Our mission is to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end female genital cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education and collaboration based on community involvement.
The November workshop will focus on health and female genital cutting. With that focus in mind, Sahiyo extends an invitation to: 1) women over 18 years old, living in the United States, who have undergone FGM/C and who have a story to share about receiving healthcare in the U.S. or 2) health providers in the United States, of all genders (i.e. physicians, nurses, midwives, etc.) who have provided services to women who have undergone FGM/C.
Together these groups can highlight stories about the enduring impact of FGM/C on women’s health and/or inform health professionals of the kind of care and best practices health professionals need to be aware of when working with FGM/C survivors. The resulting short digital stories will be used to better educate health professionals on how to support survivors living in the U.S..
In 2018, Sahiyo, in partnership with StoryCenter, launched an inaugural digital storytelling workshop. Nine women’s stories have since elevated the conversation about FGM/C in the U.S. and globally. The stories were distributed online and via media channels, as well as at live community screening events. They are being used as educational tools to support discussion among survivors within their communities, with a focus on challenging the social norms sanctioning FGM/C, and encouraging an end to the practice.
Since 2015, Sahiyo has been advocating for the abandonment of FGM/C through dialogue, education and collaboration. Sahiyo conducted the first-ever international online survey of Dawoodi Bohra women on the subject of FGM/C. Read the full report here.
StoryCenter creates spaces for transforming lives and communities, through the acts of listening to and sharing stories as a vehicle for education, community mobilization, and advocacy. They collaborate with organizations around the world on workshops in story facilitation, digital storytelling, and other forms of participatory media production. Individuals are encouraged to register for storytelling workshops.
About The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health:
GWU has been working closely with survivors and health care providers to develop a living virtual educational toolkit (fgmtoolkit.gwu.edu).
I was looking forward to attending the second Sahiyo Activist Retreat as it is a great platform to meet more women who are standing up for the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). I was happy to meet women from different parts of the United States. It was a great experience to hear different views of women of all age groups. It is encouraging to see more and more women join every year.
FGM/C has always been a very sensitive issue for me, as I had been through this atrocity myself and would never want another innocent child to go through it.
As I mentioned in my prior post about the first retreat, I have a very vivid memory of being cut at the tender age of seven. It felt like my body was being violated. Even when I was just 7 years of age, I knew something wrong had been done to me as I was told that this thing was a dark secret I was not supposed to tell anyone about. As I grew up I found out that none of my other friends had this religious ritual done, and it confirmed that what had been done to me was wrong. In the past few years, I learned that many other women like me felt the same way.
The Sahiyo Activist Retreat gave me insight into how I can talk to other pro-FGM/C people and how I can convey my thoughts on FGM/C to them in a positive way.
Sahiyo has created a strong platform for women like me to come out and express their grief and opinions to create awareness.
The issue of female genital cutting (FGC) is usually told from a woman’s perspective – for obvious reasons. Women around the world have spoken up against this practice that has gone on far too long, and we commend those who have made their voices heard. At Sahiyo, we know that while a lot of progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that girls and women no longer undergo FGC. We know that more voices need to be heard, and that’s why we launched our male ally campaign.
Last month (July 2019), we issued a call-to-action for men to speak out against FGC. We know a lot of misinformation exists about FGC, and that men may not be aware of what goes on, or they may be misinformed about what FGC does to a child or a woman. We asked men to submit short videos, audio files, quotations, or blogs that share one thing in common: taking a stand against the practice of FGC and denouncing it.
The response we received was amazing. Dozens of men across the globe from Ghana and Kenya to multiple regions of India and the US stepped up to answer our call. Many shared their personal experiences with FGC, involving their wives, daughters, sisters, or friends being cut. Others described why FGC needs to end and how harmful it is. Each one made their thoughts known and told us and everyone why the practice of FGC needs to end for girls and women worldwide. This took place in several formats, such as quotes, audio entries and videos (see examples below). In addition, we took this campaign to highlight the thoughtful blog pieces written by our male allies over the past few years, such as this powerful letter from a father.
We greatly appreciate all of you who took the time to send in a blog post, video, quotation, or audio file.
We will be posting these submissions throughout August and September on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages. If you missed the deadline for submissions or would like to add more of your thoughts, we will be using the hashtags #MenToEndFGC, #SahiyoMaleAllies, and #MenEndFGM in our posts. If you use these hashtags or tag @sahiyovoices in a post, we may repost it!
