My experience of healing by attending the 2019 Sahiyo Activist Retreat in the U.S.

By Farzana Doctor

Country of Residence: Canada

Age: 48

When the first emails circulated about last month’s Sahiyo retreat in New York City, I wasn’t sure why I wanted to register, only that I knew I had to.  I felt anxious the week leading up to the event and couldn’t pinpoint the reason why.

During the opening exercise, when we listed our hopes for the weekend, a voice in my head said, quite definitively, “healing.” This surprised me because I’ve been thinking and writing about khatna since 2016, when I joined WeSpeakOut and began my healing journey. Over the previous years I’ve seen a therapist, talked to friends and family, and even finished writing a novel on the subject. What more healing was there to do?

But I put up my hand, and the notetaker recorded “healing” on the flipchart page. I felt vulnerable in my honesty, but I told myself to remain open to whatever could come from the gathering. Anxiety thrummed through my body.

On the second day, I listened to the woman across from me share her khatna memory, and a deep sorrow rose up in me as I recognized elements of shared experience. A painful penny dropped. I didn’t participate much in that session, just quietly wiped my tears and journalled my realizations.

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Later, in a pair-share exercise with the woman sitting next to me, I found myself relating to an aspect of her story, even though it was quite different from my own. It was like she was indirectly speaking to my fears and they quieted somewhat.

On the third day, I sat with my Saathi (my partner in the peer support program that Sahiyo is piloting) and I talked to her about ways I might shift my activism from “behind the scenes” to being more public. I was still anxious, but sharing with her also made me feel brave.

After the retreat I spent a few hours hanging out with another participant. She commented that I’d seemed grounded the whole weekend and I told her that I was good at wearing a calm mask. In fact, I had dissociated a little during some of the sessions, missing bits of the conversation and activity instructions. While I’ve long known that this is one of my coping strategies, saying it aloud to her, to another Bohri woman, was powerful in a way I couldn’t name right then.

But, after a week of reflection, I can name it now: the Sahiyo facilitators created an intentional space of respect and safety, and then twenty-one feminist Bohri women stepped into it. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.  

This was what was so incredibly powerful for me.  And so healing.

 

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The experience of hosting my very own Thaal Pe Charcha

By Xenobia

Country of Residence: India

Earlier this year in January, I attended the Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat in Mumbai, where I met some brilliant, fantastic people from all walks of life. Women shared their experiences, stories and life-lessons, and talked about how female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) had impacted their lives, either directly or indirectly, and what they were doing about it. 

Shortly after I returned home to Pune, my mind was filled with a bunch of ideas that involved reaching out to more Bohra women, hearing about their experiences with the community in general, and speaking to more women of substance. One of the training sessions at the Sahiyo Activist Retreat was on how to host one’s own ‘Thaal Pe Charcha’ (TPC, loosely translated as ‘discussions over food’).

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Representational photo of Thaal Pe Charca cuisine

Thaal Pe Charcha is a flagship Sahiyo program that brings Bohra women together in an informal, private space, so that they can bond over traditional Bohra cuisine while discussing FGM/C and other issues that affect their lives.

I felt that the next logical step for me was to host my very own TPC. It would give me the opportunity to meet and talk to more women from my city about certain community-centric issues that affect all our lives.

Even though I have never really been an activist myself, I knew of Sahiyo, and the cause that they have been fighting for. I admired and respected them, and I had silently been fighting for the same cause all my life, too. 

Did I have my fair share of apprehensions? I absolutely did. And why wouldn’t I?

In a closely-knit community like ours, where one person’s word is law, it is so hard to try to reason with women and mothers, to give them more clarity by pleading with them to not hurt their children. Often, they never seem to be able to see beyond how you are “going against the community” or “against Moula”, even though the point has never been about that. There is a fine line between following someone and blind faith. No matter which country you are in, child abuse is still child abuse, irrespective of what you choose to call it or who performs it.

