Voices Series: The power of naming

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

by Comfort Dondo

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

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

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

Voices Series: Finding my voice through storytelling on female genital mutilation/cutting

By Siti Kusujiarti

In September 2019, I participated in the Voices to End FGM/C Workshop in Asheville. In this workshop I met with a group of amazing participants and facilitators. From the participants I learned various experience and stories and felt that we had a sense of solidarity and strength from sharing the perspectives. It is empowering to learn that each of us has been engaged in creating public awareness and raising our voices to change the practice and policies, despite our experience with female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). 

The workshop gives me opportunities to share my story that I have never spoken about before. I buried the memories for so many years, even though I cannot forget it. I could not find an appropriate space to share my story until the workshop. At first, I was hesitant to tell the story, especially when I thought how my family members, friends, and communities may react to the story. From my childhood, I learned that family members have to support each other. If we hurt them, everybody in the family will get hurt, and we have to behave well to make our family proud of us. For many years, I internalize this principle without critically thinking of the positive and negative impacts of it. However, as I get older and learn from various experience and knowledge, I realize that despite some positive implications, the principle may also silence our voice and prevent us from taking more independent thinking and action. It’s hard to question existing customs and behaviors. I also realized that by keeping my silence, I can actually hurt others. There is a misleading perception that FGM/C does not happen in Indonesia and if it happens it’s not as severe as in other places. I break my silence to debunk this conception and to get involved in actions to address the issue.

One of the challenges for me to tell this story was because those who got involved in my experience with FGM/C were the women I love dearly, including my own mother. As in most cases throughout the world, women tend to be involved in enforcing the practice. I don’t want to demonize them; I share my story to create awareness that these women are influenced by the culture and structure they live in. To address the issue of FGM/C, we need to create awareness among all facets of the society. Blaming the mothers or the families will not solve the problems. Storytelling is one of the strategies we can amplify our voices and agencies to end FGM/C.

Survivor: Why labia elongation is female genital mutilation

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

By Jenny Cordle

When Comfort Dudzai was 9 years old, her father’s two sisters and her nanny took her and her cousins to her family’s rural home in Chipinge, in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe outside of Harare. In six long weeks the three women taught the girls a combination of lessons on hygiene, virginity and marriage. 

Each morning the group would gather in the forest near hot springs off the Save River for a lesson. One morning the 9-year-olds were taught how to elongate their labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, arguably one of the most sensitive parts of female anatomy. 

“The men in our culture expect that you have your labia the (length) of your middle finger,” Comfort said. “For the first few sessions, the older ladies actually pull on the labia minora for you.”

Her aunts used their hands and secret herbs for the elongation. “It was a holistic teaching about womanhood, and the labia pulling is just one of the components.” 

There is a myth about the herbal mixture being made of bat wings. 

“It is painful,” Comfort said. “You cannot cry. You endure.” 

Comfort had an allergic reaction to the herbs. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong until I started facing complications,” she said. “I felt safe because these are women I trust and love, and women I know who love me and want the best for me.” 

Comfort’s pain didn’t end with the initial allergic reaction. She had complications with the delivery of her first son as a result of the labia elongation, and eventually had a surgical operation due to many infections. 

Although there are various forms of female genital mutilation/cutting and different classifications in terms of severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) stops short of explicitly listing labia elongation as Type 4, which “includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”

Labia elongation is encouraged to enhance sexual pleasure not only for men, but for women as well. Whether the prior WHO classification, which actually included “stretching of the clitoris and/or labia,” was altered after two researchers published a study suggesting that Rwandan women experience labia elongation as positive is unclear. 

Types 1-3 classify what can be construed as reductive types of female genital mutilation/cutting. But labia elongation is not considered reductive since nothing is cut away. Instead the labia is pulled during a series of sessions, in what some deem as modification because the process appears to be devoid of violence. Consent is key.

For Comfort, the idea that girls are coerced into altering their genitals for the pleasure of men, and even for themselves, can be psychologically damaging. She is sharing her story to bring awareness to the process and to protect girls in the future. 

