Female Genital Cutting is an International Issue

By Brionna Wiggins

Upon hearing about female genital cutting and what it entails, it seems that one of the first facts you hear about it has to do with its prevalence in Africa and the Middle East. While it is true that these continents have a high prevalence (which has been decreasing according to a recent study by BMJ Global Health), it may contribute to the misconception that these are the only places in the world where females undergo FGC. Unfortunately, this is not the case. This practice reaches Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. Its presence on multiple continents leads FGC to be an international issue that needs to end with the support of all the nations involved.

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Map Courtsey of Orchid Project
As part of my senior project, I have been bestowed the opportunity to do volunteer work with Sahiyo. They work specifically with the Dawoodi Bohra community, whose members mainly reside in India, Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa. FGC is also prevalent in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. There have even been reports in Colombia, South America. This puts FGC on every continent in the world!

As previously mentioned, FGC occurs among diaspora communities. When families from countries that practice FGC move into new areas, they inevitably bring along the instilled need to continue the social norm. This leads to FGC being present in ‘receiving countries’, which can include places bordering practicing countries. Despite the handful of receiving countries that ban and criminalize FGC, the practice is still inflicted on girls in an effort to maintain their cultural identity. However, diaspora community members may send their daughters to their home country for ‘vacation cutting’. FGC is not a practice that is restricted by borders. Decades ago, FGC was practiced in some of the same countries that worked to prevent it.

In Victorian Era England, FGC ushered its way into the medical field as a cure for nervous diseases, masturbation, and any other infliction that doctors/surgeons related to the female organs. Gynecological surgeon Isaac Baker Brown popularized the idea of using clitoridectomy, or removal of the clitoris, as a solution for ailments in medical circles. After some time, Isaac Brown and those who followed this method were eventually condemned. Yet, it was not so readily removed from American medical textbooks. Doctors in the U.S. also continued with this treatment to cure female ailments and the last documentation of this practice dates as far back as 1947. It is the year Renee Bergstrom received a clitoridectomy at the age of three in “white, midwest America” (The Guardian). People with good intentions may harm others irreparably, even the ones who trust them the most.

While the practitioners may mean well, it still doesn’t excuse the continual physical and psychological harm of women and young girls. These mistakes have been made before, and are still being made by participating societies and people who perpetuate the practice. With FGC being so close to home, the problem cannot be ignored any longer as someone else’s problem. This practice affects women and girls on every continent. It must be dealt with using the full support of every global citizen to end the practice of FGC for the sake of women and men. You can help advocate against it too. Research is crucial in understanding a multifaceted issue such as this to ensure and reaffirm what you’re advocating for. That’s when you can volunteer your time or voice to organizations working to end FGC and keep up to date on the topic. Also, you can inquire about the laws in your state if they regulate or have anything in place pertaining to the practice. If there’s not a law already, then you can advocate for one being created.

 

More on Brionna:

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Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.

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The Legal Side of Khatna or Female Genital Cutting

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By Priya Ahluwalia

Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. She is currently conducting research on the individual experience of khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series: Khatna Research in Mumbai.

Female Genital Cutting or khatna or khafz, as it is also called in the Bohra community, involves cutting or removal of the external female genitalia. Khatna has no known health benefits, but does have well-documented complications, which range from severe pain, excessive bleeding, and scar tissue to frequent infections.

The movement against khatna in India perhaps began in the early 1990s with Rehana Ghaidally’s paper, “All for Izzat”, which attempted to identify the key reasons for why khatna was performed in India. However, the movement only gained momentum in 2011, when the first online petition was filed against it anonymously. The online campaign triggered a barrage of women coming forward with their own stories of trauma caused by khatna. It further fueled both online petitions as well as an onground movement.

Within the Indian context of the Dawoodi Bohra community, the majority of the cases of khatna constitute Type 1, also referred to as clitoridectomy, which involves either partial or full removal of the clitoris, or the fold of skin known as the prepuce, covering it. Interestingly, there are many men and women who support khatna. From a psychological viewpoint, it may be rooted in the cognitive dissonance theory. Men and women of the Dawoodi Bohra community have been indoctrinated to believe that khatna is an essential religious obligation, and the will of God is not to be questioned. The online campaigns provide women in the Bohra community an alternative narrative, which may be in direct conflict with their existing beliefs. This conflict has created a lot of anxiety and conversations which have led to the movement gathering momentum, eventually catching the attention of the Indian government.

The uphill legal battle saw the government oscillating between supporting and opposing the movement. In May of 2017, the Ministry of Women and Child Development declared full support for survivors, deeming the practice a criminal offence with prosecution possible under the guidelines of POCSO (2012). The ministry requested the community to voluntarily take action to stop it. If it failed, the government would seek to implement a law to end it. In December of 2017, the ministry withdrew from its position, citing lack of empirical evidence despite proof from Sahiyo’s landmark study, which revealed that 80% of Bohri women globally have undergone khatna. Although the rejection from the government was disheartening, the momentum of the movement has not faltered. Organizations such as Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut continue to provide crucial support for survivors to rally in solidarity.

Several countries in Africa, as well as the United States and Australia, have made consistent and successful attempts to end female genital cutting. To understand how this has been possible, we must examine how the socio-economic structure of these countries has played an integral role in their success. Several of these countries may have high literacy rates, greater awareness of their rights and a more conducive environment for survivors to speak out.

