Sahiyo highlights programs intern for scholarship win

Sahiyo programs intern Cate Cox won a scholarship via The Passionate Leaders Project (PLP) that supports undergraduate students at Simmons University. Cate is currently studying  International Relations, Economics, and Arabic. While working at Sahiyo she has helped to organize many dynamic webinars, including Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After FGC, Art, Activism, and Healing: In Conversation Around FGC, and Everyone’s Responsibility: Discussing the Role Male Allies Play in Preventing FGC.

Cate’s project, titled “The Silent Pandemic: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Gender-Based Violence in the United States,” combines work experience, research, and event planning to advance our understanding of how COVID-19 has exacerbated or reconstructed violence against women in the U.S. She is working on this project during her internship with Sahiyo: United Against Female Genital Cutting, and by writing a research paper on this topic, and organizing a webinar/seminar with key academics in this field.

“Working at Sahiyo was a big part of my inspiration for this project,” Cate said. “I started my internship in August and got to see firsthand how the organization was having to shift its programming from in-person to virtual due to COVID-19. This inspired me to think about how the field of gender-based violence prevention as a whole was having to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19. How have domestic abuse shelters had to adapt? How have lobbying organizations fighting for women’s rights had to adapt? And overall, how has violence against women itself been reconstructed or exacerbated due to COVID-19?”
The Passionate Leaders Project (PLP) supports undergraduate students seeking to enrich their academic and professional interests by funding learning opportunities beyond the boundaries of the traditional classroom. Students receive funding through the PLP to fund a variety of activities, including, but not limited to global experiences, research, internships, service projects, and creative endeavors. A competitive research opportunity, only around 10 undergraduate students are chosen every semester to receive this funding and support.

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Development Intern Yusra Majoka

Yusra Majoka is passionate about ending gender inequalities and believes in creating sustainable change by empowering girls and women in our communities. She graduated from St. Georges, University of London with a masters in global health. She is focused on improving women’s health and advocating for autonomy and education surrounding women’s rights. 

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

I began working as a development intern for Sahiyo in October 2020. I had been following Sahiyo on their Instagram page for some time and was inspired by their mission to end female genital cutting (FGC). When I saw a call for applications, I was excited by the opportunity. 

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

My work with Sahiyo as a development intern means supporting our development team by completing tasks in the area of grant research and funding. Each month I contribute with grant or funding source research, or by helping to create fundraising campaigns. Within these areas I also help in other ways, by creating any emails that need to be sent, or maintaining documents to track our progress.

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

Working with Sahiyo has helped me to better understand how imperative it is to end female genital cutting. Before joining Sahiyo I was not well versed with the issue and now am able to understand how complex FGC is, and how much more work needs to be done to help both survivors of FGC and communities from changing their attitudes around it. Working with Sahiyo has inspired me to have challenging conversations with my own family and friends.

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

To anyone interested in Sahiyo, I would encourage them to follow what Sahiyo has achieved and support our goals to continue to protect women and young girls. One of the most important ways to support this mission is by dismantling the taboo surrounding FGC. By encouraging open dialogue in our communities we are able to bring much needed awareness to the issue, increase community education and involvement, and bring ourselves one step closer to ending FGC.

In the Name of Your Daughter: A film for change

By Sandra Yu

Healthy Tomorrow hosted a film screening and panel discussion of In the Name of Your Daughter, filmed and directed by Giselle Portenier and released in 2018. The featured speakers of the panel last fall were Portenier, herself, and Susan McLucas, founder of Healthy Tomorrow. Healthy Tomorrow (in partnership with Sini Sanuman) is a U.S.-based group that actively works to stop female genital cutting (FGC) in Mali. A notable Sahiyo volunteer and former programs intern, Hunter Kessous, was involved in the event planning, as well.

The documentary is a deeply intimate piece about young girls in Tanzania who bear the societal pressure to undergo FGC. Following the stories of several young girls in Tanzania and a charismatic African activist, Rhobi Samwelly, the audience is taken on an emotional journey into the heartbreaking circumstances in which daughters flee their families to escape FGC and their planned child marriages.

For me, the topic of FGC was not unfamiliar, but I had always read medical analyses and journal articles that characterized the girls’ bodies by their body parts. To watch the film and hear firsthand from filmmaker Portenier and activist Susan McLucas was eye-opening. I believe the film succeeded beyond expectations.

