It is with great sadness and disappointment that Sahiyo responds to the recent judgement in the Michigan case. Female genital cutting (FGC) is recognized internationally, and specifically by the U.S. Government as a violation of human rights. Judge Friedman’s decision to throw out this case, which is the nation’s first FGC case, highlights a failure to protect girls in the United States from this harmful practice, and a failure to truly understand the extent and pervasiveness of FGC within this country. (See the Amicus Brief, which is informed by survivors of the same community as the girls in this case, and provides details on these aspects of FGC for the judge).
This judgment has been met by much criticism already, with a call from The US End FGM/C Network for more training across all branches of government, including judicial training that includes: what FGM/C is, how it is carried out, and its life-long impact on women and girls.
Sahiyo believes we cannot allow harmful practices such as FGC to continue. Girls’ rights cannot go unprotected due to legal technicalities and decisions made by those who do not, or refuse to, understand the realities of gender-based violence.
We must all work together to protect ALL girls from this harm and we call on the Department of Justice to appeal this decision.
Background on the case
On April 13, 2017, Detroit emergency room doctor Jumana Nargarwala was arrested and charged with performing FGC on minor girls in the United States. This was the first time someone was brought up on charges under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGC. According to the U.S. Federal complaint, Dr. Nagarwala performed FGC on 6 to 8 year old girls out of a medical office in Livonia, Michigan. Some of these girls’ families reportedly traveled inter-state to have the doctor perform FGC.
On November 20, 2018, Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that the US Federal Law banning Female Genital Cutting was unconstitutional based on a technicality. With this ruling, the judge dismissed key charges of FGC against two Michigan doctors and six other people accused of practicing genital cutting on several minor girls.
The ruling was determined by Judge Friedman’s stance that the crime of FGC should be regulated by individual states. However, the US does not actually have laws against FGC in every single state. At the time, only 27 out of 50 states had a state law banning FGC. As of October 2021, there are now 40 states with a state law. There is a state law in Michigan banning FGC, but the law only came into effect in 2017 after the federal case involving Dr. Nagarwala and Dr. Attar came to light. The doctors cannot be prosecuted retrospectively under this Michigan state law.
After Judge Friedman’s verdict in 2018, the Department of Justice failed to appeal Judge Friedman’s decisions in 2019. As a result, Congress filed a motion to appeal the decision, but the motion was denied. In 2020, these events led Congress to unanimously amend and strengthen the Federal FGC law, in order to withstand future challenges, while firmly stating its disagreement with Judge Freidman’s interpretation of the law. In January of 2021, Congress passed the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act.(To learn more about the history of this court case and legislation in the U.S., read CoP Law & FGM – Legislation in North America.)
However, the combination of Judge Friedman’s recent decision in September 2021 dismissing the remaining charges against Doctor Nargarwala (and calling the prosecution ‘vindictive’ for seeking new charges), with the Department of Justice’s original decision in 2019 to not appeal his decision, underscores how protecting girls from violence was not central to the case.
On October 28, 2021, Sahiyo will be hosting a webinar, ‘Exploring the Connection Between Religion and Female Genital Cutting’ (FGC).
This harmful practice is often attributed to certain religions or cultures. Some might say these acts are justified because they are tradition or holy, not to be argued by those outside of the community. But does religion alone truly perpetuate the practice of FGC? How do survivors of FGC view the topics of religion and spirituality? And how do these things affect them in their day-to-day lives as women?
This virtual event will answer these questions and examine the FGC through a religious lens, including why it occurs and how it affects millions of women around the world. We will hear 3 expert speakers raise their voices while sharing insightful professional and personal experiences.The webinar will be moderated by Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher and includes a panel discussion featuring Sameera Qureshi, Rahmah Abdulaleem, and more speakers to come.
Register today and join us as we listen, learn, and advocate for change for the future.
In addition, this webinar is part of a larger public awareness campaign that explores both connections and disconnections between religion and FGC, which Sahiyo will be initiating on October 28, in honor of the International Day of the Girl Child. When advocates speak about religion and its relationship with FGC, the conversation is usually focused on attempting to disprove the relationship and connection, rather than to uplift and highlight the idea that no religion should be permitted to promote harm to a child. This campaign will explore the major themes connecting religion and FGC, emphasizing how religion should never be used to cause harm, regardless of leadership or textual sayings. Our hope in creating this campaign is that we will educate the broader public on the right for women to choose and give consent, as well as the importance of agency over their own bodies.
