Supporting each other through COVID-19 and continuing our efforts to end female genital cutting

Dear Sahiyo community,

We’re writing to let you know that we are so grateful to have you be part of the Sahiyo community, and even though we are living in unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic and our everyday lives look different right now, we’re committed to helping you stay connected to us and our mission to support survivors and protect future generations of girls from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in meaningful ways.

Around the globe, the Sahiyo team was already working remotely, however, we have cancelled all of our in-person events for the months of March, April, and May and are taking the necessary steps to ensure that we can provide virtual options for community members and survivors affected by FGC who need our support where possible. 

Here are a few ideas on how you can continue to connect with us:

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Bottom line, reach out. We may have to socially distance from each other in person for awhile, but we can connect and further our advocacy work to support survivors and protect future generations of girls from FGC in other ways.

We will not let girls, women and communities impacted by FGC get left behind. Sahiyo continues to partner, share and advocate globally for an end to the practice. We hope that through adversity, positivity will win through, and we can learn new, innovative ways of working as we come through this crisis together. 

Sending love, solidarity, and gratitude to you and your loved ones,

~ Sahiyo

Sahiyo Staff Spotlight: Tania Parks

Tania Parks works as Grants Coordinator at Sahiyo and is passionate about gender justice issues. She has held various roles at a domestic violence survivor advocacy non-profit in San Francisco called W.O.M.A.N., Inc., and was the Gender-Based Violence Research Intern at a women’s health non-profit based in Paris called Women and Health Alliance, International. She holds a Masters in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action from The Paris Institute of Political Studies with concentrations in Middle East Studies and Migration Studies.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I first got involved with Sahiyo after I learned that a Voices to End FGM/C community education event had taken place close to where I live. I contacted co-founder Mariya Taher, a former colleague, to congratulate her on hosting such an amazing event and I really wanted to get involved, so I offered to assist in any way that I could.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

I mostly offer development support in the form of drafting grant proposals, maintaining project budgets, and sometimes helping with communications projects. 

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Before working with Sahiyo, I had very little knowledge of female genital cutting (FGC). I have come to understand that FGC is a very complex and widespread issue, but despite this, it is often shrouded in silence. I have also learned that sharing personal stories of trauma and resilience has a powerful effect on listeners and is capable of inciting lasting social change. 

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

If you’re thinking about getting involved with the movement to end FGC, don’t hesitate! It is an urgent issue and more advocates are needed to spread awareness. Be sure to practice self care, as it can be emotionally charged work, and contact us to get involved!

Khatna within the Bohra community: A Struggle of Tradition and Modernity

By Fatema Kakal

The Bohra Muslims, who have the reputation of being modern and progressive, secretly practice khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) within India, as well as in other parts of the world. I learned about this over dinner with my family when I was 17. A woman who went by the pseudonym of Tasleem had recently filed the first public petition asking the Syedna (High Priest/religious leader of the Bohra community) to stop practicing khatna. While it shocked me, it also left me intrigued, wondering why this community continues such a harmful practice. A few years later, as I was pursuing my postgraduate degree, I had the opportunity to answer the questions that my 17-year-old self had. For my Masters dissertation, I decided to use a new lens to understand the community better, and get a deeper insight into what could be the factors influencing the Bohras to continue khatna.

As I worked on my research, I read about FGM/C – a lot. I also read about the Bohra community from an ethnographic lens. I reviewed literature, debates and discourses, narratives of survivors, and conducted interviews with activists working to end FGM/C (from Sahiyo and other organisations). 

I used French social theorist Michel Foucault’s concepts of sexuality, biopower and pastoral power to understand FGM/C. Religion and religious power can often be political, and can be woven through various forms, like the sensual, corporeal and the imaginary. Religious leaders are crucial here, who are defined by their status within religion. Thus, religious leaders have pastoral power where they lead, supervise and guide people. Pastoral power operates through the body, forming a locus for biopower, a form of control over people’s bodies. Religion uses sexuality as a mechanism for control, discipline and policing bodies. FGM/C then, is a practice used by religious leaders to control women and children’s bodies and sexuality. 

I used Tammary Esho’s framework of FGM/C as a socio-cultural-symbolic nexus. Esho has conduced extensive research on FGM/C and sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is a culturally mediated process of socialization, that transfuses gendered identity. Khatna is a cultural practice passed down through generations to socialize girls into the community. The pain felt during the cutting is considered a rite of passage and is symbolic of fertility and womanhood. It is meant to define a woman and her femininity, and her identity as a Bohra woman.