In the highly divisive rhetoric of anti-FGC activists against cultural traditionalists, Portenier presents the complexities of fighting against an ingrained tradition in detail. Most notably, she wedges parental authority against legal authority. In one scene, the school authorities and police receive notice that parents are preparing for cutting season, the summer months of June, July, and August when thousands of girls in Tanzania undergo FGC from traditional community cutters. Gathered in a small classroom, the local police, schoolteachers, and activists face off with parents. They go head-to-head, arguing about who has the authority to determine their fates. Tears flow, and it is a heartbreaking scene; the parents must decide between a heavily ingrained cultural tradition and the wellbeing of their daughters, while the young girls decide whether they can trust their very own families.

The second front that I believe Portenier succeeds on is to elicit a heart-wrenching response from the audience on behalf of the young girls. She presents a heart-wrenching juxtaposition between the girls’ perceived social roles and their own autonomous dreams. In the initial scenes, we are taken with Samwelly to a community market as she asks men about their beliefs regarding marriage, FGC, and women. One man pointed to the cows surrounding them and commented. “A cut girl is worth ten to twelve cows,” he said. “An uncut girl is worth six cows, sometimes less.” Another man chimed in, “I am an entrepreneur,” he said. “My business comes from selling cloths and items for the ceremonies. If you stop FGC, you are infringing on my rights as an entrepreneur.” 

Throughout the film, young girls are constantly compared to their marriage value or dowry worth in cows, and criticized for promiscuity or uncleanliness. In the last scene, we see a montage of young girls, each with a dream. One wants to become a doctor, another an aerospace pilot. As Portenier commented in the panel discussion after the screening, a human rights perspective is needed in fighting FGC above all else. When the girls realize their autonomy and impact of FGC on their bodies, they instinctively flee because it is an infringement upon their human rights. 

On that note, Portenier makes the violence of the tradition crystal clear. In the film, she juxtaposes the stunning Tanzanian landscape, fields extending far past what the eye can see, with the intense night-time raids, as police rescue girls about to undergo FGC and arrest parents and cutters. Beyond the immediate physiological and psychological trauma, young girls that undergo FGC may hemorrhage or bleed heavily to the point of death. Long-lasting effects include problems with childbirth, pain during sexual intercourse, and sexual dysfunction. Additionally, arresting parents may not be effective for long-term change, as it is not to the benefit of the child in many cases and the girls will likely still be cut. Immediate family members can oversee the cutting without parental permission or in the case of the parents’ imprisonment.

By the end of the film, the audience is left heartbroken for the young girls, forced to make a life-changing decision between their families and their autonomy. Portenier ends on a positive note, highlighting Rhobi’s incredible work, including the Safe House built to house runaway girls. I do wish that she touched more on the relationship between FGC, traditions, and religion, as well as the growing medicalization trend of FGC being performed by healthcare providers. However, in the 1 hour and 25 minutes, In the Name of Your Daughter does a phenomenal job of drawing in and mobilizing the audience. 

After the film screening, McLucas and Portenier discussed the impact of COVID-19 on activists’ efforts. The situation has worsened as families are selling daughters off into marriage at larger numbers due to the economic crisis in Tanzania. While the activists’ previous strategy involved law enforcement, largely through school involvement and night raids, the families have adapted. Cutting season comprises a full year potentially and schools are closed, leaving many girls vulnerable to the tradition. McLucas, whose work is focused on ending FGC in Mali, lamented that it is increasingly difficult to investigate potential cuttings. However, her organization’s strategy now focuses primarily on ensuring that uncut women gain value within their own societies. The task is daunting, to change the minds of a generation and more, but the activists in Tanzania are making an impact. The Safehouse, developed by Samwelly, has saved more than 300 girls so far, and continues to house girls in their time of need.

To learn more about FGC in Tanzania:

https://www.unfpa.org/news/girls-escaping-fgm-rural-tanzania-crowdsourced-maps-show-way-safety

https://tanzania.unfpa.org/en/publications/fact-sheet-fgm-united-republic-tanzania

About the film:

Below is Rhobi Samwelly speaking at a United Nations’ panel in 2018:

Sahiyo and StoryCenter to host parallel session at the 65th Commission on the Status of Women meetings

On March 16th, 10:30 am EST, Sahiyo and StoryCenter will be hosting the parallel session webinar, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C,” at the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women meetings. 

At this event, we will introduce our collaborative Voices to End FGM/C project, which centers on storytelling by survivors and those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as a tool to challenge social norms that perpetuate the practice. Using a combination of didactic presentation, audience participation, and short videos, we will explore the theoretical underpinnings of the Voices Project, highlight the success of our digital storytelling workshops, and share how the project has supported women in their healing journey and furthered efforts to prevent future generations of girls from enduring this form of gender-based violence. 

