Examining Female Genital Cutting and Intersectionality

By a Bohra

The recent dropping of charges against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who is accused of performing female genital cutting on underage girls in the United States, on a constitutional technicality rather than perceived criminality, solidified my thinking about the relationship between power and oppression.   

This thought was first introduced to me by Irfan Engineer, the son of Asghar Ali Engineer, a prominent activist who engaged in a decades-long battle with the Bohra orthodoxy over community reform. Irfan, a successful activist in his own right, described to me the relationship between the Indian state and the Bohra clergy. As long as the clergy declared electoral allegiance to the government, the state would turn a blind eye to the clergy’s authoritarian rule over the Bohra community. This relationship was made visible by the government’s reversal of its support for a national law against FGC, shortly after Prime Minister Modi (dis)graced the stage at one of this year’s Bohra Ashura sermons.

Modi extolled the virtues of the economically and educationally advanced Bohras, who were allegedly setting a great example for their impoverished and persecuted Muslim countrymen. Seeing Modi on stage, Bohra Muslims could almost forget the carnage inflicted in Gujarat in 2002, and Modi’s rampant Islamophobia since. The Bohra community has probably been shielded from Islamophobic violence because of the clergy’s close relationship with the ruling right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideological parent, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

Even I was willing to overlook the fact that the Indian government’s attempt at criminalising FGC was based more on criminalising Muslims rather than empowering women. Yet, I thought, maybe the ends will justify the means. I was wrong. Modi’s relationship with the Bohra clergy makes it clear that we cannot rely on the Indian government to end FGC in our community. Even if the Supreme Court rules in favour of criminalising FGC, we can be certain that the government will do nothing to enforce the ruling.

This violent relationship between the state and vulnerable women is not restricted to the Indian context. I am reminded of the first FGC case to be prosecuted in Australia, where three people were sent to jail after being proven guilty. An appeals court, however, acquitted them all after new evidence was released that showed that “the tip of the clitoris was still visible in each girl”. The reduction of the emotional, physical and ideological violence of FGC down to a visual assessment of a pinch of skin shows the weakness of even Western legal systems in protecting marginalised women. It is similar to the victim blaming that is still a routine in rape trials, and the inability of the state to protect women who report honour-based violence. Whether through negligence or structural misogyny, Western and non-Western governments have failed women.

If the government is not an ally, could I turn instead to ‘reformists’ within my own community?

I am in contact with certain Bohras who are not part of the mainstream community, and reject the leadership of the current clergy. They believe that the current leaders have deviated from the true message of the Imams,  and that we must educate ourselves by going back to the original sources of our tradition. I thought that this group of people (mostly men), espousing rationality and critical inquiry, would immediately be against FGC. I was wrong. The emphasis on going back to the original sources means that they accept, uncritically, the infamous book by Qadi Numan (Da’im Al Islam) that advocates for girls to be ‘circumcised’ once they are older than 7 years old. Any debate, often started by the few women in the WhatsApp group, about the necessity of this practice in our modern context, or even about the issue of consent, is shut down. I thought that a shared experience of living under a tyrannical religious clergy might force these men to be more critical of existing power structures and hear the voices of marginalised women. Once again, I was wrong. I learned that the patriarchy, embodied by these ‘reformist’ men, can never be leveraged to end violence against women.

I learned that it is not worth compromising my core values in order to ally with fickle powers that do not center marginalised voices and their struggles. Real change can only happen from the ground up. This is why the work done by organisations such as Sahiyo is vital. By reaching out to individuals, and creating a space to share our stories, Sahiyo creates sustainable change within the community, and rebalances the power structures that exist within.

 

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Aarefa Johari and Masooma Ranalvi discuss FGC at We the Women Bangalore

On October 7, Sahiyo co-founder Aarefa Johari and We Speak Out founder Masooma Ranalvi participated in a panel discussion on Female Genital Cutting in India, at the We the Women summit organised by veteran journalist Barkha Dutt in Bangalore. Prominent human rights activist Srilatha Batliwala moderated the discussion.

The event was attended by more than 200 people in Bangalore and was streamed live on social media. Ranalvi and Johari shared their personal experiences of being subjected to FGC and discussed various aspects of the problem from the need to engage with the community to end the practice and the significance of a law against it.

You can watch the complete video of the discussion here.