“Psychologically, it tells a girl that you’re not enough,” she said. “You need to alter something and there’s something deep about telling a young lady that age that you need to make yourself this way for a man. You’re not good enough. There’s even stories about women who get returned from their marriage — that they need to go and pull that labia longer. It’s very damaging to women. It places the value of the man over the woman.”

Labeling elongation, pulling or stretching as labia modification undermines the harmful effects on girls and connotes agency, whereas in many girls experiences, they aren’t given a choice.

Labia elongation is or has been practiced among groups in several African countries including Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the BBC, it is reportedly happening in the United Kingdom among diaspora communities. 

Comfort (Dondo) Dudzai participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop led by StoryCenter and Sahiyo, and funded by the George Washington School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

Voices to End FGM/C Launch: 27 survivors and activists create videos to share their stories

Important links:
Watch the Voices to End FGM/C survivor and activist videos here, as they are released every week.
Read blogs by participants of Voices to End FGM/C by following the “Voices Series” here.

Today, the occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance towards Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), Sahiyo and StoryCenter are proud to announce the release of ‘Voices to End FGM/C’, a series of 27 short videos addressing FGM/C, created by survivors and advocates from countries and communities around the world. 

‘Voices to End FGM/C’ supports women and men impacted by this issue to tell their own stories, through their own perspectives, in their own words. Participants receive training on how to create videos at workshops held either in-person or via webinars.

Says Global Voices Storyteller and FGM/C survivor Su Sun,  “Participating in this storytelling process was for me to be audacious, heal, and denounce how women’s bodies are subjected to violence in many different ways. To share this process with other women was a beautiful process of collective empowerment that allowed us not to be invisible and do so while using our imagination, art, poetry, music, colours.”

The program was first launched in May 2018 as ‘Sahiyo Stories’, when Sahiyo and StoryCenter hosted a residential workshop on digital storytelling for nine FGM/C survivors in Berkeley, California, in the United States. The videos created at that workshop, which have been screened at various events transnationally, can be viewed here.

In 2019, Sahiyo Stories was expanded into the Voices to End FGM/C program, under which two residential workshops were conducted in the U.S. and one webinar-based workshop was conducted for 10 FGM/C survivors living around the world. Most participants in these workshops had not previously shared their personal experiences with FGM/C. They received primary training from StoryCenter, which helped them write their own scripts and curate their own photographs and videos clips to make the finished videos. Some participants also worked in partnership with illustrators/visual artists to aid in the storytelling.

The 27 new digital stories emerging from Sahiyo and StoryCenter workshops will be released every Monday on Sahiyo’s Youtube page at http://bit.ly/VoicesFGMCVideos .

Says Mariya Taher, Sahiyo Co-founder, US Network to End FGM/C Steering Committee Member, Voices to End FGM/C Program Director, and FGM/C Survivor, “I believe that to create change, we have to speak about the harms in our community — and storytelling allows us to do that in a safe and non-judgemental way. The online Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop has allowed survivors from around the world to connect to each other in a way that truly shows that FGC is a global issue requiring a global response.”

Amy Hill, Silence Speaks Director, StoryCenter,  explains Story Center’s motivation: “StoryCenter remains deeply committed to supporting women’s rights storytelling, through our Silence Speaks program. The partnership with Sahiyo on Voices to End FGM/C is rooted in the importance of creating safe environments where storytellers can forge new understandings of their own life experiences, repair fractured relationships with family members and other loved ones, and establish meaningful, new connections with their peers who are speaking out. Our hope is that collectively, these stories will influence conversations, community action, and policies in ways that ensure future generations of girls are spared.”

Voices Series: Survivors are more than their stories

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

By Maryum Saifee

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of Appalachia, I began to unravel. In a story circle with female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors and allies, I began telling a story that by now, I had committed to memory: “I was seven years old…my aunt led me down to her basement clinic… she bribed me with a Toblerone chocolate bar.” I had told the story so often that I stopped crying during the sad parts. And it had become this mantra, much like when I was a kid memorizing parts of the Quran. Yet, unlike Quranic recitation which I found soothing, this mechanized mantra was leaving me numb. On the last day of the retreat, I found myself feeling sick to my stomach, as if everything inside of me was being purged, both physically and metaphorically.   