Sure to be an eye-opening exploration of one of StoryCenter’s and Sahiyo’s most impactful and transformative programs, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C” is open to all who wish to attend. 

In order to attend the event, please follow these registrations steps:

  1. Register to attend and become a CSW advocate on the NGO CSW65 virtual platform here. Registration is free.
  1. Once your registration is confirmed, you can log on to the virtual platform
  1. Navigate to the Agenda page by hovering over the “Schedule” heading in the top navigation bar of the NGO CSW65 virtual platform website and choosing “Agenda”.
  1. Once you are on the Agenda page, choose “Tuesday, March 16th” from the dates listed at the top of the page. When you reach the page that lists all of the events happening on Tuesday, March 16th, scroll down to the 10:30 am time slot. 
  1. Find our event titled “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C.” Click on the ‘plus’ button in the right hand corner of the event description. The platform will automatically add our event to your CSW65 agenda.
  1. You can add our event directly to your calendar by going to the event page and choosing “add to my calendar.”
  1. On the day of the event, just click on the link to our event on your agenda, or find the event again by following steps 1-4. 

You can also watch this short video on YouTube with a step-by-step tutorial of how to register on the NGO CSW65 virtual platform and find events!

Dear Maasi addresses questions about the clitoral hood and sexual pleasure

Dear Maasi is a 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. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

This month we received lots of questions through our anonymous form. Dear Maasi will  answer two interrelated questions for February’s column about the clitoral hood and sexual pleasure:

Dear Maasi,

Can you please send us links to see how actually a circumcision is done? What part is snipped? The hood or half of the clitoris? 

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous

Khatna, aka female circumcision, aka Type 1 FGM/C, involves cutting the clitoral hood. Other Types involve cutting or doing harm to other parts of the genitalia. Have a look at this diagram

However, there isn’t standardization because 1) each body is different 2) most khatnas are done by amateur cutters 3) khatna often happens under duress (think about how precise a cut would be if the child squirms or resists).

I’ve heard of survivors who have scars on their hood, no hood at all, or a partial hood. Some khatna survivors report that the nub of the clitoris was cut. Learn more about the parts of the clitoris here.

The best way to understand what parts of your genitals were cut is to use a hand mirror to have a  good look. If it’s hard to see, you might ask a trusted medical professional, partner or family member to describe what they see. For example, under bright lights, my gynaecologist was able to detect a thin scar on my hood. But do keep in mind that some survivors have no detectable scars at all.

—Maasi

Dear Maasi,

It’s said that khatna increases the sensuality of the clitoris, and it directly affects the sexual appetite of the female subject in a positive way. How true is it? How does FGC impact pleasure and orgasm?

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

I have heard pro-khatna advocates sharing the opinion (or shall I say myth?) that a cut to the clitoral hood improves pleasure and orgasm. 

Some survivors have said that khatna has no impact on their pleasure. I haven’t heard of anyone who thinks khatna improved their sex life, but I wouldn’t argue with them if they felt this way. Psychosexual functioning is very individual and impacted by physical and emotional factors, including trauma.

For many survivors, khatna was a sexual trauma. Sexual trauma can impact a survivor’s ability to trust and to experience sexual comfort and pleasure.

—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. They experienced many different emotions: 

  • Fear, anxiety, shame, depression, low self-esteem, difficulty trusting people 
  • “Low sex drive, inability to feel sexual pleasure, difficulty trusting sexual partners, and over sensitivity in the clitoral area were some of the problems identified by several women.”

The clitoral hood has an important function. It protects the sensitive clitoral tissue from over stimulation and irritation. There are also glands in your clitoral hood that produce a lubricant that helps the hood move smoothly over your clitoris.

Globally, one of the main arguments for FGM/C is to control sexuality. In recent years, those who resist the #endFGM movement have come up with all kinds of arguments about why it is “good” for girls and women. I’ll bet that this “increased pleasure” argument is one such fiction.

—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 http://www.farzanadoctor.com

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.

Sahiyo partners with GirlUp ESCP for virtual event

On February 2nd, Sahiyo partnered with GirlUp ESCP for their inaugural event to present an introductory overview of the issues surrounding female genital cutting (FGC), and educate their community on what they can do in their individual lives to help empower communities to abandon FGC. ESCP is an internationally recognized university located across Europe whose main focus is on business education. This branch of GirlUp is made up of student leaders and activities from the ESCP school who are passionate about women’s rights and empowering girls.  