The event was a follow up to a similar We the Women summit in Mumbai in December 2017, when Sahiyo co-founder Insia Dariwala spoke about the practice along with Mubaraka and Zohra, two survivors of FGC. You can watch last year’s video here.

Introducing Sahiyo’s inaugural U.S. Advisory Board

Sahiyo is pleased to introduce our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board. As our U.S. operations and programs have grown, the advisory board will provide strategic advice to the management of our organization, and ensure that we continue fulfilling our mission to empower communities to end Female Genital Cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement. Advisory board members will be supporting a human rights driven organization dedicated to creating a world without Female Genital Cutting through dialogue, education and direct community involvement.

Join us in welcoming the team: Maria Akhter, Renee Bergstrom, Alisha Bhagat, Insia Dariwala, Dr. Melody Eckardt, Joanne Golden, Priya Goswami, Aarefa Johari, Zehra Patwa, Maryum Saifee, and Joanna Vergoth.

‘I Hope my Story Helps other Women’: A Reflection on the Sahiyo Stories Workshop

By Maryah Haidery

Last December I participated in a Sahiyo activist retreat where I learned the unique power that storytelling has to teach, stimulate, and inspire audiences while offering the storyteller a sense of empowerment and catharsis. That’s why I was excited to reunite with some of the brave women I met on that retreat for a three-day storytelling workshop this past May. Since I didn’t have a clear memory of my own khatna, I decided to focus on the aspect of it which did have a profound effect on me: my relationship with my mother and my struggle to understand her decision.

Although I am and always have been opposed to the practice of FGC, I was nevertheless upset by the ways in which the women who practiced it were portrayed as “heartless monsters” or “unforgiveable child abusers” by the media and by anti-Muslim bigots who were using it as an excuse to justify their stance against immigration. In an effort to change this perception, I agreed to sit down with my mother to discuss FGC with a local radio news reporter. I hoped this would encourage people to see her as a person and try to understand her motivations for doing what she did even if they didn’t agree with it.

I love my mother dearly, but I think the interview left me with more questions than answers, and I wanted to explore a little bit of those conflicting emotions in the story I told in the workshop. I hope my story helps other women who might be going through the same emotions as I did to know that they aren’t alone and that it is OK to not have everything figured out. Everyone needs to decide for themselves what they want or need from the relationships in their lives and if a relationship is worth keeping. Sometimes forgiveness is important – not for the other person,  but for yourself.IMG_0907

At first I was really nervous about sharing my story with everyone, but all the women in the workshop were incredibly supportive and encouraging and made the workshop truly worthwhile. I also felt honored to be able to experience each of their incredible and unique stories. In three short days we had bonded over shared experiences, (and incredible food) so even though I only had two sisters when I first arrived at the workshop, by the time I left, I had eleven.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Maryah Haidery:

MaryahMaryah Haidery is a medical writer from New Jersey. She graduated from Temple University with a doctorate in pharmacy and completed her post-doctoral fellowship in medical communications at a medical communications company in Princeton. Her interests include writing about oncology, pain management and rare diseases and mentoring students at the University of the Sciences where she served as Adjunct Clinical Instructor. Maryah only recently became aware of the Sahiyo movement through a family member. Although she is new to activism, she believes that it is vitally important to shine light on the long taboo subject of female circumcision in hopes of encouraging real and lasting change. She thinks this is only possible if we can confront the complicated mix of ideas surrounding khatna and critically appraise the practice without necessarily denigrating the people who practice it.

Sahiyo Storycenter Workshop: The Power of Storytelling

By Zehra Patwa

Shame. Deceit. Confusion. On the first day, sitting around a large table in a light-filled room in the StoryCenter workshop space in Berkeley, California, these words were repeated over and over again by each woman sharing her story of being cut as a young girl. And in most cases, the story was disturbingly similar: a young girl is taken to a strange place by a female family member, she is not told what is going to happen to her except some euphemism that means nothing to her, the girl is cut by stranger, she experiences pain like she’s never experienced before and she is told never to talk about it again. But the experience stays with her…

Hope. Love. Protection. And then there were stories by women who, as girls, had been spared the cut and those who had worked through their trauma, so there were also inspiring words that came out of these stories which made the whole StoryCenter process a positive and uplifting experience that will stay with me for years to come.

