Khatna and the law, Part 1: Legislative Framework on Female Genital Cutting in Egypt

By Bhavya Singh

Since the recognition of the presence of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, efforts have been made to eliminate it in these areas. At the international level, elimination of Female Genital Mutilation is a part of Sustainable Development Goal number five, which seeks to achieve gender equality. Organisations like WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA have worked for greater involvement of the international community to advocate against FGC. These efforts include creation or reformation of laws at the national level to counteract the issue. Legislation at the national level, however can be a complex issue as this practice is very deeply entrenched in the social fabric of the communities in which it occurs. Countries which have criminalised FGC continue to face problems, as punishment alone is not enough of a deterrent in a community where FGC is connected to tradition. In other countries, the implementation of the law has not been successful and has not seen prosecutions occuring. Communities themselves have resisted the effort to ban the practice, often arguing with officials who arrest those involved with carrying FGC out.

According to the UN, FGC has reduced by 24% since 2001, however, at the same time if FGM continues at the same pace it currently occurs, around 68 million girls around the world will be affected by it by 2030. Thus legislative efforts have not been effective deterrents in most countries.

To further understand the legislative framework regarding the issue, this blog series will explore the laws in place in countries affected by FGC in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In Africa, FGC is criminalised in 18 of the 28 countries it is reportedly practiced in. Criminalisation is only the first step in ending the problem. This fact is illustrated by the situation in Egypt where a law prohibiting FGC has been in place since 2008, but only two cases regarding FGC related deaths have been reported in the years following. According to 28 Too Many the law in Egypt is mentioned in Article 242-bis and Article 242-bis(A) of Law No. 58 of 1937 promulgating the Penal Code. The penalties for violation of the law include:

  • Article 242-bis – the performance of FGC is punishable with imprisonment for between five and seven years.
  • Article 242-bis – where the performance of FGC results in permanent disability or death, the punishment is increased to ‘aggravated’ imprisonment for between three and fifteen years.
  • Article 242-bis(A) – anyone who requests FGC is punishable with imprisonment from one to three years if the mutilation is carried out.

In 2016, an amendment upgraded the performance of FGC from misdemeanour to felony. Where a charge of misdemeanour earlier meant a penalty ranging from three months to five years, it now ranges from five to seven years. The provisions of the previous law had gaping holes, including exempting genital injuries with sufficient medical justification. As a result, FGC moved from hidden corners into medical hands. According to 28 Too Many, 78.4% of incidences of FGC are done my health professionals. The widely covered death of Soheir al-Batea brought this issue to light. A thirteen-year-old, she died at the hands of Dr. Raslan Fadl who performed the procedure. What is surprising here is the fact that despite existence of the law against FGC since 2008, Dr. Fadl is the only health professional to have been implicated for the crime. (See ‘A Small Nick or Cut, they say…’ by Priya Goswami)

This, more than anything, makes it clear that the existence of law is not enough to end FGC The need to conform to societal norms is so strong that people are ready to break the law for its sake. Also, in many communities, honour and pride are strongly associated with notions of women’s purity. Female circumcision, which it is often also referred to, is falsely propagated as a marker of purity, which makes FGC difficult to erase, as people value honour over a women’s safety, comfort or hygiene. Another reason why change is challenging is because the harbingers of change are often considered ‘outsiders’ instead of part of the community. The attempt at reform by these ‘outsiders’ is often viewed as propaganda against the community rather than upliftment of the community and concern for its community’s wellbeing.

What will help, is the inversion of societal notions. If FGC is seen as honourable, people should be made to see the reasons why it is quite the opposite, so it can be dissociated from honour. If FGC is seen to be a requirement for marriage, it needs to be seen as a deterrent instead. If FGC is seen as religiously sanctioned, people need to be made aware how it is not. The long-term solution involves changing the mindset such that FGC is recognised as harmful.. As seen in this blog’s case scenario, penalising an act that much of a  society does not think a criminal offense in itself will not lead to the desired solution.