Sameera Qureshi, MS OTR, is an Occupational Therapist and Sexual Health Educator. For the last twelve years, Sameera has worked at the intersections of mental and sexual health education within Muslim communities, both in Canada and the United States. After twelve years in non-profit spaces, she founded her own business, Sexual Health for Muslims, in the Fall of 2020. The goal of her work is to create online, comprehensive sexual health education for Muslims, grounded in the tradition of Islamic spirituality and psychology. Sameera’s approach not only addresses the body and mind, but more so the soul, which is what Muslims are tasked with gaining self-awareness of. Apart from offering comprehensive, online sexual health courses for Muslims, she also provides one-on-one consultations, premarital education sessions, and regularly collaborates with Muslim organizations and other professionals in the field. Sameera also facilitates professional development opportunities for sexual and mental health providers who intersect and work with Muslim clients and communities. You can find her work on Instagram @sexualhealthformuslims, and on her website www.sexualhealthformuslims.com.
Rahmah A. Abdulaleemis the Executive Director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. which aims to create a global network of advocates who are both knowledgeable about the gender-equitable principles of Islam, and are able to advance the cause of Muslim women’s rights in legal and social environments. Ms. Abdulaleem works with scholars to empower advocates about the rights Islamic law grants to women; she also educates Muslim women in Islamic jurisprudence, leadership, and conflict resolution so they may become the leading agents of change within their communities. Ms. Abdulaleem has coordinated and presented at educational and civil rights programs around the world. Ms. Abdulaleem obtained her J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and worked at a top international corporate law firm for 14 years. You can learn more about her work on her website https://karamah.org.
Shelby joined Sahiyo US as an intern with the Development Team in June 2021, and transitioned into the role of Development Coordinator in September 2021. She is currently a graduate student at Cleveland State University studying Applied Social Research. Shelby is passionate about female-founded organizations and is excited for the opportunity to contribute to Sahiyo’s mission.
1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?
I started with Sahiyo US in June 2021 as a development intern. In September 2021, I transitioned to the role of Development Coordinator. I’m thrilled to be working with the Sahiyo team!
2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?
As the development coordinator, I research grants and funding opportunities to support our programs, activist retreats, and general operating expenses. I help with the writing process when submitting grant proposals and create monthly campaign emails to help ensure that Sahiyo has the monetary resources to carry out their mission.
3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?
Before working with Sahiyo, I was unaware of FGC and the impact on women and girls around the world. I have been involved with previous support groups for survivors of sexual violence on college campuses, and I have enjoyed working for an organization like Sahiyo that speaks out against violence. I love working with a team that has a passionate spirit and uplifts the voices of other women. Sahiyo has such a loving and supportive community that I feel truly honored to be a part of.
4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?
The Sahiyo staff and volunteers are constantly challenging social norms, speaking out against FGC, and continuously proving themselves to be an organization that fulfills their goals. Sahiyo reminds me that there are people out there who care about ending violence against women (FGC specifically) and execute their goals in such a creative and powerful way.
પ્રિય માસી એ એક કોલમ છે, જે સેક્સ અને સંબંધ વિષેની એવી બધી બાબતો પર ભાર મૂકે છે, જેને પૂછવામાં તમને ડર લાગતો હોય! આ કોલમ સહિયો અને WeSpeakOut વચ્ચેની એક ભાગીદારી છે. તે આપણા બધા માટે છે, જેમને ફીમેલ જેનિટલ કટિંગ (એફ.જી.સી.) અથવા ખતના અને તેની આપણા શરીર, મન, સેક્સ્યુઆલિટી અને સંબંધો પર કેવી અસર પડે છે તે વિષે પ્રશ્નો હોય. બોહરીઓમાં, માસી એટલે તમારી મમ્મીની બહેન. અમે તમને અહિયાં તમારા પ્રશ્નો મોકલવા માટે આવકારીયે છીએ. જો તમને કોઇ સંકોચ થાય તો, મહેરબાની કરીને ઉપનામનો ઉપયોગ કરી શકો છો (તમારું સાચું નામ વાપર્યા વિના).
मैं चालीस साल की तलाकशुदा औरत हूँ। हाल ही में मेरी मुलाकात एक अच्छे, गैर-बोहरा आदमी से हुई है और हम करीब आ गए हैं। क्या मुझे उसे खतना के साथ अपना अनुभव बताना चाहिए? मैं उससे बातचीत कैसे शुरू करूँ? क्या वह पुराना सदमा छेड़ना ज़रूरी है?