When Sahiyo co-founder, Mariya TaherIMG_0907, first invited me to this workshop for US-based anti-FGM/C activists, I wondered what I would possibly talk about. As an activist for WeSpeakOut, I have told my khatna story in many different forums before, so what could I talk about now?  We were tasked with preparing a 300-word script outlining the story we wanted to tell and, for weeks, I vacillated between multiple topics.  I finally chose to focus on the reaction I received from my community, the Dawoodi Bohras, when I began to speak out about the secretive practice of FGM/C/Khafz/Khatna.

While describing my outline to my fellow workshop participants, I felt unsure that IMG_0953anyone would care about my story and whether it was a story that was even worth telling.  But when I finished, there was a pause, then someone said, “That was powerful.”

Over the next 2 days, I refined my story and built my video with much input from Amy, Orchid and the other participants who I, very quickly, would call friends.  Their opinions about word choice, sentence structure, and which images and videos to use made my story come to life in a way that I had not imagined!

At the end of the third day, I had a new creation.  Yes, it was still a little rough around the edges and needed some minor editing but it was a revelation to be able to produce a video of my story in 3 days that resonated with other people.  I’m proud of what I did, but prouder of the fact that it was a true team effort. After all, it takes a village!

What I took away from the Sahiyo StoryCenter experience is that there are people who understand my struggle of wanting to be part of a community while working to end one practice within it. They are people who understand that I am not trying to bash my community or shame it, people who will support me even though it may invite a similar reaction to what I have experienced.

As we share our videos, I hope people realize that, although they may find it hard to speak out, it is so incredibly beneficial to so many others who feel they have no voice. That is why I speak out.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Zehra:

Zehra PatwaZehra Patwa is the Co-Founder of WeSpeakOut, an organization that strives to work for equal rights for Bohra women in all spheres of life, specifically, on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) or khafz. She grew up in London and was educated at the University of Bradford Management Centre in the UK and the Université de Montpellier in France. Zehra serves on the Board of the Foote School and Co-Chairs MOSAIC, the Foote School’s multicultural affairs and diversity group. She recently joined the Board of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). After discovering well into adulthood, that Type 1 FGM/C was practiced in her community and that she, too, had been subjected to it, she decided she could no longer keep silent.  Although she has no recollection of the practice being done to her, she is vehemently opposed to it and has been working with the WeSpeakOut group to expose the practice within, and outside, the community.

A Tradition That Branded Me

By Severina Lemachokoti

I chose to tell this particular story about my experience with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) because the story defines me, who I am, and shows what my culture/tradition branded me with. The story reflects the reality of what I went through and what I felt as a little girl. This is my other life that no one knows unless I share it with them. Sharing my story at the Sahiyo Stories workshop was a bit hard, but at the same time, it was a relief because I shared it with women who can relate to my hurt, women who have gone through painful and traumatic experiences as other FGM survivors. I felt comfortable and at ease with my sisters. I enjoyed the sisterhood, the courage, and passion that each of them embraced during the entire time. The storytelling process was smooth and very educative. I was able to revise my own story and put it in a way that I am confident will make a difference to our communities.

My advocacy on FGM is primarily focused on community education and the mental health of the survivors. As an activist, I believe that FGM will end when our communities are educated on the negative effects of FGM and find alternative ways of celebrating cultural practices without cutting girls’ genitalia. I am also aware that it is the right of each community to uphold their traditions and beliefs, but culture should not violate the rights of young girls in any way either. The mental health of survivors is a critical issue that needs to be looked into and addressed. Most of us are traumatized and still bear the pain of the cut even after so many years and it is necessary that survivors get healed in order for them to step up and talk about FGM in a way that can save other young girls who are at a risk.

My story is not very different from those of other survivors, but at the same time, I

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Severina with Lena Khandwala at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

believe I am unique and so my story is unique because of the painful experience and feelings that I had during the cutting. My hope is that my story and the stories of my other sisters will change our communities. I am looking forward to working with various organizations and individuals to see that our girls are free from FGM across the world. I will basically do my activism work till the end of my days, and advocate for supporting the mental health of FGC survivors across the world.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Severina:

