Featured

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.

 

 

Absence of female genital cutting laws in India: An issue that requires immediate action

By Richa Bhargava

Age: 20

Country: India

As a first year law student in Sonipat, India, I was exposed to the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) as a part of my sociology course. We discussed the practice briefly. The article that formed a majority of our discussion only spoke of the existence of FGC in African nations and made no mention of India or other countries around the world where women are subjected to the practice. I felt shocked and truly disturbed when I first learned about FGC, and as a result, my response was to read about it on my own accord. A little browsing led me to the discovery of the fact that FGC prevails in the Indian subcontinent as well. I read about the Bohra community, the absence of legislation and the organisations and people advocating to end this harmful and unnecessary practice.

Laws do not just force and punish. They deter, discourage and dissuade, too. Enacting and legislating laws raises awareness and empowers communities to change not only what people do, but what they think is right. It is vital for laws to continuously evolve with the changing norms and ideals of a society. 

FGC is a prevalent practice among the Bohra community in India. A study indicated that almost 75% of the women of this community who were interviewed have been cut. At present, many citizens are unaware of its presence in India. Lifting the veil off this practice is an essential step toward ensuring that a conversation regarding its harmful effects on young girls begins. Maneka Gandhi, a union minister, stated that there is a lack of proof regarding the existence of FGC in India, and there is no data to support its presence. The Ministry of Women and Child Development needs to conduct surveys and take appropriate measures to find all data that would make the legislators see the need for the enactment of a law against FGC. To avoid addressing the issue is to completely ignore its existence. A similar approach has been taken up by the Indian government over the years. Multiple accounts of women who have undergone FGC are out in the public domain and  provide substantial evidence to prove the presence of khatna, as it is known in the Bohra community. Yet, no legislation or statute has been formulated or enacted in India which would help survivors find an easy legal recourse. 

There is an imperative need to move beyond the pretext of not having enough data to prove FGC occurs in India. Hundreds of survivors have spoken up against this practice and have openly shared their painful accounts. Many survivors have shared that since khatna is secretive, making it unlawful could have a serious impact in curtailing it. According to Section 320 and Section 322 of the Indian Penal Code, causing grievous hurt to another person is a criminal offence, and FGC would automatically fall within its purview. Despite this, there has been no effort on the part of the legislators to specifically provide remedy to survivors. The Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to life and liberty to all its citizens. Legal statutes like the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act that penalise crimes should mention terms such as female genital mutilation/cutting, labia minora, etc., to provide appropriate legal recourse to women affected by this practice. 

India claims to be a welfare state that ensures the well-being of all its citizens. Refusing to ensure the safety of young girls who might be subjected to FGC is a contradictory act. 

Various jurists and legislators face the problem of deciding whether one fundamental right should be given more importance than the other. The proposed ban on khatna raises a similar 

obstacle. The Indian Constitution confers upon its citizens the right to equality, as well as the right to practice and profess any religion. There exists a constant clash between articles 14 and 15 defining right to equality and articles 25 and 26 defining religious rights. In particular, the rights guaranteed to people under article 26 pose a unique challenge before the courts. In recent years, courts have come to realise that the right to equality should be awarded more weight. Discrimination solely on the basis of one’s gender is highly dishonourable and unjust. In order to move forward, a distinction between social malpractices and actual religious practices needs to be made. Social norms disguised as religious practices infringing upon the rights of women need to be done away with. The right and autonomy over one’s body is crucial to live a respectful life.

People frequently wonder whether legislation can bring about change. Fear that criminalising FGC might result in a deeper continuation of it is felt by many and is a valid concern. However, often the notion that a new law can elevate conversation on FGC and create a discourse for all to engage in on the topic is overlooked. The existence and continuity of khatna cannot just be attributed to the fault of a community. With democratic ideals such as equality and freedom, the state cannot shy away from establishing and constituting laws that are in symmetry with these ideals.