My physical reaction to the stress illustrated the costs and emotional labor of storytelling. On the one hand, it can be cathartic to liberate personal trauma into public spaces: the flood of support and encouragement from everyone from close family to acquaintances. But there is also the dark side – the backlash and ambivalence, sometimes from unexpected places. Over time, the iterative process can be taxing and reductive. As survivors leveraging our stories to push advocacy agendas, your story can evolve into a personal brand, even when you push back against the pigeonholing. At the retreat, I felt this pressure to produce a story that would compel more people from inaction to action. I asked a friend’s daughter – close to the same age I was cut – to hold a Toblerone bar in her small hands so that I could insert the image into my video. I thought the more graphic, the more visual, the more visceral – the more possibilities for mobilizing a mass audience.  

Blue Ridge Mountains

I was so focused on producing a neatly packaged story that I didn’t step back to think about the costs of production. In other words, the emotional toll the storytelling process was taking on me as the storyteller. How triggered I felt when my friend’s daughter asked me why she was holding a Toblerone bar, and I didn’t have the age-appropriate words to explain why, so I stayed silent and left her confused. Then there was navigating the intense aftermath of the story circle process – absorbing the pain, the trauma, and the heartbreak of the storytellers around me.  

Having had a few months to reflect, I gained perspective in three areas:

  1. Story circles are powerful ways to build community:

The pedagogy around story circles can build community in profound ways. I connected the most with a fellow FGM survivor who grew up in a conservative Christian community and is now settled in Kentucky. Despite coming from a different faith tradition, we shared much in common: growing up in the south, grappling with the emotional burden of sharing our stories, and navigating family structures that are not always supportive. There was also the similarity of being bribed with sweets. Her mother baked a cake for her and her sister after they were cut – and my aunt gave me the oversized chocolates you normally get at Duty Free airport lounges. I empathized with her struggle to engage with family members – particularly in breaking the culture of silence – on an act of family violence. I developed a powerful bond with this participant that has continued well beyond the retreat.

  1. Story circles require trauma-informed support structures:

No matter how many times a storyteller has told his or her story, trauma survivors need to have trauma-informed support structures (including psychosocial support) integrated into the story circle process. I was triggered throughout the retreat and might have navigated the experience better had a trained psychotherapist been integrated into the story circle from the outset. Story circles are sacred and have the ability to develop unbreakable bonds, but should be approached with extreme care. Even for seasoned storytellers like myself, I learned the importance of self-care and setting boundaries. To address this essential, but often overlooked element of survivor-led advocacy, the Dahlia Project, founded by FGM survivor and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein, recently released an essential tool Female Genital Trauma: Guidelines for Working Therapeutically with Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation

  1. Survivors are more than their stories

Over the last three years, as I’ve developed a personal voice on the issue of FGM, I have worried that other parts of my identity have started to recede to the background. Before telling my story, I had an identity that was more nuanced and multi-faceted. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan, which led me to become a United States diplomat with a regional interest in the Middle East. In graduate school, I used to write regularly for the Columbia Spectator and joined an art collective where I exhibited paintings in New York galleries, including one dedicated to South Asian art in Chelsea. I had this robust other life. But after telling my story, I felt I had been reduced to a singular event: an act of violence that happened on a summer afternoon when I was seven years old in the sweltering port city of Surat on the western coast of India. When the retreat ended, I realized I’m more than my story. In fact, all of the participants in the retreat have multiple identities – lives that are both independent from, but also informed by their trauma. And ultimately, survivors are more than their stories.

Intern Spotlight: Sahiyo Social Media Intern Farhan Zia

Farhan Zia joined Sahiyo’s team as a social media intern in 2019. He is an undergraduate student reading the law at Jindal Global Law School, in O.P. Jindal Global University, India. He researches the intersections of law with human rights, gender and religion, and has a deep interest in engaging with theology and religion from a feminist and modern perspective. He is a student researcher at the FGM Project which seeks to draft and present a bill against female genital cutting in India, a member of the Legal Aid Clinic of Jindal Global Law School.