17904081_1414046985328334_8283055367043356965_nSeverina Lemachokoti is an anti-FGM campaigner, a human rights defender and a gender activist from the Samburu community in Northern Kenya. Severina graduated from Wichita State University, Kansas State with a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies, with focus on Community Psychology, Sociology and Women Studies. She was the Cultural Ambassador- Kenya, at Wichita State University and participated in various activities that fostered diversity and inclusion. She worked as a graduate research assistant in the Criminal Justice department and also worked at the graduate office as a receptionist. Severina is a professionally trained teacher and holds a bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology and a higher diploma in psychological counseling. As one of the survivors of FGM, Severina uses her own experience to educate young girls from Kenya and her community to say “NO” to FGM and other harmful cultural practices. She has helped in changing the lives of young girls and women in her community through mentorship programs in schools and churches. Severina worked as a program officer for the ANTI-FGM Board, a government body under the ministry of gender to implement the ANTI-FGM act of 2011 and the 2010 constitution of Kenya to protect the rights of young girls in Kenya. Severina is a member of various organizations in Kenya and Africa that defend the rights of young girls and has spoken in various conferences including the UN on the rights of young indigenous girls and women.

Sahiyo co-founders win Laadli and ShoorVeer Awards in India

Sahiyo’s investigative report on the previously unknown prevalence of Female Genital Cutting in the Indian state of Kerala won the prestigious Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity for the year 2017. The report was authored by Sahiyo co-founder Aarefa Johari and independent writer and activist Aysha Mahmood.

Johari received the Laadli award on behalf of both authors at an event in Delhi on September 14 by Laadli’s founding organisation, Population First. Eminent journalist P Sainath was the chief guest at the event.

Johari and Mahmood’s investigation uncovered, for the first time, that FGC was being practiced covertly by two doctors in a clinic in the city of Kozhikide (Calicut) in Kerala. The doctors admitted to cutting girls and women of all ages from various Sunni Muslim sects in Kerala. Previously, it was widely believed that the Bohras were the only community practicing FGC in India. (Read the Sahiyo investigation report here.)

The Sahiyo investigation caused a furore in Kerala after Mathrubhoomi, a prominent Malayalam newspaper, conducted a follow-up exposé of the same clinic, and published a first-person account of a young woman from Kerala who had undergone FGC as a child. The exposés led to a temporary shut down of the clinic in Calicut where girls were being cut and prompted several religious leaders to publicly condemn the practice. The health minister of Kerala also ordered the state police to take strict action against anyone found practicing FGC.

ShoorVeer Awards

Sahiyo’s co-founders Insia Dariwala and Aarefa Johari won the ShoorVeer Awards 2018 in Mumbai on August 10. The awards, given by the organisation Ample Missiion, were instituted to honour the bravery and courage of “common men and women who have done uncommon things”. The word “ShoorVeer” is Hindi for a brave warrior.

A total of 14 individuals from across India were awarded ShoorVeer awards this year, including two police officers who have excelled in their duties, two children who saved their friend’s life, an amputee sportsman and several women and men working in the fields of education, health, and human rights.

Aarefa won the award for her work as a Sahiyo co-founder to end the practice of Female Genital Cutting. Insia’s award was a recognition of not just her work to end FGC, but also her work to raise awareness about child sexual abuse through her organisation, The Hands of Hope Foundation.

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Insia Dariwala receiving her ShoorVeer Award.
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Aarefa Johari receiving her ShoorVeer Award.

WeSpeakOut spearheads two-day workshop on ending FGC in India

In a unique event bringing together activists working to end Female Genital Cutting and various stakeholders from civil society organisations, WeSpeakOut organised a two-day symposium at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai on August 1 and 2. The symposium, titled “Strategy-building Workshop on FGM/C in India”, was organised in partnership with TISS, Nari Samata Manch and Sahiyo.

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More than 40 activists, survivors, and researchers participated in the workshop, including women and men from various sub-sects of the Bohra community from different parts of India, feminists, academicians, and heads of several women’s rights and human rights organisations in the country. There were also international participants from Equality Now, a US-based organisation working to end FGC globally and Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, an NGO working to end FGC in Kenya.
Over two days, the workshop nurtured stimulating and productive discussions on various aspects of FGC and discussed strategies to advocate against the practice from the perspectives of law, health, community engagement and working with the youth and with men. The workshop was also an opportunity for activists from the community and those from outside the community to learn from each other.

Sharing My Story of Female Genital Cutting with Other Survivors Comforted Me

By Leena Khandwala

I chose to tell my story of FGC to highlight how after more than three decades, my experience of being cut is still traumatizing and vivid. Everything about it — from the deception leading up to it and the silence around it — make for an unspeakably horrifying experience.

