Understanding the Supreme Court’s latest judgement mentioning female genital cutting in India

On November 14, after a year of silence on the female genital mutilation/ cutting (FGM/C) case pending before it, the Supreme Court of India mentioned that the case will be referred to a seven-judge Constitution bench. It is likely that the case will now be heard in conjunction with three other petitions dealing with women’s rights and freedom of religion: cases about Hindu women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple, Muslim women’s entry into mosques, and the entry of Parsi women married to non-Parsis into fire temples.     

Previously, in its September 2018 order, the Court had referred the FGC case to a five-judge Constitution bench. Since then, the case had been pending. 

On November 14, however, the Supreme Court brought up the FGC case while hearing a batch of review petitions in the case about Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, where women of menstruating age were traditionally not allowed to enter. The review petitions challenged the Court’s 2018 order which lifted the ban on women’s entry into the temple. 

In its November 14 judgement, a five-judge Supreme Court ruled that the debate on women’s entry into the temple overlapped with other cases about gender and religious rights that are pending before the Court, including women’s entry into mosques and fire temples and female genital mutilation/cutting among Dawoodi Bohras. It stated that a larger bench first needs to rule on the interpretation of the very principles governing the fundamental right to freedom of religion in the Constitution, before passing judgement on all of those cases from different communities.   

The implications of clubbing these various cases under one umbrella are yet to be seen, but the Court’s judgement does raise some concerns. 

Although these cases share the common theme of women’s rights within religion, the cultural ritual of cutting minor girls’ genitals is very different in substance from the rules restricting women’s entry into places of worship. It would be ideal if each of these issues are evaluated separately, on a case-by-case basis.

Sahiyo believes that the matter of FGC needs to be treated with a little more urgency. Fourteen months have already passed since the Supreme Court first referred the FGC case to a Constitution bench last year. That bench was never formed, and now the Court’s decision to first adjudicate on larger questions of law is likely to stall hearings that may have been scheduled in the FGC case. 

Since the practice of FGC involves causing bodily harm to young girls, every delay puts more girls at risk of being cut. 

A quick recap of the FGC case

In April 2017, Delhi-based lawyer Sunita Tiwari filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the practice of female genital cutting (also known as khatna, khafz, sunnath or female circumcision) in India. FGC is practiced among the Dawoodi Bohras and other Bohra sects in India, as well as among certain Sunni Muslims in the state of Kerala. Tiwari’s PIL, however, refers only to FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras.

After Tiwari’s PIL was admitted in the Court, other intervention petitions were also filed in the case, some supporting a ban on the ancient practice, and one party (the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom) defending FGC on the grounds that it is an essential religious practice for the Bohras. The Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association demanded that the matter of FGC be heard by a Constitution bench since it was about the Constitutional right to religious freedom. 

The case was heard by a three-judge bench which observed during a hearing in July 2018, that the “bodily integrity of women” cannot be violated. However, in September 2018, the bench referred the case to a five-judge Constitution bench. This meant that the practice of cutting a girl’s genitals — which the United Nations classifies as a human rights violation — would now be scrutinised through the lens of religious freedom. 

In light of the latest Supreme Court judgement, this will continue to be the case, except that now a larger, seven-judge bench will first examine the interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution pertaining to the right to religious freedom, before adjudicating on matters of FGC and women’s entry into places of worship.

What the Court said: Majority and Minority judgements

The Supreme Court’s judgement on November 14 was not unanimous. Three of the five judges on the bench delivered the majority judgement, in favour of referring the Sabarimala, FGC and other cases to a seven-judge Constitution bench. This 9-page majority judgement was authored by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi

The other two judges (Justices Nariman and Chandrachud) authored an elaborate 68-page dissent, insisting that there was no merit to the review petitions in the Sabarimala case and that the other cases of FGC, mosque entry or fire temple entry should not be clubbed together with the Sabarimala issue. 

The majority judgement stated the following:

“The issues arising in the pending cases regarding entry of Muslim Women in Durgah/Mosque;…of Parsi Women married to a non-Parsi in the Agyari;…and including the practice of female genital mutilation in Dawoodi Bohra community…may be overlapping and covered by the judgment under review. The prospect of the issues arising in those cases being referred to larger bench cannot be ruled out…The decision of a larger bench would put at rest recurring issues touching upon the rights flowing from Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India.” 

The majority judgement specified that the larger bench would essentially have to answer seven questions about the principles of Articles 25 and 26. These questions include these four points:

  • What is the interplay between Constitutional freedom of religion and other rights granted in the Constitution, particularly the right to equality and prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, sex, race, caste, etc?
  • What exactly does “constitutional morality” mean?
  • To what extent can the Court determine whether a practice is essential to a religion or a religious denomination?
  • To what extent can the Court give judicial recognition to Public Interest Litigations questioning religious practices if the PIL has been filed by someone who does not belong to the religious denomination in question?
    (The original PIL in the FGC case in India was filed by Sunita Tiwari, who does not belong to an FGC-practicing community.) 

