Missing Link

Missing Link

By Anonymous

No cuts, no wounds, but deep empathy for my sisters.
I came to NY for the 4th time but for an entirely different circumstance.

Being part of the Bohra community, I have made countless connections, some of who have been integral in my life. Yet, I still felt distant from the community that often lacked logic and ran high on emotion. Weird though, since I am kind of the same way at times.
Learning about FGM for the first time at 14, everything shifted. I have always had an ability to empathize with others, but this was something utterly outside of my scope.

I bowed my head and accepted that I will never understand the magnitude of this trauma,
but I can surely become part of a movement and advocate alongside. I can use my voice.
I can use my ability to empathize as a tool to heal the traumatic wounds.

The 2nd annual Sahiyo Retreat was nothing short of inspirational bliss.
I felt recharged.
I felt motivated.
I felt empowered.
To hear each survivor’s story and understand ways to take action–
it has become a movement.
A movement that I want to walk with.

While energy can subside, the power of one weekend
still buzzes in my heart.

Knowledge, trauma, empowerment, change, community- all words
That have taken on a new meaning entirely.

As I wait for the next retreat, I continue to ask my self
What can I do, learn, ask different every day
to continue to be well-informed and a true
activist.

Thank you, Sahiyo
For bestowing this buzz of energy
And for helping me connect the
missing link
of emotion and logic.
And that link is
SISTERHOOD.

The Sahiyo Activist Retreat gave me insight on how to talk about FGM/C

By Alifya Sulemanji

Age: 45

Country of Residence: United States

I was looking forward to attending the second Sahiyo Activist Retreat as it is a great platform to meet more women who are standing up for the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). I was happy to meet women from different parts of the United States. It was a great experience to hear different views of women of all age groups. It is encouraging to see more and more women join every year. 

FGM/C has always been a very sensitive issue for me, as I had been through this atrocity myself and would never want another innocent child to go through it. 

As I mentioned in my prior post about the first retreat, I have a very vivid memory of being cut at the tender age of seven. It felt like my body was being violated. Even when I was just 7 years of age, I knew something wrong had been done to me as I was told that this thing was a dark secret I was not supposed to tell anyone about. As I grew up I found out that none of my other friends had this religious ritual done, and it confirmed that what had been done to me was wrong. In the past few years, I learned that many other women like me felt the same way. 

The Sahiyo Activist Retreat gave me insight into how I can talk to other pro-FGM/C people and how I can convey my thoughts on FGM/C to them in a positive way.

Sahiyo has created a strong platform for women like me to come out and express their grief and opinions to create awareness.

Why I feel Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat is a sacred space

By Anonymous
Country of Residence: United States
Age: 35

I knew that feeling of being surrounded by Bohra women, for two full days, chatting, laughing, crying and sharing experiences of what it means to be Bohra. That sense of community, that inspiration that came from hearing everyone’s stories, and that deep desire to want to make change happen for the better. I had experienced it at the first Sahiyo Retreat and was grateful to have the opportunity once again this year. 

The retreat is like a sacred space: a space where you can just let go, where you can heal and allow others to heal, where you can learn from each other, and together find solutions. The answers to solve problems in our community are all within, but talking to each other helps bring that clarity. 

I have been volunteering with Sahiyo for a few years now, and I felt that the retreat helped reinforce my commitment to continue to speak up against female genital cutting.

To read more articles about Sahiyo’s Activist Retreats, click here.

How the Sahiyo Activist Retreat helped me gain perspective from other khatna survivors

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Age: 32

I felt a strong need to participate in the Sahiyo 2019 Activist Retreat because I hoped to heal from my experience of FGM/C and to gain perspective from other women who had been victims of khatna as well. For the first time in my life, I openly discussed what happened to me and my own feelings about khatna. The memory of that day is still seared in my mind and will never escape me. And while I don’t truly care to open old wounds, I want desperately for survivors to find a way to move forward and stop this practice within our community. For me the retreat was an outlet to figure out how to never let this happen again. 