For my TPC, I managed to invite a few women for lunch – a mix of friends, cousins, acquaintances and colleagues. It was also the first time I had ever hosted a Bohra get-together by myself, without the usual family members around to really help me. So for me, that itself was a personal milestone. Strangely, I felt it brought me a step closer to warmly embracing other nicer aspects of our culture – getting people together, bonding over food, and discussing the many facets of our little world.

The conversations bordered around what each one was doing in their lives, professionally and otherwise. We discussed issues such as soft-feminism, journalism, opinions on certain movies and the debate on whether wives should take their husbands’ surnames after they are married. For a couple of the women who attended, FGM/C was a new concept they had never spoken about before. They asked questions about why it is performed, when they heard of it, and why we needed to stop practicing it on the next generation, especially since conversations around this topic have always been taboo for some strange, secretive reason in our community. The younger minds agreed that all customs with no solid reasoning usually always die a natural death, because no one likes doing things without a valid reason.

Having access to the right answers and accurate information definitely helped each of them in getting more clarity on the topic, even though not every single person wanted to necessarily talk about their personal experience. It is still daunting to talk about something so personal in front of a bunch of strangers.

But for me personally, it was important that the topic was at least touched upon, so that other women realise that this is a safe, non-judgemental place and that they could reach out to me if they wanted to speak about anything that bothered them at all. Apart from that, I do enjoy bringing new people together and nurturing relations with those I care about. So all in all, this was extremely special to me.

While this event was still pretty small-scale, I would love to host and be a part of bigger TPCs eventually, where more women can come together and share their stories, opinions and ways to raise awareness about the harms caused by the practice in question, and how we can all work together to promote the abandonment of FGM/C and save the many generations of girls and women in the future from physical, mental, emotional and psychological damage.

Speaking the truth about my experience with female genital mutilation

By Aisha Yusuf

(Aisha is one of our Sahiyo Story participants who continues to use her voice to advocate for change on female genital cutting.)

At the Pro-Voice storytelling event at the Frogmore in Boston on March 31, there were three storytellers, including myself. The event was organized by Rev. Susan Chorley to contradict the narrative of shame, judgement, and stigma directed at women’s bodies and women’s lives. It was intimate in the sense that we created a small circle and we also paired in groups to engage in discussion with the attendees after each storyteller presented their piece. I was the second storyteller.

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I told the crowd I experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) when I was five, but I didn’t really process it until I was thirteen. It took me many years to understand it and its impact on my life. I speak about it because I don’t want to be silent anymore.

For me, I’m still getting the hang of storytelling and so I was nervous when I first got up, but the feedback I got after the event was over made me glad I shared my story. A lot of the attendees were shocked to learn about the prevalence of FGM around the world and how many women it affects. One woman in particular stated that she was unaware that such a practice was happening here in the United States, and they were shocked to find out that it impacted so many girls around the world.

During our small group conversation after my speech, we discussed a cultural or family practice we would undo for our people or community and how it would change our lives. I gave a brief example of a 10-year-old girl who died as a result of FGM in Somalia last July. I stated that I wanted to undo this practice so that innocent lives do not have to suffer like the girls who’ve died because of FGM, and many other girls who will potentially experience it.

When each storyteller told their story, the attendees would write something positive on three cards for the storyteller, which they would get to take with them at the end of the event. After the last discussion, Rev. Chorley, who is also the Executive Director of Exhale, thanked the storytellers, attendees, volunteers and gave storytellers a book along with cards.

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Overall, I was happy to share my story with the general public, I didn’t expect to receive so much positive feedback. One woman in particular I remembered stated that she was moved by my story. After the event was over people were networking. This older American woman came up to me and stated that she was not ready for the story I told. She was in disbelief that this had happened to me and thanked me for sharing my story and bringing awareness to such a private and intimate practice. This moment in particular made me realize why it was important to tell my story of surviving FGM. She added that hopefully what I am doing can bring change for girls.

Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board Spotlight: Zehra Patwa

As Sahiyo’s U.S. operations and programs have grown, in 2018, we invited various individuals from a host of backgrounds and professions to join our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board. The advisory board provides strategic advice to the management of Sahiyo and ensures that we continue fulfilling our mission to empower communities to end Female Genital Cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement.

