In March 2019, Sahiyo U.S. hosted our second annual activist retreat for women connected to the Bohra community who are concerned about the issue of FGC within the community. Sahiyo understands it takes many to bring about social change, and as a result, we work with individuals, organizations, and coalitions in a collaborative fashion. As advocates and activists, we are better together and can find the best solutions if we collaborate and work as one.
The Sahiyo Activist retreat helps to build a network of U.S. based Bohra activists by 1) strengthening relationships with one another, 2) sharing best practices and providing tools for activists to utilize in their anti-FGC advocacy work moving forward. The retreat was also an opportunity for advocates/activists to discuss both the challenges and opportunities they face in advocating against FGC. This year, Sahiyo also initiated our peer support program, Saathi, a program attended to build a support system for activists. As per Sahiyo’s 2017 Activists Needs Assessment, findings suggest that having a support system in place was crucial towards building a critical mass of voices seeking to create change. Both the Activist Retreat and Saathi program seek to do so.
To read reflections from participants who attended the retreat, click here.
I may not be able to share the same emotional or physical experiences of some of the other Sahiyo participants who attended the Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat in March 2019 and who have undergone khatna, but I have a story to tell. My mother, myself, nor my daughter have undergone khatna, and that is not the end of the story, but the beginning of this restlessness in me to do something for others in my community who have undergone it.
Khatna conversation made landfall on my household when my daughter was 7-years- old. There was pressure from my mother-in-law to have my daughter cut. Her argument was that she would never suggest something that was bad for her granddaughter. There was no Sahiyo platform to educate my family members then so one could imagine my struggle twelve years ago. Seeing my mother-in-law so upset, my sisters-in-law got involved and they insisted that I should just lie to my mother-in-law to end the matter. I had been told to shut my mouth in my monthly Bohra menij groups, also. “Don’t do it, but speak about it otherwise.”
Let’s fast forward to after the Sahiyo retreat that I attended in March. A few days later, I met a friend at a gathering who had brought her 9-yr-old daughter along. I was very curious and worried if she had gotten her daughter’s khatna done, so I asked the question. She replied that she hadn’t and that she was, in a strange way, thankful that the conversation about the Detroit incident happened at the same time as when it was time for her daughter’s khatna. She saw all that was happening with the case and thought against the act. She wanted to know if I knew more about the case and I was thankful I attended the Sahiyo retreat, as I was able to give her more details about the case and was comfortable and confident to hold a dialogue on khatna.
My thought is that the Detroit case is very important. Even if the outcome may or may not be to our liking, it did cause a big stir in our Bohra community and at least one more girl was spared the blade.
When the first emails circulated about last month’s Sahiyo retreat in New York City, I wasn’t sure why I wanted to register, only that I knew I had to. I felt anxious the week leading up to the event and couldn’t pinpoint the reason why.
During the opening exercise, when we listed our hopes for the weekend, a voice in my head said, quite definitively, “healing.” This surprised me because I’ve been thinking and writing about khatna since 2016, when I joined WeSpeakOut and began my healing journey. Over the previous years I’ve seen a therapist, talked to friends and family, and even finished writing a novel on the subject. What more healing was there to do?
But I put up my hand, and the notetaker recorded “healing” on the flipchart page. I felt vulnerable in my honesty, but I told myself to remain open to whatever could come from the gathering. Anxiety thrummed through my body.
On the second day, I listened to the woman across from me share her khatna memory, and a deep sorrow rose up in me as I recognized elements of shared experience. A painful penny dropped. I didn’t participate much in that session, just quietly wiped my tears and journalled my realizations.
Later, in a pair-share exercise with the woman sitting next to me, I found myself relating to an aspect of her story, even though it was quite different from my own. It was like she was indirectly speaking to my fears and they quieted somewhat.
On the third day, I sat with my Saathi (my partner in the peer support program that Sahiyo is piloting) and I talked to her about ways I might shift my activism from “behind the scenes” to being more public. I was still anxious, but sharing with her also made me feel brave.
After the retreat I spent a few hours hanging out with another participant. She commented that I’d seemed grounded the whole weekend and I told her that I was good at wearing a calm mask. In fact, I had dissociated a little during some of the sessions, missing bits of the conversation and activity instructions. While I’ve long known that this is one of my coping strategies, saying it aloud to her, to another Bohri woman, was powerful in a way I couldn’t name right then.
But, after a week of reflection, I can name it now: the Sahiyo facilitators created an intentional space of respect and safety, and then twenty-one feminist Bohri women stepped into it. I’ve never experienced anything like that before.
This was what was so incredibly powerful for me. And so healing.