Supporters of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) often try to distinguish the type of cutting that is practiced in the Bohra community from other types of cutting practiced by different cultures.  They claim that the practice in the Bohra community is simply to make a small and benign scrape or nick in the clitoris that causes no harm, and, in fact, may enhance sexual pleasure among women. Through my digital story, I hope to portray the violence and trauma I experienced when I was cut and how it has followed me for the rest of my life.

Participating in this workshop was an important step in my life-long process of coming to terms with my cutting. After finishing law school, I chose to work with women fleeing gender-based harms. One of my first cases involved a woman seeking asylum because she was vehemently opposed to genital cutting and feared that she would be unable to DSC_0074protect her minor daughter from being cut if she had to return to her home country.

In addition, I worked with many other women fleeing various forms of gender violence and found this work to be extremely cathartic. This workshop was a new step along that continuum because it enabled me to muster the courage to find my voice and share my own story.  In that sense, it has helped me shed the shame that has lingered with me to this day as a result of being cut.

There is a strong sense of comfort from shared community experiences. Sharing this story helped me because it reminded me that there are many other people who have gone through similar experiences. I also got to hear and experience multiple other perspectives.  

It was inspiring to see how so many women have channeled their pain and outrage into advocacy for change and are working to ensure that future generations of girls are protected from being cut.  

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Leena:

IMG_1881Leena Khandwala has been practicing immigration law for well over a decade. She is a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, where she assists low-income New Yorkers in applying for a wide range of immigration benefits. Prior to joining The Legal Aid Society, Leena was employed with Brooklyn Defender Services where she was part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which was aimed at providing universal representation to all immigrants in detained removal proceedings. Prior to joining the nonprofit world, Leena was an associate with Claudia Slovinsky and Associates, PLLC, a small boutique law office. Leena has also been a Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic and the Civil Litigation Clinic at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, and a fellow at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Leena received her J.D., cum laude, from Fordham University School of Law in 2004. She was a Stein Public Interest Scholar and a Crowley International Human Rights Scholar. She grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, where she did her Masters in Business Administration at the Institute of Business Administration, in Karachi.

‘Even Though I was Impacted by Female Genital Cutting, I Knew Little about It’

By Aisha Yusuf.

My name is Aisha Yusuf, and I am a female genital cutting (FGC) survivor. I was born in Somalia, a country with one of the highest FGC rates in the world. Recently, Somalia was named by the Thomson Reuters Foundation as being the fourth most dangerous country for women, with FGC happening to 98% of women. I was cut when I was five-years-old. Although it took me a long time to understand my experience, I was enraged that it had happened to me. 

Honestly, I only recently became more active in advocating against FGC. I chose to tell this specific story for my digital story because this was a moment in which I came to terms with why female genital mutilation was bad in our community.

Sharing the story with the group during the Sahiyo Stories workshop was both a relief to me as it was informative. Even though I was impacted by FGC, I knew little about it. I did know that the practice of FGC is unnecessary, even though it’s culturally perpetuated. Though many people try to justify it through religion, I learned it’s actually not in the dsc_0057.jpgpractice of Islam. This storytelling process allowed me to be comfortable with sharing my story instead of feeling shameful about it. Most people in my culture think that by talking openly about it, I’m talking negatively about this secret of the community, but I believe what I’m doing is bringing awareness on a topic that is harmful and so evil. Since 98% of women in Somalia are cut, I want that statistic to be a thing of the past and no longer be true in the 21st century.

Additionally, I am currently offering support to a change.org petition to advocate to ban FGC in Massachusetts, and hopefully, all other U.S. states where there isn’t already a law.  

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Aisha:

IMG_1289Aisha Yusuf is a twenty-nine-year-old female from Somalia, residing in Boston, Massachusetts with her family. She moved to the states as a child and grew up in a little neighborhood called Jamaica Plains. She went to the University of Massachusetts Boston and graduated with a B.A in Psychology in 2017. She works as a case manager for addiction services at the Andrew House Program in the greater area of Boston. As a case manager, she helps people who are in difficult situations find resources they need and how to access them, create plans for treatment or recovery, work with other mental health and human service providers, and monitors her client’s progress with their treatment plans. She considers herself an activist on many issues including women’s rights, poverty and economic injustice, child welfare, healthcare reforms, and racial injustices. During her leisure, she enjoys reading, hiking, traveling, working out, and cooking healthy foods.