This educational and informational event began with a PowerPoint presentation and a screening of a select few of the Voices to End FGM/C videos. These videos helped to give context and personal connection to the often overwhelming statistics about FGC. They also helped to highlight some of the most pressing issues facing survivors, such as medical stigma, community ostracization, and the prejudices coming from non-survivors and people who do not come from practicing communities. These videos helped us to demonstrate the global scope of FGC and the diversity of experiences of survivors. 

The event also gave participants information and tools to help them in their advocacy, including linking them to local organizations focusing on this issue in their area. The participants in this training left with a better, more comprehensive understanding of the issue and with the tools to immediately involve themselves in activism around FGC.

At the end of our presentation, our guests had the opportunity to have their questions answered by Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher. 

Trainings like this one are incredibly important as they help to dispel the negative stereotypes that surround FGC and help all people become more enlightened and conscious activists. When done well, education can be a life-changing tool not only to address negative stereotypes, but to empower all communities to end FGC and gender-based violence. Presentations like these are just the start of a lifelong journey to understand how and why FGC happens, and what we all can do about it. 

If you are interested in hosting a presentation such as this one at your institution, please email our team: info@sahiyo.com.

PRESS RELEASE: Launching Sahiyo’s Newest Program: Bhaiyo: Male Allies United in Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

Launching Sahiyo’s Newest Program, Bhaiyo: Male Allies United in Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

Boston, Massachusetts, February 6, 2021

On Feburary 6th 2021, The International Day for Zero Tolerance to FGC, Sahiyo is launching “Bhaiyo” (“brothers” or “male friends” in Gujarati), is a program for male allies working to spread education and awareness on the human rights issue of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGC).

Bhaiyo’s mission is to build a community where men, Sahiyo members, and survivors will be able to discuss female genital cutting in hopes of changing the narrative, and creating a shift towards ending this harmful practice.

“Bhaiyo allows men to have open and honest conversation about a topic they may or may not know should be important to them. As brothers, it’s our collective responsibility to leave the world safer than we found it for those that we love. Bhaiyo aims to raise awareness to help advocates and survivors working to end FGC today,” said Murtaza Kapasi, Bhaiyo program lead.

FGC has been on the public radar as of late, due to a first of its kind indictment of a Houston-based woman who transported a minor out of the country, for the purpose of the youth undergoing FGC. Just days before, on January 5th, another major announcement came out: the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law, an act which criminalizes female genital cutting and makes certain government agencies such as the Departments of Education and Justice, responsible for reporting to Congress on the estimated number of wome nand girls who have undergone or at risk of FGC in the United States. These are both groundbreaking legal moves, but Sahiyo knows it takes more than law to end FGC. Bhaiyo is another step towards engaging with communities, to change social norms and cultural tradition from within. By bringing men’s voices more actively into the conversation, we believe our program will accompany the law by bringing about societal change via dialogue and education.

In recognition of Bhaiyo, we will be hosting the webinar, “Everyone’s Responsibility” on February 23rd, at 12 noon EST. This webinar will focus on the role male allies play in prevention efforts towards ending female genital cutting (FGC). Four expert panelists will lead the webinar, Jeremiah Kipainoi, Murtaza Kapasi, Khadijah Abdullah, and Tony Mwebia. All of them have worked in the field of FGC prevention, encouraging men to become active in empowering communities to abandon FGC. To learn more about the role men play in FGC prevention, and how you can encourage male allyship, please register for the event. Feel free to grab a beverage or a snack beforehand and join us for what is sure to be an insightful and empowering conversation. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register Today: http://bit.ly/EveryonesResponsibilityTickets For more information, contact Sahiyo at info@sahiyo.com.

Would you like to be a Bhaiyo? Submit an application here.

Your questions answered: Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting

Last fall Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and talented speakers Farzana Doctor, Sarian Karim-Kamara, and Joanna Vergoth to host Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from these speakers about the mental and emotional consequences of female genital cutting (FGC), how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors may be working toward healing. Our guests had a lot of questions for our speakers, some of which we were not able to answer during the webinar. Nevertheless, we felt these questions and their answers were important to share. 

Below you will find the answers licensed psychotherapist Joanna Vergoth graciously answered for our guests. If your question is not addressed below, you may find it answered later in the recorded portions provided by Sarian Karim-Kamara on the Sahiyo YouTube page or on the Dear Maasi page. 