Sahiyo Activist Retreat

I remember when the news about the Detroit case first came out; I asked a friend of mine if she went through khatna. When she said no, I immediately thought, how lucky. The retreat gave me a new perspective on it all. Yes, she is lucky, but was it fair that she had to pretend it happened to her just to avoid repercussions for her family? After the retreat, I thought even though she was spared the knife, she still had to perpetuate a lie that every girl in our community had gone through this traumatic event. That, too, has a set of problems. 

The retreat taught me that issues surrounding khatna are more complicated than just making the act itself illegal. I also had an opportunity to see that women who weren’t cut still have an opinion and story to share. I believe that together, we can effect change. The retreat gave me a platform to understand how to discuss and teach others within the community to stop practicing khatna. The retreat also offered a platform to discuss solutions, whether small scale or large, and I think that is the best starting point when discussing such a heavy and complicated subject. I am so thankful to have a community of like minded women who care so much about effecting change. I look forward to nurturing these relationships and together working toward long-term, permanent solutions to ending khatna. 

The unexpected gift of attending the U.S. Sahiyo Activist Retreat and connecting with other survivors

By Anonymous

The Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat I attended in March of 2019 felt big to me. In the days after, I told people it blew me away, meaning that it occupied my thoughts as it was all I could talk about and think about for a while. There were parts of it that felt like group therapy, something I had not expected. I just had not expected how deeply moving it is for someone else to say, “That happened to me, too.” We all know that there is an entire social movement around the #metoo hashtag, but it is more than a hashtag. It felt like when you are doing an exercise, and the teacher comes up to you, adjusts you a little, and then the whole exercise changes. 

Sahiyo Activist Retreat

A lot of the time during the retreat, it felt like someone was reaching inside me and physically shifting an organ or two. For one other woman to say to me “I get a lot of urinary tract infections, too” just made me want to cry. The crazy thing is that other women have said that to me. Tons of friends have said that, but I always remembered thinking, “Ok, but you weren’t cut.” But this time, this one time, when the other woman said it, I suddenly felt a rush of gratitude and warmth and unparalleled comradery. I wasn’t crazy, and if I was, I wasn’t alone in being crazy. I just had no idea how moving it would be to be in a group where I could hear others talk about their experiences, for me to feel normal in being abnormal. 



I had always thought individual therapy was valuable, but I simply had no idea that a group can offer a kind of cathartic experience that is impossible to achieve by yourself. To be honest, I thought group therapy was for people who couldn’t afford individual therapy. But I was completely wrong. They are completely different and utterly valuable in their own ways. If you have been cut, and you are skeptical, and jaded, and private (like me), you can really trust that you can enter this space and never feel pressured to speak. You can speak when you are moved to speak. And even if all you do is listen, it is transformative and life-changing. 

In the weeks since the retreat, it also seems like I have been feeling all the feels. While I was there, it felt like a high. Even in the couple of weeks after it, I was finally openly dealing with a lot that had just been buried. I felt like I grew and stretched. I talked about it more than I ever had. But no matter what, it all still happened, and that can’t be erased. And there are moments I still feel fucked up and uneasy about it all. Maybe that is what I just have to learn — how to hold it all at the same time. 

Sahiyo’s Second Annual Retreat: A Space for Healing and Reflection

By Maryum Saifee

In late March, I participated in Sahiyo’s Second Annual Retreat for survivors and allies in the campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM). Attendees from the first retreat commented on how the program had more than doubled in size to over 20 this year. As an FGM survivor who reluctantly stumbled into this advocacy work three years ago, it made me reflect on how far we — as in the Bohra community — have come in such a short time.

Maryum Saifee

Before 2016, only a handful of survivors had publicly shared their stories and many were anonymous blog posts. The intense community backlash for speaking out has prevented many from being able to share their stories. Even at the retreat, most of the attendees preferred to stay behind the scenes. Through the tireless dedication of the organizers (Mariya Taher, Zehra Patwa, Alisha Bhagat, and others), Sahiyo created a safe space for these survivors and allies to heal, recharge, and strategize on how to harness the power of our collective to make change. 