Struggle, belonging, and community: Sahiyo and StoryCenter hosted a Voices to End FGM/C screening

By Sandra Yu

On August 19th, 2021, Sahiyo and StoryCenter co-hosted a film screening and panel discussion to highlight voices from the Voices to End FGM/C Digital Storytelling workshop. The event showcased eleven new digital stories, created virtually by a global group of advocates and survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), during January and February. 

Mariya Taher of Sahiyo and Amy Hill of StoryCenter, two facilitators of the annual workshop, led an audience Q&A and presented storytelling methodology, while two guest speakers, Nafisa (pseudonym) and Lola Ibrahim (Yoruba, English), shared their experiences with the digital storytelling workshop itself. Of the eleven stories shown, three were premiered at the event and had not been released to the public yet. The full collection can be found here, with stories continuing to be released. 

“I feel liberated,” Nafisa said. “I feel lighter, and I feel scared all at once. I wanted to talk about this work and khatna and the challenges that are faced in the community for many years.”

The 2021 Voices digital collection succeeded tremendously in capturing the core concept of oppressive social norms. Almost reminiscent of short vignettes, each digital story actualized the abstract concept of social norms into concrete experiences. The stories stood individually as personal narratives of struggle, belonging, and community. Comparatively, this collection presented the larger struggles of individuals and collectives in battling gender-based violence. 

In response, audience members engaged deeply with each story, typing out messages with empathy and gratitude to each storyteller for taking up the challenge of telling their stories. It was uplifting to see how the digital stories could elicit such reactions of allyship and community-building, even within a Zoom chat. 

My personal highlight from the event was hearing Nafisa and Lola reflect on their experiences of storytelling and tackle the nuances of FGM/C in their respective communities. The digital storytelling workshop was evidently transformative, in similar and different ways for each participant. 

“Sharing my shame can make a difference,” Lola said. “You understand that. Because you own that story. And you’re able to tell the story. So you’re no longer ashamed.”

Lola’s transformation of shame to acceptance of her story is stunning to hear. Through the workshop, she found a close-knit community to listen and empathize with her story. By producing a digital story, she now engages a global community to respond to her story. 

“I felt powerless because in the world that we live in, when you’re anonymous, you feel like your voice is taken away,” said Nafisa. “You don’t have an identity, but I think sharing my story has allowed me to have a voice or has created a space for me. It has put the power back in my hands.”

Nafisa’s story is equally hopeful. Despite her anonymity, Nafisa proudly holds ownership of her story and continues to advocate against FGM/C. 

Sahiyo is excited to announce the upcoming 2022 Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop, as part of their continued partnership with StoryCenter. This workshop is open to all individuals who have a story to share about how they, or someone they know, have been impacted by FGC, and will be held virtually.

For those interested in taking part, please fill out the application by Friday, December 11, 2021.

Read more about the 2022 workshop and/or donate to support the Voices project

Voices reflection: Hear it from a Hindu girl, FGM/C has nothing to do with religion 

By Priya Goswami

I was 11 years old when my mother said I was ‘impure’ now that I got my periods. The idea of ‘impurity’ in front of God enraged the eleven-year-old me. I wanted to know if my Muslim and Christian friends were also told not to ‘touch God’ or go near him in the temple, mosque, or church during their periods. 

I got around asking that question through a street play, Chakravyu*, in my undergraduate college years. A play through which we spoke about the cultural subversion of women and how every religion has its way of propagating patriarchy via religion and culture. 

When we performed the play out in public, often, we would meet the gaze of someone religious who thought our street play too slanderous to their religion. We would meet their gaze even more vociferously by mixing a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan

I am sad to share this, but I know deep down in my bones that I can no longer mix a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan**. I know performing such a play in today’s India would get my collegiate pals and me arrested or lynched even. 

That is the India my country has grown to become. 

I will not deny that we are an intolerant nation where Muslim friends are offered separate utensils in bigoted homes. Hindus feel superior because of their choice of eating meat or being vegetarian. But, despite the bigotry, I could never imagine that my country would become so intolerant to the point that one’s choice of eating meat would get them openly lynched. 