About Bhavya Singh: Bhavya Singh

Bhavya is 19 year old law student who has a deep interest in human rights and political theory. She is the happiest when extremely busy and wants to use her law degree to help as many people as she can. Always willing to talk about fashion and sitcoms, her other two passions, and she is hungry for new experiences and challenges to be thrown at her.

 

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To All of You Extraordinary Women Who Survived Female Genital Mutilation, You Are Strong

By: Nada Qamber
Country: Kingdom of Bahrain

The day I heard about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), my jaw dropped. A friend of mine who has grown to become one my closest friends was a victim of this practice. When she told me, my heart broke. I never thought that any culture could do that to their little girls and think that it’s okay. Harming a woman’s gift from the universe is a practice that must be changed across the world. It’s an awful experience to go through at such a young age. Today, I’m not going to bash the cultures that practice this, but praise its strong survivors.

I don’t know much about the communities that practice this requirement, nor do I purely understand their reasons behind it, but I know enough to support the idea that young girls should grow up without experiencing pain like this. Children shouldn’t have to block a horrific memory from their minds and get flashbacks of it later in their lives.

So, I praise you, my fellow women. You have gotten your stems cut off while you were just a flower bud and were left to grow up with a scar that didn’t make sense for so many years. You are still growing.

I praise you, my fellow females. You have gone through a dreadful experience that your mothers forced upon you, and cried until your lungs were sore. You have a voice.

I praise you, my fellow ladies. You fought your mothers, your grandmothers, your aunts, and the person who did this to you. You have courage.

I praise you, my fellow badass warriors. You know that you cannot change what happened to you but you are fighting to change the lives of young girls after you. You are fierce.

Finally, I praise you, fellow beauties, for your growth, your voice, your courage, and your strength to fight to change the minds of the force-makers, the religious leaders, the head of the household, and most of all, fight for the lives of young girls. You have power.

Coming in as an outsider who was fortunate to be spared from this practice, my heart goes out to all of you who went through this experience, and I pray that all of us together are strong enough to make a change and let future girls live a fruitful childhood.

Maria Akhter nominated for The Global Woman Student Ambassador Award

Sahiyo’s Maria Akhter has been nominated to receive the Global Woman Award in the “Student Ambassador” category, on Friday, October 26, 2018, in Washington, D.C.  The awards are given by the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation to people who do a great deal to protect girls and women from various types of violence, including FGC.  The Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization, located in the Washington, D.C. with the mission to empower women and girls through education to help eradicate gender-based violence, with a primary focus on the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM). In October 2015 the organization launched the Global Woman Awards, to recognize the exceptional work of individuals in the advocacy of the empowerment of women and girls.  
Click here to learn more about the Global Woman Awards and the annual 5K Walk Against FGM organized by the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation.

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 4: Psycho-sexual functioning

(This article is Part 4 of a seven-part series on trauma related to Female Genital Cutting. To read the complete series, click here. These articles should NOT be used in lieu of seeking professional mental health and counseling services when needed.)

By Joanna Vergoth, LCSW, NCPsyA

When discussing psychosexual functioning following FGC, it is critical to acknowledge and recognize that many women who have undergone FGC will not experience sexual health problems. It is also important to note that many women with intact genitals do experience sexual difficulties. Female sexuality is a complex integration of biological, physiological, psychological, sociocultural and interpersonal factors that contribute to a combined experience of physical, emotional and relational satisfaction.