This month, we are pleased to highlight Zehra Patwa, who has graciously agreed to serve as the Vice-Chair for our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board.

1) Can you tell us a bit about your background?Zehra sideshot 2019.JPG

I was born and brought up in the UK and moved to the US in the 1990s. I was born into the Dawoodi Bohra community and remain there with my family here in the US. In 2012, I saw a video of a Bohra woman talking about her khatna (FGM/C) and it opened up a whole world that I had previously been oblivious to.  At that same time, I found out that I, too, had undergone the cut at the age of 7 but I have no recollection of it.  Despite having no memory of my experience, I decided I could not be silent about this practice in what I had always known to be an educated and progressive community with strong women role models. I co-founded WeSpeakOut with several other women who were determined to end khatna in the Bohra community and we have helped open up the conversation on this once secret practice. We have also shed light on the practice in the Indian Supreme Court and hope to have an anti-FGM/C law on the books in the near future, I am also involved on the Board of IRIS, a refugee resettlement agency working to help refugees make a successful life in the US. I feel very strongly that we need to see each other as human beings first rather than getting bogged down with which group we identify with.
2) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo and what opportunities have you been involved in?
When I first got involved with activism, it was in a Whatsapp group with the founders of Sahiyo and several other women discussing our khatna experiences and encouraging each other to speak out against this injustice. Since then, my connection with Sahiyo has blossomed! Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut have done several campaigns together, notably, Each One Reach One, where we developed helpful guides to start the conversation about khatna between friends and family. I have attended several Sahiyo retreats, as well as participating in the wonderful Sahiyo Stories workshop where I created a video describing my feelings toward the reactions I have faced for speaking out about khatna.
3) How has your involvement impacted your life?
Finding out about this practice in my community in my forties set me off on a path of activism that I would never have foreseen. Working with Sahiyo has taught me that social change takes time and in order for cultural norms to shift, there needs to be a groundswell of support and shared experiences. I feel confident that with so many people speaking out, that this groundswell of support is growing every day and that gives me hope for the young girls in the Bohra community.
4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?
Listen to those who you may not agree with and try to find common ground.  You will find that even if you disagree about something as important as khatna, you can find mutual understanding and come to a place where you are able to communicate at a deep level.  That is the beginning of true social change.

Seeking Storytellers for Voices to End FGM/C – A U.S. based digital storytelling workshop

For the second year, Sahiyo and StoryCenter will collaborate to host a 3-day in-person, U.S. based digital storytelling workshop from September 20th-22nd, 2019 for survivors of Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation (FGM/C) and/or those who come from FGM/C practicing communities and are advocates against it. This year’s workshop will take place in Asheville, North Carolina. 

To apply, fill out this form to be selected as one of the storytellers for this workshop.

In 2018, Sahiyo and StoryCenter brought together nine women from across the United States to create personalized digital stories that narrate experiences of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). These women, who differ in identity and experience, each shared a personal story addressing a different challenge with FGM/C. The collection that resulted was called Sahiyo Stories and the digital stories were woven together with a united sentiment and a joint hope that the stories would build a critical mass of voices from within FGM/C-practicing communities, calling for the abandonment of this harmful practice.

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Building from the first digital storytelling workshop, this second iteration will be called Voices to End FGM/C and will seek to gather 8 people from across the United States who are connected to the issue of FGM/C to come together in a workshop dedicated to healing and creating, through sharing their personal stories.

Space is limited to 8 participants, and travel scholarships are available. The application will close on June 30th. Apply here.

View sample stories from our previous work with survivors of FGM/C, and check out Sahiyo’s blog posts about the first digital storytelling workshop, the Sahiyo Stories project.

If you have any questions, please get in touch with Amy Hill, from StoryCenter, at amylenita@storycenter.org; or Mariya Taher, from Sahiyo, at mariya@sahiyo.com

 

My experience at the Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat made me reflect on my khatna

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Age: 45 years old

I often wondered what the two women closest to me thought about khatna. I wondered because I never really talked with my sister or my mom about it. Well, we talked, but not with much purpose. I thought they were against it, just like me. I told them that I was going to a Sahiyo retreat where I would meet other Bohri women who are against khatna, otherwise known as female genital cutting. They said okay.