Earlier this year in January, I attended the Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat in Mumbai, where I met some brilliant, fantastic people from all walks of life. Women shared their experiences, stories and life-lessons, and talked about how female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) had impacted their lives, either directly or indirectly, and what they were doing about it.
Shortly after I returned home to Pune, my mind was filled with a bunch of ideas that involved reaching out to more Bohra women, hearing about their experiences with the community in general, and speaking to more women of substance. One of the training sessions at the Sahiyo Activist Retreat was on how to host one’s own ‘Thaal Pe Charcha’ (TPC, loosely translated as ‘discussions over food’).
Thaal Pe Charcha is a flagship Sahiyo program that brings Bohra women together in an informal, private space, so that they can bond over traditional Bohra cuisine while discussing FGM/C and other issues that affect their lives.
I felt that the next logical step for me was to host my very own TPC. It would give me the opportunity to meet and talk to more women from my city about certain community-centric issues that affect all our lives.
Even though I have never really been an activist myself, I knew of Sahiyo, and the cause that they have been fighting for. I admired and respected them, and I had silently been fighting for the same cause all my life, too.
Did I have my fair share of apprehensions? I absolutely did. And why wouldn’t I?
In a closely-knit community like ours, where one person’s word is law, it is so hard to try to reason with women and mothers, to give them more clarity by pleading with them to not hurt their children. Often, they never seem to be able to see beyond how you are “going against the community” or “against Moula”, even though the point has never been about that. There is a fine line between following someone and blind faith. No matter which country you are in, child abuse is still child abuse, irrespective of what you choose to call it or who performs it.
For my TPC, I managed to invite a few women for lunch – a mix of friends, cousins, acquaintances and colleagues. It was also the first time I had ever hosted a Bohra get-together by myself, without the usual family members around to really help me. So for me, that itself was a personal milestone. Strangely, I felt it brought me a step closer to warmly embracing other nicer aspects of our culture – getting people together, bonding over food, and discussing the many facets of our little world.
The conversations bordered around what each one was doing in their lives, professionally and otherwise. We discussed issues such as soft-feminism, journalism, opinions on certain movies and the debate on whether wives should take their husbands’ surnames after they are married. For a couple of the women who attended, FGM/C was a new concept they had never spoken about before. They asked questions about why it is performed, when they heard of it, and why we needed to stop practicing it on the next generation, especially since conversations around this topic have always been taboo for some strange, secretive reason in our community. The younger minds agreed that all customs with no solid reasoning usually always die a natural death, because no one likes doing things without a valid reason.
Having access to the right answers and accurate information definitely helped each of them in getting more clarity on the topic, even though not every single person wanted to necessarily talk about their personal experience. It is still daunting to talk about something so personal in front of a bunch of strangers.
But for me personally, it was important that the topic was at least touched upon, so that other women realise that this is a safe, non-judgemental place and that they could reach out to me if they wanted to speak about anything that bothered them at all. Apart from that, I do enjoy bringing new people together and nurturing relations with those I care about. So all in all, this was extremely special to me.
While this event was still pretty small-scale, I would love to host and be a part of bigger TPCs eventually, where more women can come together and share their stories, opinions and ways to raise awareness about the harms caused by the practice in question, and how we can all work together to promote the abandonment of FGM/C and save the many generations of girls and women in the future from physical, mental, emotional and psychological damage.
I often wondered what the two women closest to me thought about khatna. I wondered because I never really talked with my sister or my mom about it. Well, we talked, but not with much purpose. I thought they were against it, just like me. I told them that I was going to a Sahiyo Activist Retreat where I would meet other Bohri women who are against khatna, otherwise known as female genital cutting. They said okay.
At the retreat, I realized that before I advocate publicly, I needed to process my own situation privately. I had khatna performed on me when I was young. I have not talked much about it. My story is much like most. I was probably under 10 years old at the time. Seems like most remember it being done when they were seven. Perhaps that was also the age when it was done to me. I was playing outside with a friend. I’m not sure what we were playing, but it seemed like a normal day and I was doing something perfectly normal. An aunt called out and said we were going somewhere. Was I to go get ice cream? I remember not wanting to leave my playmate and crying. I was taken to a relative’s home not too far from where we lived. It’s been decades, but the memory is vivid. We walked up the stairs. There were two women at the house. One held my hand. The other pulled down my panties. I remember crying. It drowned out what was happening to me.
A sharp pain. Blood. Blade. That’s what I remember. I don’t remember how I got home.
For the next few days, I remember the pain. I could not walk properly. I was sore. I walked with my legs apart, afraid of scraping the area that hurt.