Thanks to Sahiyo — which has a foothold in both South Asia and the United States — we are seeing momentum build toward a transnational movement where dozens of survivors are sharing their stories breaking the culture of silence around FGM. For decades, the spotlight on FGM has almost exclusively centered on sub-Saharan Africa. Now, as more survivors from non-African communities speak out, we are seeing this is much more pervasive than we previously thought. In Indonesia for example, UNICEF estimated that nearly 50% of girls and women are cut before 14 years of age.  

In addition to providing a space to connect with one another and forge bonds of solidarity, we also had the opportunity to connect with other faith communities working to end gender-based violence. Linda Kay Klein, a feminist who was brought up as an evangelical Christian, discussed her recent book Pure, and the challenges she has faced with speaking up in her community. There were many parallels between her struggles and our own. Both the Bohra and evangelical communities are insular and tend to ostracize those who question authority.

During a coffee break, I had the opportunity to chat with Linda on the idea of doing an interfaith storytelling collaboration. Her talk was timely, as a member of the evangelical tradition from Kentucky had just broken her silence as an FGM survivor, reinforcing that FGM transcends race, religion, and geography.

As advisory board chair of Sahiyo, I felt privileged to see the organization’s work in action.  Far too often, there is a martyrdom culture among activists where they feel the need to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Sahiyo’s commitment to annual retreats are critical in sustaining the activists who are the fuel behind the movement to end FGM. It was an honor to participate. I look forward to reconvening next year to continue learning from this amazing network of sister warriors.   

Thankful to be connected with so many incredible Bohra women

By Zehra Patwa

I wasn’t a newbie, I had attended this retreat last year and I recall the immense healing power and strength of spending over two days with ten other Bohra women sharing our deepest feelings about a secret practice that had touched all our lives. When I had the opportunity to help organize the 2nd Annual Sahiyo Activist Retreat, I jumped at the chance! This year the number of attendees had doubled from 11 participants in 2018 to 21 participants in 2019, with many first timers. The retreat seeks to build upon the growing network of Bohra women in the United States who want to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). 

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Sahiyo Activist Retreat 2019

Being in the activism field to end FGM/C for a few years now, I have had time to work through my experience and define how I feel about it. What was interesting to me was hearing women speaking out about this practice for the first time as they worked through their personal experiences. It reminded me so much of how I felt when I first started to talk about this issue, yet these women were so eloquent and inspiring in the way they talked about it. It gave me strength to hear so many women express so many different viewpoints. 

IMG_1255Although we all had similar khatna (FGM/C) experiences, we all came from different kinds of families, with differing attachment points to the Bohra community and yet, we related so easily to each other. I felt like I could really be myself in a very honest and open way which is not how I always feel when I attend community events. I am so thankful to be connected with this incredible group of strong Bohra women, and I am grateful to Sahiyo for providing a platform to meet in person.

(Editor’s note: Zehra attended last year’s retreat and was on the planning committee for the retreat this year.)

‘A Pinch of Skin’ to Screen in Berlin

Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary ‘A Pinch of Skin’ will be screening at NaturFreudeJungend in Berlin on the 25th May. 25th May is also the one-year anniversary of the historic repealing of the ban on abortion in Ireland, also known as the 8th Amendment. This is especially significant as a successful contemporary feminist movement, where women of Ireland voted against the ban on abortion, influencing pro-choice ideas in the Irish constitution.

Goswami will be joined by a pro-choice activist from Ireland, Dervla O’Malley and Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation activist, for a panel discussion post the screening. The discussion will aim to look at practices and cultural ideas such as Female Genital Cutting, stigma on abortion, menstruation taboos which try to control the female body and sexuality. 