Nevertheless, symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can interfere across the continuum of sexual behavior affecting desire, arousal, physical and/or psychological pleasure. The amygdala is the organ in the brain that alerts us to possible danger and responds to the danger by triggering the fear response along with the release of the stress hormones.  A state of negative hyperarousal persists for those who have been re-triggered by some person, place or memory associated to the original trauma while suffering from PTSD (see The Body and The Brain). Biopsycholsocial factors impacting sexual function

For some women affected by Female Genital Cutting (FGC), re-traumatizing triggers can be their initial (and ongoing) sexual experiences. Not only can the physical position (identical to that required for FGC) induce a flashback, but the already traumatized genital area can feel repeatedly violated with sexual activity, gynecological exams—or childbirth itself. [Note. in Sahiyo’s Exploratory Student on FGC in the Bohra community, 108 women reported that their FGC (khatna) had adversely affected their sex life – See Graph on the right]  Khatna sex lifeWhen these flashbacks occur the brain’s fear circuitry takes over and the hippocampus can no longer communicate effectively with the amygdala to allay its fears. This condition often leaves those affected feeling emotionally charged with generalized fear(s) that persist even after the traumatic event has passed. (See also ‘The Clitoral Hood – A Contested Site’) 

There are 3 primary psycho-sexual complications commonly associated with FGC:

  • painful intercourse (may be due to narrowing of vaginal canal; or excessive scarring, or clitoral neuromas, or infibulation or chronic infection);
  • difficulties reaching orgasm;
  • and, absence or reduction of sexual desire. 

Sexual difficulties can occur because for FGC survivors, positive sexual arousal mimics the physiological experience of fear. Once these hormonal and neuroanatomical associations have been forged through the intense experience of trauma and the associated PTSD symptoms, it can be difficult to uncouple them. PTSD SexIn these instances, arousal frequently signals impending threat rather than pleasure. Thus, the biology of PTSD primes an individual to associate arousal with trauma and this impairs the ability to contain the fear response—which in turn impedes sexual functioning and intimacy.

Due to repeated pain during sexual activity, women may develop anxiety responses to sex that restrict arousal and increase frustration—all of which can contribute to vaginal dryness, muscular spasm, painful intercourse and/or orgasmic failure. Women may actively avoid sexual activity to minimize feelings of physical arousal or vulnerability that could trigger flashbacks or intrusive memories. Others have reported that merely the fear of potential pain during intercourse and the frustration around delayed sexual arousal contributes to the lack of sexual desire. Recurring pain triggers memories adversely affected by the cutting. Chronic pain and distasteful memories reinforce each other and create a situation of mutual maintenance.

Emotional and/or physical pain during intercourse diminishes the enjoyment of both the woman and her partner. Complications such as these can contribute to feelings of worthlessness, inhibit social functioning and increase isolation. In fact, many women have expressed feelings of shame over being different and ‘less than’. Some may experience their circumcised genitals, now deemed ‘different’, as shaming. Others may feel responsible for the relationship distress that results and carry a burden of guilt for being unavailable to “provide” sex. They may perceive their anxiety and difficulty about permitting penetration as something they must overcome.

The psychological issues for younger women who have undergone FGC and are living in Westernized societies may be especially complex. These women (and their partners) are subjected to different discourses of sexuality that centralize erotic pleasure and frame orgasm as the endpoint of sex for women and men. Some women may struggle with what are deemed irretrievable losses. Feelings of aversion may extend beyond sex to physical closeness or even intimate relationships in general. In other situations, a woman may feel inferior to other women or less entitled to positive relationships, so that she may engage in an unsatisfactory or even damaging relationship which could further diminish her self-esteem. Another underlying belief behind FGC is that women’s genitals are impure, dirty or ugly if uncut. As a result of this perception, the female body is viewed as flawed—forcing women to modify their physical appearance to fit standards far removed from health, well-being and gender-equality objectives.

Unfortunately, the very nature of this subject often doesn’t allow for much insight, since FGC has always been shrouded in secrecy. Women may be reluctant to disclose because of the fear of being judged, since FGM/C is perceived by outsiders to be illegal, and abnormal. The belief that sexual matters are to be kept private also makes FGC-affected women inclined to keep quiet about their symptoms and suffer in silence or attribute their pain to other sources. However, healing from the trauma through talk therapy as well as open discussions about strategies for obtaining sexual pleasure after FGC can be critical for women to regain control of their sexual identity.