When I started to make ‘A Pinch of Skin’ in 2011, I was deterred by many senior voices asking me not to take up such a polarising subject, especially since I am a Hindu girl, with my religion written all over my last name. 

I chose not to listen to them, and I am glad.

During the shooting of A Pinch of Skin,  over six months of shooting, I was always met with open arms, warm smiles, and offers to take me out for lunch by the people I interviewed because the people I met saw me as a human being first. Sans my last name. 

I cry, thinking about what my country has become today. 

What would happen if I were to shoot my documentary or perform Chakravyu with my collegiate pals in today’s India?

My Voices to End FGM/C story, The Medium, reflects my decade-long experience working on female genital mutilation/cutting, as the crescendo on Islamophobia increases in India and around the world. 

I want to proudly say that those who believe in the xenophobic narrative don’t know what they are missing out on. 

My own experience informs me that religion has nothing to do with a social norm. In one way or another, all religions attempt to control the female sexual experience, the very essence of patriarchy. And that is why FGM/C continues and is a lot more complex than what meets the eye. 

Let’s leave religion and reading into the last names of people to stereotype.

Notes

*Chakravya: The word Chakravya is a mythological reference to the unbreakable cycle in the Hindu holy book of Mahabharata. 

**Azaan: Azaan is the Urdu/Farsi word of the religious call to prayer, recited by the priest at a designated time of the day, usually early morning and early evening.

Mutilation or enhancement: A researcher’s argument for respectful terminology on genital cutting

By Brian D. Earp

I have published several papers on the ethics of medically unnecessary genital cutting practices affecting children of all sexes and genders. When my writing touches on the sub-set of these practices that affect persons with characteristically female sex-typed genitals, I have received some pushback for using the term female genital cutting (FGC) rather than female genital mutilation (FGM).

An instance of such pushback came from a respected colleague in response to a paper of mine in Archives of Sexual Behavior, in which I argue against the use of ‘mutilation’ in certain contexts, as there is evidence that such stigmatizing language may have adverse effects on the very people who are meant to be helped. Given that this terminological issue is likely to keep coming up, I thought I would share parts of the reply I wrote to my colleague. I hope it can shed some light on at least one plausible way of thinking about such matters.

My colleague argued that my use of ‘FGC’ rather than ‘FGM’ is disrespectful because it goes against the recommendation of the 2005 Bamako Declaration adopted by the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. 

———

On the matter of disrespect. I have had many conversations with women who consider themselves circumcised, rather than mutilated, and even if they agree that medically unnecessary genital cutting should not be performed on persons who are incapable of consenting, primarily children, they insist that it is harmful, stigmatizing, and paternalistic for others to simply define their own modified genitals as mutilated (a term that implies disfigurement or even an intent to cause harm).

They explain that their loving parents, however misguided, did not intend to cause them net harm, just as, for example, Jewish parents who authorize that their sons be circumcised do not intend to harm them, but rather, take an action that is sincerely believed to appropriately integrate the child into an ancestral community. They recognize that, in their own communities, both male and female genital cutting practices are widely seen as improving the genitalia, including aesthetically, which is contrary to the very notion of mutilation. I may not agree with that interpretation myself, but it is not my position to tell these women (or their brothers) that their altered genitals are ugly or disfigured rather than, as they see it, aesthetically (or in some cases, culturally or religiously) improved.

I will ask: Were these leaders democratically elected to express the considered opinions of their constituents, or were these leaders self-appointed? At the very least, they cannot have been authorized to speak on behalf of countless Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern women who have been affected by ritual forms of female genital cutting.

In any event, I face a choice. I can disagree with the conclusion of these African leaders who seem to feel qualified to speak on behalf of millions of other women, including non-African women, and impose an entirely negative and stigmatizing interpretation of all of their altered genitalia regardless of how those women see their own bodies. Or I can show respect to those women who have shared their stories with me, as well as all the women in various reports and testimonies who have expressed strong objections to the term ‘mutilation’ being forced on them, and who would simply like to have the room to be able to evaluate and describe their own genitals as they see fit. 