प्यारी तलाकशुदा दुरिया,
आपका नया रिश्ता आपको मुबारक हो! आपने ऐक समजदार सवाल उठाया हैं। इस बारे में मैं यह कहूँगी कि निजी जानकारी शेयर करना हमेशा आपकी इच्छा और मर्ज़ी के अनुसार करना चाहिए। चलिए, इसके कुछ फायदे-नुक्सान पर ध्यान देते है।
पहले लाभों के बारे में बात करते है:
लाभ # 1: अपनी राज़ को शेयर करने से प्यार और विश्वास पैदा हो सकता है। सदमा अक्सर गुप्तता, शर्म और एकलता में होता है। इसलिए किसी अजीज़ के साथ बात करना सेहतमंद हो सकता है। यह ख़ामोशी को तोड़ने के साथ-साथ आपका अकेलापन भी कम करता है। लाभ # 2: जब हमारे अपने यह समझने लगेंगे कि सदमा कैसे हमें जज़्बाती, जिस्मानी या यौन रूप से तकलीफ़ देता है, तो वे हमारे इलाज में बेहतर साथी हो सकते हैं।
मिसाल के तौर पर, कभी-कभी किसीके छूने से मैं जम जाती हूँ। मेरे साथी को यह पता है। वह खतना के बारे में जानता है और इसलिए रुककर फिर से स्थिर होने में मेरी मदद करता है।
गौर कीजिये कि कौनसी बातें आपके सदमे को छेड़ सकती है, और फिर अपने प्रियजनों को समझाए कि वे आपको कैसे सहारा दे सकते हैं ।
सावधान: अपने दर्शकों को जानें।
चलिए अब संभावित खामियों की बात करते है:
खामी # 1: यदि आपके प्रियजन उतने हमदर्द नहीं हैं और/या यह नहीं समझते हैं कि खतना तकलीफ़देह हो सकता है, तो वे अनजाने में आपके एहसासों को नजरंदाज कर सकते है या नकार सकते हैं। यदि आप इसके लिए तैयार नहीं हैं तो यह दुबारा तकलीफ़देह महसूस करा सकता है।
अपनी कहानी शेयर करने से पहले जानकारी शेयर करके आप इसे कम कर सकते है। इसके लिए मैंने यह ब्लॉग पोस्ट लिखा है। अधिक उपयोगी लेखों और वीडियो के लिए सहियो ब्लॉग और वी स्पीक आउट वेबसाईट देखें।
खामी # 2: अपना सदमा शेयर करना, फिर चाहें वह अपनों से ही क्यों न हो, हमें महरूम महसूस करा सकता है। अगर आपको लगता है कि आपके साथ ऐसा हो सकता है, तो अच्छा दोस्त या सलाहकार जैसे किसी मददगार के संपर्क में रहें। आपको जो बताना है, उसे खुद ही दुहराए और देखें की आपके मन में क्या एहसासात पैदा होते है।
बातचीत कैसे शुरू करें:
खतना के बारे में बात करने के कई तरीके हैं। यहाँ एक मार्गदर्शिका है। आप पर लागू न होनेवाले स्टेप्स को छोड़ दें और अपने अंदाज में फेरफार करें।
मैं आपके साथ कुछ शेयर करना चाहती हूँ। यह बात बहुत ही पर्सनल और संवेदनशील चीज है।
आप मेरे अजीज़ हैं और आप मेरे लिए अहम हैं इसलिए मैं आपको यह बात बता रही हूँ।
मैं बस इतना चाहती हूँ कि आप मेरी बात सुनें और बाद में मैं आपके किसी भी सवाल का जवाब दूंगी।
क्या अभी बात कर सकते है?
