Part II–Medicalising khatna within the Bohra community: A Struggle of Tradition and Modernity

By Fatema Kakal

(This is Part II in a series about female genital cutting within the Bohra community. Read Part I here.)

While religion and religious leaders, along with culture and tradition can be drivers of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), law can play an additional critical role in disincentivizing khatna. The arrests in the U.S. and Australia due to the medicalisation of FGM/C, led to the reiteration of laws in countries that prohibited FGM/C. Laws in many countries around the world critique FGM/C as a human rights violation and child abuse. While some consider these laws to be racist, this leads to a feeling of marginalization and alienation due to the attack on traditional and cultural value systems. People became more conscious of the laws, and began reconsidering khatna, because of the risks involved. These laws helped initiate dialogue and discourse.

The Bohras are a fairly progressive and modern community, where traditions are not separate from their modernity, but play a crucial role in consolidating their Bohra identity. Continuing khatna defies Western notions of modernity and embraces tradition. Instead of abandoning tradition, the Bohras are renegotiating the traditional practice and embrace modernity through medicalising khatna. Medicalisation is a tool to modernize and legitimize khatna, but also serves as a technique for social control. By supporting medicalisation, validated by modernity, and establishing khatna as a safe and religious practice, the clergy is reinventing and perpetuating khatna as a traditional practice, responding to external pressures that threatened to marginalize or alienate the Bohras. The clergy is thus reiterating and reinforcing Bohra identity as being one of modernity and tradition.

Thus, khatna was no longer taboo, and a growing discourse has led to people taking increasingly different positions, and making more conscious decisions about continuing the practice. While mothers and women of the family used to be primary decision-makers of continuing khatna for the daughters of the family, fathers are increasingly involved in making the decision. It is no longer an extremely hidden practice, and parents do research before making the decision whether or not to cut their daughters. While some people follow mandates by religious leaders, others find it important to follow the law. People are conscious of the potential harm. For the devout, tradition must be followed, but by ensuring that harm is minimized. They choose to visit medical professions for khatna. For others, the risks of khatna outweigh its religious importance, and they have decided to abandon the practice. For others, consent is crucial, and believe khatna requires a girl’s consent. Since children are incapable of giving informed consent, people believe their daughters can choose to undergo the procedure as an adult, thereby making an informed decision.

Thus, the religious clergy’s pastoral power plays an important role in influencing people’s decision to continue khatna. Medicalisation of FGM/C can help negotiate embracing tradition and modernity. However, law also plays an important role in helping end the practice. The growing discourse around the practice has led to people making informed, conscious decisions about following khatna. FGM/C is conceptualized as a health and human rights issue, and a children’s rights issue, which is universal.

Thus, efforts against FGM/C should be focused on balancing universalization of children’s rights, human rights, and multiculturalism. Additionally, law plays a crucial role, because legislation can provide a universal stance against the practice, which can be used as a strong justification against it. Thus, community-wide change is required for individual families to abandon FGM/C, through education and activism from within the community, backed by law.

Sahiyo co-founder gives keynote address at festival

Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami gave a keynote speech at India’s first student-run online festival, Intesaab Fest 2020, supported by Ishaan Trust. Discussing change as an onground movement, she attributed Sahiyo’s growth to the sustained efforts of anti-FGC advocates and increasing community engagement. 

Her address titled, “Bringing Change through an on-ground movement,” also underscored the need for respectful communication and collaboration with the community. She spoke of fact checking not just the content, but also checking the visuals that accompany news reports, to avoid any sensationalist images and text. While also acknowledging the role and support of digital activists and media, she highlighted the importance of the stories keeping the interest of people who have undergone the practice at the forefront of all communication. 

The keynote address was met with resounding support for Sahiyo from the students who had joined the festival online.