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

While I had heard bits and pieces about female genital cutting (FGC) in college, I was not exposed to the full magnitude of the issue. In August 2019, my friend Kavya Palavalasa, who was an intern at Sahiyo, told me about the organization. Following this, when I went through the Sahiyo stories and resources, I came to understand the extent and nuances of FGC. I decided that I must work on this issue, and joined Sahiyo in October 2019. 

What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a social media intern, I help create, schedule and manage content for the social media handles, for the daily feed, as well as specific campaigns. I also watch out for any news about FGC that Sahiyo should write on.

How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

As a student of law interested in religion and gender, I often notice how activists and authors trying to bring about legal or social reforms end up alienating the very people they seek to help by not understanding their culture and values. It is very difficult to speak against institutionalized cultural practices like FGC. But at Sahiyo I noticed how their advocacy is respectful and compassionate in its language and not condescending in any manner. The Sahiyo resources were a great help for me to grasp how effective reporting of an issue as nuanced as FGC must be done.

I am always in awe of the solidarity and bravery of the many women involved with Sahiyo and who share their stories in its various storytelling campaigns. It really brings into clear focus how patriarchal practices harm women and how too few men try to understand this or contribute to the feminist cause. It has prompted me to read and explore FGC more and work toward contributing to legal reforms in India.  

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

Sahiyo is a wonderful organization to work and learn since the people here are incredibly helpful and understanding. I believe that fighting for equality is not just women’s responsibility. I implore more men to support Sahiyo’s cause against FGC. If you are passionate about working toward gender equality, I really encourage you to get involved.

How Melinda Gates’ Moment of Lift addresses female genital cutting

By Kristin Pepper

In December 2019, our book club discussed Melinda Gates’ book, Moment of Lift, and experienced firsthand Melinda’s process ourselves. One of our members knew that the book mentioned female genital cutting (FGC), and asked Mariya Taher, an expert on FGC, to join our discussion using Skype. Just as Melinda looked into how to empower women and grew to understand women’s issues in a whole new way, our book club read a book about how women can help and learned many facets of a problem most of us barely knew existed.

Mariya presented some facts to help us understand that FGC happens everywhere, including in the United States. We also had a member who knew that girls in our own town were being cut. Our book club is made up of mothers who live in an upper middle class, educated area in which all parents want the very best education for girls and boys alike. Most of our members had not realized girls, both Christian and Muslim living in the US, were being cut, much less in our own town. We were shocked and had an especially hard time understanding why a woman would be involved in cutting a girl. When discussing Moment of Lift, we kept coming back to why women perpetuate any customs that hurt other women. The story of girls tricked into child marriage made us angry at the mothers. Mariya showed us a video of a woman who used to hold down girls to be cut but later helped her community to reject FGC. Some of us had trouble forgiving that woman despite her courage and activism. 

We had followed Melinda Gates into discovering a problem happening in our area, as well as globally. We had to understand why FGC exists, how damaging it was to girls, and what we could do about it. Mariya helped us understand some of the social, medical and educational roots of the problem, as well as its true danger. She showed us videos of women describing the effect cutting had on their lives, but we also learned that not all women had problems from cutting. We learned the different methods of cutting.   

We tried to understand why educated women who clearly loved their children would have their girls cut. Mariya and the other book club member were invaluable in sharing their knowledge with us, just as the people who were closest to the problems were most valuable to Melinda. They helped us understand the loss a woman and her entire family faces if she speaks out against FGC in a community that accepts it. She and her family may no longer be valued members of the community. They may still go to their places of worship, but people may no longer talk to them, and they may no longer be invited to community gatherings. The ostracism and loss of support they have felt their whole lives is an extreme deterrent. 

This tied into Melinda’s journey of speaking out in support of birth control, despite being Catholic. She felt she had to publicly support family planning in order to have any impact on communities. It took courage to talk out against something her faith supported, and she was worried about wading into politically charged waters. 