2. उन्हें इस प्रथा के बारे में कुछ कुछ सामान्य मालूमात दें, लेकिन बहुत ज्यादा नहीं:
मेरे समुदाय में गुप्तांग काटने की एक प्रथा है। उसे खतना कहते है। यह मेरे साथ तब हुआ जब मैं बच्ची थी। इस विषय पर चुपके-चुपके बहुत कम बात होती है और इसे तकलीफ़देह समझा जाता है।
3. उन्हें खतना का आप पर पर्सनल असर बताएँ (यह हिस्सा अलग-अलग लोगों के लिए अलग-अलग हो सकता है, इसलिए निचे सिर्फ एक मिसाल दी गयी है): वैसे तो मैं ठीक हूँ, लेकिन कभी-कभी इसके बारे में सोचकर मैं परेशान हो जाती हूँ, और हर बार, कुछ यौन स्थितियों में, मैं बहुत तनावपूर्ण हो जाती हूँ।
4. उन्हें बताएँ कि आपको उनसे क्या जरुरत है (बातचीत का यह हिस्सा भी बहुत अलग हो सकता है):
आपको अभी मुझसे कुछ भी कहने की या मेरे लिए अभी कुछ करने की जरुरत नहीं है। मैं इसे आपके साथ इसलिए शेयर करना चाहती थी क्योंकि यह मेरे जीवन के तजुर्बे का एक हिस्सा है। और आपको यह समझने में मदद मिलेगी कि मैं कुछ खास तरीकों से क्यों बर्ताव करती हूँ।
5. उन्हें कुछ साहित्य देने की पेशकश करें ताकि वे और ज्यादा मालूमात हासिल कर सकें: आपके सवालों का जबाब देने में मुझे ख़ुशी ही होगी। अगर आप चाहें तो मैं आपको कुछ लेख और वीडियो भी बता सकती हूँ।
खैर, तलाकशुदा दुरिया, मुझे वाकई उम्मीद है कि आपका नया प्रेमी समझ जायेगा! अगर आप उन्हें बताने का फैसला करती हैं, तो हो सकता है कि यह आपके लिए इलाज का काम करें।
– प्यारी मासी
मासी उर्फ फ़रज़ाना डॉक्टर के बारे में
फ़रज़ाना एक उपन्यास लेखिका हैं और मनोचिकित्सक की प्राइवेट प्रैक्टिस करती हैं। वह WeSpeakOut और End FGM/C कनाडा नेटवर्क की संस्थापक सदस्य हैं। वह रिश्तों और लैंगिकता के बारे में बात करना पसंद करती है! www.farzanadoctor.com पर उनके बारे में और मालूमात करें।
दाऊदी बोहरा समुदाय के बारे में औरतों के रिश्तों, लैंगिकता, बेवफाई और खतना पर चर्चा करने वाला उनका नया नावेल, सेवन ऑर्डर करें।
अस्वीकरण: फ़रज़ाना अच्छी सलाह जरुर देती है, लेकिन यह कॉलम हर किसी के निजी सवालों पर बात नहीं करता है और इसे पेशेवर चिकित्सा या मनोवैज्ञानिक देखभाल के विकल्प के रूप में इस्तेमाल नहीं किया जाना चाहिए।
Today, I’m referring the most underrated topic ‘khatna’ or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM/C). I call it underrated because it doesn’t seem like educated persons in my society are talking about it even a little bit. It’s also called ‘Khafz’ in Islamic terms, and it’s a ritual in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
Khatna usually takes place at the age of seven with girls. In the process of khatna, they cut the tip of the female sexual part ‘clitoris’ from the female genitalia with the use of a crude blade without giving any precautions. The purpose of doing that is to curb sexual desires. In some countries, it’s illegal, but India has no laws against khatna or FGM/C.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers it harmful for girls in many ways and has no health benefits. It includes damaging healthy tissues in females and causes trouble with the natural function of girls’ bodies. Many survivors have experienced pain, lifelong physical and psychological trauma. Some immediate complications include:
Wound healing problems;
And in some cases death.
Firstly, let me make this clear, I’m not against any religion but also do not support any religion in that way. What I mean is, I’m not against any religion but also I don’t have blind faith in it. I think there’s a major difference between beliefs and faith that our society needs to understand. I believe: If you do good, you will get good.
I have read many articles on FGM/C. Community guidelines say ‘khafz take place for maintaining the taharat (pureness) and for spiritual purity.’ After reading it I felt like I would burn from inside, what has the world come down to. My heart was broken. Cutting out a human body part for spiritual purity; why would god give you something which makes you spiritually impure and then ask you to cut it off to become spiritually pure? I really don’t understand the logic behind FGM/C. What is the point of education that you are talking about? We are nurturing ourselves with modern education, reading about all atrocities going on in the world, when the same thing happens in our society; we are blind folded letting this happen.
Many people have said that khatna is a good thing to do. It decreases sexual desires. So to that I ask, how do you know that a girl at age seven has sexual desires? Some had written in an article that it keeps the girl decent so girls won’t enter into adultery later, so on that I’m asking, where is the evidence of that?
If we want our daughters to be pure, let’s teach them that they are strong and powerful women. They are in control of their own minds and bodies and they can use them wisely.
When she was born, you promised to protect her.