One woman explained her feelings: “In my opinion, the word ‘mutilation’ used in reference to [what happened to me] is a degrading and disempowering term that strips women of their dignity and self-worth. Basically, it is a label that has the power to negatively influence one’s self-identity. If you understand labelling theory you will understand how damaging/influential a term or classification can be to an individual.”

She continued with her experience: “Having just about survived my ordeal of forced body alteration I was very aware of the violation to my body. However, the introduction of the term ‘mutilation’ into my consciousness affected me mentally and physically. It made me view myself as an ugly, mutilated, and frowned-upon member of society. There started my journey of self-hate, which presented itself in many forms, including bulimia and social anxiety, to name but a few. To be called the ‘mutilated’ girl by health professionals stripped me of any dignity and covered me in shame on numerous occasions. Thankfully, I no longer see myself as a victim or survivor of ‘FGM’ – I refuse to allow that term to take away my power or to define who I am.”

Faced with the choice between respectfully disagreeing with the analysis and conclusion of a group of leaders whose qualification to speak on behalf of others I do not know, versus showing respect to those women, such as the one quoted above, who have asked for the right to determine their own victim status (including whether they regard their genitals as mutilated or otherwise), I choose the latter.

Referring to “the event” and “the torture” is using singular language to refer to a plurality of quite different events carried out in different ways by different groups for different reasons. As you know, the World Health Organization (WHO) uses the term FGM to refer to a dozen or more practices, ranging from nicking of the clitoral hood, which does not remove tissue. In many communities, for example in Malaysia, it’s often done by a doctor with sterile equipment and pain control, through to excision of the external clitoris with a rusty implement and no pain control followed by infibulation, as occurs in some rural parts of Northeast Africa, for example.

It is entirely accurate to say that all of those quite different interventions are medically unnecessary acts of genital cutting; and I argue that all of them are morally impermissible if carried out on a non-consenting person. I have written about labiaplasty, a common procedure in Western countries. I tend to think it is morally permissible for an adult, fully-informed woman to decide that she wants what she regards as a cosmetic alteration to her genitals. I would not presume to tell my friends who have undergone what they see as cosmetic labiaplasty that they are victims of genital mutilation. Rather, I would accept their interpretation of their own bodies as having been enhanced.

What this suggests to me is that the sheer alteration of healthy genital tissue is not inherently mutilating. Rather, a person could interpret altered genitalia in a wide range of ways, including as improved or enhanced. This is the majority way that persons with altered genitalia regard their own bodies, as far as I can tell from reading the primary and secondary literature on this topic. What makes medically unnecessary genital cutting morally wrong is its being done non-consensually. It does not matter if it is mutilating or not – that is up to the person who is affected to decide. What matters is that it should be that person’s own choice.

Finally, my work is dedicated to the human rights argument that all non-consenting individuals, whether female, male, or intersex, have a fundamental moral claim against any interference with their genitals that is not medically necessary. That means that I believe that medically unnecessary intersex genital cutting is wrong, as is such cutting of the penis, when either is done without the informed consent of the affected person. And so, since I write about all medically unnecessary genital cutting practices, which includes alterations of the vulva that are less severe than penile circumcision as it is commonly performed in my country, I cannot go around calling one set of procedures ‘mutilations’ based on the sex of the person to whom they happen, while using a different term for another set of procedures. So, I choose to use the entirely accurate, non-stigmatizing language of ‘medically unnecessary genital cutting’ in all cases, leaving 100% of the leeway to each individual to determine for themselves.

It is not my place to speak on behalf of others about their bodies. Nor do I think it is the place of these African leaders to speak on behalf of millions of women who may not agree with them. Moreover, as I argue at length in the paper I sent around, there is very good reason to think that the language of mutilation is stigmatizing and harmful. Since it is not necessary to stigmatize women’s bodies in order to ground the ethical claim that cutting children’s genitals is morally wrong, if not medically necessary, I choose to use non-stigmatizing language.