To understand how these concepts actually applied to khatna and the Bohra community, I analysed narratives of survivors collected and shared by Sahiyo and We Speak Out in their reports, and Goswami’s documentary A Pinch of Skin, I found a few overarching themes within their stories. Khatna was seen as a religious and traditional practice, and was considered to be a tool to control women’s sexuality, and maintain morality. Most of the survivors’ experiences involved traditional cutting by a dai or a midwife, in unhygienic conditions; where mothers and other women in the family played a vital role. It was a highly secretive and taboo practice, but normalized and obligatory, and passed down through generations. Many women claimed to feel anger and shame, remembered it being painful, and asserted it affected their sexual lives, and crucially, being a traumatic event in their lives.

I interviewed activists as key informants who highlighted that the silence around khatna was breaking – with Tasleem’s petition in 2012, and the arrests in the United States and Australia. Religious leaders also began addressing it through sermons and letters issued to community members. The public interest litigation in the Indian Supreme Court in 2017 and the growing anti-FGM/C movement rising from within the community were important for people to hear different voices around khatna. This in turn, led to a shift in the rationale for the practice. While it was earlier believed that it controls women’s sexuality, the Bohra clergy was increasingly scrutinized for controlling women’s bodies. The clergy changed the justification behind the practice, by claiming it is a religious practice and a marker of Bohra identity. 

The growing anti-khatna movement was also considered an attack by Westernization. Thus, continuing khatna became a statement defying Western notions of appropriate religious customs and traditions. The Bohra clergy encourages people to visit medical professionals to have their daughters cut safely, promoting medicalisation. Medical facilities are increasingly accessible for people in the Bohra community, especially in big cities, who claim to do the cutting in a safer, hygienic way, thus perceived to be potentially minimizing risk and trauma. 

The Bohra clergy is an important agent in the continuation of khatna. People’s lives are heavily influenced by the Syedna and the clergy due to their pastoral power over the community. They are deeply involved in people’s lives, and their pastoral power has political power. Khatna is a form of control over girls’ bodies and sexuality, which is considered aberrant. Thus, the clergy enforces biopower through khatna, to ensure women uphold values of fidelity and morality. People in the community however, look at khatna at a socio-cultural-symbolic nexus. Khatna is significant for forming a girl’s identity as a Bohra woman, and has cultural and symbolic significance as a rite of passage. Women are bearers of culture, and it is a tradition passed down through generations. 

Thus, khatna continues to be practiced in the Bohra community, due to social, cultural and religious norms of womanhood, purity and sexuality. The clergy has significant influence over the community and the family. Law can play a crucial role in discouraging people from continuing khatna. Thus, in order to end the practice, it is important to engage the various stakeholders in the community who protect the practice, especially women who are often primary decision-makers for children to undergo khatna. 

Survivor: Why labia elongation is female genital mutilation

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

By Jenny Cordle

When Comfort Dudzai was 9 years old, her father’s two sisters and her nanny took her and her cousins to her family’s rural home in Chipinge, in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe outside of Harare. In six long weeks the three women taught the girls a combination of lessons on hygiene, virginity and marriage. 

Each morning the group would gather in the forest near hot springs off the Save River for a lesson. One morning the 9-year-olds were taught how to elongate their labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, arguably one of the most sensitive parts of female anatomy. 

“The men in our culture expect that you have your labia the (length) of your middle finger,” Comfort said. “For the first few sessions, the older ladies actually pull on the labia minora for you.”

Her aunts used their hands and secret herbs for the elongation. “It was a holistic teaching about womanhood, and the labia pulling is just one of the components.” 

There is a myth about the herbal mixture being made of bat wings. 

“It is painful,” Comfort said. “You cannot cry. You endure.” 

Comfort had an allergic reaction to the herbs. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong until I started facing complications,” she said. “I felt safe because these are women I trust and love, and women I know who love me and want the best for me.” 

Comfort’s pain didn’t end with the initial allergic reaction. She had complications with the delivery of her first son as a result of the labia elongation, and eventually had a surgical operation due to many infections. 

Although there are various forms of female genital mutilation/cutting and different classifications in terms of severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) stops short of explicitly listing labia elongation as Type 4, which “includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”

Labia elongation is encouraged to enhance sexual pleasure not only for men, but for women as well. Whether the prior WHO classification, which actually included “stretching of the clitoris and/or labia,” was altered after two researchers published a study suggesting that Rwandan women experience labia elongation as positive is unclear. 