At the age of seven, they trust their family and parents the most. Parents tell them not to interact with strangers or not to let anyone touch you in your private areas, still it’s the family who takes them for khatna and allows strangers to touch and cut their girl’s clitoris. Why do something terrible to your girl which can leave scars on a mental level? People have to change their minds about old rules and regulations which they follow in the name of ‘tradition’. Families have a big role in ending FGM/C or khafz. Protect our girls.
Our girls matter!
I want to say a few things. I’m talking about this not for the sake of talking but for contributing to the voice that the Islamic religion (Bohra) seems to be avoiding. They have been avoiding it for years, but you can make sure they don’t avoid contributing by talking about this.
Social media, I honestly believe, is one of the most powerful platforms.
Otherwise also suppose- You are a teacher – you can probably discuss with your institution at the next assembly you can talk to your students about this. If you are in company you can hold a meeting in your office and talk about child abuse. Talk about this issue a little bit and tell people they need to speak up too. Maybe you can organise an activity or webinar regarding this issue. Whatever is in your capacity or power, do it please. It’s a harmful and outdated practice that needs to stop. Use your voice. It will definitely take time to go away but it doesn’t mean we keep sitting quietly.
They are survivors, not victims.
I’m a modern feminist and Bohra girl. I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor. I almost sat quietly, i didn’t talk about it but then I realised I must and so must you. Time to step forward for our daughters.
Protest, speak up, fight for your daughters and let’s hope that the world changes for the better.
Starting this October 2021, Sahiyo is officially launching our book club, Sahiyo Discusses, with our inaugural event, Sahiyo Discusses: Seven by Farzana Doctor.
Designed to bring people together through literature, art, and media, this club will host quarterly meetings to bring together activists and allies in Sahiyo’s network to discuss the chosen piece of media. With themes ranging from feminism, equality, bodily autonomy, women-centered movements, and sexual empowerment – this club will focus on uplifting the stories and experiences of women everywhere.
Our first meeting will be held on October 13th, at 8 pm EST over Zoom. We will be joined by Farzana Doctor, who will talk about her novel, Seven.
Seven explores themes of family, culture, politics, and FGM/C with a surprising ending. Sahiyo Discusses members will have the opportunity to discuss the book with Farzana as well as ask pertinent questions.
Admission to Sahiyo Discusses will be on a pay-what-you-can basis, with a recommended suggested $10.00 USD donation per event.
If you or anyone in your network is interested in joining us please register and donate here.
Thank you all for your continued dedication to Sahiyo’s mission, and we look forward to seeing you all there!
As a first year law student in Sonipat, India, I was exposed to the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) as a part of my sociology course. We discussed the practice briefly. The article that formed a majority of our discussion only spoke of the existence of FGC in African nations and made no mention of India or other countries around the world where women are subjected to the practice. I felt shocked and truly disturbed when I first learned about FGC, and as a result, my response was to read about it on my own accord. A little browsing led me to the discovery of the fact that FGC prevails in the Indian subcontinent as well. I read about the Bohra community, the absence of legislation and the organisations and people advocating to end this harmful and unnecessary practice.
Laws do not just force and punish. They deter, discourage and dissuade, too. Enacting and legislating laws raises awareness and empowers communities to change not only what people do, but what they think is right. It is vital for laws to continuously evolve with the changing norms and ideals of a society.
FGC is a prevalent practice among the Bohra community in India. A study indicated that almost 75% of the women of this community who were interviewed have been cut. At present, many citizens are unaware of its presence in India. Lifting the veil off this practice is an essential step toward ensuring that a conversation regarding its harmful effects on young girls begins. Maneka Gandhi, a union minister, stated that there is a lack of proof regarding the existence of FGC in India, and there is no data to support its presence. The Ministry of Women and Child Development needs to conduct surveys and take appropriate measures to find all data that would make the legislators see the need for the enactment of a law against FGC. To avoid addressing the issue is to completely ignore its existence. A similar approach has been taken up by the Indian government over the years. Multiple accounts of women who have undergone FGC are out in the public domain and provide substantial evidence to prove the presence of khatna, as it is known in the Bohra community. Yet, no legislation or statute has been formulated or enacted in India which would help survivors find an easy legal recourse.