Brian Earp is an American bioethicist, philosopher, and interdisciplinary researcher. He is currently Associate Director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy at Yale University and The Hastings Center, and a Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

This piece was originally published in Practical Ethics at The University of Oxford.

A reflection on Sahiyo’s virtual U.S. Activists’ Retreat

By Anonymous

The aim of Sahiyo’s third annual Activists’ Retreat in the United States was to continue to work toward building a network of U.S.-based Bohra activists against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by strengthening relationships with one another, sharing best practices, and providing tools for activists to utilize in their advocacy work moving forward. Below, a participant shares their experience from the virtual Activists’ Retreat.

Why did you want to attend the virtual retreat?

The main reason was because I had attended the in-person retreat in 2019. I made it a goal to keep attending. In 2020, I was planning on going to the in-person one. I wanted to participate. I have a personal experience with FGM/C. It was kind of a big deal that I attended in 2019 and it was quite eye opening. There was a lot about the issue I didn’t really know or understand and going was quite an experience in a good way, in a positive way, and I just wanted more. It was definitely something I want to continue to learn about. Apart from my own experience, I don’t know much about it as far as facts and figures are concerned, tangible facts. It was very helpful. It was interesting to understand. It was an emotional rollercoaster. There’s so much more to do and learn. 

What have you learned or most enjoyed at the virtual retreat?

The biggest thing I enjoyed was seeing all these new people. I was proud to see so many more people join this. I had an idea that a lot more people were going to join. But seeing so many people attend and engage was really nice. It was really cool to see people not let the virtual aspect of it simmer everything down. Newer people were still engaging and wanting to learn more about it. Men joined this time, and it was cool to see them engage and ask questions and try to understand. It’s never something that people talk about within our own age group.

How and why are you involved in the movement to end FGC?

To be totally honest, I am still trying to figure out the how part. Maybe it’s part of my personality. I get very overwhelmed by so many things. Just the fact that I attended the retreat and I’m so glad I didgoing there was a huge step for me, in general. As much as I enjoyed it, I was able to participate in something I hadn’t before. Toward the end, I felt like I could do a little bit more. I attended the retreat with friends and there was more confidence to participate in something like the retreat because we had a level of comfort. And we all agree that a group like Sahiyo is doing good work.

How do you think this virtual retreat will inform your work as an individual and/or activist?  

It definitely showed us that it’s a lot easier to connect with more people this way. One thing I noted after the in-person oneI know that they had calls after the in-person retreat. Attending this virtual retreat, you definitely don’t have an excuse to not interact or reach out to people who attended. In that sense, it was encouraging to see that people were in completely different parts of the country and we could attend. We’d never met before and interacted in person. I wish that we had more time. Action planning was really informative.

What work are you doing currently or hoping to do in the future?

I think the most immediate thing that I feel like I could do, and I had offered to participate in that part as well. We have physicians in our family and I know 100 percent that they would advocate against FGM and we were trying to figure out how to put together a network of physicians and informing or coming up with informational texts to [explain] what happens with your body. Most people I know who have undergone it, just plain and simple [don’t know] the effects of it. My reaching out to some of the physicians of our family to help out with that is an immediate goal. I know some people that are my age. We’ve briefly spoken on the subject and I would really like them to join the next retreat. These couple of things are things I could actually do something about. 

Have you attended a Sahiyo retreat in the past, and, if so, what was it like to attend this virtual activist retreat in comparison to the in-person retreat?

The virtual retreat went a lot better than I expected. It’s so easy to mute yourself and turn your video off versus to participate. There was way more participation than I expected and good conversations. I still think the in-person one made me feel like you are part of this community. There was a sentiment there that everyone was sharing and the organizers, the way they set it upit wasn’t super formal. People were comfortable and friendly. Just the experience of it was very comforting and safe; and I think that made a really big difference overall for the weekend. They did this over the virtual retreat, too, and they did what they could, and that was very well appreciated.