We spoke about what the Gates Foundation did in one community to stop cutting, but to the members who understood FGC best, it was complicated. There might be a lesson in the MeToo movement. For years, women kept quiet about workplace sexual harassment, but then the MeToo movement supported speaking up and the society began to stop blaming the victims. It was very important that the women who spoke up were believed, welcomed and told they were brave. We need to support those who do speak up about FGC. Those brave women could break the notion that FGC does not hurt women’s health, and they could inspire their friends to speak out. Women who have been cut speaking up and denouncing the practice would have a powerful effect on their own communities, but they will need to be supported by people who understand what a loss they face when they raise their voices. Melinda Gates’ positive message that change is possible when women are given the right support to lift was a hopeful message that made a strong impression on our book club. 

Taking the anti-FGC movement forward, with Thaal Pe Charcha participants

On 17th November 2018, Sahiyo hosted its seventh Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India, with a diverse group of 17 participants. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. For the November event, two participants travelled specially from Pune and Kerala respectively.

During this TPC, participants were divided into two groups that drew up plans for taking the movement against FGC forward through two different approaches. One group discussed engagement with lawmakers, medical professionals and other social stakeholders, as well as raising social awareness about FGC through animation videos and other such media. 

The second group discussed taking Thaal Pe Charcha itself forward, by reaching out to more and more members of the community and bringing in new participants along with them for the next TPC. They also discussed plans to reach out to Bohras in rural areas and organising their own TPC events with their friends and relatives. The groups formed separate Whatsapp groups to stay in touch and monitor the progress of their activities.

When Thaal Pe Charcha participants met Mumbai’s Veteran Activists

On 4th August 2018, Sahiyo hosted its sixth Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. 

The TPC in August was unique because in addition to several regular and new participants from the Bohra community (five of whom were men), the event also featured women leaders and activists from various non-profit organizations working on women’s rights. They were invited to interact with participants and share their experiences, struggles and the knowledge gained in their journeys as women’s rights advocates. 

One of the activists was Flavia Agnes, a veteran feminist lawyer from Majlis, who was at the forefront of India’s women’s movement in the 1980s. Agnes shared her story of surviving domestic violence and going on to become a prominent lawyer helping other women with legal support in their fight for justice. 

Other guest speakers included Noorjehan Safia Niaz, the co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a prominent Muslim women’s organisation, and her team of two women Qazis (Islamic jurists) from BMMA. The three of them spoke about their struggle to get the practice of unilateral instantaneous divorce or triple talaq to be recognised as unconstitutional in India, as well as their efforts to bring justice to Muslim women by training women to become Qazis — a profession only open to men within traditional Islam. 

Dr. Sheroo Zamindar, a gynaecologist from Ahmedabad, also explained the medical consequences of undergoing Khatna. 

Participants of the TPC were enthusiastic in their interactions with the guest speakers and in their feedback to Sahiyo, mentioned that they appreciated the diverse perspectives that they offered during the event.

‘I have convinced my friends to refrain from Female Genital Cutting’

On January 27, 2018, Sahiyo hosted its fourth Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India, with a diverse group of 18 participants. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. 

The participants, six of whom were men, discussed ongoing developments around the movement to end khatna. Men were invited to share their own experiences of male circumcision as well as comment on the Khatna experience of young girls in the community or within their families. The participants were eager to be proactive in raising awareness about the harmful effects of Khatna on girls. One male participant shared that he convinced his mother and wife not to cut their seven-year old daughter by explaining the possible damage it could do to a child’s body and mind. He said, “I have also convinced my friends and their wives to refrain from doing this practice. There is just no need for it.”

Towards the end of the event, Sahiyo organised a special healing session for the women participants, conducted by a well-known alternate healing therapist who specializes in reconnective healing therapy. The therapist, Shabnam Contractor, is a member of the Bohra community and was able to understand how FGC might have affected the women participants. In the hour-long session, she helped participants explore aspects of their lives that may have been affected by undergoing FGC. After the session, most women experienced a sense of relief and expressed an interest in more such sessions in subsequent events.