For more information about the Psychosexual Consequences affecting the Clitoris see Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 5: The “C” Word.

About Joanna Vergoth:

Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma. Throughout the past 15 years she has become a committed activist in the cause of FGC, first as Coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, forma logoand most recently with the creation of forma, a charity organization dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women affected by FGC, and also offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy and awareness training to hospitals, social service agencies, universities and the community at large.

An appeal to Maneka Gandhi: Stop the flip-flops on Female Genital Cutting in India

Sahiyo is deeply concerned about the Indian government’s repeated contradictory positions on the problem of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the country. In the span of just 13 months, India’s Ministry for Women and Child Development has flip-flopped on its stand on FGC at least twice.

Its latest u-turn came on Wednesday, June 27, when the Ministry mentioned, in the middle of a larger press release, that “Female Genital Mutilation” is “not practiced in India”. This is clearly at odds with the stand that the central government took in the Supreme Court just two months ago, when it stated that FGC is “already an offence” under Indian law and asked the Court for guidelines on how to tackle the challenge of FGC.

This is not the first time that the government has made contradictory statements about FGC, which is called Khatna or Khafz by the Bohra community and female Sunnath by FGC-practicing communities in Kerala.

Such flip-flops leave FGC survivors in the lurch, unsure of whether their government is likely to support the end of a practice that continues to harm so many women and girls in India.

The first time

Female Genital Cutting (also called Female Genital Mutilation) involves cutting parts of the female genitalia for non-medical, often religious or cultural reasons. In India, the kind of FGC practiced by the Bohras and some communities in Kerala typically involves cutting a part or all of a young girl’s clitoral hood. The practice can have a variety of physical, psychological and sexual consequences on the health of women and girls.

Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development, first publicly acknowledged the practice of FGC in India in May 2017, a month after an independent lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court asking for a ban on FGC. The Court sought a response from the government and Gandhi stated that the practice of FGC would be considered a criminal offence under provisions of the Indian Penal Code as well as the law against child sexual abuse. She also stated that her Ministry would write to the Syedna (the leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community) and ask him to “issue an edict to community members” to give up FGC voluntarily. If the community does not give up the practice, Gandhi said, the government would introduce a specific law against FGC.  

This was a welcome stand by the government, but it was contradicted seven months later. In December 2017, during a hearing of the petition against FGC, Gandhi’s ministry told the Supreme Court that “there is no official data or study” that supports the existence of FGC in India. While this is technically correct, it is dismissive of the many survivor testimonies that have been presented to the Ministry through petitions and personal meetings with survivors and activists. The statement is also ironic, because “official” data can only exist if the government actually commissions such research studies on FGC, which it has not yet done.

After this frustrating statement, the government gave FGC survivors hope again in April. At another Supreme Court hearing, the government’s attorney unequivocally acknowledged the practice of FGC in India, described it as an offence under provisions of existing Indian laws, and asked the Court itself to help issue guidelines on how to end FGC in communities.

Now, with it’s latest press release, the government is back to flip-flopping on the issue.  

The second time

The Ministry’s June 27 press release was a refutation of a new poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which found India to be “the world’s most dangerous country for women”, based on a perception survey of 548 experts on women’s issues from around the world. The survey results identified a list of 10 countries that are currently perceived to be the most dangerous for women.

The poll evaluated each country on six key parameters: health, discrimination, cultural & religion, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking. India was ranked number one (most dangerous) one three of these parameters: sexual violence, human trafficking and culture & religion. It also ranked as most dangerous overall, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and others.