Voices reflection: Sharing my narrative

By Zahara

Before I participated in this year’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) workshop, I had seen blurbs from previous years. In my head, the Voices program was an in-person workshop where a community of people got together to share their stories. However, COVID-19 happened, and this in-person experience was transformed into a virtual series. I was nervous going into the workshop. I missed the first two live sessions because of time-zone differences, and when I finally made it to a live session, the community already knew each other. Yet, I was embraced with much warmth and found myself comfortable to share my story almost immediately. 

A part of the Voices program is to tell your stories through a video narrative. It is almost paradoxical that I chose somewhat chirpy tunes and colorful images to accompany my story of coming to terms with khatna, or female genital cutting as it is known in the Bohra community. Though I was sharing a narrative I have hidden in the crevices of my mind for years–a story I am just weaving together, a fact that still brings me pain– I wanted to emphasize the radiance and calm that came with healing. I wanted to leave the viewer on an upbeat note–a note of hope. 

This coming together of a community of women sharing stories, tears, joys, aspirations, dreams, fears, and sacrifices was healing. The film editing is over, the written drafts are ready to be published, but the cathartic part of this workshop will live on in me. Coming together with this community has allowed me to come to terms with myself. Something in me was always reluctant to voice my story before the workshop. I wrote about it, preferred to text about it, but refrained from talking. My voice is louder; I am more willing to share; and maybe I will have a conversation face-to-face one day.

Understanding female genital mutilation/cutting: An ally’s call for action

By Farhanaz Hazari 

Age: 18

My fight against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) can be traced back to the day my mother and sister had a discussion with me on how young girls from the age of 7 are subjected to FGM/C or khatna, as it is known in the Bohra community. They explained it in simple terms, as I was still in school and unfamiliar with the practice, and guided me on how to approach the subject. They educated me on who conducts this act and where it is conducted and for what reasons. They told me that it was taboo to talk about it freely and also to never ask if anyone had been subjected to khatna. 

After hearing this from two people that are close to my heart, I trusted their word and never asked anyone about it. I had no idea little girls were subjected to such pain and trauma. They are children, after all. Aren’t they supposed to play with dolls and fight for the window seat on the bus ride home? Why are people insisting on controlling girls from such a young age? Why are they putting them through this mental trauma? Why isn’t anyone speaking up against it? All these questions were flooding my mind and all I wanted was someone to tell me this isn’t happening anymore. To think I was hurt and frustrated would be an understatement. I was angry and sad at the same time. I thought this is a tradition that had been shunned and looked down upon by many communities around the world. But to my misery that was not the reality. 

The next time I came across the word khatna in one of the books in The Princess Trilogy by Jean Sasson, it brought me to tears. At that point I knew I had to do something to raise awareness against it or simply make it known to people that it is a violation of a girl’s body. I read up about female genital mutilation/cutting and learned about how its roots were traced back to Egypt. I learned about the four types and how there is no scientific evidence to help women medically in any way. 

Being a student of law, I have the opportunity to speak up and back my reasoning with legal knowledge. FGM/C infringes upon the girl child’s human rights, such as the right to bodily autonomy, equality, right to life and personal liberty, which includes the right to be free from any form of violence. 

After the young girls are cut, they may die, or bleed continuously and/or develop an infection, which violates their right to have a healthy life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Justice Chandrachud also stated, “One has supreme authority over genitalia. It is central to one’s identity, dignity and autonomy.” The recognition of the harms of FGM/C is increasing day by day as many are filing petitions, raising their voices and sharing their stories with the help of nongovernmental organizations. I have the opportunity to voice my thoughts against the practice with the help of Sahiyo, and for that I am eternally grateful. The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai said, “There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.” 

I say stand up. Raise your voice and help put an end to FGM/C.

Sahiyo volunteer spotlight: Social media intern Kristel Mendoza Castillo

Kristel Mendoza Castillo is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut majoring in Communications. She strongly believes in the values of consent and a woman’s right over her own body, which is why she’s excited to work with the team at Sahiyo. She looks forward to creating social change to help enforce our mission of empowering girls and women all around the world.