In their dissenting minority judgement, however, Justices Nariman and Chandrachud pointed out that the meaning of “constitutional morality” has already been defined by the Court in several other Constitution bench judgements, and that it is “nothing but the values inculcated by the Constitution, which are contained in the Preamble read with various other parts, in particular, Parts III [fundamental rights] and IV [fundamental duties] thereof.”

This means that the fundamental right to equality is a part of constitutional morality, and as per Article 25 and 26, freedom of religion is subject to this morality. 

The minority judgement also argued that the review petitions they were addressing specifically dealt with the question of Hindu women’s entry into Sabarimala, and that the cases pertaining to other religions or religious sects should be examined on a case-by-case basis, instead of clubbing them together.

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. 

Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board Spotlight: Melody Joy Eckardt

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 (FGC) and create positive social change through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement.

This month, we are pleased to highlight Melody Joy Eckardt, who has graciously agreed to serve on the U.S. Advisory Board.

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

I am an obstetrician and gynecologist who specializes in global health. I graduated from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, did my ob/gyn residency at Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston and practiced ob/gyn on the South Shore of Massachusetts before returning to get my Masters in Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. After that time I began working internationally with the Division of Global Health and Human Rights at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) on issues related to women’s reproductive health and maternal mortality in developing country contexts.

I also had a faculty position in obstetrics and gynecology at Boston Medical Center (BMC) with a focus on Women’s Refugee Health. It was at BMC that I learned about Female Genital Cutting (FGC), and learned to do surgical procedures and specialized treatment for this issue. I now work full-time in global health at the Division of Global Innovation (Formerly the Division of Global Health and Human Rights) at MGH to train health care providers around the world on maternal health emergencies.

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

I met Mariya through our work advocating for the FGC law in Massachusetts. We had the chance to testify and speak at a few engagements together. Through these times, I learned more about Sahiyo and the great work advocating to stop FGC with an emphasis on storytelling, which is such a powerful tool!

3) How has your involvement impacted your life? 

Sahiyo opened my eyes to just how far-reaching the practice of FGC is around the world. So many women are not even counted among the statistics. Furthermore, I am so inspired by women who join together to tell their stories, empower one another, and fight for a kinder, more respectful future for our daughters.

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

You are joining a group of amazing people with the vision to truly change the world for future women. Don’t ever forget what a privilege it is to be part of such an amazing team and that your cause is just and worth every ounce of effort you give it.

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.

#MenToEndFGC: Sahiyo’s Male Ally Campaign Launches

The issue of female genital cutting (FGC) is usually told from a woman’s perspective – for obvious reasons. Women around the world have spoken up against this practice that has gone on far too long, and we commend those who have made their voices heard. At Sahiyo, we know that while a lot of progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that girls and women no longer undergo FGC. We know that more voices need to be heard, and that’s why we launched our male ally campaign.3-2

Last month (July 2019), we issued a call-to-action for men to speak out against FGC. We know a lot of misinformation exists about FGC, and that men may not be aware of what goes on, or they may be misinformed about what FGC does to a child or a woman. We asked men to submit short videos, audio files, quotations, or blogs that share one thing in common: taking a stand against the practice of FGC and denouncing it.

The response we received was amazing. Dozens of men across the globe from Ghana and Kenya to multiple regions of India and the US stepped up to answer our call. Many shared their personal experiences with FGC, involving their wives, daughters, sisters, or friends being cut. Others described why FGC needs to end and how harmful it is. Each one made their thoughts known and told us and everyone why the practice of FGC needs to end for girls and women worldwide. This took place in several formats, such as quotes, audio entries and videos (see examples below). In addition, we took this campaign to highlight the thoughtful blog pieces written by our male allies over the past few years, such as this powerful letter from a father.

 

To watch more video entries of this campaign, check out this Youtube playlist. 

We greatly appreciate all of you who took the time to send in a blog post, video, quotation, or audio file.

We will be posting these submissions throughout August and September on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages. If you missed the deadline for submissions or would like to add more of your thoughts, we will be using the hashtags #MenToEndFGC, #SahiyoMaleAllies, and #MenEndFGM in our posts. If you use these hashtags or tag @sahiyovoices in a post, we may repost it!

We know that we must stand together and unite to end FGC. These men stepping up and speaking out against FGC is a step in the right direction, and we hope it inspires more men to use their voices to help end FGC for all girls and women.

Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board Spotlight: Joanne Golden

As Sahiyo’s U.S. operations and programs have grown, we invited various individuals from a host of backgrounds and professions to join our 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 Joanne Golden who graciously serves as a member of our U.S. Advisory Board.