At the retreat, I realized that before I advocate publicly, I needed to process my own situation privately. I had khatna performed on me when I was young. I have not talked much about it. My story is much like most. I was probably under 10 years old at the time. Seems like most remember it being done when they were seven. Perhaps that was also the age when it was done to me. I was playing outside with a friend. I’m not sure what we were playing, but it seemed like a normal day and I was doing something perfectly normal. An aunt called out and said we were going somewhere. Was I to go get ice cream? I remember not wanting to leave my playmate and crying. I was taken to a relative’s home not too far from where we lived. It’s been decades, but the memory is vivid. We walked up the stairs. There were two women at the house. One held my hand. The other pulled down my panties. I remember crying. It drowned out what was happening to me.

A sharp pain. Blood. Blade. That’s what I remember. I don’t remember how I got home.

For the next few days, I remember the pain. I could not walk properly. I was sore. I walked with my legs apart, afraid of scraping the area that hurt.

Time moved on. And I suppressed my memory of what happened.

Years later, we heard of an African woman talking about FGM in the news. We all were outraged. A cousin told me that what happened to us when we were young was FGM. What? I was surprised. And somewhat glad. Because I was able to finally understand what happened when I was younger. Khatna was FGM. It was like solving a mystery of my life.

Life went on. I became sexually active and curious. Sex hurt and orgasm was hard. I asked my doctors about it. Most of them did not know. I asked my gynecologist to check me out. They said they saw a nick, but nothing much. Nothing much.

I often wonder if it is in my head if the pain I feel is because of something else. The pain is sharp. And, when certain parts are touched, it is unforgiving.

There is so much silence around khatna that there is not a good understanding of the harm to women. I do not know if I am the only one, or if there are others who feel this way. Are there others like me who are suffering from khatna decades later? Are there others like me who can’t have healthy sexual relationships with their husbands? Are there others like me suffering in silence?

After coming back from the retreat, I talked to my mom about my experience with khatna. She was surprised to know that it had impacted me long-term. I was surprised to learn that she was not impacted by it at all. I also talked to my sister. She said that she blindly follows the Bohri teachings and is neutral on the issue. And, like my mom, it has not impacted her long- term. I thought my sister would automatically be against it. But I was wrong.

Next day, I recapped the story to my husband, who does not share my religion. While he was sympathetic, his anger turned into islamophobic rhetoric and a focus on my “crazy” culture. There are so many “crazy” cultures, and perhaps mine is another use case for patriarchy.

I don’t hate my culture, the people who performed khatna on me, or the people who defend the practice. I want the judgment to stop. I want the fear to stop. I want to create a safe place for conversation and understanding.

I know there is work to do to change attitudes about khatna. I learned that the work is much closer to home than I thought.

 

Sahiyo’s New Video Campaign: No More Female Genital Cutting – Volunteers Share Their Stories

As April is known as Sexual Assault Awareness month, as well as a National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is an issue which lies at the pivotal intersections between these two issues, Sahiyo has begun a campaign to highlight why the Sahiyo community is working to both support survivors of FGC as well as to work towards preventing FGC form occurring to future generations of girls.

Sahiyo reached out to our community of volunteers- spanning the globe, from Bahrain to Boston, and asked them to share their thoughts on their activism to end FGC, and why this issue matters to them.

Throughout the month, short videos made by our Sahiyo community will be shared via social media. These voices belong to our volunteers, staff, advisory board and storytellers, each of whom has a different history and experience or knowledge of FGC – from beginning volunteers to more experienced advocates

Do help us share this tapestry of powerful voices that are part of the ‘No More FGC- Volunteers Share Their Stories’ campaign by sharing these videos with your own networks. 

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Find them on Sahiyo’s Youtube or Facebook today!

 

 

 

 

Survivor of Mumbai: Plight to End Female Genital Cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

(An alias was provided to protect the survivor’s identity and family.)