There is an imperative need to move beyond the pretext of not having enough data to prove FGC occurs in India. Hundreds of survivors have spoken up against this practice and have openly shared their painful accounts. Many survivors have shared that since khatna is secretive, making it unlawful could have a serious impact in curtailing it. According to Section 320 and Section 322 of the Indian Penal Code, causing grievous hurt to another person is a criminal offence, and FGC would automatically fall within its purview. Despite this, there has been no effort on the part of the legislators to specifically provide remedy to survivors. The Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to life and liberty to all its citizens. Legal statutes like the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act that penalise crimes should mention terms such as female genital mutilation/cutting, labia minora, etc., to provide appropriate legal recourse to women affected by this practice.
India claims to be a welfare state that ensures the well-being of all its citizens. Refusing to ensure the safety of young girls who might be subjected to FGC is a contradictory act.
Various jurists and legislators face the problem of deciding whether one fundamental right should be given more importance than the other. The proposed ban on khatna raises a similar
obstacle. The Indian Constitution confers upon its citizens the right to equality, as well as the right to practice and profess any religion. There exists a constant clash between articles 14 and 15 defining right to equality and articles 25 and 26 defining religious rights. In particular, the rights guaranteed to people under article 26 pose a unique challenge before the courts. In recent years, courts have come to realise that the right to equality should be awarded more weight. Discrimination solely on the basis of one’s gender is highly dishonourable and unjust. In order to move forward, a distinction between social malpractices and actual religious practices needs to be made. Social norms disguised as religious practices infringing upon the rights of women need to be done away with. The right and autonomy over one’s body is crucial to live a respectful life.
People frequently wonder whether legislation can bring about change. Fear that criminalising FGC might result in a deeper continuation of it is felt by many and is a valid concern. However, often the notion that a new law can elevate conversation on FGC and create a discourse for all to engage in on the topic is overlooked. The existence and continuity of khatna cannot just be attributed to the fault of a community. With democratic ideals such as equality and freedom, the state cannot shy away from establishing and constituting laws that are in symmetry with these ideals.
On August 19th, 2021, Sahiyo and StoryCenter co-hosted a film screening and panel discussion to highlight voices from the Voices to End FGM/C Digital Storytelling workshop. The event showcased eleven new digital stories, created virtually by a global group of advocates and survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), during January and February.
Mariya Taher of Sahiyo and Amy Hill of StoryCenter, two facilitators of the annual workshop, led an audience Q&A and presented storytelling methodology, while two guest speakers, Nafisa (pseudonym) and Lola Ibrahim (Yoruba, English), shared their experiences with the digital storytelling workshop itself. Of the eleven stories shown, three were premiered at the event and had not been released to the public yet. The full collection can be found here, with stories continuing to be released.
“I feel liberated,” Nafisa said. “I feel lighter, and I feel scared all at once. I wanted to talk about this work and khatna and the challenges that are faced in the community for many years.”
The 2021 Voices digital collection succeeded tremendously in capturing the core concept of oppressive social norms. Almost reminiscent of short vignettes, each digital story actualized the abstract concept of social norms into concrete experiences. The stories stood individually as personal narratives of struggle, belonging, and community. Comparatively, this collection presented the larger struggles of individuals and collectives in battling gender-based violence.
In response, audience members engaged deeply with each story, typing out messages with empathy and gratitude to each storyteller for taking up the challenge of telling their stories. It was uplifting to see how the digital stories could elicit such reactions of allyship and community-building, even within a Zoom chat.
My personal highlight from the event was hearing Nafisa and Lola reflect on their experiences of storytelling and tackle the nuances of FGM/C in their respective communities. The digital storytelling workshop was evidently transformative, in similar and different ways for each participant.
“Sharing my shame can make a difference,” Lola said. “You understand that. Because you own that story. And you’re able to tell the story. So you’re no longer ashamed.”
Lola’s transformation of shame to acceptance of her story is stunning to hear. Through the workshop, she found a close-knit community to listen and empathize with her story. By producing a digital story, she now engages a global community to respond to her story.
“I felt powerless because in the world that we live in, when you’re anonymous, you feel like your voice is taken away,” said Nafisa. “You don’t have an identity, but I think sharing my story has allowed me to have a voice or has created a space for me. It has put the power back in my hands.”
Nafisa’s story is equally hopeful. Despite her anonymity, Nafisa proudly holds ownership of her story and continues to advocate against FGM/C.
Sahiyo is excited to announce the upcoming 2022 Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop, as part of their continued partnership with StoryCenter. This workshop is open to all individuals who have a story to share about how they, or someone they know, have been impacted by FGC, and will be held virtually.
For those interested in taking part, please fill out the application by Friday, December 11, 2021.
