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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.

 

 

Is legal action against female genital cutting enough to end the practice?

Understanding the impact of a Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, in India

by Priya Goswami

In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court referred a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC) in India to a five-judge constitution bench. My documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, was quoted as evidence by the Supreme Court of India to establish the prevalence of the practice. As the filmmaker, I was overjoyed with what my film had managed to do and become – the first audio visual evidence on the practice of FGC in India. 

There is no law in India against FGC. The PIL had been filed in 2017 by a Delhi-based lawyer seeking a ban on the practice of FGC in India. While other survivors of the practice joined in the petition against FGC, they were opposed by a counter-petition filed by a pro-FGC group within the Dawoodi Bohra community. That group claimed that FGC is not harmful and should be considered a part of their constitutional right to religious freedom. Accordingly, they demanded that the practice be scrutinized through this lens by a larger constitution bench of the court – an appeal that the court finally granted

With that said, a small part of me shrank hearing the news. I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change. As an activist on the ground, I understand change requires sustained conversation. A law against the practice of FGC may become a mandate, but may also end up hindering the progress made by activists on creating a room for dialogue by years. 

“I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change.”

A broad evidence base for this is how some Dawoodi Bohra community members in the United States (U.S.) and Australia have hushed the practice, pushing it further underground, as the community members were charged in both countries with practicing FGC, or khatna as it is known in the Bohra community, and publicly spoke about it in the media. A federal judge dismissed all of the FGC-related charges in the U.S. case; whereas Australia’s High Court ruled all forms of FGC are illegal. While the cases against the community members in the U.S. and Australia have opened up the dialogue on the issue and more survivors have come forward, it has also instilled fear in the minds of some community members. This has, in turn, supported the movement toward medicalization of khatna, which is an equally dangerous trend. As an activist and a communication designer, I ask myself often – is pushing people to abandon the practice because the law says so ever a complete solution? 

Nine years ago, if you would have asked me what my goal with A Pinch of Skin was, I would have said to convince people to abandon the practice. Today, I say the same, except with the awareness that change requires time and persistent and effective communication, which involves the community from within.

Key points to understand the situation in India:

  • The conversation of female genital cutting in Asian communities is a relatively new one, as it is still largely believed to be an African problem.
  • The subject was brought to public attention in India as an anonymous petition under the pseudonym ‘Tasleem’ was launched in 2011 or 2012. This was followed by media attention to A Pinch of Skin in 2013.
  • In 2015, two collectives were formed to speak about the subject: Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, both being the only organizations worldwide working on the subject of khatna prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
  • In 2017, the two organizations, Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, were invited by the National Commission of Women and Child Development to speak with Menaka Gandhi.
  • The Indian government, after gathering first-hand evidence from survivors (also the co-founders of the two organizations), did a u-turn denying the evidence against the practice until this landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. Read this detailed report.
  • The Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom continue to discount efforts against FGC under the umbrella of religious freedom. 
  • Following the PIL, the Supreme Court of India ruled that FGC could be charged under The POCSO Act.

Orchid Project releases report detailing the pandemic’s impact on female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

Reports of an increasing rate of female genital cutting (FGC) began early in the pandemic. We are now nine months into the lockdowns and school closures, which have propagated the cutting of young girls. In response, the Orchid Project, decided to further investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the practice of FGC and the movement to end it. The Orchid Project is a nongovernmental organization based in the United Kingdom advocating for the end of FGC globally.

Throughout the summer, various grassroots organizations and non-governmental organizations have hosted webinars elucidating the effects of COVID-19 on specific organizations. Sahiyo has shared blog posts reflecting on some of these webinars, which have focused on work in Nigeria and Kenya. There are some key pieces of information shared between these webinars and the Orchid Project’s reports. For example, COVID-19 induced lockdowns and school closures are creating opportunities for FGC to be performed undetected. When girls stay home, they are automatically at a greater risk of undergoing FGC. Furthermore, safe spaces, such as shelters and mental health services, have been closed down. Even medical attention is difficult for FGC survivors to receive, as resources have mainly been diverted to the pandemic. Lack of essential health services and safe spaces for girls and women is a serious concern. 