There was once a girl who was seven-years-old in Mumbai, India. She and her mother visited a woman so that she could have her “khatna” done. Her mother was an educated woman and later a principal of a school. Today, she was having done to her daughter what her mother had done to her. The mother did her research too, because the woman they visited was known to be quick and effective. There were claims that she inflicted the least amount of pain possible. The little girl paid her respects to the woman who would do the khatna without quite knowing why she was there. Before she knew it, she felt the pain. Then the woman guided her to the sink to wash her hands and pressed two cookies in her small palm–cookies that had been a favorite treat until then.

After the procedure was over, the mother carried the girl down the stairs. She was considered a “big girl” at the time and hadn’t been carried in ages. They got a taxi as well, despite the family being poor. The mere presence of the taxi testified to the importance of the event, not to mention the trouble she would have walking back to her uncle’s house. The mother spoke with an aunt there, saying she thought her daughter would cry for hours; but she seemed fine now, though. However, she was far from fine. Fatima wouldn’t talk about this event for another four decades.

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Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

As an adult, Fatima gained the courage to speak up about FGC. Three years ago, when Masooma Ranalvi started to advocate against the practice, Fatima found her voice. A survey by Sahiyo was also done, which revealed that no one spoke about the practice, but continued it even though the community that practiced it was considered educated and progressive. Female genital cutting (FGC) was a generational secret that about 80% of the surveyed population underwent. There is an understandable cause for worry within the community if one does not undergo it. Skipping out on the procedure could lead to a handful of issues, including a loss in social standing, or the local clergy harassing parents if you’re in the United States with your family back in India. Families persuade their women to have their daughters cut they believe to purify them and prevent promiscuity. Some succumb to the pressure, while others lie that the procedure was done so the constant nagging can subside. There’s also the option of vacation cutting (sending the girl away on a “vacation” for her to be cut) for those in America. Even all the way in Detroit, a personal shame makes it so that one may only talk about it amongst their closest friends. Fatima knows another woman, a lawyer in Houston, who went to Pakistan at age seven in order to be cut. It’s believed by some to be the ideal age because the girl is young and submissive, but old enough to remember what was done to her and continue the tradition when she has daughters.

Fatima is happily married with her husband and has two adult children, both boys. However, if she ever had a daughter, she would not have let her undergo FGC. A friend of hers commented on this once, claiming she was fortunate to not have to deal with female issues, like urinary tract infections. Fatima’s mother was visiting at the time and overheard their conversation.

Her mother said something along the lines of, “Oh, our girls don’t get infections because we have this done to them,” referring to FGC.

The friend did not know of FGC and probably would have asked more if Fatima didn’t interject. “That’s not true,” she told her visibly shocked mother. “Let’s not talk about it now.”

Unfortunately, the time to talk about FGC never came for Fatima and her mother. When thinking about her late mother, Fatima believes that she would be upset with herself in learning that while her mother had the intention to genuinely help Fatima, the incident only harmed her at seven-years-old, and still does today.

Fatima doesn’t have any physical problems as a result of being cut, but the trauma from the event still resides within her. After all these years, she remembers the pain. She believes that she lives a relatively normal and happy life, but the memory of being cut is there.

She can’t talk about it without crying, even though she doesn’t want to cry. “Why was this done to me?” Fatima said that she didn’t want her tears to weaken the message to end cutting. Fatima wants FGC survivors to open up, speak up, and get the help they need. The next generation needs to be protected and supported. Fatima said that even with leading a relatively normal life, the trauma is still there. “I will never be a full woman. I will never know [the] full sex experience, and I will never know how it feels to be uncut.”

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More on Brionna:

Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.

 

Female Genital Mutilation: A Human Rights Issue?

By Maryah Haidery

Country of Residence: United States

Last month, the Columbia University South Asian Feminisms Alliance organized a panel discussion in New York City to discuss female genital mutilation (FGM) in the broader context of human rights. I was honored to represent Sahiyo at this panel alongside Maryum Saifee, an FGM survivor and career diplomat with the United States Foreign Service; Aissata Mounir Camara, Co-founder of the There Is No Limit Foundation; and  Shelby Quast, Americas Director of Equality Now. The event was scheduled for a frigid Friday afternoon and I was only expecting a handful of people to attend. But when I finally made my way to the School of International and Public Affairs, I was pleasantly surprised to find the room was packed with students and reporters interested to hear what we had to say.