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

I was searching for internships and came across Sahiyo’s listing. After reading and learning more about their work, I became completely interested in being part of their team. I interviewed, chose Sahiyo’s internship, and started working in the communications department as a social media intern in February of 2021. 

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a social media intern, I mostly create content that is relevant to Sahiyo’s online presence, as well as sharing it on all social media platforms. I also create social media reports to track campaigns and Sahiyo’s overall growth on social media.

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

I was not that well-informed about female genital cutting (FGC) until I came across all the information on Sahiyo’s website. Ever since then I have learned a lot about the topic. As part of my internship, I have been tasked to post content about Sahiyo’s campaigns such as the behind the scenes of Activists’ Retreats, or the ongoing Voices To End FGM/C 2021 project. I have been able to watch and listen to so many people’s stories and that has made me want to keep supporting and working with Sahiyo to bring an end to FGC. 

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

I encourage people to become an ally or share their own stories if they have them. Sahiyo is a great organization filled with many great people that can provide the support or all the resources that you need. By supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC you are working toward making the world a safer and better place for girls all around the world. The good thing is that there are so many ways in which you can support Sahiyo’s mission.

Voices to End FGM/C: 2022 Workshop

Get involved with the next cohort of the Voices to End FGM/C project!

Since 2015, Sahiyo has provided various storytelling platforms for women and community members from all over the world to share their experiences of female genital cutting (FGC) through our Voices to End FGM/C program, in hopes of preventing this harmful practice from occurring to the next generation of girls.

Now, we’re excited to announce our 2022 Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop, as part of our continued partnership with StoryCenter. This workshop is open to all individuals and will be held virtually. 

More about the workshop: 

When: Six online sessions, two hours each, held on consecutive week-days, from January through February 2022 (specific dates and times to be determined).

Who: The workshop is open to women and people who have experienced FGM/C, as well as family members, friends, advocates, and others of any gender identity who would like to share a story.

What: Each participant will create their own video through the use of voiceover audio, still images, and video clips. This participatory media process will be guided by facilitators from Sahiyo and StoryCenter. 

If you’re interested in taking part, please fill out the application by Friday, December 11, 2021.

Here is the application: https://bit.ly/Voices2022  

Following the workshop, Sahiyo will support storytellers in publicly sharing their videos as part of our ongoing education and advocacy work to end FGM/C.

If you would like more information on this revolutionary storytelling experience, email Mariya at mariya@sahiyo.com

To see digital stories from previous “Voices to End FGM/C” workshops, click here. 

Voices reflection: Building our stories for the world

By Anonymous

Being anonymous does not mean that I am powerless. 

Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have a name, or an identity. 

Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have words.

Being anonymous does not take my freedom away from me. 

Behind that anonymous, is a mind and a body. Whole. Full. 

Circling around joy and grief, pain and laughter, love and fear. 

Sometimes broken, other times repaired. 

I’ve waited many years to share my life’s experiences as a Bohra woman through a story. I’ve held my chest tightly closed, hidden with memories of being a girl in this world dominated by male power. I’ve longed to scream from a mountain top and tell them to just stop. These men, these systems, that continue to harm us and break us and tear us apart. 

This short story is my beginning. An opening of my chest.

Through this storytelling workshop organized by Sahiyo and StoryCenter, I was ushered into a safe women’s circle that I had been waiting for all my life. I wish I could describe to you the experience that I had in my mind and body during the six sessions that we had together, building our stories for the world. One by one, we brought images and symbols that served as metaphors for pain and trauma that we had all experienced in so many different ways.

I remember closing my eyes to listen to the voice recordings and be immersed in every single word. I remember turning inward gently, raw and tender, and really seeing that courage rising. I remember that care and love that we all felt for each other even though we had never met. Our shared challenges brought us together, making our collective voices stronger and louder.  

I offer you my story with both humility and hope. There is a lot I share in four minutes, and yet it is not enough and feels incomplete. I hope that this film inspires you to learn more about FGM/C and find ways to support this work. I hope it inspires you to support us as we navigate and stand up to the day-to-day battles we continue to face.