According to the report, “Resourcing and programming to end the practice in Asia are extremely limited, so the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on activities to end FGC have been less significant than in West and East Africa.” The report gives an alarming account of how economic hardship caused by the pandemic has also led to an increase in FGC. In some communities, girls who have been cut are often seen as more marriageable and receive higher bride prices. The bride prices can then be exchanged for food and essential supplies, which has motivated families to cut their girls in this time of extreme economic hardship. Another economic factor involves former cutters who have been returning to the practice, in need of the compensation it will provide. 

In addition to affecting the practice of FGC, there have also been drastic effects on the movement to end FGC. Nearly all of the groups that were interviewed by Orchid Project for the report have experienced severe restrictions on programming due to stay-at-home and distancing orders. Many organizations have responded by shifting their programming to virtual and media-based formats. However, this is not without its own challenges. Unequal access to technology and internet, along with the often high prices of radio and television communication, have been major obstacles to continuing community dialogues about FGC. The greatest need that the grassroots organizations are currently facing is urgent, flexible emergency funding. 

This is not to say that the grassroots organizations have not adapted to the dilemmas created by COVID-19. There have been many creative approaches to continuing their important work. Some in-person programming has continued with social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment. WhatsApp and social media platforms are being used to share key information, stimulate dialogues, and share podcasts. Hotlines have been created for at-risk girls; and some activists are even housing these girls in their own homes. The movement to end FGC has certainly taken a hit, but it is not without hope, thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of grassroots activists worldwide.

Read the full report by the Orchid Project.

Sahiyo and StoryCenter host virtual storytelling event on the intersection of race and female genital cutting: A reflection

By Isabel

I began interning with Sahiyo in June. A recent graduate into the fields of cultural anthropology and human rights, I was eager to learn how Sahiyo used participatory media and community-based advocacy to end female genital cutting (FGC) and break down the culture of silence that surrounds it. Daily, I grew more exposed to the collective healing fostered among survivors and advocates against the practice. As I listened to the many voices of women – and a few men – speaking out against the practice, I felt the strength, resilience, and bravery that empowered them to tell their own stories. 

I realized I could never understand the full extent of their vulnerability and power after I participated myself – for the very first time – in a Sahiyo storytelling workshop. On September 17, Sahiyo and StoryCenter co-hosted “Intersecting Stories,” a virtual event bringing together survivors and advocates against FGC to ask questions of race, identity, and privilege, and what it means to be an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. My role in the workshop began as back-end support – helping draft the event description, supporting outreach – until Mariya and Lara invited me to attend as a participant. 

The truth is, I wanted to say no. I felt uncomfortable, like I had no story to tell and no place telling the stories I could. Who was I – a white, cisgendered woman who spent most of my life ignorant to the global practice of FGC – to speak on the intersection of the practice and racism? But I didn’t want to disappoint so I agreed. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate, but rather felt I shouldn’t. So, in the days leading up to the workshop, I wracked my brain trying to prepare a story. I asked friends for advice, and family members, too.

The morning of the workshop I had yet to come up with a story – I was anxious, nervous, and really clueless as to what to do. I felt caught between my desire to step up as an intern, and my desire to respect the safe space I had seen Sahiyo work so intentionally to create. Just an hour before the virtual start time, I texted Lara, the Communications Coordinator and also my direct internship supervisor. I told her I was nervous and that I felt uncomfortable inserting myself and my story in a forum meant for those directly affected by FGC. 

Just minutes after reaching out to Lara, I received back a voice message set to a soundtrack of New York City honks and horns. I listened as she told me she understood where I was coming from and encouraged me to participate only to the extent I felt comfortable. But after easing my self-inflicted pressure, she continued to say that she believed I did have a place in the workshop and a story to tell. As an advocate against FGC, she told me, my story was my story no matter how my entry point diverged from the other participants. Ending the message with an offer to hop on the phone to discuss, I readily accepted. 