Types 1-3 classify what can be construed as reductive types of female genital mutilation/cutting. But labia elongation is not considered reductive since nothing is cut away. Instead the labia is pulled during a series of sessions, in what some deem as modification because the process appears to be devoid of violence. Consent is key.

For Comfort, the idea that girls are coerced into altering their genitals for the pleasure of men, and even for themselves, can be psychologically damaging. She is sharing her story to bring awareness to the process and to protect girls in the future. 

“Psychologically, it tells a girl that you’re not enough,” she said. “You need to alter something and there’s something deep about telling a young lady that age that you need to make yourself this way for a man. You’re not good enough. There’s even stories about women who get returned from their marriage — that they need to go and pull that labia longer. It’s very damaging to women. It places the value of the man over the woman.”

Labeling elongation, pulling or stretching as labia modification undermines the harmful effects on girls and connotes agency, whereas in many girls experiences, they aren’t given a choice.

Labia elongation is or has been practiced among groups in several African countries including Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the BBC, it is reportedly happening in the United Kingdom among diaspora communities. 

Comfort (Dondo) Dudzai participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop led by StoryCenter and Sahiyo, and funded by the George Washington School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

Intern Spotlight: Sahiyo Social Media Intern Farhan Zia

Farhan Zia joined Sahiyo’s team as a social media intern in 2019. He is an undergraduate student reading the law at Jindal Global Law School, in O.P. Jindal Global University, India. He researches the intersections of law with human rights, gender and religion, and has a deep interest in engaging with theology and religion from a feminist and modern perspective. He is a student researcher at the FGM Project which seeks to draft and present a bill against female genital cutting in India, a member of the Legal Aid Clinic of Jindal Global Law School.

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

While I had heard bits and pieces about female genital cutting (FGC) in college, I was not exposed to the full magnitude of the issue. In August 2019, my friend Kavya Palavalasa, who was an intern at Sahiyo, told me about the organization. Following this, when I went through the Sahiyo stories and resources, I came to understand the extent and nuances of FGC. I decided that I must work on this issue, and joined Sahiyo in October 2019. 

What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a social media intern, I help create, schedule and manage content for the social media handles, for the daily feed, as well as specific campaigns. I also watch out for any news about FGC that Sahiyo should write on.

How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

As a student of law interested in religion and gender, I often notice how activists and authors trying to bring about legal or social reforms end up alienating the very people they seek to help by not understanding their culture and values. It is very difficult to speak against institutionalized cultural practices like FGC. But at Sahiyo I noticed how their advocacy is respectful and compassionate in its language and not condescending in any manner. The Sahiyo resources were a great help for me to grasp how effective reporting of an issue as nuanced as FGC must be done.

I am always in awe of the solidarity and bravery of the many women involved with Sahiyo and who share their stories in its various storytelling campaigns. It really brings into clear focus how patriarchal practices harm women and how too few men try to understand this or contribute to the feminist cause. It has prompted me to read and explore FGC more and work toward contributing to legal reforms in India.  

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Sahiyo is a wonderful organization to work and learn since the people here are incredibly helpful and understanding. I believe that fighting for equality is not just women’s responsibility. I implore more men to support Sahiyo’s cause against FGC. If you are passionate about working toward gender equality, I really encourage you to get involved.

How Melinda Gates’ Moment of Lift addresses female genital cutting

By Kristin Pepper

In December 2019, our book club discussed Melinda Gates’ book, Moment of Lift, and experienced firsthand Melinda’s process ourselves. One of our members knew that the book mentioned female genital cutting (FGC), and asked Mariya Taher, an expert on FGC, to join our discussion using Skype. Just as Melinda looked into how to empower women and grew to understand women’s issues in a whole new way, our book club read a book about how women can help and learned many facets of a problem most of us barely knew existed.

Mariya presented some facts to help us understand that FGC happens everywhere, including in the United States. We also had a member who knew that girls in our own town were being cut. Our book club is made up of mothers who live in an upper middle class, educated area in which all parents want the very best education for girls and boys alike. Most of our members had not realized girls, both Christian and Muslim living in the US, were being cut, much less in our own town. We were shocked and had an especially hard time understanding why a woman would be involved in cutting a girl. When discussing Moment of Lift, we kept coming back to why women perpetuate any customs that hurt other women. The story of girls tricked into child marriage made us angry at the mothers. Mariya showed us a video of a woman who used to hold down girls to be cut but later helped her community to reject FGC. Some of us had trouble forgiving that woman despite her courage and activism. 