It is the parameter of “culture and religion” that specifically concerns us here. This parameter includes practices such as child marriage, forced marriage, female foeticide, punishment through stoning or mutilation as well as Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

The Indian Ministry for Women and Child Development did not take kindly to the Thomson Reuters poll, and issued a defensive press release dismissing the poll as unscientific and not based on data. It is no secret that women’s rights and freedoms are regularly trampled upon in India, and the Ministry’s sour-grapes reaction to the perception poll has already been critiqued in the media.

What struck Sahiyo’s attention is this particular statement in the Ministry’s press release: “The six questions posed as part of the poll cannot fairly be applied to all countries. E.g. the age bar for defining child marriage is different in every country, mutilation as a means of punishment, female genital mutilation, stoning etc. are not practiced in India.” [Italics added]

To claim that Female Genital Cutting is not practiced in India is a blatant falsehood, and it comes from a government that has already publicly acknowledged the prevalence of FGC in India twice before.

It comes from a government whose ministry has personally met with survivors and activists in the past year and assured them that it is keen to end this practice.

It comes from a government whose minister has claimed she would appeal to the Bohra Syedna to end the practice of FGC in the Bohra community.

It comes from a government that has officially told the highest Court of this country that FGC is already a crime in India, under the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

It comes from a government that must surely be aware that FGC is practiced not just by Bohras but also by other groups in Kerala, because in August 2017, the government of Kerala ordered a probe into reports about “Sunnath” being carried out on girls in the state.

It comes from a government that must surely have read the headlines when Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor released a study that found a 75% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohras.

Why, then, is the government now claiming that FGC is not practiced in India?

It appears that the Ministry for Women and Child Development is willing to deny the existence of practices that harm actual women in the country, simply for the sake of defending an abstract notion of national pride in the face of a survey that reveals the world’s negative perceptions of India. This is a distressing betrayal of all the women and children who have suffered the harmful consequences of FGC, as well as any woman who may have hoped for support from a Ministry meant for her welfare.

Sahiyo appeals to the central government and the Ministry of Women and Child Development to retract its claim that FGC is not practiced in India. We also appeal to the Ministry to commission research on the practice of FGC in India, so that it can design sensitive policies to help communities end FGC.

(Sahiyo has been petitioning global agencies to invest in research on FGC in Asia. Support Sahiyo’s petition by clicking here.)

‘Call it by the Name’: A researcher’s dilemma on the FGM-FGC terminology debate

by Debangana Chatterjee

Two years back when I ventured into trying to understand a culturally specific embodied practice pertaining to procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia ‘for non-medical reasons’ as a researcher, the biggest challenge for me was to ‘call it by the name’.

Disagreements regarding the usage of the term ‘mutilation’ in Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), bearing a negative connotation, have surged. International organisations and agencies commonly term it FGM. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) justifies usage of the term on the basis of its previous reference in 1997 and 2008 by the interagency statements. WHO also acknowledges ‘the importance of using non-judgemental terminology with practising communities’ and some of United Nations agencies prefer adding the word ‘cutting’. Ultimately, both terms underline the violation of women and girls’ rights.

‘Mutilation’ refers to impairing a vital body part by cutting it off with an explicit intent to harm. In this context, a few other terms used to connote FGM require closer attention. Female circumcision and excision are often used identically with FGM, although these do not fully carry the information regarding the practice. Out of the four types of procedures entailing FGM as specified by WHO, female circumcision appears akin to type I and even occasionally type II FGM and appears not as physically severe as the Type III category. Yet, existing research suggests that treating female circumcision as replacements for FGM fails to take the practice into account in its entirety. Using ‘female genital surgeries’ is contested as well, as it appears to validate medicalisation of FGM or in other words implies that FGM is a medical surgery like other standard surgeries.

