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Discovering female genital cutting in my community

By Mariam Sabir

Country of Residence: United States

With so many issues in the world that need to be addressed, we have to pick and choose our battles, whether it may be poverty, education, inequality, or gender violence. The majority of people choose something that they can most relate to via personal or cultural experiences. With this first blog I will write about my personal journey of discovering female genital cutting (FGC) in 2011 and why it took me eight years to finally do something about it.

Bohra women

My sister is my confidant, as I am hers. I was 17 years old when my sister pulled me aside urgently to talk to me about something she could not fathom. She had just discovered FGC. I was still in high school and did not grasp the gravity of the situation. A few years later, I was sitting in my healthcare ethics course in undergrad and my professor breezed over the topic of female genital cutting. My mind started to spin. This could not possibly be what my sister was talking about? I called her immediately after class and she confirmed it. I was enraged as though I was hearing it and truly understanding it for the first time. It felt like a conspiracy. No one in the community talked about it. How many of my cousins, friends, and aunts had gone through this and had never spoken of it?

I was desperate to talk to someone about this. Surely there must be somewhere I could go to get more information. I called the first person that came to mind, my mother. I could sense her discomfort in talking about this subject. She told me it is a Bohra custom, a social norm within our community that people feel compelled to perpetuate without questioning, even by my grandmother as well. My mother admitted that it was a traumatic experience, but did not want to indulge further.

I was not satisfied. I called my aunt. My aunt is more liberal and expressive; she writes poetry and is an activist in her own ways. Surely, she would have more to say about this. She told me it was done supposedly to moderate a woman’s sexual urges to prevent premarital or extramarital affairs. To my dismay, this was the end of our conversation.

My attempt to gather information seemed like an impossible task. I did not know where to go or who to talk to, so I pushed my thoughts aside until that summer when I went back home to Dubai. I was curious to see how much Bohra men knew about this. I met up with an old Bohra friend and told him what I had discovered. He immediately said, “Well, men get it done, too.” I was disappointed. I told him that male circumcision and FGC were not equivalent, that FGC was much more psychologically and sexually damaging for a female. He continued to defend the custom saying there must be a reason why Moula (the leader of our community) recommends it. There must be a long-term benefit from the procedure that we don’t know about. I was in disbelief. How could he not think it was wrong? I was left more confused and angry after that conversation. Was I making this a bigger deal than it needs to be? Why is no one else speaking up about this?

I attended medical school and the more I learned about female anatomy, the more upset I got thinking about FGC. I felt powerless until I heard a friend talking about Sahiyo. I was shocked and relieved. It was comforting to know that I share the same views as many other women. Up until then, I felt like my emotions of anger and distrust were out of proportion and unjustified. There was finally a safe space to discuss FGC, gather information and truly understand its origins.

Through Sahiyo, I learned more about how we can create awareness and discussion about such a sensitive and taboo subject. In retrospect, I wish I had handled the conversation with my Bohra male friend differently. It was presumptuous for me to think he would understand what women went through. Afterall, it is our body, not his. I wish I had the tact and knowledge to educate him about the long-lasting effects of FGC, to tell him that it is not a small-community problem but a human rights issue. That taking a child at the age of seven and altering her anatomy forever is not okay. That depriving a woman from experiencing pleasure during sexual activity is not okay. That potentially causing severe pain and complications for women’s reproductive health is not okay. That tampering with God’s creation of a perfect body is not okay. That perpetuating patriarchal standards by continuing this practice is not okay.

All the secretiveness around this topic should be a red flag for everyone who blindly follows this practice. So let’s question it. Let’s drop the secrecy. Let’s drop the shame. Let’s create awareness. Let’s educate each other.

 

 

Supporting each other through COVID-19 and continuing our efforts to end female genital cutting

Dear Sahiyo community,

We’re writing to let you know that we are so grateful to have you be part of the Sahiyo community, and even though we are living in unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic and our everyday lives look different right now, we’re committed to helping you stay connected to us and our mission to support survivors and protect future generations of girls from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in meaningful ways.

Around the globe, the Sahiyo team was already working remotely, however, we have cancelled all of our in-person events for the months of March, April, and May and are taking the necessary steps to ensure that we can provide virtual options for community members and survivors affected by FGC who need our support where possible. 

Here are a few ideas on how you can continue to connect with us:

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Bottom line, reach out. We may have to socially distance from each other in person for awhile, but we can connect and further our advocacy work to support survivors and protect future generations of girls from FGC in other ways.