By the start of the workshop, I had decided that if I were to share in the story circle, it would only be if there was still extra time after the other participants had shared. The workshop began, and I listened in awe as each participant shared their stories – stories about the experiences of nature, of childhood, of immigrating that formed who they are today. I was humbled and inspired as I watched a community form through vulnerability and story. 

When there was no one left to go, I made a decision. I spoke up and I told my own story. I spoke of my small town, of my time in middle school, and of who I see myself to be today. I was still scared, but I felt something else: a desire to share, to divulge the same way I had been divulged to, and to honor the community that had taken shape in only a couple of hours. When I reflect, I realized through our stories we found places of unity – ways to both share our complex individuality, and engage in the collective experience of a racialized world – no matter our entry points or backgrounds. We told stories of childhood, our school years, nature, and immigrating. We told stories of bullies and friends, family and strangers.

So, where does this bring me? I will never feign to know what it is like for those affected by FGC to share their often intimate stories of what it means to speak power to silence. But participating in the Intersecting Stories event gave me the slightest glimpse into the strength of so many women who have bravely made themselves vulnerable to protect others. More so, as a participant I witnessed firsthand the magical nature of storytelling – how words weave friendships, trust, and respect.

Dear Maasi: A new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. In the Bohra context, Maasi means auntie. We welcome you to send your questions to info@sahiyo.com. Please feel free to use a pseudonym if you’d like.

Dear Maasi,

I’m 26 and have had three serious relationships in my life (two guys, and most recently with a woman). I like intimacy, but penetration (with anything) often hurts. I sometimes have avoided sex altogether and this has caused tension in my relationships. I saw a doctor who said everything ‘down there’ was normal. But honestly, I feel really abnormal.

I had khatna, and I’m wondering if it had an impact on me. But this makes no sense to me because they cut my clitoral hood—they didn’t harm my vagina, right?

—Freaked-Out Fatema

Dear Fatema,

First off—I want you to know that everything you’re talking about is normal, and not uncommon.  

There are many reasons why penetrative sex can hurt, including dryness due to hormones, vaginal infections, injuries, and conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or endometriosis. 

Other common reasons for pain are vaginismus (where the vaginal or pelvic floor muscles spasm or clench upon penetration) or vestibular vulvitis (inflammation around the nerves around the vaginal opening). These can be linked to trauma. More on this in a bit.

I recommend that you get a second medical opinion. Many doctors are not comfortable with sexuality, and as a result, are not thorough enough in their assessments. Look for one who has experience with sexual difficulties. I highly recommend listening to Episode One of the Bodies Podcast for a deeper dive into this issue. 

As for your question regarding the links between khatna and your pain, khatna does involve cutting the clitoral hood, and sometimes also the clitoris, rather than the vagina. Still, there is research to suggest that this cut can affect sexuality: in a Sahiyo survey conducted in 2017, 35% of respondents reported that FGC had affected their sex life, and of those, 87% felt that it had been impacted negatively. In a 2018 WeSpeakOut study, nearly 33% of respondents said the same. I highly recommend reading some of their quotations that describe pain, triggers, and trauma (pages 47-60) — it might feel validating.

Trauma is the outcome of a distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope and make sense of the experience. Most survivors describe khatna as a distressing, confusing and painful experience that sometimes involves a significant amount of denial, gaslighting or lies from older, trusted relatives. 

I’d say khatna fits the definition of trauma.

Our minds and bodies can hold trauma in ways that sometimes feel indirect or confusing. Take a look at this comic to understand what I mean. It makes sense to me that our vulvas and vaginas might hold tension from khatna. Speak to a trauma-informed therapist to understand if khatna might have impacted you in this way. 

Fatema, I want you to know that it’s possible to recover and heal from this. You have a right to a pleasure-filled sex life! 

—Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor:

Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at www.farzanadoctor.com.  

Order her newest novel, SEVEN, which addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity and khatna within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns, and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

How female genital cutting is portrayed in television series

By Hunter Kessous

Female genital cutting (FGC) is an international human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence. As the public becomes increasingly aware of this harmful practice, survivors of FGC are being portrayed in media and pop culture. FGC involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries for non-medical reasons. Producers of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), Call the Midwife, and The Good Doctor have incorporated FGC into their storylines. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Orange is the New Black Season 7, Episodes 9 and 10

OITNB’s most compelling season brought in Shani, an asylum seeker from Egypt. While in the detention center, she becomes intimate with an inmate, Niky. When their sex life begins to struggle, Shani opens up to Niky about the FGC she underwent at 11 years old. Her mother said she needed to get rid of a bug, a common justification for FGC that girls hear around the world. There are many aspects of Niky’s story that real-life survivors of FGC share. I was very impressed with the writers of OITNB for addressing the struggle with sexuality that FGC survivors face. FGC comes with a multitude of psychological impacts which harm survivors’ emotional and sexual functioning. Yet, too little attention is given to these consequences. Even research is lacking in this area. 

Niky does an excellent job of portraying how partners of FGC survivors should react. Niky researches alternative ways to make Shani feel good that don’t involve clitoral stimulation. In their next sexual encounter, Niky ensures Shani is relaxed and moves slowly. When pain arises, Niky stops immediately and promises that they will keep communicating until they find what works. The relationship between Niky and Shani is truly heart-warming. The actress who played Shani, Marie-Lou Nahhas, is a Lebanese American anti-FGC activist, who traveled with the UNFPA to meet with FGC survivors in Ethiopia, and uses her social media platforms to share information on FGC. Nahhas recently hosted the launch of Farzana Doctor’s newest novel, Seven, about women’s relationships, marriage, infidelity, religion, tradition, and sensitively exposes the practice of khatna or FGC among the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Call the Midwife Season 6, Episode 6

Call the Midwife painted the story of a pregnant woman, Nadifa, from Somaliland in the 1960s in England. At a young age, she was infibulated, meaning her outer labia were sewn together in order to form a seal, which narrows the vaginal opening. Like Shani, Nadifa thought what had happened to her was typical. The doctor and midwives had never seen FGC before, but handled her case graciously. When Nadifa went into labor, the midwife realized the panic she was experiencing was a result of a flashback to having been cut, and helped calm her. Mental health consequences are another component of FGC that are rarely discussed.

Nadifa gave birth en-route to the hospital, and the midwife had to cut her open in the ambulance. The day after her baby was born, Nadifa’s little sister was sent back to Somaliland by her mother’s orders to be cut. The midwives were enraged at this news and asked Nadifa how she could allow her sister to be held down and cut by a man, the same procedure that could have killed her. Nadifa informs the midwives, to their shock, that it is a woman, not a man, who performs FGC. She says her sister must be cut to ensure she is respected, clean, and able to find a good husband. The reasons Nadifa gave for her sister to undergo FGC are common justifications in many communities around the world. The midwives are unable to prevent Nadifa’s sister from leaving, as her boat for Somaliland leaves before they can reach her. The redeeming factor of this sad ending is that Nadifa decides not to allow her own daughter to be cut. 

The Good Doctor Season 2, Episode 2 

In this episode of The Good Doctor, a patient named Asha goes to the emergency room seeking vaginal rejuvenation. She says at the age of two she was tied down and cut. According to a research study on FGC, for survivors who sought reconstructive surgery, repairing the visual stigma of their genitals was a major motivator. Asha, whose real name is Mara, is of African ancestry, but her story highlights that FGC is occurring in the U.S. 