The term FGM received significant prominence in the 1990s. Fran Hosken coined the term in 1993 to draw international attention to the ill-effects associated with the practice as well as to distinguish it from the widely prevailing male circumcision practices. For Ellen Gruenbaum the term ‘…implies intentional harm and is tantamount to an accusation of evil intent’ and thus, entails greater chances of hurting sentiments. There are scholars like Stanlie M. James and Claire C. Robertson who prefer Female Genital Cutting (FGC) instead of FGM. They consider ‘circumcision’ insufficient as it makes a ‘false analogy’ to male circumcision. At the same time, they disagree with the term FGM as it subsumes that all types of the procedure are an act of ‘mutilation’. Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia also choose the understanding of FGC and circumcision as to not force women to dwell on their body as mutilated. These scholars understand the sense of trauma that ‘mutilation’ might connote for some women.

In fact, the constant reference of FGM in the existing international human rights (IHR) discourse mostly remains unaware of other forms of bodily mutilation of women. ‘Mutilation’, in this sense, can mean both bodily modifications attempted through cosmetic surgeries and public sexual violence which remains under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states concerned. Needless to say, mutilation of raped bodies is one of the most common occurrences of sexual violence. When FGM as a cultural practice is emphasised over other forms of ‘mutilation’, it indicates the cultural biases of IHR discourse. It is not to dilute the abhorrence that this practice deserves, but to show how little a space it leaves for consciousness building and community learning. For both the activists and researchers alike, extreme caution is required  to not alienate people and to sustain the dialogic engagement with them.

Also, with ‘mutilation’, a popular imagery of infibulation (narrowing of the vaginal orifice)  is attached. It comes more with its representation in popular culture as is the case with the film Desert Flower. Notwithstanding the reality of the incidence shown in the movie, in most of the cases, the type I and II procedures are conducted instead of type III (infibulation). Clubbing all the procedures under the single rubric either exaggerates type I and II FGM or dilutes the gravity of Type III and some forms of Type IV (Type IV includes miscellaneous procedures like piercing, pricking, incising or stretching of the clitoris, burning or scraping of vaginal tissues. Whereas some of the type IV procedures are of greater concern, others may not necessarily appear as severe).

In the light of these debates over terminologies, how does a researcher resolve her dilemma?

My study aims to locate the practices of FGM/C exclusive to the Bohra Muslim community in India in the frame of international politics. Especially keeping in mind my position as a scholar who is outside the purview of the culture, I stand on the edge of being either called a cultural relativist/apologist (a person who believes that people’s cultural traditions can only be judged by the standards of their own culture and thus, cultural practices are to be judged relative to the understanding of its practitioners) or prejudiced against cultural particularities. My study aims to juxtapose international discourses surrounding the practice vis-a-vis its occurrences in India. Hence, while writing my thesis, I shall be using FGM interchangeably with FGM/C to reflect the larger WHO definition and its usage in the international circle. As no term seems perfect in defining the practice, academically FGM/C looks commonly acceptable reflecting the international outlook towards it. Needless to say, the term FGM/C also has received substantial backlash from the communities and Bohras are no exception to it. An objective and unbiased study of the practice seeks the right approach more than an elusive perfection in terminology. Thus, during my interactions with members of the community, while analysing the local Indian discourse, khatna as a term will be given preference respecting the cultural uniqueness that the term bears.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com )

Sahiyo participates in Canadian webinar on FGC

On May 23, the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) hosted a unique webinar to help Canadian social sector organisations get acquainted with the practice of Female Genital Cutting. As an organisation working to end the practice in India and other Asian countries, Sahiyo was invited to present some of its work during the webinar.

CanWaCH is an Ottawa-based umbrella organisation with a focus on women’s health and gender equity. Its members come from across civil society, research and health sectors. The webinar on May 23 was for CanWaCH’s member organisations as well as the wider public, and it aimed to stimulate greater participation from Canadian NGOs, charities and institutions in the global movement to end FGC. Through presentations by various global organisations already working in the field of ending FGC, the webinar focused on sharing knowledge and best practices with the audience.