 

Digital advocacy on female genital cutting in the time of COVID-19

By Miranda Dobson

“For many parents in the Bohra community who are thinking about having their daughters undergo female genital cutting, the delay that COVID-19 has caused is likely not a big deal, as it can happen any time from age 7. There is no time limit.”

Aarefa Johari is a co-founder of transnational organisation Sahiyo, based in Mumbai, India

“For those who are unsure about whether or not to cut their daughters, this delay could mean there is more time to debate, and hopefully they may change their minds.”

Sahiyo works with Asian communities, with a special focus within the Dawoodi Bohra community, which is largely concentrated in India and Pakistan, but also dispersed globally across Europe, North America and Oceania. Sahiyo focuses on ending female genital cutting (FGC), often known as female genital mutilation (FGM), and within the Bohra community as khatna by engaging in a variety of storytelling programs to help elevate dialogue on the issue and build awareness of its harms 

How is COVID 19 affecting the practice of female genital cutting?

Fellow co-founder Mariya Taher, based in Boston, U.S., explained that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on female genital cutting in the North American Bohra community and other FGC practising communities is likely similar. 

“It’s difficult to know if FGC is happening more or less right now. Broadly we know that gender-based violence is rising. Domestic violence is rising. The thing that is most immediately concerning is that necessary support services aren’t in place. 

“There is a poor response from law enforcement, and things like mental health services which were already lacking for survivors of FGC, are even more vital now and just not in place. This is likely the most difficult hurdle right now.” 

Mariya outlined how the pandemic is also affecting progress around ending FGC at a more structural level. 

“In Massachusetts where I am, the state law against FGC has been delayed because there are more pressing things to look at right now. Legislation is not a solution in itself but a necessary step towards change, and needs to be supported by community outreach.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, much of Sahiyo’s work involved working with activists and community members through in-person retreats and Thaal Pe Charchas – conversations over food.

Sahiyo is adapting to the crisis

In the current climate, Mariya, Aarefa and fellow co-founders, Priya Goswami and Insia Dariwala, have needed to pivot and work increasingly through technology and digital spaces. 

“A strength of Sahiyo’s is our digital presence,” Mariya added. “We’re able to still connect with community members in that way, and we held our first ever digital activist retreat in April, which was supposed to be in New York in person.

“It was an experiment and we also had men attending for the first time, which was really cool. What surprised me was how engaged people were, and how much they wanted to talk about FGC, at a time when so much else is going on. I think it was very cathartic at a time when people just need an outlet more than anything.”

Pivoting to digital advocacy

Sahiyo has been able to work to their strengths as communicators at this time, and use digital spaces to convey messages, and to great success. They’ve held webinars with over 300 people in attendance, and continue to share survivor stories on their social channels through a project with StoryCenter called Voices to End FGM/C

Aarefa shared how Sahiyo India is likely to follow suit. 

“We had planned to have some community events at this time, which haven’t been possible. These could now happen virtually as a way to reach out to people. It’s encouraging how well this went in the U.S.”

Sahiyo India has also recently launched the first iteration of an exciting new app. 

“It’s called Mumkin, and it’s about making difficult conversations possible. We’re excited to be rolling it out at a time when digital advocacy and communications are so important.”

Aarefa and Mariya both recognised how COVID-19 is likely to affect communities and their work going forward on a range of levels. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that we’re living in this altered reality. We can’t just talk about FGC without talking about COVID – it’s not relatable and it doesn’t feel authentic because it’s the issue that everyone is facing,” Mariya told us. 

“In general, we’re seeing a shift in the social sector. COVID will be a focus for a lot of grants for a while. That’s really important and should be the case. I hope though that it doesn’t mean organisations will force-fit COVID into their work. Of course it’s vital, but it shouldn’t relegate other issues, particularly gender-based violence, which we know is being driven by barriers pandemic responses have put up.” 

(This interview was carried out via video conferencing and written by Orchid Project’s Senior Communications Manager, Miranda Dobson, speaking to Mariya Taher and Aarefa Johari, co-founders of Sahiyo. The piece was originally published on Orchid Project’s website.)