Time moved on. And I suppressed my memory of what happened.
Years later, we heard of an African woman talking about FGM in the news. We all were outraged. A cousin told me that what happened to us when we were young was FGM. What? I was surprised. And somewhat glad. Because I was able to finally understand what happened when I was younger. Khatna was FGM. It was like solving a mystery of my life.
Life went on. I became sexually active and curious. Sex hurt and orgasm was hard. I asked my doctors about it. Most of them did not know. I asked my gynecologist to check me out. They said they saw a nick, but nothing much. Nothing much.
I often wonder if it is in my head if the pain I feel is because of something else. The pain is sharp. And, when certain parts are touched, it is unforgiving.
There is so much silence around khatna that there is not a good understanding of the harm to women. I do not know if I am the only one, or if there are others who feel this way. Are there others like me who are suffering from khatna decades later? Are there others like me who can’t have healthy sexual relationships with their husbands? Are there others like me suffering in silence?
After coming back from the retreat, I talked to my mom about my experience with khatna. She was surprised to know that it had impacted me long-term. I was surprised to learn that she was not impacted by it at all. I also talked to my sister. She said that she blindly follows the Bohri teachings and is neutral on the issue. And, like my mom, it has not impacted her long- term. I thought my sister would automatically be against it. But I was wrong.
Next day, I recapped the story to my husband, who does not share my religion. While he was sympathetic, his anger turned into islamophobic rhetoric and a focus on my “crazy” culture. There are so many “crazy” cultures, and perhaps mine is another use case for patriarchy.
I don’t hate my culture, the people who performed khatna on me, or the people who defend the practice. I want the judgment to stop. I want the fear to stop. I want to create a safe place for conversation and understanding.
I know there is work to do to change attitudes about khatna. I learned that the work is much closer to home than I thought.
There are those who talk about change, and then there are those who do things and bring about the change. I would like to tell you about the time I decided to be a part of the Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat in Mumbai, and met such wonderful people who, in my eyes, were nothing short of superwomen.
I cannot even begin to describe how amazing it is to meet like-minded people all driven by the same cause. It is honestly inexplicable. In today’s times, do you know what good, honest peer support feeling is like? Let me tell you: it was out of this world amazing! Did a couple of seemingly insignificant days change my life? Yes, they did. Prior to this event, was I feeling anxious and apprehensive about what it would turn out to be like? Oh, extremely. Was I nervous? Yes. Was I also curious about what would I take away from this retreat? Yes. Did I think it was going to be all about a bunch of women getting together to purely rebel against a cause? I will admit, yes.
I knew about Sahiyo, and the cause that they are fighting for. I admired and respected them because I had been fighting for the same cause all my life, too, but silently. Many members of the Bohra community do not react well to independent thinkers, so it takes a lot of courage and true liberation to speak your mind on a public platform. Naturally, one ‘black sheep’ tends to have heard about the other. But immense respect for them aside, I was partly curious about what I would really learn here, and partly interested in what could be done to rightly channel the feelings I felt toward the people who endorse female genital mutilation (FGM).
Needless to say, I couldn’t stop talking about this retreat when I returned home! There were some brilliant, fantastic people there from all walks of life, sharing their experiences, sharing their stories and how they heard of FGM, how it has impacted their lives, and what they are doing about it. Our co-hosts Insia and Aarefa were warm as ever, right from introductions and group bonding activities, to efficiently addressing counter arguments and introducing us to a world of relevant introspection, as opposed to traditional garish rebelling. There was also a talk given by a reputed gynaecologist, where we learned so many essential truths about the details of FGM that no one else talks about. So enlightening!
It was as if there was a strange connection between all of us toward the end of the program. It’s not news that Bohras suffer from a major identity crisis anyway, considering most cultural aspects are borrowed from different parts of the world with no real roots anywhere. For someone who always found it hard to really fit in anywhere, it was as if I had found home at last. In spite of everyone at the retreat coming from such different backgrounds, locations and mindsets, it was really amazing.
I, personally, have always felt very strongly about FGM/C and the concept of a random third person deciding what should be done with my body without my consent. But this experience and interaction has not only changed the way I see things, but has also made my resolve and conviction stronger – about fighting for every girl child out there, subjected to any such torture and abuse, until I have no life left in me, irrespective of how long it takes.
For showing me how to efficiently channel all that I feel toward all forms of injustice done to women, and for this beautiful chapter of my life, I will be forever grateful to Sahiyo.