 

Participants included Anne-Marie Kamanye and Peter Nguura from Amref, a CanWaCH member organisation that has anti-FGC programmes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; Jenna Richards from Orchid Project, a UK-based organisation that supports anti-FGC partners in Senegal, Kenya and India, among others; Aarefa Johari from Sahiyo; and Alissa Koski from McGill University in Canada. Sahiyo shared information about the key elements required in an individual or organisation’s efforts to end FGC. Koski discussed the methods and challenges of conducting monitoring and evaluation of anti-FGC programmes.

Feeling drained after talking about Khatna? Here are some resources that can help

By Priya Ahluwalia

Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. She is currently conducting a research on the individual experience of Khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series – Khatna Research in Mumbai.

As human beings we are trained to react immediately, lessen the magnitude of pain when injured, manage our emotions when overwhelmed. We always initiate a response, however not all actions can be immediately responded to, especially when they are extremely distressing or traumatic. Often they are hidden away by our minds to prevent any major upheaval for us. However, even when hidden, they tend to seep through the cracks, leading to subtle effects such as difficulty falling asleep, distrustfulness, self doubt, among others. But sometimes, a small object, event or even a word can widen the crack, leading to a dam of emotions running out. This process is called re-traumatization. Perhaps the best description of the same would be an object, event or situation which leads to re-experiencing the emotions and physical symptoms that are associated with the initial episode of trauma.

It is essential to acknowledge that all individuals give a similar physical response to trauma, but the psychological response is never the same. For example, we are biologically programmed to give a physical response to pain, such as crying when injured. However, we are culturally conditioned to suppress the psychological pain caused by the injury, which is essentially the case with women who have undergone FGC/Khatna. Although the pain is suppressed, it cannot be avoided because it begins to manifest indirectly. For example, one of the participants, I interviewed for my research reported that although she does not remember anything from the day of her Khatna, she has been terrified of blades ever since then. This is a clear example of unaddressed psychological distress. Thus, irrespective of whether the response to trauma is immediate, delayed, drastic or subtle, all individuals must gain access to resources for assistance.

Therefore, while delving into a topic such as Khatna, which is emotionally charged and traumatic, it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that the effect of re-traumatization is minimized. As cliché as it sounds, listening is perhaps the best therapeutic tool to minimize re-traumatization. Case studies have shown that when victims of trauma are unheard they are more likely to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. Besides listening, providing an open and safe environment, choices, lists of resources and being available post the interview are also known to help. However, it is essential that a sense of independence be encouraged. Therefore survivors must be trained to look out for signs on their own and have a some set of immediate resources be available for themselves.

Some of the signs to look out for:

  1. Sudden and recurring thoughts of an unpleasant event, that may be difficult to control.
  2. Change in sleeping habits: an increase or decrease in the need for sleep, as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
  3. Change in eating habits: an increase or decrease in appetite as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
  4. Difficulty paying attention to an activity at hand, inability to remember information.
  5. Easily irritated.
  6. Not interested in participating in activities which were earlier enjoyable.
  7. Frequent crying spells.
  8. Using negative statements (“I am bad”) while addressing oneself.
  9. Having extremely negative view of the world (“everyone in the world is bad”).
  10. Regular thoughts of death or harming oneself.
  11. Distrust and suspiciousness of those around oneself.
  12. Sense of powerlessness
  13. Increased feeling of fear

Things to do:

  1. Seek out a trusted confidante and talk to them, it will allow you an emotional release as well as provide the support to overcome the current distress you feel.
  2. Arrange your day in a way that allows for at least 1 or 2 activities, such as painting or dancing among others, which give you positive emotions such as happiness. These activities could last from anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, preferably not consecutively organised.
  3. Seek out support in organizations – research has shown that women who choose to speak out about their trauma by joining organizations working against the trauma that they survived are more adept with dealing with their emotions as they are able to gather wider support of individuals with similar experiences.
  4. Perform physical activity which would allow your body to release positive hormones which would assist in overcoming some of the negative emotions you may currently feel.
  5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This can help you to you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.