 

Voices Series: How listening to survivors' stories made me a better advocate

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 Karen Kwok, MSN, FNP-BC

I sought participation in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop to better understand the patient experience of survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). With increased awareness, I hope to be a better advocate and provider for women’s physical and mental health. The best practices for addressing FGM/C applies to all patient scenarios with creating safe space for active listening, appreciative inquiry and openness for building long-term rapport (if counseling is requested), and providing necessary physical and mental health services and referral resources without judgement.

Challenges to addressing FGM/C include the limited time with provider productivity demands, few available gynecological surgeons specializing in FGM/C labiaplasty with insurance coverage, and few resources for culturally competent mental health services.

Long-term consequences of FGM/C include long-term emotional anguish, gynecological and gastrointestinal pain, and obstetric complications. With the long-term relationship in primary care advocacy, family medicine providers are best positioned to support patient sexuality with initial and ongoing training in female anatomy, counseling strategies on gender orientation and sexual positivity, and patient care best practices. From this workshop, I hope to improve my skills in FGM/C counseling and gynecological health service delivery with increased awareness of women’s sexuality in the global context.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Reflections on the Voices alumni COVID-19 storytelling workshop

By Lara Kingstone

Sahiyo held a StoryCenter-led COVID-19 storytelling session for Voices To End FGM/C alumni in May. The session was created to continue building community online and offer a space for women to share their stories during the pandemic. 

This workshop was designed to be an informal and relaxed space for those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). By sharing lived experiences during the time of COVID-19, we sought to provide a space where these women could express emotion, thoughts and questions to a sisterhood of nonjudgmental ears. I was reminded, as I am in so many of the spaces created by women, how unbelievably resilient we are even now. Participants shared stories of their lives and I was blown away by the resilience, grit and sustained strength these women exhibited.

It must be noted that this session was held days after the shameless murder of George Floyd, as protests against police brutality and hundreds of years of structural racism began to spark. 

It was incredible, speaking to women from different locations in the world, in different kinds of quarantines, some with families, some alone. We all are experiencing this chapter differently, but share common threads. 

Multiple participants spoke to the experience of being overwhelmed, angry and uncertain. 

The content spoken about during this session was confidential, but themes of frustration with the flawed systems in the United States continued to rise.

Trauma has come up for a lot of people in the past few weeks, and months as well. We need to consistently allow ourselves time to reflect, and vent and process. I’m so grateful that part of Sahiyo’s work is creating these opportunities for healing.

Sahiyo Intern Spotlight: Kendra Davis 

Kendra is a master’s student at Brandeis University studying global health. Prior to attending Brandeis, she was a community health volunteer for three years in Togo, West Africa. Kendra is passionate about educating communities on reproductive health issues. She is excited to contribute her experience, as well as grow with the Sahiyo team. 

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

I first learned about Sahiyo in April through my school’s weekly newsletter about internship and volunteer opportunities. I started getting involved with the organization in May as a development intern.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

So far I have updated monthly budgets and helped brainstorm fundraising campaign ideas. 

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

I wanted to gain hands-on financial management and budget development skills. I have been very appreciative of how intentional the organization’s leaders have been in ensuring I am exposed to opportunities to learn and strengthen these skills. 

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

While I was onboarding, I was given educational material which helped me grow in my understanding of why female genital cutting (FGC) is practiced even through the passing of laws that have tried to stop it, unfortunately it still persists. I would say educating people about the history and the system that allows this practice to continue is the first step anyone can take. I feel like once you have that foundation, you can see how you can use your skills to take action, if that’s through teaching others, developing media strategies, or being an advocate for someone who has gone through FGC.