We know that we must stand together and unite to end FGC. These men stepping up and speaking out against FGC is a step in the right direction, and we hope it inspires more men to use their voices to help end FGC for all girls and women.
As Sahiyo’s U.S. operations and programs have grown, we invited various individuals from a host of backgrounds and professions to join our 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 Joanne Golden who graciously serves as a member of our U.S. Advisory Board.
1) Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was born and (mostly) raised in Massachusetts, but I got the travel bug at age 4, when my dad was in the U.S. Army and stationed at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium. My mom, brother, and I were able to accompany him and we lived there for three years, where I attended school with children from other countries, learned about different cultures and languages, and traveled between most Western European countries (not Eastern Europe, as it was still during the Cold War). When I returned to the U.S., I knew my perspective was already broader than that of my peers and I became curious about history, politics, geography, and languages. I was determined to be the first female Secretary of State in the United States! Well, that didn’t happen, as Madeleine Albright beat me to it, and other opportunities came my way. I attended Boston University and received my Bachelor of Arts in International Relations with a minor in French (1990), spent my junior year abroad in Grenoble, France, and I was invited to my friend’s wedding in Egypt, where I spent six weeks as a guest of her family and friends. I could not have been happier! My career trajectory did not go as planned as I moved towards financial services, rather than the foreign service, and I worked for 15 years at State Street Corporation in Massachusetts, during which I attended Boston University Graduate School of Management and received my Masters in Business Administration (1997). However, after serious reflection and research, in 2006, I decided to change the direction of my life and pursue a career in public service by going to law school, and I graduated with Pro Bono Honors from Suffolk University Law School in 2009 and was the 1st recipient of the Suffolk Law School Pro Bono Exemplary Service Award. During law school, I focused my electives on civil and human rights issues, particularly on human trafficking, children and women’s rights, for which I wrote a paper entitled “Impact of China’s One Child Policy and Cultural Gender Preference on Girl Child Discrimination and Mortality In China.” For a year after graduation, I worked with two NGOs and the Massachusetts Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, in order to support state specific anti-human trafficking legislation, which went into effect in 2012, and to study the demand-side of sex trafficking. I am currently a federal attorney for the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearing Operations since 2010, an active member of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA). Since May 2013, I am part of a working group that researched, drafted, and advocates for state-level legislation to ban the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in Massachusetts. I am also a fierce Boston sports fan. I study the Irish language and violin in what little time I have left over, and I recently got married to Greg, who regularly tells me how proud he is of the work I do.
2) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo and what opportunities have you been involved in?
I first became involved with Sahiyo about three years ago, through my interactions with Mariya Taher, who joined the WBA’s FGM/C legislative working group to help us advocate for state-level legislation to ban the practice of FGM/C in Massachusetts. I was introduced to Mariya on a monthly phone call led by Equality Now, which was trying to bring together a coalition of legal and medical experts, non-profits, federal and state law enforcement, and victim-survivors across the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries, to eradicate FGM/C by 2030. Mariya brought valuable insight to our working group as a non-attorney, survivor, and founding member of Sahiyo. She showed us the human side and cost of FGM/C for girls and women. It is through Mariya that we made deeper contacts within the Bohra and Somali communities in Boston. We have new contacts with American-born women who are also cut, and we garnered more legislative support for the Massachusetts FGM/C bill with her testimony and willingness to tell such a deeply personal story. With Mariya and Sahiyo, we also successfully initiated a change.org petition to support the MA state legislation with over 300,000 signatures. I have admired her efforts to give a voice to girls and women through the Sahiyo Stories project. I also became a member of the Sahiyo U.S. Advisory board last year, and participated in our successful Boston FGM/C roundtable in April 2019.
3) How has your involvement impacted your life?
As I explained previously, in 2006, I decided to change the direction of my life and pursue a career in public service by going to law school. I followed my head, my heart, and my conscience to law school and focused on issues of civil rights, children and women’s rights, during my studies, but I could never have known that it would lead me here. When people ask me what I do, I always reply that I am an attorney for the federal government. But I also add that I fight for the rights of women and children against being trafficked and being irreparably harmed, physically and mentally, by FGM/C. I am proud and humbled by Sahiyo’s mission and that Mariya asked me and trusted me to be part of the Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board.
4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?