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

I was born and (mostly) raised in Massachusetts, but I got the travel bug at age 4, when my dad was in the U.S. Army and stationed at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium. My mom, brother, and I were able to accompany him and we lived there for three years, where I attended school with children from other countries, learned about different cultures and languages, and traveled between most Western European countries (not Eastern Europe, as it was still during the Cold War). When I returned to the U.S., I knew my perspective was already broader than that of my peers and I became curious about history, politics, geography, and languages. I was determined to be the first female Secretary of State in the United States! Well, that didn’t happen, as Madeleine Albright beat me to it, and other opportunities came my way. I attended Boston University and received my Bachelor of Arts in International Relations with a minor in French (1990), spent my junior year abroad in Grenoble, France, and I was invited to my friend’s wedding in Egypt, where I spent six weeks as a guest of her family and friends. I could not have been happier! 
My career trajectory did not go as planned as I moved towards financial services, rather than the foreign service, and I worked for 15 years at State Street Corporation in Massachusetts, during which I attended Boston University Graduate School of Management and received my Masters in Business Administration (1997). However, after serious reflection and research, in 2006, I decided to change the direction of my life and pursue a career in public service by going to law school, and I graduated with Pro Bono Honors from Suffolk University Law School in 2009 and was the 1st recipient of the Suffolk Law School Pro Bono Exemplary Service Award. During law school, I focused my electives on civil and human rights issues, particularly on human trafficking, children and women’s rights, for which I wrote a paper entitled “Impact of China’s One Child Policy and Cultural Gender Preference on Girl Child Discrimination and Mortality In China.” For a year after graduation, I worked with two NGOs and the Massachusetts Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, in order to support state specific anti-human trafficking legislation, which went into effect in 2012, and to study the demand-side of sex trafficking. I am currently a federal attorney for the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearing Operations since 2010, an active member of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA). Since May 2013, I am part of a working group that researched, drafted, and advocates for state-level legislation to ban the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in Massachusetts. 
I am also a fierce Boston sports fan. I study the Irish language and violin in what little time I have left over, and I recently got married to Greg, who regularly tells me how proud he is of the work I do.

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

I first became involved with Sahiyo about three years ago, through my interactions with Mariya Taher, who joined the WBA’s FGM/C legislative working group to help us advocate for state-level legislation to ban the practice of FGM/C in Massachusetts. I was introduced to Mariya on a monthly phone call led by Equality Now, which was trying to bring together a coalition of legal and medical experts, non-profits, federal and state law enforcement, and victim-survivors across the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries, to eradicate FGM/C by 2030. Mariya brought valuable insight to our working group as a non-attorney, survivor, and founding member of Sahiyo. She showed us the human side and cost of FGM/C for girls and women. It is through Mariya that we made deeper contacts within the Bohra and Somali communities in Boston. We have new contacts with American-born women who are also cut, and we garnered more legislative support for the Massachusetts FGM/C bill with her testimony and willingness to tell such a deeply personal story. With Mariya and Sahiyo, we also successfully initiated a change.org petition to support the MA state legislation with over 300,000 signatures. I have admired her efforts to give a voice to girls and women through the Sahiyo Stories project. I also became a member of the Sahiyo U.S. Advisory board last year, and participated in our successful Boston FGM/C roundtable in April 2019.

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

As I explained previously, in 2006, I decided to change the direction of my life and pursue a career in public service by going to law school. I followed my head, my heart, and my conscience to law school and focused on issues of civil rights, children and women’s rights, during my studies, but I could never have known that it would lead me here. When people ask me what I do, I always reply that I am an attorney for the federal government. But I also add that I fight for the rights of women and children against being trafficked and being irreparably harmed, physically and mentally, by FGM/C. I am proud and humbled by Sahiyo’s mission and that Mariya asked me and trusted me to be part of the Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board. 

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

If you don’t know what you can do, then ask, “How can I help with this cause?” and someone will answer. Also, success is not a straight line from A to B. There are steps backward and forward, abrupt changes of direction, and even some side trips down a rabbit hole that you did not see coming. It is all necessary and all worth it. Be humble and open to what others have to teach you. Lean on each other for support. In my example, I had heard of FGM/C while I was in law school, but my focus and energy were on anti-human trafficking efforts and opportunities. Once the Massachusetts state human trafficking bill was passed in November 2011, and went into effect in 2012, I wondered, “Now what?” The answer did not come until May 2013 with the Women Bar Association’s FGM/C working group, and that group morphed as members came and went, but I feel our mission came into real focus after the first legislative session, in which our bill did NOT pass, as we expected it to. I was deflated at first, but then I met Mariya through Equality Now, and I was blown away with her advocacy experience. Mariya and Sahiyo clarified for me “who” we were advocating for, and I have learned how to be an advocate for change, and not just an arguer of legal facts because real change begins with people and the healthy, productive relationships you build in life. I am happy and proud of the relationships I have made within the Sahiyo community and with our mutual commitment to the full and equal participation of women under the law and in society by advocating for the abandonment of FGM/C in the U.S. and abroad.

——

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.