I was 11 years old when my mother said I was ‘impure’ now that I got my periods. The idea of ‘impurity’ in front of God enraged the eleven-year-old me. I wanted to know if my Muslim and Christian friends were also told not to ‘touch God’ or go near him in the temple, mosque, or church during their periods.
I got around asking that question through a street play, Chakravyu*, in my undergraduate college years. A play through which we spoke about the cultural subversion of women and how every religion has its way of propagating patriarchy via religion and culture.
When we performed the play out in public, often, we would meet the gaze of someone religious who thought our street play too slanderous to their religion. We would meet their gaze even more vociferously by mixing a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan.
I am sad to share this, but I know deep down in my bones that I can no longer mix a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan**. I know performing such a play in today’s India would get my collegiate pals and me arrested or lynched even.
That is the India my country has grown to become.
I will not deny that we are an intolerant nation where Muslim friends are offered separate utensils in bigoted homes. Hindus feel superior because of their choice of eating meat or being vegetarian. But, despite the bigotry, I could never imagine that my country would become so intolerant to the point that one’s choice of eating meat would get them openly lynched.
When I started to make ‘A Pinch of Skin’ in 2011, I was deterred by many senior voices asking me not to take up such a polarising subject, especially since I am a Hindu girl, with my religion written all over my last name.
I chose not to listen to them, and I am glad.
During the shooting of A Pinch of Skin, over six months of shooting, I was always met with open arms, warm smiles, and offers to take me out for lunch by the people I interviewed because the people I met saw me as a human being first. Sans my last name.
I cry, thinking about what my country has become today.
What would happen if I were to shoot my documentary or perform Chakravyu with my collegiate pals in today’s India?
My Voices to End FGM/C story, The Medium, reflects my decade-long experience working on female genital mutilation/cutting, as the crescendo on Islamophobia increases in India and around the world.
I want to proudly say that those who believe in the xenophobic narrative don’t know what they are missing out on.
My own experience informs me that religion has nothing to do with a social norm. In one way or another, all religions attempt to control the female sexual experience, the very essence of patriarchy. And that is why FGM/C continues and is a lot more complex than what meets the eye.
Let’s leave religion and reading into the last names of people to stereotype.
*Chakravya: The word Chakravya is a mythological reference to the unbreakable cycle in the Hindu holy book of Mahabharata.
**Azaan: Azaan is the Urdu/Farsi word of the religious call to prayer, recited by the priest at a designated time of the day, usually early morning and early evening.
I have published several papers on the ethics of medically unnecessary genital cutting practices affecting children of all sexes and genders. When my writing touches on the sub-set of these practices that affect persons with characteristically female sex-typed genitals, I have received some pushback for using the term female genital cutting (FGC) rather than female genital mutilation (FGM).
An instance of such pushback came from a respected colleague in response to a paper of mine in Archives of Sexual Behavior, in which I argue against the use of ‘mutilation’ in certain contexts, as there is evidence that such stigmatizing language may have adverse effects on the very people who are meant to be helped. Given that this terminological issue is likely to keep coming up, I thought I would share parts of the reply I wrote to my colleague. I hope it can shed some light on at least one plausible way of thinking about such matters.
My colleague argued that my use of ‘FGC’ rather than ‘FGM’ is disrespectful because it goes against the recommendation of the 2005 Bamako Declaration adopted by the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.
On the matter of disrespect. I have had many conversations with women who consider themselves circumcised, rather than mutilated, and even if they agree that medically unnecessary genital cutting should not be performed on persons who are incapable of consenting, primarily children, they insist that it is harmful, stigmatizing, and paternalistic for others to simply define their own modified genitals as mutilated (a term that implies disfigurement or even an intent to cause harm).
They explain that their loving parents, however misguided, did not intend to cause them net harm, just as, for example, Jewish parents who authorize that their sons be circumcised do not intend to harm them, but rather, take an action that is sincerely believed to appropriately integrate the child into an ancestral community. They recognize that, in their own communities, both male and female genital cutting practices are widely seen as improving the genitalia, including aesthetically, which is contrary to the very notion of mutilation. I may not agree with that interpretation myself, but it is not my position to tell these women (or their brothers) that their altered genitals are ugly or disfigured rather than, as they see it, aesthetically (or in some cases, culturally or religiously) improved.
I will ask: Were these leaders democratically elected to express the considered opinions of their constituents, or were these leaders self-appointed? At the very least, they cannot have been authorized to speak on behalf of countless Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern women who have been affected by ritual forms of female genital cutting.