The surgeons create an elaborate plan to make her an outpatient so she can be home at the end of the school day. The plan goes awry when Mara awakes from surgery in pain. This signals that she has nerves that may be used to reconstruct the clitoris. Her parents and surgeon argue over whether Mara should undergo the reconstructive surgery or have the remaining nerves killed. The safer option would leave Mara permanently unable to experience clitoral stimulation. Mara chooses not to undergo the reconstruction. The surgeon awakes her once more without her parents present and tries to convince her to undergo the clitoral reconstruction. The surgeon goes ahead and performs the clitoral reconstruction without Mara’s consent. When Mara wakes up and realizes what happened, she thanks the surgeon. For the second time in her life, Mara’s body was altered without her consent. For many FGC survivors, this would be psychologically distressing.

Another major flaw we see in this episode, is that the doctor repeatedly calls FGC “butchering.” This language is very harmful and is demeaning to communities that practice FGC. This word choice is alienating, and can promote discrimination and reinforce stereotypes. Language such as this is counterproductive to the movement to abandon FGC.

Overall, I was very impressed with the portrayal of FGC in these TV shows. FGC is a complex issue, and I was happy to see facets such as sexuality, mental health, culture and treatment being addressed. When I embarked on this project, I was preparing myself for stereotypes and myths. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. In fact, some common misconceptions were addressed. I believe the media is great for increasing public awareness.

From Saving Safa to Seven: How authors use writing to shed light on FGC

By Cate Cox

“Without our work, the issue would quickly be swept under the carpet — and so we carry on.” —Waris Dirie, Saving Safa 

It wasn’t until my first year at university before I was asked to critically engage with the issue of female genital cutting (FGC). Up until then what I knew about FGC I knew from overheard conversations between my parents and their colleagues, from snippets of news briefs and CNN articles that flashed across my computer screen. If you’d asked me to name an activist working to end FGC, my answer would have been something along the lines of someone working with the United Nations. 

Yet when I saw Waris Dirie’s novel, Saving Safa, on the reading list for my leadership class, I immediately recognized it. The young, but strong face of Safa having become almost synonymous with the global fight to end FGC. I knew her face, yet I didn’t know her story. 

As much as I agreed that the practice of FGC ought to end, I’d never been asked, or asked myself, to sit down and engage with the stories and lessons of the actual activists on the front lines working to end it. As I made my way through Dirie’s critically acclaimed sixth novel, I began to understand how little I understood. I realized how much my perception of FGC had been shaped by the position of an outsider looking in, instead of as a listener. 

We only spent two weeks in my class covering Saving Safa, but they are two weeks for which I am extremely grateful. Reading Saving Safa helped expand my understanding of FGC, the communities who practice it, and the challenges faced by people trying to end it. This 276-page book, not written for doctors or scholars or researchers, but accessible to ordinary people like me, had managed to change my world view in a mere two weeks. 

The success of Dirie’s many novels about this subject highlights the power of writing, and storytelling in general, as a weapon to encourage the abandonment of FGC. Writing allows people a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of the communities that practice it. It allows us an accessible way to understand the issues and complexities of ending the practice. Most importantly, it brings to light the stories of such an often overlooked and ignored practice. Writing also has the power to allow survivors to see their own stories reflected, and gives both the author and the reader a space to heal.

But the legacy of FGC and writing doesn’t end with Dirie. New and emerging writers are taking the torch to use writing to help shift the narratives around FGC. One of those writers is Farzana Doctor, author of the upcoming novel, Seven In her novel, Doctor follows the story of Sharifa and the unrest that is gripping the Dawoodi-Bohra community as activists grow louder in their fight to end the practice of khatna or FGC. Doctor’s writing never shies away from highlighting the complications and difficulties that come with trying to end the practice. These reviews shine a light on Doctor’s intentions for Seven:

“In her grand tradition, Farzana Doctor once again pushes us forward with nuanced, layered, inter-generational prose, to bring visibility to an important social issue. An urgent and passionate read.”—Vivek Shraya, author of I’m Afraid of Men and The Subtweet

Seven is an intimate, gutsy feminist novel that exposes the lasting, individual impacts of making women’s bodies fodder for displays of religious obeisance.”—Michelle Anne Schingler, FOREWORD Reviews

These reviews summarize the value that writing has in education and advocacy around FGC. The work of Doctor, and other authors like her, is helping to continue to push against the boundaries of silence that keep this practice so often trapped in the shadows. She is fighting to continue the tradition started so many years ago by Dirie in using writing to shed light on the topic of FGC. 

