogue. 

At Sahiyo, we have launched various campaigns and platforms to nurture this dialogue: the Each One Reach One campaign, the I Am Bohra photo campaign, our storytelling blog, Thaal Pe Charcha, Sahiyo Stories, Faces for Change, the Male Ally campaign, and of course, our annual Activists’ Retreats in India and the U.S. to train community members on effective methods of engaging with the community. 

In 2020 and in the years to follow, we have many more advocacy campaigns planned. The first among them will be launching next month, in February 2020: Digital Stories from the Global Voices to End FGM/C program. 

Follow @sahiyovoices on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay updated about the movement to end FGC and to join in our efforts.

And so, here is wishing all of you a happy and hopeful 2020!  

On the path to healing: My journey after experiencing female genital cutting

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Every woman that has been cut has a story to tell. I tell my story not to offer a universal account of female genital cutting (FGC), but one that is specific to me. At a young age, I underwent Type II female genital cutting, known specifically as “taharah” (purification) within the Egyptian community, in which only part of the clitoral hood was removed and partial removal of the labia minora/majora. The taharah took place in Cairo, Egypt, while visiting relatives. This was the second time I visited my parent’s homeland. My parents were unaware, or at least this is what I’d like to believe, of what had occurred, as my sister was in a coma at the time and her prognosis was poor. They agreed that I travel to their homeland with my auntie to avoid the negative effects of witnessing what my sister was going through. My aunties had convinced me that this was a rite of passage, and what I was about to embark on would make me a “woman.” 

One week after arriving in Cairo, my auntie took me to a medical office where a doctor performed the surgery. She remained in the room while I underwent FGC, while my other auntie waited by the phone to hear the “good news.” I have no recollection of the surgery, as I was under anesthesia. However, I awoke to excruciating pain that would last for weeks. I remember my family members visiting to celebrate—bearing money and gifts. Upon returning home my parents realized that something was different about me. Already small-framed, I had lost ten pounds. I notified them of what occurred, and I remember them speaking with my aunties. However, the details of the discussion were unknown to me.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In 2001, while taking a women’s psychology course, I learned that FGC was considered a human rights violation. Students in the class, including those from countries where this was practiced, were surprised and “disgusted” that FGC continued to be practiced. I was taken aback, as I had assumed this was a custom that many practiced. I began opening up to female friends from similar and varying backgrounds. I quickly discovered I was alone in having had it done to me.

I started looking into the practice of FGC and found that there were many factors contributing to the perpetuation of FGC. Some linked it to geographical location, religion, customs, sexuality, marriageability and education. I realized this was a complicated custom that could not simply be thought of as being continued by “ignorant” people. In fact, much of my family are college educated, wealthy, and progressive in terms of religion, and advocate for the rights of women. However, the reasons given for its continuation had been rationalized by them and somehow given cultural significance. I needed answers, and began a long journey that would ultimately lead to my decision to become a social worker, and work with women who have also been cut.

Mapping the Healing Journey

I was left feeling extremely confused, particularly as most of my family had decided to discontinue the practice due to religious reasons (stating that FGC is “haram” or a sin, and is not a “sunnah” or religious obligation. I searched for answers—or perhaps a place where I would feel accepted and learn to accept myself. I immediately reached out to gynecologists, gender violence organizations, and social workers. Much to my dismay, all were unaware of the FGC practice. Gynecologists stared blankly at my genitals stating, “At first glance, it looks intact.” However, they were unsure the extent of the “damage” done. Gender violence organizations stated that they dealt with different forms of gender violence. “This isn’t something we specialize in,” I was told. They referred me to organizations that had more familiarity. However, they were located overseas.

Social workers were unfamiliar with the practice but verbalized their strong beliefs about it. They reacted with words such as “disgusting,” “barbaric,” and “horrific.” They “encouraged” and “empowered” me to advocate for change against the oppressive practice that they assumed was justified by Islam and patriarchal oppression. They also questioned the reasons that parents would allow for such a thing to happen to their little girl. This was extremely difficult to hear given my close relationship with my parents. I walked away feeling judged, ashamed, and defective. For the first time, I began to experience symptoms of depression, which led me to become more embarrassed and secretive about what had occurred. 

Approximately eight years later, while reading a newspaper article, I came across the name of a Sudanese woman who started a grassroots organization for women who have been cut. The only experience I knew was one in which providers gawked at me when I told them what had occurred. I reached out to this woman, and she invited me to dinner to speak on a more personal level. Upon arriving to the restaurant, I was greeted with a warm smile. For the first hour of our meeting, she did not bring up the conversation of FGC. Surprised, I inquired, “So are we going to talk about… you know.” She replied, “When you’re ready, I am here to listen.” For the first time in a long time, I felt acknowledged, understood, accepted, and supported. We all begin our journey of healing somewhere. I am delighted to be a part of the Sahiyo team—and truly look forward to being a part of the healing process for others.

Intern Spotlight: Sahiyo Social Media Intern Kavya Palavalasa

Kavya Palavalasa joined Sahiyo’s team as a social media intern in July of 2019. Kavya has interests in film, art, research and gender relations in law, labour and academia. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in law at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University in India. She has not only worked with Citizens for Justice and Peace in Mumbai, but she was also the editor-in-chief of the Centre for Women, Law and Social Change Blog for two years.

1) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I heard about Sahiyo last December when I was attending a workshop in Himachal Pradesh, India. It was the first time I had a constructive conversation about female genital cutting (FGC), and I wanted to support the movement against the practice in any way I could. I joined Sahiyo as a social media intern in July!

2) What opportunities have you been involved with at Sahiyo?

As the social media intern, my work has largely included helping manage the social media handles, and content creation for campaigns, as well as for the daily feed.

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

Our body is a battleground. It is a struggle for power that often leaves behind scars. This manifests in the practice of FGC, as it establishes control over a woman’s sexual and bodily autonomy. What has been most inspiring about working with Sahiyo is that I have had the opportunity to witness a movement that allows women to encounter their experiences and their bodies as beautiful stories to be narrated, and not just as legal facts. It has been wonderful to closely observe and support this community of kind, brave, and tireless people. While creating content, I have understood the importance of compassionate and respectful language in advocacy, especially on social media. I have also understood so much about the practice itself. I found the Sahiyo guides and toolkits to be extremely informative and helpful. I believe that my involvement has had a deep impact on the way I communicate with people, and it has left me with hope for the future. I look forward to learning more!

4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?

The resources that Sahiyo offers are incredibly helpful in starting a constructive conversation about female genital cutting with absolutely anyone. We must not forget that the strength of our feminist movement lies in a deep understanding of collective memories and struggles.

Asia Network to End FGM/C calls for your participation

Malaysian NGO Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and British charity Orchid Project are jointly developing a new Asia Network to End FGM/C, to strengthen movements to end the practice of FGC in Asian communities.

To shape this network and its priorities, all interested organisations, activists, and stakeholders working in the region on FGM/C or related issues in Asia are invited to fill out this consultation survey. The closing date for this survey will be 22nd December 2019.

Utilizing Participatory Storytelling to Educate – A session at APHA 2019

1On Nov 4, 2019, Sahiyo’s co-founder Mariya Taher took part in a round-table session at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss the Voices to End FGM/C project. Participants were able to view a sample of the digital stories created by survivors. They were also able to learn how by utilizing participatory storytelling methods, we can educate communities, health professionals, and policymakers on female genital cutting. For more information, visit APHA’s website.