U.S. Sahiyo Board Member Spotlight: A. Renee Bergstrom, EdD

Sahiyo’s U.S. Advisory Board provides strategic advice to the management of Sahiyo and ensures 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. For November, we are featuring A. Renee Bergstrom, EdD, a survivor who has worked as an advocate for the abandonment of female genital cutting for decades.

1) Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I have been interested in using my story to help end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) for most of my adult life. I first became involved internationally in 1981 when I applied for a grant from the Women’s Desk of Lutheran World Federation that led to my spending two weeks in Geneva, Switzerland. I spoke with leaders involved in the FGM/C issue, including Marie Assaad, Egypt’s gentle warrior, who was then Deputy Secretary General of the World Council of Churches. The timing was not right politically for my voice to be heard. I would have been seen as another Western woman interfering in other cultures. A group of African women told me to go home and deal with my country’s cultural issues and then come back and compare notes on culture change strategies. This challenge inspired me to continue my college education. I graduated with two bachelor’s degrees from Winona State University in 1988 and 1989, a Master’s degree in adult education from the University of Minnesota in 1992, and a doctorate in education in leadership from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in 2009.

My professional career was with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I served as a phlebotomist for four years, a certified pulmonary function technologist for seven years, and as a patient education specialist for twenty-three years. I also served on the Mayo Clinic Program in Professionalism and Ethics Communication in Healthcare Faculty. I retired from Mayo in 2012. I was an adjunct professor in Women and Gender Studies at Winona State University in 2010 and 2011. In 2008, I became involved with the Academy of Communication in Healthcare and graduated as ACH Faculty in 2017.

My female justice advocacy included mentoring a dynamic young Somali woman, Filsan Ali. In 2015, we produced a brochure for pregnant, infibulated Somali women to share with their physicians or midwives to promote shared decision-making regarding labor and delivery. We distributed the brochures throughout the United States. In the summer of 2016, Filsan and I were interviewed by John Chua, PhD, for his documentary, The Cut. I participated in the End Violence Against Girls Summit on FGM/C in Washington, D.C. on December 2, 2016. On the same day The Guardian published my story including a portion of Dr. Chua’s documentary. I have since been interviewed by several others, including photojournalist Meeri Matilda Koutaniemi of Finland who is writing a book about FGM/C survivors. 

After going public, two other white Christian North American FGM/C survivors reached out to me. They are younger than my children. One woman came to my home, and we worked with the other by phone to write an article that we seek to publish. Although most Christian denominations do not condone FGM/C, we hope to reach Christian readers from churches that do. Our stories may help others have the courage to speak. Christians need to face the damage done by misinterpreting Biblical passages in order to control women. 

2) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo and what opportunities have you been involved in?

I was invited to participate in the Sahiyo Stories in Berkeley, California, in May 2018. I so appreciated the opportunity to decide for myself which aspect of my story to tell and illustrate. After much contemplation, I chose to focus on being silenced because it had the greatest long term impact on my life. The Story Center staff provided excellent professional guidance in shaping the videos. The shared community spirit was an additional blessing and key to our ability to complete the daunting process of revealing such personal parts of our lives. 

I participated with Mariya Taher in showing Sahiyo Stories at the End Violence Against Women Conference at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 9, 2018. I practiced my ACH Winter Course workshop that uses Sahiyo videos at the Knowledge and Evaluation Research (KER) unit at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. I was encouraged to discuss with appropriate faculty the inclusion of the videos in Mayo Medical School curriculum on January 9, 2019. I facilitated an ACH Winter Course workshop entitled Patient Engagement Through Brief Focused Videos that featured our Sahiyo stories on January 31, 2019. It was well received, although participants were quite overwhelmed by the content. 

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

I feel so blessed knowing that my story is now seen as helpful to young women who are standing up to their political, cultural and religious leaders to end FGM/C worldwide. Also, being free of the burden of silence has made me holistically healthier. I experience an ineffable spiritual uplifting.

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

Sahiyo has wisely broadened their scope to include other cultures besides their original focus on the Dawoodi Bohra community. Universal attempts to control women’s sexuality is something for which we women of the world must unite. 

I was impressed with the courage of young women at Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat

By Rashida Rangwala

In March 2019, I attended my second Sahiyo Activist Retreat. For me it was an occasion to meet friends I had made last year at the 2018 retreat, share the progress I had made as an activist over the course of the past year, and demonstrate how much the first retreat had helped me in achieving that progress. My anti-female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) activism has involved talking to reporters and young students ranging in age from high schoolers to college students about the practice of FGM/C in the Bohra community. I have also counseled and educated young mothers and girls on FGM/C and its harmful impact on the girl child. 

I learned at the retreat to take a step back, slow down and listen to the pro-FGM/C people. Don’t make them so angry that they won’t talk to you and you reach a zero communication status. Give them a fair hearing, educate them, dispel misconceptions, break—slowly, but surely—break whatever resistance they have and poke holes in their thinking process until it completely falls apart, until they think for themselves, “Oh, wait a minute, I think I’m not going to do it to my daughter.” Start talking to the mother early and make her strong with knowledge about the harmful impacts of the procedure, so that when her child is seven years old, she makes an informed decision.

I spoke to a high school student that Sahiyo connected me with. She was writing a paper for her school project, interviewed me, and cried a little bit with me when I shared my story with her. I sent her pictures of myself to be used when she made her presentation. In the past, I would only give a name when I shared my story. But I realized that unless you have a picture to associate with the name, people can’t relate to your story on the same personal level. I’m now able to give my picture and have become more public when I share my story, something I didn’t do before the Sahiyo retreat because I was afraid to do so. 

Right at the beginning, on day one of the Sahiyo Retreat, I was happy to see that we had nearly doubled the number of anti-FGM/C activist participants attending the retreat from 11 in 2018 at the first retreat to 21 in 2019. This time around, I had the chance to become acquainted with women from ages 21-28 years old. Talking to them over the course of the 3-days was very insightful. What amazed me was how self aware these young girls were about FGM/C. For me, FGM/C was vague knowledge that was always there in the back of my brain, but these girls knew exactly what had happened to them and were so aware of its consequences and so vocal about sharing their stories and being against it. That was a big insight for me. Perhaps this generational change could be because of social media; it’s in the news. They do have that advantage, which my generation did not. They have more sources of information today,

I was impressed with their courageous resolve to bring about change in thought in the Bohra community. To me, these young women were simply brave souls. Some of these young FGM/C survivors had opened up conversations with their mothers about performing the procedure on them. While others had yet to speak to their mothers about FGM/C, they were in the process of building up the stamina they needed to take up that challenging task. I had a chance to tell them, “Don’t delay it.” It’s too late for me. My mom passed away and I never got to talk to her.

It was amazing to see the collaboration between generations of women at this year’s retreat. We are certainly making progress in creating awareness in our community about how harmful FGM/C is to the girl child and we are bringing about a change in the thought process of the new generation so that they will abandon FGM/C. I am looking forward to the 2020 retreat and how it will spread our message slowly, but organically, one activist at a time. 

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). 

Copy of IMG_1572.jpg
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.