We will not let girls, women and communities impacted by FGC get left behind. Sahiyo continues to partner, share and advocate globally for an end to the practice. We hope that through adversity, positivity will win through, and we can learn new, innovative ways of working as we come through this crisis together. 

Sending love, solidarity, and gratitude to you and your loved ones,

~ Sahiyo

Voices Series: How I learned to tell my FGM/C story

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

By Saza Faradilla

Creating this digital narrative alongside other women from all around the world was a great journey! I learned how to tell my story in pictorial ways. Never having seen a visual version of my story, it was almost a serene experience watching it unfold. Working with Sahiyo, and especially my designer, Esther Elia, was an amazing experience, as she took my vision and put it into a video form that represented my experience with female genital cutting. Processing and reliving the scenario of finding out about the cutting performed on me helped me process it further.

Voices Series: Why I believe in the power of storytelling

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

By Shabana Feroze

I participated in the Voices To End FGM/C project by Sahiyo, where I also volunteer. What I really took away from participating in this project is the power of storytelling. In this project, videos are made from our past experiences with female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Each participant has a unique video. We would have weekly online workshops in which we were guided on how to tell our story and the next steps.

When each of the participants would read out her unique take on their experience, I would get chills. It had so much of an impact, listening to what each survivor went through and how it had affected them. 

It was very educational as well, because we were taught the nuances of storytelling. I found that to be the most interesting part: all the details that make a story more impactful and holds interest. I loved how we had very strict guidelines about story and video length. 

I relate to all this because I’m a marketer by profession. I believe in the power of storytelling for brands and marketing campaigns, so this was a strong reassurance that I was on the right path. All the little things I learned about what makes a story powerful and what makes a story stay with you definitely helped me in my profession as well. I could apply that knowledge to my professional work.

I also learned about teamwork and how step-by-step a big project comes to fruition. I’ve never worked on a project on an international level where the participants are all based in different countries and different time zones. Yet all of us came together and we did what was required of us, thanks to the effort and patience of Mariya and Amy, our facilitators. 

I’ve gained so much from participating in this project, more than I expected. I hope that our voices reach the highest levels and help to create change to stop this tradition.

Sahiyo Staff Spotlight: Tania Parks

Tania Parks works as Grants Coordinator at Sahiyo and is passionate about gender justice issues. She has held various roles at a domestic violence survivor advocacy non-profit in San Francisco called W.O.M.A.N., Inc., and was the Gender-Based Violence Research Intern at a women’s health non-profit based in Paris called Women and Health Alliance, International. She holds a Masters in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action from The Paris Institute of Political Studies with concentrations in Middle East Studies and Migration Studies.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I first got involved with Sahiyo after I learned that a Voices to End FGM/C community education event had taken place close to where I live. I contacted co-founder Mariya Taher, a former colleague, to congratulate her on hosting such an amazing event and I really wanted to get involved, so I offered to assist in any way that I could.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

I mostly offer development support in the form of drafting grant proposals, maintaining project budgets, and sometimes helping with communications projects. 

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Before working with Sahiyo, I had very little knowledge of female genital cutting (FGC). I have come to understand that FGC is a very complex and widespread issue, but despite this, it is often shrouded in silence. I have also learned that sharing personal stories of trauma and resilience has a powerful effect on listeners and is capable of inciting lasting social change. 

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

If you’re thinking about getting involved with the movement to end FGC, don’t hesitate! It is an urgent issue and more advocates are needed to spread awareness. Be sure to practice self care, as it can be emotionally charged work, and contact us to get involved!

Voices Series: Why I keep sharing my personal khatna story, again and again

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

By Aarefa Johari

I have shared my story of undergoing khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), dozens of times in the past seven years. I have written about it in blogs, described it to journalists during interviews, shared it on camera and also narrated it on stage, before live audiences. 

For each medium of storytelling, the first time has always been difficult. But with each retelling, I have grown more confident and articulate, not because I am now used to talking about the day I was cut, but because I have seen the tremendous positive impact of sharing my deeply personal story. 

Talking about one’s khatna publicly involves describing an invasion of one’s own person, in the most intimate part of one’s body. It requires opening oneself up to vulnerability before one can become strong. It involves bracing oneself for criticism, dismissal and vicious trolling from those who seek to defend the cutting of little girls’ genitals. It is difficult, and contrary to what our detractors often claim, it is never a means of getting “publicity”. 

