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).
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.
Although 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As Sahiyo’s U.S. operations and programs have grown, in 2018, we invited various individuals from a host of backgrounds and professions to join our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board. The 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.
This month, we are pleased to highlight Zehra Patwa, who has graciously agreed to serve as the Vice-Chair for our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board.
1) Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was born and brought up in the UK and moved to the US in the 1990s. I was born into the Dawoodi Bohra community and remain there with my family here in the US. In 2012, I saw a video of a Bohra woman talking about her khatna (FGM/C) and it opened up a whole world that I had previously been oblivious to. At that same time, I found out that I, too, had undergone the cut at the age of 7 but I have no recollection of it. Despite having no memory of my experience, I decided I could not be silent about this practice in what I had always known to be an educated and progressive community with strong women role models. I co-founded WeSpeakOut with several other women who were determined to end khatna in the Bohra community and we have helped open up the conversation on this once secret practice. We have also shed light on the practice in the Indian Supreme Court and hope to have an anti-FGM/C law on the books in the near future, I am also involved on the Board of IRIS, a refugee resettlement agency working to help refugees make a successful life in the US. I feel very strongly that we need to see each other as human beings first rather than getting bogged down with which group we identify with.
2) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo and what opportunities have you been involved in?
When I first got involved with activism, it was in a Whatsapp group with the founders of Sahiyo and several other women discussing our khatna experiences and encouraging each other to speak out against this injustice. Since then, my connection with Sahiyo has blossomed! Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut have done several campaigns together, notably, Each One Reach One, where we developed helpful guides to start the conversation about khatna between friends and family. I have attended several Sahiyo retreats, as well as participating in the wonderful Sahiyo Stories workshop where I created a video describing my feelings toward the reactions I have faced for speaking out about khatna.
3) How has your involvement impacted your life?
Finding out about this practice in my community in my forties set me off on a path of activism that I would never have foreseen. Working with Sahiyo has taught me that social change takes time and in order for cultural norms to shift, there needs to be a groundswell of support and shared experiences. I feel confident that with so many people speaking out, that this groundswell of support is growing every day and that gives me hope for the young girls in the Bohra community.
4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?
Listen to those who you may not agree with and try to find common ground. You will find that even if you disagree about something as important as khatna, you can find mutual understanding and come to a place where you are able to communicate at a deep level. That is the beginning of true social change.
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.