We had followed Melinda Gates into discovering a problem happening in our area, as well as globally. We had to understand why FGC exists, how damaging it was to girls, and what we could do about it. Mariya helped us understand some of the social, medical and educational roots of the problem, as well as its true danger. She showed us videos of women describing the effect cutting had on their lives, but we also learned that not all women had problems from cutting. We learned the different methods of cutting.   

We tried to understand why educated women who clearly loved their children would have their girls cut. Mariya and the other book club member were invaluable in sharing their knowledge with us, just as the people who were closest to the problems were most valuable to Melinda. They helped us understand the loss a woman and her entire family faces if she speaks out against FGC in a community that accepts it. She and her family may no longer be valued members of the community. They may still go to their places of worship, but people may no longer talk to them, and they may no longer be invited to community gatherings. The ostracism and loss of support they have felt their whole lives is an extreme deterrent. 

This tied into Melinda’s journey of speaking out in support of birth control, despite being Catholic. She felt she had to publicly support family planning in order to have any impact on communities. It took courage to talk out against something her faith supported, and she was worried about wading into politically charged waters. 

We spoke about what the Gates Foundation did in one community to stop cutting, but to the members who understood FGC best, it was complicated. There might be a lesson in the MeToo movement. For years, women kept quiet about workplace sexual harassment, but then the MeToo movement supported speaking up and the society began to stop blaming the victims. It was very important that the women who spoke up were believed, welcomed and told they were brave. We need to support those who do speak up about FGC. Those brave women could break the notion that FGC does not hurt women’s health, and they could inspire their friends to speak out. Women who have been cut speaking up and denouncing the practice would have a powerful effect on their own communities, but they will need to be supported by people who understand what a loss they face when they raise their voices. Melinda Gates’ positive message that change is possible when women are given the right support to lift was a hopeful message that made a strong impression on our book club. 

The movement to end FGM/C: Looking back at the 2010s and looking forward in 2020

By Sahiyo

2020 is here, and we at Sahiyo are excited. 2020 brings with it not just a new year, but the dawn of a new decade of hope and hard work for our global movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). This is the decade in which we must give it our all, because we have pledged to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting by 2030

As we look forward to the 2020s, we cannot help but look back at the 2010s for inspiration. The last decade has been game-changing, not just for Sahiyo or the movement against FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras, but for the anti-FGC movement in Asia as a whole. 

At the start of 2010, FGC was still considered an “African” problem, and Asian countries were barely on the map of the places where FGC is prevalent. Today, we know that FGC is truly and disturbingly a global phenomenon putting 3.9 million girls at risk every year,  as you can see in this map created by Orchid Project:

Nearly half the countries on the map above are not yet included in the UN’s official list of 30 countries where 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC. In the 2020s, let us work to ensure that this information gap is bridged, so that Asian survivors of FGC are officially recognised. 

In fact, you can start now by signing Sahiyo’s petition asking the global community to invest in research on FGC prevalence and advocacy and support services to end FGC in Asian countries. 

But first, let’s take a look back at the biggest milestones of the 2010s from Sahiyo’s perspective.

The birth of Sahiyo:

In late 2011, ‘Tasleem’, an anonymous Dawoodi Bohra woman from India, started a Change.org petition asking the Syedna,  the religious leader of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, to call for an end to FGC in the community. Although there had been scattered attempts to call out the secretive practice of FGC among the Bohras in the 1980s and ‘90s, they drew limited attention and the practice continued to be shrouded in silence. 

Tasleem’s petition, however, received nearly 3,500 signatures, triggered a spate of media reports on FGC in India, and inspired a few Bohra women, like Aarefa Johari and Farida Dariwala, to speak out publicly about their experiences of FGC. 

The media reports on FGC at the time also inspired Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami to make A Pinch of Skin, the first documentary film on FGC among Dawoodi Bohras in India. As Goswami’s film won the 2013 National Award for the best documentary in India, the taboo topic of FGC remained alive in the media, sparking private conversations between like-minded Bohra women all over the world who were keen to see an end to FGC.

In late 2014, five of those women banded together to create a formal platform that would work to end FGC among Bohras and Asian communities at a transnational level. That platform — Sahiyo — was eventually founded in mid-2015. 

Breaking the silence, once and for all:  

In 2015, the private conversations on FGC among Bohras also burst into the public sphere with the launch of WeSpeakOut (known as Speak Out on FGM at the time). 