When I chose to share my khatna story, it was triggered by sheer rage. I was angry about being violated and I wanted to voice it, in the hope that it would somehow prevent other seven-year-old Bohra girls from being cut. I did not know, at the time, how powerful storytelling can be. I did not know that each story told is like a pebble tossed into unknown waters, creating ripples that continue to radiate long after the pebble has settled down. 

Speaking out helped me realise that I was not alone in my rage and indignation about being cut. It helped me connect with others who shared my feelings—fellow sisters who also wanted to end the practice of khatna—and soon, a group of us founded Sahiyo. 

At Sahiyo, we created safe spaces to enable others to share their own khatna stories. For many, the experience of story-sharing has been cathartic, liberating and empowering. Women have told us they feel less isolated when they read or hear the stories of other survivors. Because storytelling focuses on emotion, self-reflection and the nuanced complexities of personal experience, it has been far more effective at inspiring parents to abandon khatna than didactic advocacy. 

This is why Sahiyo constantly seeks to create new platforms for storytelling, and teaming up with StoryCenter for the Voices to End FGM/C workshop has been one of them. Despite having shared my story several times over the years, I chose to participate in Voices to End FGM/C’s global webinar-based workshop because this time, I wanted to share the story of my journey so far, and the role that my decision to speak out has played in it. 

Through my video story, created with the help of designer Esther Elia, I hope that I can inspire viewers to keep sharing their own stories, because their voices are needed more than ever today. Every voice counts, and the more our stories rain down on the world, the more we are likely to prevail in our efforts to end khatna.

Voices Series: We should all speak up against female genital cutting

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

By Hatim Amiji

As a man, I found myself extremely nervous sitting in a circle of ten women at Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C workshop. I had entered what I would consider a sacred space, to share my story related to female genital cutting (FGC), but more importantly, to listen to their stories. The air was dense and it was obvious that what was about to be shared would be opening up deep and unhealed wounds. I took part in Sahiyo’s storytelling workshop because I wanted to make a point that FGC is an issue males should be willing to stand against. My story highlighted how the practice alienated the relationship I had with my sister. Only by listening to her story, were we able to recreate a bond we once had as innocent children. 

As the women told their stories, I listened to their descriptions of the pain they underwent both during the practice and throughout their lives. The metaphorical microphone had been passed, and I could hear what these women had kept inside for most of their lives. As a man, and therefore, in many ways an observer, I was situated in a derivative of social voyeurism. I was listening to stories that had weighed these women down for decades, but I myself never went through such experiences. And yet, I was accepted into their circle; I was given the chance to listen because they felt it was important for me to listen. In turn, the story I told was important for them to hear as well. It was one of solidarity, one that depicted a mutual understanding that this practice needs to end no matter one’s biological sex.

It is common knowledge in the community in which I was raised that this issue is one males are not to get involved in. As I have learned from women in the workshop, it’s the same for many communities around the globe. I had learned of the practice tangentially by skimming through an online pamphlet, and only learned of the prevalence of the practice by doing research on my own. It was never brought up in religious congregations, Sunday school, or in conversations with my parents. I had to bring it up to my mother in order to learn more about it, and I have yet to even speak with my father because I know he is likely as shielded from the issue as I once was. 

Aside from the fact that males are less informed on the issue, it is also apparent that males turn a blind eye even in light of exposure to the practice. We are expected to let the issue stay a female issue: one that we shouldn’t meddle in because we don’t understand. It is true that I will never understand the actual manifestation and perception of pain and lifelong suffering that comes with the practice, but I do understand that this practice is a source of trauma that affects our daughters and sisters and mothers, and this is enough for men to stand up and speak out against it. Around the globe, females are robbed of their innocence in the form of genital cutting and there is absolutely no good reason why. We must speak up because this issue affects us all.

An ode to every woman fighting social norms around the world

By Geethika Kodukula 

Country of Residence: USA

(This month, Indian news reported three disturbing incidents targeting women and girls. In the first, 68 students at a women’s college in Gujarat were forcibly strip-searched to prove they were not on their period because the college’s religious administration does not allow menstruating women to enter temples or kitchens or even touch other people. Days later, female college students in Maharashtra were forced to take an oath that they would never marry for love — instead, they would only marry husbands chosen by their parents. In a third shocking incident, 10 women applying for a government job in Gujarat were stripped and subjected to a “two-finger test” to check for pregnancy.