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The event began with a screening of three short videos highlighting Maryum’s, Aissata’s, and my personal history with FGM. After some brief introductions, we began a very impassioned hour-long discussion about our individual experiences as activists. Maryum began by stressing that it was important to view FGM as not just a cultural or medical issue but as a fundamental violation of human rights, including the right to live a life free from violence – especially gender-based violence. Shelby was particularly insightful about the legal implications of overturning the federal constitutional ban on FGM in the Detroit case and the subsequent appeals process. Aissata was passionate about informing the audience that FGM was “not just an African problem” but a growing problem here in the U.S., and one that affects all types of women regardless of ethnicity, age, religion and socio-economic status.

Keenly aware that I was lacking the extensive background and experience of my fellow panelists, I nevertheless tried my best to represent Sahiyo by discussing some of my recent initiatives, as well as some of the issues inherent in this sort of work. In keeping with the theme of the event, I discussed the challenge of framing FGM as a human rights issue. Some people hesitate in calling FGM a violation of human rights because they view rights through the lens of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the idea that right and wrong is subjective and varies based on culture. According to this view, definitions of human rights based on “Western” ideas, such as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can only apply to people from “Western” cultures, and different standards should be used to judge the practices of people from “non-Western” cultures like Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. Unfortunately, many politicians who have this view feel that supporting a ban on FGM may appear culturally insensitive.

I told the audience that although I felt that such views were understandable and often well-meaning, they were fundamentally flawed. This is because concepts such as “right and wrong” and “human rights” are not subjective but objective. They are based on the things that humans need in order to live and flourish. While it might be true that the human rights guaranteed in the UN’s Declaration of Rights are based on “Western” ideas, they are universal and meant to apply to all humans, not just the ones born in the West. So, if you adopt a culturally relativist position and contend that universal human rights don’t extend to certain Muslim women, then you are essentially arguing that you don’t think that certain Muslim women count as “human.” It’s not hard to see why this would be wrong.

At the end of the discussion, we responded to several questions from the audience. It was heartening to see how engaged everyone was. Someone asked how important we thought changing the existing laws would be for ending FGM. I answered that while laws could be important in underscoring our nation’s commitment to protecting the rights of little girls, laws alone would probably not result in changing the culture. That is why engaging with people and educating them is also so important. Shelby emphasized that laws were helpful in bringing exposure to previously taboo practices. But she also warned that it was important to ensure that laws were implemented in ways that helped communities instead of targeting them.  Several people were interested in finding out what they could do to help end the practice in their communities. Maryum urged audience members to educate themselves on the issue and pursue creative solutions. Camara agreed. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “Educate yourself. Break the silence. Find your talent and join in.” After the event, nearly everyone took home information on how they could support the various organizations represented, find upcoming Zero Day of Tolerance Activities, or sign a petition to ban FGM in Massachusetts. It was a day that seemed to exceed all expectations.  

The complexities of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blogpost is the first in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This first installment details the historical, social and economic contexts of FGC in Singapore. It also explains the limitations of academic discourses on FGC in the Southeast-Asian region, and especially Singapore.

It was a Saturday afternoon in September 2016 when my dad picked me up from university and we headed over to a relative’s house in Sembawang. We only ever gathered there for special occasions. This time, it was my cousin’s second birthday. We entered the room, and it was full of relatives in brightly colored shirts, jubah (long Malay dress), jeans and scarves. Of course, the star of the evening, my 2 year-old cousin, Anisah, donned a red and blue sailor outfit. I went to pick her up and carried her around the room. A 38-year old female relative, wearing a simple combination of black t-shirt and jeans came over to speak to me, and my sister, who was also around us.

Relative (R): “Anisah minggu lepas dah kena sunat (Anisah was cut last week).”