Doctor will speak about her work and activism at the Sahiyo webinar, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After FGC, on October 22nd, at 12 noon. Expert panelists Joanna Vergoth and Sarian Karim-Kamara will shed light on these subjects using their professional and personal experiences. 

Register for this event today: https://bit.ly/HealingAfterFGC 

The event is co-sponsored by Sahiyo, WeSpeakOut, The End FGM/C Canada Network, forma, and Keep the Drums Lose the Knife.

For those interested in learning more about FGC, you can purchase a copy of Seven through the links below or bookstores: 

US: bit.ly/orderSevenUS

Canada: bit.ly/orderseven

Audiobook: bit.ly/sevenaudiobook

Conversations with my mom about khatna and betrayal

By Zahara Kagalwalla

I am a chatty person. I call up my best friend and prattle to him even about the most mundane development in my life like the latest teatime snack I gobbled (muesli, definitely a poorly thought out choice). So when I am distressed, there is furor on the phone. Despite my love for babbling and our nine years of friendship, Phiroze did not know about my khatna experience, or female genital cutting, until very recently. I preferred to tuck it away in a corner of my brain because if I don’t acknowledge it, I can avoid processing the trauma. 

When I departed for university, things changed. I picked up a gender studies major and began learning about concepts such as informed consent and an individual’s right over their own body. This made me more and more uncomfortable with my “ignorance is bliss” policy. The trauma that I had successfully managed to bury in my subconscious emerged, and I finally began the journey toward understanding what happened to me ten years ago. Simply, I was cut, and I don’t like it. In fact, I was infuriated. 

One fine day, I decided to dial-up my mom and have a conversation, but really it wasn’t a conversation. I went in ready to pick a fight. I was the victim and my mother was the perpetrator. How could you? My accusatory tone coupled with my hot tears put her in defensive mode. She justified her actions:

“We took you to a doctor, not to an unqualified middlewoman in Bhendi Bazaar. You experienced no pain.” 

“Khatna doesn’t affect your life; it is ritualistic.”

“Maasi, I, and aunty have all undergone khatna. We are just fine even thirty years later.” 

With emotions running high, I was unable to communicate my point. Whether it hurts or not, whether the procedure was done in a doctor’s clinic or not, nothing changes the fact that it is my body and my rules. This definitely wasn’t a conversation.

Two years later, I realized that I left empathy at the doorstep during my first discussion about khatna with my mother. I disregarded that she came from a place of love, and she never intended to cause me any harm. I did not even bother to understand the kind of social pressure she faced from my extended family, and how her expressions of discomfort with the ritual were severely squashed.

I failed to acknowledge the constant guilt she lives with for compelling her daughter to partake in a primitive tradition, particularly when she witnesses my personal struggle toward self-acceptance. She fought for me, but the tremendous social pressure did not let her win.

Always uncomfortable and unsure about the ritual, my mother has now taken a stance against it. She couldn’t protect me, but she will protect her future granddaughter. Now we fight against khatna together, confident that my daughter will not face female genital cutting.

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Programs Intern Cate Cox

Cate is passionate about women’s rights and human rights and hopes to enter into those fields once she graduates from Simmons University, where she is studying International Relations, Economics, and Arabic. She is excited to work with Sahiyo to help uplift the voices of women everywhere.