Joanna Vergoth’s responses to participants’ questions:    

  1. Do you have any strategies for breaking the taboo around FGM/C and how community-based organizations can work directly with community members to end the practice in the U.S.?  

Silence regarding FGM/C perpetuates the practice so it is important to find a way to broach the subject sensitively in order to encourage conversation. And, when working with community members, it is advisable to identify and recruit folks who support the abandonment of this practice in order to create dialogues that can help persuade proponents of the practice to reconsider their position. Also, sponsoring a community event that focuses on women’s health and well-being can provide an opening for discussion. In addition, showing a film about FGM/C, such as “Desert Flower,” or “The Cruel Cut,” can also open hearts and minds.

  1. Is part of the healing process ever confronting the person who betrayed you?

Betrayal trauma occurs when the people a person depends on for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being. It is understandable, then, that being cut by a trusted family member can have lifelong consequences with powerful emotions that can be difficult to process. 

Confronting the person who betrayed you can provide psychologically healing relief if your feelings are acknowledged and respected and if the ensuing conversation supports an honest discussion. However, every situation is unique and not everyone will feel the need or desire for confrontation. One can heal without confrontation. It all depends on the individual survivor and her particular circumstances. 

  1. I hope you can answer this question, please. Is it normal to not feel any impact by FGM? I am Iraqi and had FGM when I was around 7. I have no memories of this. I don’t have problems climaxing, and I am worried I may be blocking all of this out but I have no recollection of this at all.

Although post-traumatic stress symptoms can remain in remission for years, I don’t think you should think you have a problem because you can’t remember undergoing FGM. There are many women who do not remember their FGM/C [experience]. And, FGM/C is not necessarily an impediment to sexual function. In fact, many women report that they have no difficulties experiencing orgasm.  

  1. How do you offer community support to white women who have survived FGC from surviving cults, since their experience is different from women of color who may have community/cultural support?

Unfortunately, I do not know of any community support for Caucasian FGC survivors who have also survived cults. Here is the first link and the second link of resources for cult survivors. Hopefully, these women may be able to find support and other FGC affected survivors

  1. Any experience with sexuality after clitoral restoration?

The procedure, often called clitoral reconstruction or restoration, is viewed with caution by some medical experts. The World Health Organization says that while there are some promising reports that the operation may relieve pain, there is not yet enough evidence of safety and effectiveness. The organization advises against raising unrealistic expectations, especially for women seeking sexual improvement. However, that being said, a recent systematic review evaluated the effects of reconstructive surgery. The results indicate that about three women out of four regain a visible clitoris. Self-reported improvements in pain during sex, clitoral function/pleasure, orgasm, and desire are in the 43– 63% range; but up to 22% reported a worsening in sexual outcomes.  It is important to remember that 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.  And within this combination of factors, every woman is uniquely different.

Hear about one FGM/C survivor’s successful experience of her clitoral restoration surgery.

Art, Activism, And Healing: Reflecting on our conversation around female genital cutting

By Cate Cox

On January 19th, Sahiyo held the webinar, Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from four speakers Owanto, Naomi Wachs, Sunera Sadicali, and Andrea Carr about how they have used art as a tool to encourage the abandonment of FGC and to work toward healing. From sculptures to videos and sound bites, this webinar explored how art in all its many forms can be used to uplift the voices of survivors and continue to push the conversation around FGC.     

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and U.S. Executive Director, began our webinar by giving the audience an introduction to Sahiyo’s many programs that involve art and activism, including Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C and #MoreThanASurvivor campaigns. Next, our speakers Owanto and Andrea Carr introduced us to their work as career artists, and how they are championing this cause in some of the most prestigious galleries and institutions around the world, as well as in community settings. They reminded us that art can be a tool to spark hard discussions and give people the space to have their own stories seen and heard. Sunera Sadicali and Naomi Wachs helped to expand on that conversation by taking us through their own journeys and explaining the psychological reasons behind why art is such an effective tool for trauma healing. The insight and experience of our panelists not only helped our audience to understand what has been done in the field of art and activism surrounding FGC, but stood as an inspiration for how we all can engage in art and activism in our own personal lives. 

At the end of our webinar, our audience had the opportunity to ask our panelists questions about their experience and knowledge. The questions explored how our panelists were able to get people to open up about their experiences with FGC and how they were able to use art to encourage education and conversation around this issue. Coming from their multi-disciplinary backgrounds, each of our panelists were able to speak to a unique aspect of these questions. Despite their diversity of experience, they each emphasized the importance of art as a conversational medium, that allows people to take control of their own narrative, and when a safe space is created, encourages healing. 

Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC) explored the often underutilized tool that is art to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing. It reminded us that activism and healing take many forms, and that, as Owanto said, “There is light.” For those who are interested in learning more about art and activism, Sahiyo is hosting a screening of our Voices to End FGM/C videos coming up this February. You can register here to attend!  

If you were unable to attend this webinar, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the transcript and recording of this event are attached below.

Watch the recording of this event.  

Read the transcript.

Why one Bohra woman shared her experience with female genital cutting publicly

By Jenny Cordle

On February 5th of last year, one day before the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), Zahra Khozema, 24, shared her deeply personal story of having been cut as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra sect in Pakistan.

“Being part of the Bohra community is feeling like a part of something,” Khozema said. “Though we are scattered around the world, we’re tightly knit. You can find a Bohra person in a crowd because of the colorful ridas women wear. And I promise you even if you don’t know them, they will approach you. I could be stranded in any city, and if I saw a Bohra person (from their clothing) I would sigh in relief because I know they’d let me in their home, or help me in any way they could. We’re a big family and we refer to everyone as brother and sister.”

Despite being considered a progressive community, many members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam still prioritize female genital cutting, or khatna, for girls as young as 7 years old. The Dawoodi Bohra population comprises up to one million people in countries such as India, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Egypt, Tanzania and South Africa. Diaspora communities also live in Europe, Australia and the United States. 

“I hate that even though our community does so much good work, it’s small and not mainstream, and we’re only going to be remembered for this practice by people who don’t know Bohras in real life,” she said. 

Khozema, who currently resides in London, said this in reference to the 2018 U.S. case of a Michigan doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, who was initially charged with performing FGM/C on at least nine girls with the alleged help of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, his wife, Farida Attar, and five other residents of Michigan and Minnesota. Judge Bernard Friedman dropped the FGM/C charges, declaring the 1996 federal ban on FGM/C as unconstitutional, in what pro-khatna people may have considered a victory. But on January 5th of this year, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law criminalizing FGC in the U.S., stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice.

It was in reading about the 2018 case that Khozema realized that what happened to her was a source of buried trauma. 

“I will never stand by the practice, but I’m glad the case was an awakening for many Bohras like me to really think about the way we treat girls and women and why — because so many men didn’t even know about it,” she said. “A couple of my Bohra guy friends told me they stopped coming to the mosque after they read this story because they only found out about it then. These are men in their mid-twenties. That alone says a lot.”

Because of the secrecy surrounding the practice, Khozema was hesitant to share her experience with anyone. Her younger sister discouraged her from writing it altogether. But Khozema felt an urge to share it, despite potential repercussions. Many outspoken FGM/C activists face significant backlash within the Bohra community. This backlash can entail being ostracized, shamed, or having internet trolls harass those that speak out, claiming that speaking out is a “defamation of the faith, its leader and those who practice” khatna. Her piece was one of the top 50 stories of the year for Broadview Magazine in 2020. As she suspected, many women sought her out to share their stories of having been cut. 

“I wasn’t that surprised because 90% of the women I know have been through it,” Khozema said. “I was surprised that they just responded to my story positively. Non-Bohra friends assured me that this happens a lot in their own countries like India and Egypt.”

“A lot of people called me brave and strong for putting such a personal topic out there, but I honestly didn’t think it was,” she said. “I felt quite small and vulnerable, and even petty for not sharing it with the people who needed to see it the most — Bohra people my parents’ age.”

Khozema does not encourage women to share their stories if they are not ready. Instead, she encourages women and men to open up dialogue about khatna within their communities.

“I would encourage Bohra men and women to talk to their parents, and most importantly, new moms of girls,” she explained. “Ask them if khatna is something they’re considering and really ask why. ‘Do you really know why you’d do it to your daughter or are you just following blind tradition? Are you really willing to take your child to someone with scissors in a dark basement?’”

She said writing and sharing the piece did help her to heal in a sense.

“I spoke to so many people who assured me it was okay to write this,” Khozema said. “I also learned to face that some people will always be okay with it, and to know when to stop fighting with people who have made up their minds.”

After having written and shared the piece publicly, Khozema is in a better place and feels “lighter.” But psychologically and physically, the harm remains. “Intimacy, unfortunately, will always be difficult for me,” she said. “The shame I feel about not fully having control of my body will always be there.”