If you don’t know what you can do, then ask, “How can I help with this cause?” and someone will answer. Also, success is not a straight line from A to B. There are steps backward and forward, abrupt changes of direction, and even some side trips down a rabbit hole that you did not see coming. It is all necessary and all worth it. Be humble and open to what others have to teach you. Lean on each other for support. In my example, I had heard of FGM/C while I was in law school, but my focus and energy were on anti-human trafficking efforts and opportunities. Once the Massachusetts state human trafficking bill was passed in November 2011, and went into effect in 2012, I wondered, “Now what?” The answer did not come until May 2013 with the Women Bar Association’s FGM/C working group, and that group morphed as members came and went, but I feel our mission came into real focus after the first legislative session, in which our bill did NOT pass, as we expected it to. I was deflated at first, but then I met Mariya through Equality Now, and I was blown away with her advocacy experience. Mariya and Sahiyo clarified for me “who” we were advocating for, and I have learned how to be an advocate for change, and not just an arguer of legal facts because real change begins with people and the healthy, productive relationships you build in life. I am happy and proud of the relationships I have made within the Sahiyo community and with our mutual commitment to the full and equal participation of women under the law and in society by advocating for the abandonment of FGM/C in the U.S. and abroad.
By Anonymous Country of Residence: United States Age: 35
I knew that feeling of being surrounded by Bohra women, for two full days, chatting, laughing, crying and sharing experiences of what it means to be Bohra. That sense of community, that inspiration that came from hearing everyone’s stories, and that deep desire to want to make change happen for the better. I had experienced it at the first Sahiyo Retreat and was grateful to have the opportunity once again this year.
The retreat is like a sacred space: a space where you can just let go, where you can heal and allow others to heal, where you can learn from each other, and together find solutions. The answers to solve problems in our community are all within, but talking to each other helps bring that clarity.
I have been volunteering with Sahiyo for a few years now, and I felt that the retreat helped reinforce my commitment to continue to speak up against female genital cutting.
To read more articles about Sahiyo’s Activist Retreats, click here.
I felt a strong need to participate in the Sahiyo 2019 Activist Retreat because I hoped to heal from my experience of FGM/C and to gain perspective from other women who had been victims of khatna as well. For the first time in my life, I openly discussed what happened to me and my own feelings about khatna. The memory of that day is still seared in my mind and will never escape me. And while I don’t truly care to open old wounds, I want desperately for survivors to find a way to move forward and stop this practice within our community. For me the retreat was an outlet to figure out how to never let this happen again.
I remember when the news about the Detroit case first came out; I asked a friend of mine if she went through khatna. When she said no, I immediately thought, how lucky. The retreat gave me a new perspective on it all. Yes, she is lucky, but was it fair that she had to pretend it happened to her just to avoid repercussions for her family? After the retreat, I thought even though she was spared the knife, she still had to perpetuate a lie that every girl in our community had gone through this traumatic event. That, too, has a set of problems.
The retreat taught me that issues surrounding khatna are more complicated than just making the act itself illegal. I also had an opportunity to see that women who weren’t cut still have an opinion and story to share. I believe that together, we can effect change. The retreat gave me a platform to understand how to discuss and teach others within the community to stop practicing khatna. The retreat also offered a platform to discuss solutions, whether small scale or large, and I think that is the best starting point when discussing such a heavy and complicated subject. I am so thankful to have a community of like minded women who care so much about effecting change. I look forward to nurturing these relationships and together working toward long-term, permanent solutions to ending khatna.
On June 1, Sahiyo and StoryCenter launched a pilot online digital storytelling workshop – Global Voices to End FGM/C, which is supporting ten women impacted by female genital cutting in sharing and audio-recording their stories.
During June, storytellers attended a series of webinars that helped highlight the storyteller process and how to go about drafting their story scripts as well creating a storyboard for their digital story. During July and August, the storytellers will continue working on their digital stories by collecting illustrations for their stories. The stories will be illustrated with a combination of personal images (photos and video clips) provided by the storytellers, and images contributed by participating women artists.
The storytellers come from a variety of countries including: Tanzania, United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Singapore, and Bahrain. “As a survivor of FGC, it is empowering to be able to share my story in my own words, with my own choice of visuals, as opposed to my story being told by someone else,” said Aarefa Johari, one of the participants of the workshop.
All participants’ digital stories will be released in late September.
The Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat I attended in March of 2019 felt big to me. In the days after, I told people it blew me away, meaning that it occupied my thoughts as it was all I could talk about and think about for a while. There were parts of it that felt like group therapy, something I had not expected. I just had not expected how deeply moving it is for someone else to say, “That happened to me, too.” We all know that there is an entire social movement around the #metoo hashtag, but it is more than a hashtag. It felt like when you are doing an exercise, and the teacher comes up to you, adjusts you a little, and then the whole exercise changes.
A lot of the time during the retreat, it felt like someone was reaching inside me and physically shifting an organ or two. For one other woman to say to me “I get a lot of urinary tract infections, too” just made me want to cry. The crazy thing is that other women have said that to me. Tons of friends have said that, but I always remembered thinking, “Ok, but you weren’t cut.” But this time, this one time, when the other woman said it, I suddenly felt a rush of gratitude and warmth and unparalleled comradery. I wasn’t crazy, and if I was, I wasn’t alone in being crazy. I just had no idea how moving it would be to be in a group where I could hear others talk about their experiences, for me to feel normal in being abnormal.
I had always thought individual therapy was valuable, but I simply had no idea that a group can offer a kind of cathartic experience that is impossible to achieve by yourself. To be honest, I thought group therapy was for people who couldn’t afford individual therapy. But I was completely wrong. They are completely different and utterly valuable in their own ways. If you have been cut, and you are skeptical, and jaded, and private (like me), you can really trust that you can enter this space and never feel pressured to speak. You can speak when you are moved to speak. And even if all you do is listen, it is transformative and life-changing.
In the weeks since the retreat, it also seems like I have been feeling all the feels. While I was there, it felt like a high. Even in the couple of weeks after it, I was finally openly dealing with a lot that had just been buried. I felt like I grew and stretched. I talked about it more than I ever had. But no matter what, it all still happened, and that can’t be erased. And there are moments I still feel fucked up and uneasy about it all. Maybe that is what I just have to learn — how to hold it all at the same time.
This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This fourth installment provides a final analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here.
In this research, I have contextualised the type of cut, stakeholders involved, on-going discussions on FGC locally and internationally, and FGC’s hiddenness. I hope this allows for a deeper understanding of the specific and unique type of FGC and the situation surrounding it in Singapore. My discussion of the reasons for FGC in Singapore is also non-exhaustive, but to my interlocutors, cleanliness, religion, tradition, and the control of female sexuality, are some of the most pertinent to their lived experiences. To the best of my ability, I have tried to represent fairly the perspectives and opinions of the various people with whom I spoke. In her book, The Twilight of Cutting, Saida Hodzic accurately pointed out that “differently positioned women take a variety of political positions toward cutting/anti-cutting campaigns, and the larger governance of their lives.” In these concluding paragraphs, I will further explore the continuity of this practice, ways to encourage productive and meaningful discourse about it, as well as policy implications.
FGC has been an unquestioned tradition in Singapore for centuries. I believe we need to place a critical lens on FGC and question the motivations of this practice. While taking into account the possible individual, family and social meanings that have been attributed to FGC, it is also important to question its necessity and impact on a young girl. I end most interviews by asking interlocutors if they think FGC will continue, and 70% of my interlocutors answered in the negative. Conversations about FGC and debates on it have been ignited, and more young parents are questioning the cut’s necessity. Once parental pressure is no longer a factor and this procedure has skipped a generation, FGC will be much harder to revive or continue. Sometimes the type of FGC done in Singapore does not leave visible scars or markings. Those against FGC have said that they know of young parents who choose to say their daughter has been cut even if she hasn’t, and no one is any wiser.
It is also important to take note of the vernacular languages that are used when discussing FGC, and determining the appropriate ways to debate FGC in the Malay community. Currently, the debates on FGC happen amongst specific circles of young Malays who are highly educated. It is important to engage with the older generation and those who may not have access to tertiary education about this practice. It is only in sincere conversations, which aim to listen, engage in dialogue, and not necessarily debate that perspectives will shift.
When I first found out about the FGC performed on me when I was a baby, and questioned my parents about it, they insisted that it was mandatory and that they did it for my own good. They said FGC was necessary for “religious and health reasons, and so I won’t be adulterous.” These are similar to the reasons my interlocutors shared as well. As I went about my research, and interviewed religious leaders, medical practitioners, and feminist activists, I slowly clarified my parents’ beliefs, and today they no longer see it as mandatory (“though still good to do”), but I do think chipping away at their long-held beliefs has been successful. Similar to my interlocutor’s sharing that the language of female sexuality, children’s rights and consent is foreign or even “Western,” I think it is important that we find the right language and vocabulary to discuss these issues in Malay so that it is more readily accessible.