Volunteer Spotlight: Sakina Sharp

Sakina Sharp is a corporate attorney and co-founder of a domestic violence organization in San Antonio. Sakina is vice president and managing attorney at USAA, which is a financial services company. She has been a practicing in-house attorney for 20 years, specializing in insurance regulatory law and consumer privacy. Approximately 8 years ago, she co-founded a nonprofit in San Antonio, Awaaz, to serve South Asians who are survivors of domestic violence. She served on the board for 7 years. She recently joined Sahiyo as a volunteer.

1) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

Early this year, I discovered Sahiyo when searching for an organization that advocates against female genital mutilation/cutting. This issue has been on my mind for decades and at the same time, it was hidden under the surface. I did not know, realize or understand that there were so many other Bohri women who felt the same way I do, and were doing something about it. I found Sahiyo on Facebook, and was taken aback. I felt like I found a forum to express my hidden story. I wanted to share my experience, and I thought getting involved with Sahiyo would be a way to do it. My first involvement was attending the annual retreat. The conversations in the retreat were very powerful. They helped me process my own experience. I had a hidden story inside me for many decades. The retreat allowed me to express it and then verbalize it into a blog.

2) What opportunities have you been involved with at Sahiyo?

I attended the annual retreat a few months ago. The experience was impactful. Since then, I volunteered to be the newsletter coordinator. I also draft the legislative and regulatory updates, allowing me to apply my legal training to my volunteer work.

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

My involvement has helped me express myself and feel part of a bigger cause. I feel like I do my little bit to give a voice to an important gender-violence issue, which I personally have not been able to express in public. Perhaps if each one of us does our bit, we can encourage just another person to speak up, and then that person encourages another, and we eventually make a systematic change.

4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?

Sahiyo provides a very safe place to advocate against FGM/C. Each of us can volunteer in our own ways. We can be private advocates, talking to our family members and friends, or pubic advocates, talking to the larger community by attaching our names to our stories. Whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it, Sahiyo is there to provide the tools we need to tell our stories. And, if we just want to listen, and do it anonymously, Sahiyo provides a venue for that as well. My advice is to reach out as you are not alone.

 

Why I care about khatna: Reflections from the 2019 Sahiyo Activist Retreat

By Alisha Bhagat

I first found out about female genital cutting, or khatna, in my community in my twenties; my mother told me it had been done to her. At the time I was shocked. I thought this was something that happened to other people in far off places, not to my mom or Nani or Masi. It was only after talking to other Bohra women that I realized that I was not unusual in knowing a survivor. Every woman in our community is a survivor or knows a survivor.

As I began talking to people about khatna, I started to receive some pushback. Even people who admitted the practice was outdated and unnecessary were uncomfortable speaking about it. In the grand scheme of things, I was told, this is so small. It’s such a small pinch of skin. It’s just a moment in a girl’s life. It’s not indicative of who we are and all the good things we have done and built.

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Alisha Bhagat

But I believe the opposite, it is precisely in small moments that we show what we value and who we are. Khatna is more than a cut, it is the manifestation of so many other underlying problems.

As activists we focus on khatna for a few reasons. First we believe this practice itself is traumatic, unnecessary, and has long lasting implications for women’s health and sexuality. It is a straightforward violation of bodily autonomy. Second, the culture surrounding it speaks to the way in which we are shamed, silenced, diminished, threatened, and put in our places.

Earlier this year I attended the Sahiyo Activist Retreat. This retreat help me see how khatna is part of a large system. Just as there are many factors that perpetuate this practice (culture of shame, silence, and devaluation of female sexual experience) there are also many ways in which we have leverage to act.

The retreat highlighted different areas in which we can act to both support survivors and end this practice through the legal system, the medical establishment, in our places of worship, our homes, and our families. At the foundation of all of this is storytelling. Without survivors and allies sharing their stories, the topic remains shrouded in silence.

My hope is that the retreat will help grow our community of activists. And that there will be other safe spaces for people to talk, share stories, and connect. Most importantly, for us to create new models of being in the world, creating new spaces and communities.