This essay is a cry of outrage against such acts of oppression in the name of social norms; it is an ode to women all over the world, who are forced to fight the norms of patriarchy every day in order to simply survive.) 

What makes a woman?

Is it her kindness, generosity, friendship, ability to work for a living, or take care of her family? Men can do all these things just as well. But a woman can give birth, while a man cannot. We revere this ability, celebrate it and encourage girls to want it for themselves.

But not on their terms. We want to control it and shepherd it. 

At an age when girls have no idea of sexuality or reproduction, we invade their bodily boundaries in the name of purity and tradition to cut their genitals. We call it khatna, sunnah, khafz, female circumcision, and practice it in more cultures around the world than we’d like to admit. We do this to our daughters in spite of the physical and psychological pain it caused us, ourselves. Girls and women who have undergone the procedure tell us that it does more harm than good.

At an age when biology decides that she becomes a woman, we likely celebrate menarche, the first period. In many cultures, we make a fuss, invite people over to bless our little girl who can now bear children and buy her new clothes, jewelry, and gifts. But she’s shocked at the blood between her legs. All her life, television commercials have shown the liquid that goes on pads and tampons as a soft blue. What is this business with blood? Is she dying?  We don’t talk about that. We call the process various euphemisms. We treat these girls as impure, make them sit and sleep separately, wash their clothes and any bedding they may have touched, and essentially quarantine them every month because of this “curse” that gives us the “blessing of a child.” 

We may subject her to strip searches in an institution dedicated to education, no less, to prove that she is not bleeding and can, therefore, sit, eat and mingle with her friends. What is at threat of being stripped is her dignity, which we say we value the most. We treat nearly grown adults as impure, untouchable, and stigmatize and hide all of it from the males in the house. Imagine the anxiety and resentment these young women may build toward their bodies over a completely normal biological phenomenon. We speak to females in hushed tones about how to dispose of evidence and pretend as if nothing changed.

If a woman cannot give birth due to any reason (choice being the least respected one of them), we worry, berate, label, and shame them. There is no pleasing us.

We don’t want her to look at or talk to boys for the first twenty years of her life. Then we want her to magically know how to live with a man and anticipate his wishes and whims. We want young schoolgirls to formally pledge that they will not marry for love. Let’s consider that. Even if a woman found another human being she considers compatible and wants to spend her life with him, she should reject him and marry a stranger selected by her parents based on the family he was born into, his religion/state/caste/creed, occupation, and the family’s assets and holdings. How many of these things have a real bearing on the partner he will be?

Let’s say she does marry the male her parents chose for her. What if her husband or his family wants to test her “virginity”? There are sects in India who take this very seriously. Amazon sells a product to fake your way into being a virtuous bride if you are one of the millions of women whose hymen tore while bicycling or dancing. Or if you didn’t bleed profusely the first time you had sex because–to borrow an idea this HuffPost article offers–the hymen is not a plastic wrap stretched over the Tupperware of your virginity. Imagine the disorientation this young girl may experience after being shamed and humiliated for intercourse she may not have had. 

We urge newlyweds to get busy. We urge the woman to not put her career before her family and have many children. Television and movies keep showing childbirth as a briefly excruciating, but ultimately, a gratifying experience. No one says anything about postpartum complications, anxiety, or depression. Millions of people watch the Oscars but an ad about new moms’ preparedness will never reach our women since it was rejected by ABC to air.

In her homestead our woman lives as happy as one can be in her place in society. But according to Krushnaswarup Dasji, she cannot cook for her family for five days a month, (longer if she has reproductive issues). Her husband’s family never got around to teaching him how to cook. This is a dilemma, indeed. Her husband and sometimes her children resent her for making them eat take-out. 

As she enters menopause, she is viewed as less useful than she was, no longer able to bear children.

Having lived a life carrying back-breaking gender norms, she dies to finally be at peace from societies’ expectations.

Our loud proclamations that we celebrate women and womanhood while silencing everything that makes one a woman is sending mixed signals to young girls. We celebrate the arrival of periods, then treat it like a disease and put young girls at risk by asking them to stay outside a village in a hut while on their periods. We say God (any interpretation of Him/Her), who created all of us, deigned that women are impure if their bodies are behaving the way human bodies should. The all-knowing, omnipotent God who many of us talk to on a daily basis, decided that cisgender females were going to be powerful enough to create and carry life themselves, but the body’s reaction to not doing that every year of their lives is to be treated as impure and icky. Virginity is an outdated, if not meaningless, concept. We should look at what we are subjecting our living mothers, sisters, and daughters to in the name of a God who never even said all menstruating women should be shunned. 