To be honest, it was hard for me to make the decision to go to the Sahiyo Activist Retreat earlier this year. I grew up in the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, and having had my share of challenges with the community that involved threats to my family, I felt like I didn’t have the courage within me to start another battle that involved me fighting against FGM/khatna. But I knew deep down inside that none of my battles with my community had ever ended, and if I stopped speaking up now, another girl somewhere else would have to suffer like me.
I have been away from India for the last 7 years, and it took a retreat like this one for me to realise that I had not interacted with a single person from within the Bohra community here in the US since I moved here, and how much I had missed that. My only experiences of being with other Bohra women was in India, either at a religious prayer service or ceremony or at a Bohra women’s ‘meneej’ (kitty party) group that I was forced into by my mother and friends. I had never had an opportunity to be in a room full of Bohra women, where we could have an open, honest and authentic discussion about the challenges women faced in the community, and identify ways we could empower each other, stand up against the injustices done to us, and fight for change within the community. The Sahiyo Activist Retreat allowed for that and much more.
Since most of my experiences were in India, I was keen on learning about how the community functioned here. And through my very first interactions and impressions, I knew that it was no different here and that the community was as strict, perhaps even more here than in India. It was also clear from the start that every single woman present in the room including myself, had shared hopes from the retreat; to find a space where we could openly share our FGM /khatna stories, to build a strong support group, to gain knowledge and tools to confidently speak up against FGM/khatna, and most importantly, to find a space to heal.
The agenda for the two-day workshop was packed but allowed enough time for us to bond with each other, and my healing began almost immediately. The workshop had a bottom-up approach, wherein each participant got to share their stories and all the work that they had already been doing to end FGM/ khatna in the community. The sessions that followed helped us further our knowledge and understanding of FGM/Khatna by providing us with in-depth studies and evaluations, effective communication tools, and defining ways to support activists inside and outside the community worldwide.
The discussion that stood out for me the most was the one that focused on community and survivor-led movements, and the importance of having Bohra men and women from within the community fighting to end FGM/khatna. I have always believed that for any change to truly take place, all the effort and groundwork needs to happen by individuals who represent the community, who understand the systems, history, culture, and nuances of the community, and that means each one of us Bohra men and women. If we want to end FGM/Khatna, each one of us needs to take leadership and ownership of this problem. Men need to become allies for women, and women need to become allies for other women in the community.
Through breakout sessions and one-on-one conversations, we came up with action plans and ways in which each one of us could contribute to this movement. And of course there were informal post-dinner ramblings, debates and heated discussions on FGM/khatna, and many other women’s issues faced by us in the community.
Three months later, I sit with this fire within me that began during the retreat. I find myself more at ease when talking about FGM/khatna with friends and work colleagues. I still haven’t been able to openly talk about it, for I fear the backlash my parents will face in the community in India, but I’m confident that that will also change someday. I am now helping coordinate logistics for a storytelling workshop that will educate and empower 8 women participants to become powerful and effective storytellers. I am also excited to organize a ‘thaal pe charcha’ event during the summer with the hope to bring both, women and men, to have an informal dialogue about FGM/khatna, and learn from the findings provided by Sahiyo.
Lastly, my inner healing that began during the retreat continues to change me in positive ways. It is allowing me to let go of my past, and channel my energy to be a better activist, to not dwell in self-pity, but to become a strong ally and force of change within the community.
Khatna, and Female Genital Cutting (FGC) evoke strong responses. It is seen as a human rights violation, is attributed to the “backwardness” of Islamic peoples, and is a critical part of cultural heritage. For those of us within the Bohra community, our feelings are generally much more complicated. Even for those of us who oppose the practice, we find it important to work within cultural norms to advocate against it.
Changing an entrenched cultural practice can be very challenging, even if it is so clearly the right thing to do. Everyone at the Sahiyo activist retreat in New York was either a survivor of khatna or a close family member of a survivor. When we talk about the people in our community who have undergone khatna, we aren’t talking about a faceless mass, we are speaking about our mothers, our sisters, our friends, and ourselves. Everyone came to the retreat with powerful stories about when they first found out about this practice (often when they first underwent it) and what drove them to advocate against it.
The retreat was very emotional. It was so comforting and joyous to spend time with people who felt “just like me” in that we came from the same community and grew up with the same foods and the same quirks. It was a safe place to share stories. Some of the attendees are not yet open about their participation in Sahiyo and the retreat offered them a supportive environment to think about the role they might play in creating social change.
Additionally, people shared a lot of frustration and sadness. Many of the activists experienced negative pushback from their loved ones and their communities regarding FGC activism. Relatives no longer spoke to them and they were harassed by internet trolls. The retreat was a nurturing safe space. Activism can be very isolating and the retreat enabled many of us to share our experiences with people who understood the background we came from. These emotional connections were infinitely valuable.