 

How I learned female genital mutilation is happening in India

By Thirupurasundari Sevvel

Country of Residence: India 

How do I start? How do I explain my first realization that there is a practice called female genital mutilation? It was a typical day. During my master’s program in France, I was working with a couple of my friends talking about so many different random things. The topic shifted to sexuality, human rights, and how the female body is viewed. I said as long as the female body is looked at as property or a commodity, the problem won’t be solved. Everyone wants to take ownership. Anyone can talk about bodies or sexuality. They can try to shut us inside the doors of the world. But what we as women do with our bodies is in our hands. 

“What if that essense of your body is taken from you?” a friend asked. “What if there is a sense of ugliness thrusted inside your mind about being sexual, and your sexual organ is scrapped and sewed up?”

Silence filled the room.

That’s how I learned about female genital mutilation. It was shocking to realize it is happening in India. I realized it has actually happened to someone I personally know, but someone who was defending the practice and saying, this is our culture and it’s not wrong. It was shocking that something I thought was happening in different parts of the world, has happened in the state I lived in. The friendship with her became strained because she felt I was talking against her religion, her faith, her family, and her community. For a second I thought–am I doing something wrong, am I intruding on someone’s faith? But her sister gave me another point of view of how it affected her emotionally, and I started meeting other women. That’s when I understood. It was social conditioning at play–being made to believe it is right and has to be done. There has been a lot of backlash, but even if one child could be spared or saved–the struggle would be worth it. 

My friend has a daughter now and has taken a stand that she won’t do it to her. Our friendship isn’t public anymore since her family feels I am the reason for her becoming a rebel. When will they understand that it is a human rights violation? 

In 2015, I started doing storytelling for adults and children on the topics of body positivity, FGM, the human body, understanding the body, and consent in the Tamil language. This is a very small way to create awareness and a basic step to change the social construct and mindset. The storytelling resonated with a lot of participants. We realized many wanted some time to talk to someone who could listen without judgment.

When we have a discussion, we start with this quotation from the book Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, who is a Somali model, author, actress, and human rights activist in the fight against FGM, and let each participant share points on what they feel about it. I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple. My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them? I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain. It will become a thing of the past. People will say, “Did you hear, female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Somalia?” Then the next country, and the next, and so on, until the world is safe for all women. What a happy day that will be, and that’s what I’m working toward. In’shallah, if God is willing, it will happen.

The impact of organizations, books, movies, videos, social media campaigns, study materials, and awareness posters is huge. The problem is that it’s a secretive ritual. As children, they may also think that it happens to every girl, or they may try to block the painful memory.

Sahiyo, which means female friend, started to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution toward ending FGM. The materials, information, and stories shared created a lot of change and awareness. A video that came out in 2018 of three firsthand accounts of khata in India created an impact on social media. The work of Masooma Ranalvi, an FGM survivor and activist from India, founder of WeSpeakOut, has also created a lot of ripples and change. In February 2019, a group of women from the community urged political parties in India to take steps to end FGM in their community and made the issue part of their poll manifestos. 

The collective works of these organizations and individual voices can put an end to this practice. There may not be many official records about FGM in India, but that does not mean it is not happening. It is a practice everyone should be against so that the girl children from the next generation do not undergo FGM. Speaking up is the only way forward.

Job Opening! Social Media Consultant for a new Sahiyo project in India

Social Media Consultant position for an exciting new project on Female Genital Cutting in India

Are you a social media person with a passion for women’s and human rights? Do you have the skills to design social media campaigns?  If yes, then you could be working for an exciting new tech-based project in the movement against Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in India. 

Sahiyo is an international organization working to end FGC among Asian communities. We are looking for a proactive, efficient and bright social media consultant to join the team on a freelance basis to help us promote the app. 