Steps involved:

  • Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.
  • Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
  • Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  • When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  • Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  • Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  • Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  • Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
  • It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.

6. Mindfulness Meditation:

Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now, enabling you to be fully engaged in the present moment and thereby reduce our anxiety.

Steps involved:

  • Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
  • Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling.
  • Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and thoughts.
  • Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.

 

Asking more questions is the key to change, and to ending Female Genital Cutting

By Priya Ahluwalia

Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. She is currently conducting a research on the individual experience of Khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series – Khatna Research in Mumbai

Flexibility is a key characteristic of successful research, and it is an extremely essential component of the questions on which the research is based. Although I believe that having an exhaustive list of questions pre-prepared is essential to keep one on track, however as one reads and interacts with others, newer lines of enquiry are generated. It is crucial that all lines of enquiry be amalgamated to allow for a wholesome insight into one individual’s experience.  

Currently my interactions with women allowed me to see connections in their narratives. Accompanied by the literature I read, I found similarities as well as differences in the narratives of women across the world. Researchers have found that Female Genital Cutting (Khatna) leads to urinary problems, menstrual problems, problems in sexual functioning and difficulties during childbirth; some have even found that the psychological distress of the trauma often leads to depression and anxiety among women. A common pattern I found among studies was that all mental distress experienced by women was studied as a didactic relationship, ie, the women in relation to another individual. For example, sexual difficulties leading to marital distress among husband and wife.

However it was intriguing that in my interactions with women I found that Khatna has a great impact on the women’s relationship with themselves. For example, a participant reported that she dealt with self-esteem issues because she felt out of place while growing up, as she did not have the same sexual impulses towards boys as her other friends, the lack of which she attributed to Khatna. My area of interest was always the psycho-social effect of Khatna. However, now I am more curious than ever to explore how Khatna impacts both women’s social relationships as well as their relationship with themselves.

Little research has been done to explore how an individual’s worldview (ie, understanding of the world and how it functions) shifts after their discovery and understanding of Khatna. My curiosity in this area was ignited when one woman reported that following her discovery of Khatna, she was extremely angry with her family and although she has now made peace with her family, her trust in them and her faith in people’s ability to make good decisions has been shattered. I am now fascinated to interview more women and see how their worldview might have shifted after their discovery of Khatna.

Furthermore, research in attitude formation shows that negative experiences with one aspect of a larger domain leads to a negative attitude towards all aspects of the domain. If the same was extended to the practice of Khatna rooted in religious obligation, it would be interesting to explore how attitudes towards Khatna and religion are interlinked.

With each conversation, the questions in my mind multiply and it is often followed by a sense of hesitation of being overambitious. However, I do not let the hesitation pull me back, and the credit for that goes to one research participant who told me that if someone before us had asked these questions, then we wouldn’t have to be here today, and unless we ask these questions, nothing will change and we will still be here five years down the line.

I have made a decision to change, have you?

To participate in Priya’s research, contact her on priya.tiss.2018@gmail.com

Amnesty India features Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut in its ‘Brave’ campaign

Leading human rights organisation Amnesty India has featured Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut — the two collectives working to end Female Genital Cutting in India — in its new campaign titled “Brave”.

The campaign aims to highlight the work of individuals and groups working to defend human rights, truth, and justice in India, despite facing threats, attacks and other kinds of backlash.

amnesty

Other brave individuals featured in the campaign are: Chandrashekhar Azad, who founded the Bhim Army to fight for Dalit rights in Uttar Pradesh; Sagolsem Menor Singh, who campaigns for justice for the families of those killed in fake encounters in Manipur; and Gauri Lankesh, the journalist and human rights activist who was shot dead for her views last year.

Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut have been recognised for raising their voices against a taboo topic: the ritual of cutting young girls’ genitals in the name of culture and religion. During the course of the year, the Amnesty campaign will help support and amplify Sahiyo’s work.

Read more about the Brave campaign here.