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Norms and rules are necessary for any society or group of people. Cultural and social norms are dynamic, shaped by the people who follow them or stop following them. If things didn’t change, many of us would still be wearing gowns and suits and curtsying or bowing every time we met an acquaintance. We Indians would be doing what our fathers and grandfathers did, potters trapped in doctors’ bodies or the other way around. We have to normalize menstruating so that we can then address period poverty — many young women are unable to access the supplies they need to manage their period. They may resort to means that can give them infections and reproductive diseases. It’s high time that some gender norms change. Thank goodness they are changing, slowly but surely. Women should not be treated as less than men and as mere vehicles to carry generations forward. They possess the same consciousness, conscience, and essence in a different body. 

Voices Series: Why silence is our enemy

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

By Jenny 

It was a five-hour drive for me to get to the Sahiyo storytelling retreat. Within those five hours I struggled with whether I was doing the right thing. I struggled with the idea of sharing my story with people I didn’t know. I wondered if I would be accepted. I wondered what part of my story I should share, if I could find the right words. There were so many thoughts and worries that played in my mind. So many times I almost turned the car around. But I knew I needed to say something, not just for me, but for a sister that would never get to. 

Some of my fears came from the knowledge that I am probably the last picture anyone imagines when discussing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)–the feeling that even among survivors and family member affected by FGM/C, I did not belong. 

When I begin to discover websites and groups devoted to educating and ending FGM/C, there were no images of little girls that resembled the younger version of me, no pictures of Caucasian, American girls, raised in the Christian faith. How could I ever belong at this retreat? Would my story even be remotely like other survivors or those affected by FGM/C? 

The first day at the conference, we each took turns sharing a part of our story. We worked together at helping each other find that piece we should talk about. As I listened to each story, after we shed many tears, it hit me: tragedy is blind. The tragedy and impact of FGM/C does not see one ethnic group, one culture, one religion, one country, one social class or one generation. 

FGM/C has a lifelong impact on anyone touched by this act; anyone who survives, anyone left behind by the one’s that don’t, anyone that loves the survivor, anyone that treats or supports survivors, anyone that advocates for change, and anyone trying to protect those still at risk. Silence is one of our biggest enemies. Silence hides the truth, silence removes responsibility. Silence allows for limits and boundaries to be placed on the issue. Silence allows ignorance to prevail. Silence encourages those that believe in this practice to continue the abuse or threaten it. Silence puts chains on people who are suffering. Silence prevents change. Silence prevents healing. 

The greatest gift we all have is our story. No two stories are completely the same. Every story matters. Every story needs to be shared. With each story, we began to break the wall of silence. We shatter the limits and the boundaries in place. Stories allow for truth to be seen, allows for awareness that there are so many more affected by FGM/C than is recognized, an awareness that we may never really know all affected until that wall is completely gone. Each story prevents this tragedy from being ignored, demands for change to be discussed. With knowledge comes responsibility.

Most importantly, each story provides an open door for others to share their story, too. An open door for those suffering to loosen their chains and begin to heal. Not a day passes that I don’t wish my sister had been given that open door.

So I sat in a room of men and women that were different in so many ways, but the differences didn’t matter, we were each bound by our stories. As I sat there I could hear my chains hit the floor. That room was my open door. On the other side, I found acceptance, I found healing, and I found hope. 

Khatna within the Bohra community: A Struggle of Tradition and Modernity

By Fatema Kakal

The Bohra Muslims, who have the reputation of being modern and progressive, secretly practice khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) within India, as well as in other parts of the world. I learned about this over dinner with my family when I was 17. A woman who went by the pseudonym of Tasleem had recently filed the first public petition asking the Syedna (High Priest/religious leader of the Bohra community) to stop practicing khatna. While it shocked me, it also left me intrigued, wondering why this community continues such a harmful practice. A few years later, as I was pursuing my postgraduate degree, I had the opportunity to answer the questions that my 17-year-old self had. For my Masters dissertation, I decided to use a new lens to understand the community better, and get a deeper insight into what could be the factors influencing the Bohras to continue khatna.

As I worked on my research, I read about FGM/C – a lot. I also read about the Bohra community from an ethnographic lens. I reviewed literature, debates and discourses, narratives of survivors, and conducted interviews with activists working to end FGM/C (from Sahiyo and other organisations). 