In any event, I face a choice. I can disagree with the conclusion of these African leaders who seem to feel qualified to speak on behalf of millions of other women, including non-African women, and impose an entirely negative and stigmatizing interpretation of all of their altered genitalia regardless of how those women see their own bodies. Or I can show respect to those women who have shared their stories with me, as well as all the women in various reports and testimonies who have expressed strong objections to the term ‘mutilation’ being forced on them, and who would simply like to have the room to be able to evaluate and describe their own genitals as they see fit.
One woman explained her feelings: “In my opinion, the word ‘mutilation’ used in reference to [what happened to me] is a degrading and disempowering term that strips women of their dignity and self-worth. Basically, it is a label that has the power to negatively influence one’s self-identity. If you understand labelling theory you will understand how damaging/influential a term or classification can be to an individual.”
She continued with her experience: “Having just about survived my ordeal of forced body alteration I was very aware of the violation to my body. However, the introduction of the term ‘mutilation’ into my consciousness affected me mentally and physically. It made me view myself as an ugly, mutilated, and frowned-upon member of society. There started my journey of self-hate, which presented itself in many forms, including bulimia and social anxiety, to name but a few. To be called the ‘mutilated’ girl by health professionals stripped me of any dignity and covered me in shame on numerous occasions. Thankfully, I no longer see myself as a victim or survivor of ‘FGM’ – I refuse to allow that term to take away my power or to define who I am.”
Faced with the choice between respectfully disagreeing with the analysis and conclusion of a group of leaders whose qualification to speak on behalf of others I do not know, versus showing respect to those women, such as the one quoted above, who have asked for the right to determine their own victim status (including whether they regard their genitals as mutilated or otherwise), I choose the latter.
Referring to “the event” and “the torture” is using singular language to refer to a plurality of quite different events carried out in different ways by different groups for different reasons. As you know, the World Health Organization (WHO) uses the term FGM to refer to a dozen or more practices, ranging from nicking of the clitoral hood, which does not remove tissue. In many communities, for example in Malaysia, it’s often done by a doctor with sterile equipment and pain control, through to excision of the external clitoris with a rusty implement and no pain control followed by infibulation, as occurs in some rural parts of Northeast Africa, for example.
It is entirely accurate to say that all of those quite different interventions are medically unnecessary acts of genital cutting; and I argue that all of them are morally impermissible if carried out on a non-consenting person. I have written about labiaplasty, a common procedure in Western countries. I tend to think it is morally permissible for an adult, fully-informed woman to decide that she wants what she regards as a cosmetic alteration to her genitals. I would not presume to tell my friends who have undergone what they see as cosmetic labiaplasty that they are victims of genital mutilation. Rather, I would accept their interpretation of their own bodies as having been enhanced.
What this suggests to me is that the sheer alteration of healthy genital tissue is not inherently mutilating. Rather, a person could interpret altered genitalia in a wide range of ways, including as improved or enhanced. This is the majority way that persons with altered genitalia regard their own bodies, as far as I can tell from reading the primary and secondary literature on this topic. What makes medically unnecessary genital cutting morally wrong is its being done non-consensually. It does not matter if it is mutilating or not – that is up to the person who is affected to decide. What matters is that it should be that person’s own choice.
Finally, my work is dedicated to the human rights argument that all non-consenting individuals, whether female, male, or intersex, have a fundamental moral claim against any interference with their genitals that is not medically necessary. That means that I believe that medically unnecessary intersex genital cutting is wrong, as is such cutting of the penis, when either is done without the informed consent of the affected person. And so, since I write about all medically unnecessary genital cutting practices, which includes alterations of the vulva that are less severe than penile circumcision as it is commonly performed in my country, I cannot go around calling one set of procedures ‘mutilations’ based on the sex of the person to whom they happen, while using a different term for another set of procedures. So, I choose to use the entirely accurate, non-stigmatizing language of ‘medically unnecessary genital cutting’ in all cases, leaving 100% of the leeway to each individual to determine for themselves.
It is not my place to speak on behalf of others about their bodies. Nor do I think it is the place of these African leaders to speak on behalf of millions of women who may not agree with them. Moreover, as I argue at length in the paper I sent around, there is very good reason to think that the language of mutilation is stigmatizing and harmful. Since it is not necessary to stigmatize women’s bodies in order to ground the ethical claim that cutting children’s genitals is morally wrong, if not medically necessary, I choose to use non-stigmatizing language.
Brian Earp is an American bioethicist, philosopher, and interdisciplinary researcher. He is currently Associate Director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy at Yale University and The Hastings Center, and a Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.