Project duration: 1st June 2020 – 30th September 2020

Time commitment required: 10 hours per week (Flexible)

Main work involved: 

  • Work with the Sahiyo team to design social media campaigns to promote the new project.
  • Excellent social media skills to help us design outreach campaigns. 
  • Pro at social media channels, knows how to post across platforms. 
  • Crafting communication, willingness to promptly work out a response

 

Qualifications:

We are looking for an individual who has:

  • 1-2 years of experience in social media campaigning 
  • strong skills in writing, design thinking, campaign strategizing 
  • an eagerness to learn about the nuances and complexities of FGC in India
  • sensitivity towards cultural appropriateness and the needs of survivors of FGC and other community members 
  • The efficiency with respect to time management and being results-oriented
  • Passionate about the cause and willingness to be flexible with hours

The individual could be based anywhere in India but must be comfortable with working remotely and prompt with email communication.   

To apply, send your CV with a cover letter to priya@sahiyo.com 

 

We are listening: Sahiyo’s statement on protests against police brutality

We at Sahiyo wanted to purposefully create space to address the continued protests against police brutality in the United States and globally, and explicitly state that we stand in solidarity with the protesters fighting for black lives.

Many are coming forward to condemn the treatment of people of color. But we need to be clear in stating that it is black lives that we are focusing on right now. The U.S. has been built on and fueled by white supremacy and the active oppression of black people, enforced by the prison industrial system, the police and other agencies.

As an organization working with South Asian communities, we recognize that colorism and anti-blackness exists within our communities, as well. We have benefited from the model minority stereotype, but we must make a choice now – we can choose to buy into the model minority trope, and align ourselves with whiteness. Or we can address the colorism and anti-blackness in our own community, and step forward as allies to stand beside this country’s black communities. 

The events of the past two weeks are happening at a time in which black Americans are getting consistently hit hardest by COVID-19, due to the structural inequality of the country, and the resulting high populations working in essential positions without access to proper healthcare, and a well-documented bias in the medical profession. 

These are incredibly disturbing times and it can be difficult figuring out the best ways to support and take action. Educate yourself, go to a protest, speak up when you hear anti-blackness around you. Speak up without centering yourself or performing allyship for social capital. Take care of yourself and the people around you.

Of course, not everyone has the capacity to physically protest, especially during these already challenging pandemic times and the need to practice social-distancing to stay safe and healthy. There are a multitude of ways to still take action and show your support for racial equality and justice. 

Donate to campaigns and organizations working to create structural change: 

Watch in order to educate yourself on these issues:

  • 13th
  • Eyes On The Prize documentary series
  • The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
  • Long Night’s Journey Into Day
  • When They See Us

Read and share information with friends and family:

Articles:

Books:

  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Biased by Jennifer Eberhardt
  • How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
  • Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black by bell hooks
  • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks

Listen:

These are only a handful of ways one can take action, but as a global community, we must do so, and we must ensure that all black lives matter. At Sahiyo, we are listening and we are here for the black community and all allies supporting change. 

With love, solidarity and hope,

~ The Sahiyo Team 

 

Voices Series: A Reflection on a nine-month journey

By Su Sun

When I was contacted by Mariya in the beginning of 2019 to join the Voices to End FGM/C workshop, I’d just found out I was pregnant. Previous experiences of obstetric trauma roamed around my head and it seemed to me that this project could be an opportunity to reunify two vital experiences that I’ve carried with me rather silently: khatna and violence during the delivery of my first child. Khatna follows us in every period of our lives, as a shadow, as a fear, a vacillation, whenever we have to deal with our bodies. How much better could I tell these stories, as I vividly remembered them, if not using the format of a poem? Verses that revive and denounce.

Additionally, it was important to me to turn the focus on who is the perpetrator of this traumatic experience and highlight the systems of oppression operating behind them: patriarchy and racism entangled. Nine months of a journey where my belly was growing and the story was being created. The experience of using the digital storytelling format, the first time for me, was a fulfilling one, with encouraging and inspiring dialogues with the team (both Mariya and Amy), flexibility to use our ideas as means of expression. Continuous communication and feedback. It was both creative and therapeutic to imagine the story and how to build it. Moreover, I am very thankful for being part of this project along with other women.