I left the day feeling strengthened. Not only do I feel there is a like-minded community of activists who I align with, I feel as though the tactics being used are culturally aware and thoughtful. We left with tangible actions to take forward to our communities and loved ones. I also felt like I got to see many different ways of being Bohri in America. We all have different levels of religiousness and practice, but nonetheless, we all think that we can come together and make a difference in ending this harmful practice.
Growing up as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Community in the United States is a challenging experience, especially for women. It’s like precariously walking across a tightrope while trying to balance two vastly different worlds. In one world, there are the positive benefits that come from belonging to a community rich with tradition and ritual, with a strong emphasis on family. In the other world, there are the progressive ideas that come from living in a country (United States) whose core values emphasize reason and individualism and women’s rights. Usually, those of us who grew up here in the U.S. can find a way to reconcile the two worlds, but certain Bohri practices like khatna or FGC can make that very difficult and force those of us who really care about the values in the U.S. world to call into question everything we knew or thought we knew about the first world, the Bohra world.
When I realized that I was cut as a child and that this practice was not common among other girls, not even most other Muslim girls, I felt very isolated and “different”. The isolation was made more acute because khatna was a subject that was never spoken about, not even among other girls who were my age. When my sister first told me about the existence of groups like Sahiyo and We Speak Out, I finally felt like I was not alone, and by telling my story of undergoing khatna, I could start the process of healing and perhaps give a voice to those of us who are not yet ready to share their stories.
It was in this spirit that I attended the first ever Sahiyo activist retreat this past January. I wanted to meet the brave women who had been the first to speak out openly against FGC and who allowed the rest of us to finally have a platform to do so. I also wanted to learn more about the medical, legal and religious aspects of the practice so that I could talk about it with both the media and members of the community in a way that was challenging the practice without necessarily denigrating the people who chose to practice it.
The retreat was so much more gratifying than anything I had expected. The retreat helped me to learn quite a lot about khatna, the power of storytelling and the challenges that FGC activists face. But more importantly, the retreat helped me learn quite a bit about myself and my need to feel validated and heard. The women I met at the retreat differed vastly in their ages and backgrounds. Some were from conservative jamaats [congregations] and some were from what I consider more liberal jamaats. Some were still pretty active in the community and others less so. Some felt ready to publicly share their stories, others were less comfortable. But they all had a story I could relate to in some way and they all shared a commitment to help end this practice for the next generation of Bohri girls.
For me, speaking out about a practice like FGC has sometimes been challenging. Sometimes it has felt like the media and certain political groups have used my story to further their political motives while additionally, people in the community I care about have attacked me for being a traitor. It’s a journey that has felt scary and demoralizing and frustrating as much as the journey has felt empowering and worthwhile. That’s why being a part of this January retreat and learning that I was not alone in this journey was such a priceless experience.
One day before Sahiyo’s first activists’ training retreat for Bohras held in February in Mumbai, I was a bit nervous about how it would pan out in terms of arrangement and its overall functioning. But at the same time, I was excited to meet many of the new participants who were supposed to come from outside Mumbai as well residing in Mumbai, with a common goal to bring an end to Female Genital Cutting (FGC).
Surprisingly, on the day of retreat, as participants walked in one by one and we introduced ourselves to each other, I never felt as if we were meeting for the first time. Initially, we began with an ice-breaker activity where we formed a circle and each person turn by turn had to talk about one thing that made them proud about themselves. Others in the circle who shared the same experience or sentiment would then have to high-five the speaker. Almost all participants ended up high-fiving each other because all of them had similar pride in working towards gender equality, helping people in need, educating the girl child, ending FGC and so on. This activity led to higher comfort-levels amongst participants.
The different sessions that followed this introduction dealt with the challenges people face and the best ways to tackle the issue of FGC by spreading awareness and strengthening communication. The sessions were quite interactive and participants actively participated and added their thoughts, suggestions and innovative ideas to eliminate FGC. The most motivating thing for me was that men also took keen interest and were very sensitive about the practice, in the belief that this issue is not just a women’s issue and we need the collective effort of both men and women to end FGC. Moreover, some of the participants belonged to the older age group, and their support to the movement to end FGC was a great achievement and inspiration for the younger generation.
At the end of the training workshops, each and every one took responsibility to help the cause in their own ways, whether it involved spreading awareness at the college level, helping in creating videos and animations on FGC, approaching the masses at the village levels, writing articles in medical journals or approaching medical experts. The participants expressed the need to have more such retreats and workshops in the near future, which was proof to me that this retreat was a success.