WeSpeakOut started as a private women’s WhatsApp group spearheaded by Masooma Ranalvi. In October 2015, the group launched a Change.org petition addressed to the Indian government, seeking a legal ban on FGC in India. Seventeen Bohra women publicly put their name to the petition, and the response was huge and immediate: media all over India began writing about FGC among Bohras, community leaders were forced to respond, and the silence about FGC among community members was broken for good. More than 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.  

From 2015 to 2019, we have watched the movement against FGC snowball into a global force that communities have not been able to ignore. There are now dozens of Bohra women fearlessly speaking out about their FGC experiences, signing up as Sahiyo volunteers, attending our events and pledging not to cut their daughters. Women and men have faced backlash from their families and communities for speaking out, but the movement has only grown stronger. 

Research and investigations:

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the results of the first-ever research study on FGC among Bohras: an online, exploratory survey that found an 80% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohra women respondents. Among those who were cut, 98% women reported feeling pain when they underwent the ritual. Interestingly, 81% of respondents did not want FGC to continue in the community. 

In 2017, a Sahiyo investigation also revealed that FGC is being practiced by some communities in the South Indian state of Kerala, leading to furore in the region. Before this, it was believed that the Bohras are the only community in India practicing FGC. 

In 2018, WeSpeakOut published a seminal field study on FGC among Indian Bohras. The study found FGC prevalent among 75% of the daughters of the respondents. At least 33% of the respondents who were cut reported that FGC negatively impacted their sexual lives. 

More research on the FGC in Asian communities is the need of the hour, and we are aware of several studies that are currently underway in various parts of Asia. Continuous research can help us better understand not only the prevalence and impact of FGC on women and girls, but also the needs of survivors and trends towards abandonment of the practice. 

Developments on the legal front:

The 2010s were a landmark decade for FGC on the legal front, particularly for the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Australia: In 2015, three Bohras — a mother, a nurse and a community leader — were convicted for performing FGC on two minor girls in Australia. This was Australia’s first case under its 1997 law banning FGC. However, the legal ups and downs did not end with the conviction in 2015. 

In 2018, an appeals court overturned the convictions and acquitted the three accused Bohras, on the grounds that the girls’ genitals did not show any visible scarring after the ritual, and because the Australian law did not clearly define what kind of rituals qualify as FGC. In 2019, however, an Australian High Court once again flipped the verdict, overturning the acquittals, convicting the three Bohras again, and asserting that all forms of genital cutting are illegal. 

India: In 2017, an Indian lawyer filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking a legal ban on the practice of FGC. Other FGC survivors also joined in the petition and to counter it, a pro-FGC group called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom filed a petition defending the practice of FGC on the grounds of religious freedom. 

The Indian government responded to the petition by stating that FGC would be considered a crime under Indian laws dealing with child sexual abuse. However, the Indian government has made several contradictory statements about FGC since then. 

The Supreme Court has now referred the FGC case to a larger bench that will look into matters of gender equality versus religious freedom. Will 2020 be the year in which India’s highest court picks women’s right to bodily integrity over religious freedom? We will have to cross our fingers, wait, and see. 

United States: In 2017, two Bohra doctors from Michigan were among eight Bohras prosecuted for carrying out FGC on several minor girls. This was the first prosecution under the U.S.’s 1996 federal law banning FGC. In 2018, however, a U.S. district court judge ruled that even though the practice of FGC is “despicable” the federal law itself is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be regulated by individual states rather than by the federal or national law. 

Currently, 35 out of 50 U.S. states have laws against FGC. Among them, 17 states introduced anti-FGC laws in the 2010s, including Arkansas, Florida and Iowa.

In the 2020s, we must campaign for laws against FGC in every U.S. state, as well as in countries across the world. 

Community engagement in 2020: 

It is now globally acknowledged that laws alone cannot be effective in ending FGC. A deep-seated social norm can be changed only if law enforcement is preceded and constantly accompanied by rigorous community engagement, education and dialogue. 

At Sahiyo, we have launched various campaigns and platforms to nurture this dialogue: the Each One Reach One campaign, the I Am Bohra photo campaign, our storytelling blog, Thaal Pe Charcha, Sahiyo Stories, Faces for Change, the Male Ally campaign, and of course, our annual Activists’ Retreats in India and the U.S. to train community members on effective methods of engaging with the community. 