I hope to see more people and stakeholders engaging in these conversations. In particular, I hope this blog post would encourage medical practitioners, religious leaders, religious bodies and health ministries to enter the conversation about FGC in Singapore. From my ethnography, there are various undercurrents and rumors of the perspectives and policy positions engaged by these stakeholders. For instance, a medical practitioner said that there is a register of doctors who perform it and who have informally agreed to abide by a set of guidelines in order to standardize the procedure. However, neither this guideline nor register is publicly available. Having them come out with actual statements would clear various misconceptions about FGC’s necessity and its health and religious implications.
I would urge the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to replace the fatwa it removed with a new one, so that religiously, the Muslim community can be assured of the ruling for FGC. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association (MHPA) also have a responsibility to the larger Singapore community to ensure our safety and health. Because all doctors are registered and regulated under MOH, it is up to MOH to determine if FGC is aligned with the medical oath to do no harm. At the same time, it would be interesting to find out the positionality of medical practitioners performing FGC. Do they believe it to be necessary? Do they abide by the guidelines stated, especially given the spectrum of FGC that my interlocutors underwent? What are their specific reasons for performing FGC? Silence only breeds confusion. It is definitely time for the religious and health authorities to step up and clearly state their positions on FGC in Singapore. There is the very real fear that if FGC were banned in Singapore and practitioners disallowed from practicing it, this would lead to FGC being performed underground, where conditions are much less hygienic and can be more harmful. But, if the relevant authorities can counter the health, religious and female promiscuity reasons given for FGC, this practice will be regarded as unnecessary and might no longer be practiced here.
According to Hodzic, “Hahn and Inhorn testify to the persistence of one of the founding principles of applied medical anthropology, which is the notion that anthropology can and should provide cultural knowledge necessary for improving public health and health care.” I hope this research has provided a holistic, balanced, and informative understanding of the reasons for FGC in Singapore, and will be useful for religious leaders, medical practitioners, activists, and especially Malay women as we continue to critically analyze and discuss this practice.
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. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations.
In late March, I participated in Sahiyo’s Second Annual Retreat for survivors and allies in the campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM). Attendees from the first retreat commented on how the program had more than doubled in size to over 20 this year. As an FGM survivor who reluctantly stumbled into this advocacy work three years ago, it made me reflect on how far we — as in the Bohra community — have come in such a short time.
Before 2016, only a handful of survivors had publicly shared their stories and many were anonymous blog posts. The intense community backlash for speaking out has prevented many from being able to share their stories. Even at the retreat, most of the attendees preferred to stay behind the scenes. Through the tireless dedication of the organizers (Mariya Taher, Zehra Patwa, Alisha Bhagat, and others), Sahiyo created a safe space for these survivors and allies to heal, recharge, and strategize on how to harness the power of our collective to make change.
Thanks to Sahiyo — which has a foothold in both South Asia and the United States — we are seeing momentum build toward a transnational movement where dozens of survivors are sharing their stories breaking the culture of silence around FGM. For decades, the spotlight on FGM has almost exclusively centered on sub-Saharan Africa. Now, as more survivors from non-African communities speak out, we are seeing this is much more pervasive than we previously thought. In Indonesia for example, UNICEF estimated that nearly 50% of girls and women are cut before 14 years of age.
In addition to providing a space to connect with one another and forge bonds of solidarity, we also had the opportunity to connect with other faith communities working to end gender-based violence. Linda Kay Klein, a feminist who was brought up as an evangelical Christian, discussed her recent book Pure, and the challenges she has faced with speaking up in her community. There were many parallels between her struggles and our own. Both the Bohra and evangelical communities are insular and tend to ostracize those who question authority.
During a coffee break, I had the opportunity to chat with Linda on the idea of doing an interfaith storytelling collaboration. Her talk was timely, as a member of the evangelical tradition from Kentucky had just broken her silence as an FGM survivor, reinforcing that FGM transcends race, religion, and geography.
As advisory board chair of Sahiyo, I felt privileged to see the organization’s work in action. Far too often, there is a martyrdom culture among activists where they feel the need to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Sahiyo’s commitment to annual retreats are critical in sustaining the activists who are the fuel behind the movement to end FGM. It was an honor to participate. I look forward to reconvening next year to continue learning from this amazing network of sister warriors.