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

I was officially brought on to the Sahiyo team in late August as a programs intern. However, even before that, I’d had my eye on Sahiyo as I knew they were doing really amazing work globally.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a programs intern my main focus is around planning and organizing Sahiyo webinars. This means I help coordinate speakers, create supporting materials, and anything else that comes up. I really love working in this capacity because it gives me such an in-depth understanding of the actual work Sahiyo is doing to create change.   

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

Aside from helping me develop my workplace skills, Sahiyo has really helped open my eyes to all the amazing people fighting for change across the world. Even in the few short weeks I have been working with Sahiyo, I have had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring activists and change-makers. Particularly in 2020, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed — and feel like nothing you do actually makes any difference. Having the opportunity to speak to so many amazing women reminds me that we actually do have the ability to create positive change in the world if we are willing to put in the work.

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

Remember to take care of your mental health. There are many different avenues for activism, from art to webinars to writing, activism comes in many forms. But regardless of its form, activism, particularly about subjects as difficult as these, can take a toll on your mental health. This isn’t to say don’t get involved — definitely do. But be willing to step back and rest every now and then. And remember to listen to your body.

Research study explores female genital cutting

“Talking about Female Genital Cutting (FGC): A Study” is a research study undertaken to explore the way communities talk about FGC, the challenges of having such conversations, and the attitudes toward movements and campaigns on FGC. The study is authored by Reetika Revathy Subramanian and funded by Grand Challenges Canada. The project has been led by Vasavya Mahila Mandali from 2019-20 in association with Sahiyo India

This multi-disciplinary study investigates communication attitudes and challenges for having a conversation/s on khatna or FGC. It adopts a mixed-methods approach using an in-depth qualitative survey and feminist focus group discussions, both anchored online, to explore the links between the need for privacy and feminist-led advocacy in the existing public conversations and contestations on the practice of FGC in India and globally. 

The findings of the research seek to explore a connection between the need for privacy and feminist-led digital-safe spaces. 

The survey questionnaire for this study is open to all Bohras above 18 years of age, and it is available in three languages:

Take the survey in English

Take the survey in Gujarati.

Take the survey in Hindi.

My meaningful experience as an intern at Sahiyo

By Nicole Mitchell

In early 2019, I had the pleasure of joining the Sahiyo team as a Social Media Intern. I remember being a bit nervous, as working fully remote at a new company was something I had never done before. Both my supervisor, Lara Kingstone, and the co-Founder Mariya Taher, were extremely friendly and supportive during the onboarding process. Over time, their passion about ending female genital cutting (FGC) became contagious, to the point where I found myself actually looking forward to doing the work.

At the time, I had a very busy schedule where I was finishing up my senior year of college, doing a concurrent internship in Boston, all while working full-time. Despite this, I found that working for a cause that would change so many lives for the better gave me a sense of fulfillment that I wasn’t expecting. To be honest, I miss this feeling. This is one of the things I thank Sahiyo for because I now know that it is possible to have a job that you can actually be excited about. The dreariness of your typical 9-5 cubicle life that we see in the media, or the idea of hating your job, but enduring it so you can at least enjoy the weekend, doesn’t have to be true for everyone. Many of us can find meaning and enjoyment in our work. 

Working with Sahiyo gave me direction, hope and inspiration for my future. On a more practical level, my internship also gave me tools that allowed for me to transfer easily into a role as a marketing specialist at a Boston–based company after graduating with my B..A. While I know that it is rare to land your dream job the first time, I am glad that I at least have an idea of what type of work I can look for in the future because of my experiences with Sahiyo. 

One of my favorite things I did while at Sahiyo was work on a digital campaign where survivors could tell their stories. This was a powerful experience where women from all over the world came together to share their experiences and take a united stand in ending this practice. I was also responsible for writing and scheduling out the content which helped cultivate my creative, strategic and organizational skills. Overall, I am extremely thankful for this opportunity and am glad I can still be a part of this organization in a volunteer capacity. I would highly recommend this internship to anyone who is looking to develop their marketing skills and are passionate about making the world a better place through elevating the lives of others.