In 2020 and in the years to follow, we have many more advocacy campaigns planned. The first among them will be launching next month, in February 2020: Digital Stories from the Global Voices to End FGM/C program. 

Follow @sahiyovoices on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay updated about the movement to end FGC and to join in our efforts.

And so, here is wishing all of you a happy and hopeful 2020!  

On the path to healing: My journey after experiencing female genital cutting

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Every woman that has been cut has a story to tell. I tell my story not to offer a universal account of female genital cutting (FGC), but one that is specific to me. At a young age, I underwent Type II female genital cutting, known specifically as “taharah” (purification) within the Egyptian community, in which only part of the clitoral hood was removed and partial removal of the labia minora/majora. The taharah took place in Cairo, Egypt, while visiting relatives. This was the second time I visited my parent’s homeland. My parents were unaware, or at least this is what I’d like to believe, of what had occurred, as my sister was in a coma at the time and her prognosis was poor. They agreed that I travel to their homeland with my auntie to avoid the negative effects of witnessing what my sister was going through. My aunties had convinced me that this was a rite of passage, and what I was about to embark on would make me a “woman.” 

One week after arriving in Cairo, my auntie took me to a medical office where a doctor performed the surgery. She remained in the room while I underwent FGC, while my other auntie waited by the phone to hear the “good news.” I have no recollection of the surgery, as I was under anesthesia. However, I awoke to excruciating pain that would last for weeks. I remember my family members visiting to celebrate—bearing money and gifts. Upon returning home my parents realized that something was different about me. Already small-framed, I had lost ten pounds. I notified them of what occurred, and I remember them speaking with my aunties. However, the details of the discussion were unknown to me.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In 2001, while taking a women’s psychology course, I learned that FGC was considered a human rights violation. Students in the class, including those from countries where this was practiced, were surprised and “disgusted” that FGC continued to be practiced. I was taken aback, as I had assumed this was a custom that many practiced. I began opening up to female friends from similar and varying backgrounds. I quickly discovered I was alone in having had it done to me.

I started looking into the practice of FGC and found that there were many factors contributing to the perpetuation of FGC. Some linked it to geographical location, religion, customs, sexuality, marriageability and education. I realized this was a complicated custom that could not simply be thought of as being continued by “ignorant” people. In fact, much of my family are college educated, wealthy, and progressive in terms of religion, and advocate for the rights of women. However, the reasons given for its continuation had been rationalized by them and somehow given cultural significance. I needed answers, and began a long journey that would ultimately lead to my decision to become a social worker, and work with women who have also been cut.

Mapping the Healing Journey

I was left feeling extremely confused, particularly as most of my family had decided to discontinue the practice due to religious reasons (stating that FGC is “haram” or a sin, and is not a “sunnah” or religious obligation. I searched for answers—or perhaps a place where I would feel accepted and learn to accept myself. I immediately reached out to gynecologists, gender violence organizations, and social workers. Much to my dismay, all were unaware of the FGC practice. Gynecologists stared blankly at my genitals stating, “At first glance, it looks intact.” However, they were unsure the extent of the “damage” done. Gender violence organizations stated that they dealt with different forms of gender violence. “This isn’t something we specialize in,” I was told. They referred me to organizations that had more familiarity. However, they were located overseas.

Social workers were unfamiliar with the practice but verbalized their strong beliefs about it. They reacted with words such as “disgusting,” “barbaric,” and “horrific.” They “encouraged” and “empowered” me to advocate for change against the oppressive practice that they assumed was justified by Islam and patriarchal oppression. They also questioned the reasons that parents would allow for such a thing to happen to their little girl. This was extremely difficult to hear given my close relationship with my parents. I walked away feeling judged, ashamed, and defective. For the first time, I began to experience symptoms of depression, which led me to become more embarrassed and secretive about what had occurred. 

Approximately eight years later, while reading a newspaper article, I came across the name of a Sudanese woman who started a grassroots organization for women who have been cut. The only experience I knew was one in which providers gawked at me when I told them what had occurred. I reached out to this woman, and she invited me to dinner to speak on a more personal level. Upon arriving to the restaurant, I was greeted with a warm smile. For the first hour of our meeting, she did not bring up the conversation of FGC. Surprised, I inquired, “So are we going to talk about… you know.” She replied, “When you’re ready, I am here to listen.” For the first time in a long time, I felt acknowledged, understood, accepted, and supported. We all begin our journey of healing somewhere. I am delighted to be a part of the Sahiyo team—and truly look forward to being a part of the healing process for others.

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.