Saza (Sa): “Apa? (What?)”

R: “Ya, kat doctor (Yes, at the doctor).”

Sa: “Huh, perempuan kena sunat? (Women need to be cut?)”

R: “Ya (Yes).”

Sa: “Tapi ini salah! Ini against WHO guidelines semua. Ini human rights violation (But this is wrong! This is against WHO  guidelines. This is a human rights violation).”

Sis: “You pun kena sunat. (You were cut, too).”

My jaw dropped. I had never known about this cutting, and I was completely unaware that it was performed on me. I did not know it was performed on young children, and consented to by their parents at medical clinics or with traditional midwives. My complete lack of knowledge until that moment about a practice that my relative described as necessary for women speaks a lot to the specific kind of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore: its hiddenness, prevalence amongst the Singaporean Malay community, the debate surrounding the procedure, and reactions to it.

This sparked an interest in researching about FGC for seminars during my undergraduate studies at Yale-NUS in Singapore, which eventually culminated in a year-long thesis on this practice.

Context of FGC in Singapore

It is unclear when the practice of FGC first began in Singapore. In 1998, researchers Andre Feillard and Lies Marcoes theorised that FGC reached Southeast Asia as part of Islamic traditions linked to the Shafi’i school of thought, but the spread of the practice to other parts of Southeast Asia is ambiguous. FGC in Singapore involves female Malays, who make up about 7% of the population (420,000 people). Out of these, there is an assumed prevalence of 60% of Malay women who have been cut. Previously, this procedure was performed by traditional midwives at homes, but now it is mostly conducted at 5-10 private clinics by female Malay doctors around the island. It costs about $30-50, and takes less than 30 minutes. There is no law or legislation banning FGC in Singapore.

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Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

In Singapore, Type I FGC is performed, though there is also a spectrum of this particular cutting – from symbolically placing a medical instrument (usually scissors) at the clitoris, to nicking the clitoral hood, to removing the hood itself. It is usually performed on young children below the age of five.

The Malay community holds differing views relating to this cutting. Some view it as mandatory, while others are more ambivalent, and some actively campaign against it.

Research (or lack thereof) on FGC in Singapore

FGC in the Southeast Asian region received very little academic attention until 1885. Andree Feillard and Lies Marcoes argued that it was only in 1885 that the Dutch ethnographer G. A. Wilken conducted a thorough survey of the practice in the region. He was the first to draw the conclusion that female circumcision was found exclusively among Muslims, which led him to believe that it was not an indigenous practice, but rather one “borrowed from the Arabs”.

In the only anthropological study of FGC in Singapore, Gabriele Marranci (an Australian anthropologist)  explained why this practice is so hidden. He suggests that this is a form of “religious ethnic resilience within an environment affected by an increasing push towards globalisation and national identity”. According to him, the structural inequalities faced by the minority Malay community have led them to hold strong to traditional rites and rituals as a way of ensuring the togetherness of the community. Here, he also references Kevin Hertherington’s concept of the Bund, which is defined as “an intense form of affectual solidarity, that is inherently unstable and liable to break down very rapidly unless it is consciously maintained through the symbolically mediated interaction of its members”. Secondly, he also points out that the government is keen to keep FGC hidden to avoid “opening a debate in Singapore that would not only involve the Malay Muslim community, but all Singaporeans as well as international observers”. Taking a pro-FGC stance would upset the international human rights community such as the United Nations and NGOs as well as receive backlash from the local feminist community. On the other hand, criticising FGC might be seen as an “attack on the Malay community itself”. A third reason is that the Malay Muslim community do not see this cutting as significant or think it necessary to be brought up for discussion. It is a tradition that is simply accepted as part of an early childhood ritual. However, Marranci does not clearly address the idea that if the cut is so hidden such that the women themselves are unaware of it, how does that solidify the identity of the community? As such, my research aims to build upon this question by understanding the reasons that compel Malays to practice female genital cutting.

Part 2 of this series will focus on cleanliness and religious reasons given for female genital cutting in Singapore. 

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Saza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations as much as possible.