I used French social theorist Michel Foucault’s concepts of sexuality, biopower and pastoral power to understand FGM/C. Religion and religious power can often be political, and can be woven through various forms, like the sensual, corporeal and the imaginary. Religious leaders are crucial here, who are defined by their status within religion. Thus, religious leaders have pastoral power where they lead, supervise and guide people. Pastoral power operates through the body, forming a locus for biopower, a form of control over people’s bodies. Religion uses sexuality as a mechanism for control, discipline and policing bodies. FGM/C then, is a practice used by religious leaders to control women and children’s bodies and sexuality. 

I used Tammary Esho’s framework of FGM/C as a socio-cultural-symbolic nexus. Esho has conduced extensive research on FGM/C and sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is a culturally mediated process of socialization, that transfuses gendered identity. Khatna is a cultural practice passed down through generations to socialize girls into the community. The pain felt during the cutting is considered a rite of passage and is symbolic of fertility and womanhood. It is meant to define a woman and her femininity, and her identity as a Bohra woman.

To understand how these concepts actually applied to khatna and the Bohra community, I analysed narratives of survivors collected and shared by Sahiyo and We Speak Out in their reports, and Goswami’s documentary A Pinch of Skin, I found a few overarching themes within their stories. Khatna was seen as a religious and traditional practice, and was considered to be a tool to control women’s sexuality, and maintain morality. Most of the survivors’ experiences involved traditional cutting by a dai or a midwife, in unhygienic conditions; where mothers and other women in the family played a vital role. It was a highly secretive and taboo practice, but normalized and obligatory, and passed down through generations. Many women claimed to feel anger and shame, remembered it being painful, and asserted it affected their sexual lives, and crucially, being a traumatic event in their lives.

I interviewed activists as key informants who highlighted that the silence around khatna was breaking – with Tasleem’s petition in 2012, and the arrests in the United States and Australia. Religious leaders also began addressing it through sermons and letters issued to community members. The public interest litigation in the Indian Supreme Court in 2017 and the growing anti-FGM/C movement rising from within the community were important for people to hear different voices around khatna. This in turn, led to a shift in the rationale for the practice. While it was earlier believed that it controls women’s sexuality, the Bohra clergy was increasingly scrutinized for controlling women’s bodies. The clergy changed the justification behind the practice, by claiming it is a religious practice and a marker of Bohra identity. 

The growing anti-khatna movement was also considered an attack by Westernization. Thus, continuing khatna became a statement defying Western notions of appropriate religious customs and traditions. The Bohra clergy encourages people to visit medical professionals to have their daughters cut safely, promoting medicalisation. Medical facilities are increasingly accessible for people in the Bohra community, especially in big cities, who claim to do the cutting in a safer, hygienic way, thus perceived to be potentially minimizing risk and trauma. 

The Bohra clergy is an important agent in the continuation of khatna. People’s lives are heavily influenced by the Syedna and the clergy due to their pastoral power over the community. They are deeply involved in people’s lives, and their pastoral power has political power. Khatna is a form of control over girls’ bodies and sexuality, which is considered aberrant. Thus, the clergy enforces biopower through khatna, to ensure women uphold values of fidelity and morality. People in the community however, look at khatna at a socio-cultural-symbolic nexus. Khatna is significant for forming a girl’s identity as a Bohra woman, and has cultural and symbolic significance as a rite of passage. Women are bearers of culture, and it is a tradition passed down through generations. 

Thus, khatna continues to be practiced in the Bohra community, due to social, cultural and religious norms of womanhood, purity and sexuality. The clergy has significant influence over the community and the family. Law can play a crucial role in discouraging people from continuing khatna. Thus, in order to end the practice, it is important to engage the various stakeholders in the community who protect the practice, especially women who are often primary decision-makers for children to undergo khatna. 

Voices Series: The power of naming

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

by Comfort Dondo

As an African immigrant, I come from a place of oral historians and storytelling. Sharing of community experiences is an integral part of our culture, and yet, over the decades and centuries, there are some subjects where silence persists.

Attending the Sahiyo Voices to End FGM/C storytelling workshop was a powerful and spiritual experience. I connected with women from across the world. It enabled me to name a source of my pain, confront it and acknowledge it.

Having other women with a shared narrative helped me place a balm on my wound and finally begin to heal.