The Bohra community aspect is crucial to understanding the Indian government’s hesitancy to pass a law. Although India is a signatory to several of the United Nations and World Health Organization conventions which view khatna as a human rights violation, it comes under the purview of existing Indian legislation, such as article 319 and 320 of the IPC and POCSO. No separate law has been passed against FGC until now. Things looked hopeful when the PIL filed against FGM/C was to be heard by the five-judge bench in the India Supreme Court. The decision initially seemed to swing in favor of banning the practice, as the judges referred to it as a violation of the rights of the girl child. The judges questioned how the violation of the “bodily integrity” of the child could be an essential practice of a religion, asserting that right to religious freedom does not negate other fundamental rights of the individual. Despite overwhelming support, the judges later backtracked, deferring to a constitutional bench to decide on the matters of religious rights and freedom. It was the most crushing setback for the movement.

Initially, I wondered what the hesitancy was in declaring khatna as a human rights violation. Later, I realized that the hesitancy was due to the political context and not the practice itself. Family and religion are the founding threads of our Indian community, and khatna is so intricately woven within these threads. Family and religion are our sources of identity, and since India is a collectivist society our ideas, beliefs in practices such as khatna are rooted in a collective experience, rather than an individual’s. Thus, attempting to end khatna risks unraveling the whole moral power structure of the country. Initially, it will begin with the Bohra community, but it may create a ripple effect across the country within other communities and religions. The moral thread of India is religion, and religion dictates our gender roles. If khatna is being questioned, we are unraveling this power structure by questioning the clergy’s teachings, and instead seeking the truth for ourselves by reading the religious scriptures whose access has unduly only been given to men for so long. Perhaps, with this newfound knowledge, our perception of the world will shift, leading to a destabilization of the existing structure and establishment of a new order with women in power. Change is just around the corner.

Although the law is the first concrete step toward ending khatna, it is also a double-edged sword with unintended consequences. The law has the potential to push the practice further underground. The more discreetly cutting is done, the more difficult it would become to track it. Furthermore, the law would bring into question the perpetrators of the crime. Is it parents, midwives, community as a whole, or religious leaders? What would be the quantum of punishment? Would the 7-year-old child be responsible for registering the complaint? Who would protect the child from further psychological harm?

Despite it all, I too believe law is essential in our work toward abandonment of khatna, since it may create awareness and generate conversation. But a law in itself will not stop khatna. Khatna will only end when we realize we are hurting our daughters. Once we realize that no religion, no God and no love is founded on pain, that is when the struggle against khatna will finally end.

 

Sign the #EndFGM petition on change.org

A new change.org petition calling for an end to Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra community was started in September by Ranjana Sehgal and Umi Saran.

The petition is addressed to Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohra community, and was started in response to the Syedna’s visit to Indore to give sermons during the first ten holy days of Muharram.

As the petition mentions, “Although the matter is already in the Apex Court if the directive to end FGM comes from the spiritual head of the Bohra community, it will be easier to put an end to this violent practice. The Government of India’s WCD Ministry has said that FGM is in clear contravention of our laws, the Indian Penal Code and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO).”

Over 16,000 supporters have already signed, and the campaign’s next goal is reaching 25,000 signatures.  If you would like to support by signing, click here.

‘I Hope my Story Helps other Women’: A Reflection on the Sahiyo Stories Workshop

By Maryah Haidery

Last December I participated in a Sahiyo activist retreat where I learned the unique power that storytelling has to teach, stimulate, and inspire audiences while offering the storyteller a sense of empowerment and catharsis. That’s why I was excited to reunite with some of the brave women I met on that retreat for a three-day storytelling workshop this past May. Since I didn’t have a clear memory of my own khatna, I decided to focus on the aspect of it which did have a profound effect on me: my relationship with my mother and my struggle to understand her decision.

Although I am and always have been opposed to the practice of FGC, I was nevertheless upset by the ways in which the women who practiced it were portrayed as “heartless monsters” or “unforgiveable child abusers” by the media and by anti-Muslim bigots who were using it as an excuse to justify their stance against immigration. In an effort to change this perception, I agreed to sit down with my mother to discuss FGC with a local radio news reporter. I hoped this would encourage people to see her as a person and try to understand her motivations for doing what she did even if they didn’t agree with it.

I love my mother dearly, but I think the interview left me with more questions than answers, and I wanted to explore a little bit of those conflicting emotions in the story I told in the workshop. I hope my story helps other women who might be going through the same emotions as I did to know that they aren’t alone and that it is OK to not have everything figured out. Everyone needs to decide for themselves what they want or need from the relationships in their lives and if a relationship is worth keeping. Sometimes forgiveness is important – not for the other person,  but for yourself.IMG_0907

At first I was really nervous about sharing my story with everyone, but all the women in the workshop were incredibly supportive and encouraging and made the workshop truly worthwhile. I also felt honored to be able to experience each of their incredible and unique stories. In three short days we had bonded over shared experiences, (and incredible food) so even though I only had two sisters when I first arrived at the workshop, by the time I left, I had eleven.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Maryah Haidery:

MaryahMaryah Haidery is a medical writer from New Jersey. She graduated from Temple University with a doctorate in pharmacy and completed her post-doctoral fellowship in medical communications at a medical communications company in Princeton. Her interests include writing about oncology, pain management and rare diseases and mentoring students at the University of the Sciences where she served as Adjunct Clinical Instructor. Maryah only recently became aware of the Sahiyo movement through a family member. Although she is new to activism, she believes that it is vitally important to shine light on the long taboo subject of female circumcision in hopes of encouraging real and lasting change. She thinks this is only possible if we can confront the complicated mix of ideas surrounding khatna and critically appraise the practice without necessarily denigrating the people who practice it.

Sahiyo Storycenter Workshop: The Power of Storytelling

By Zehra Patwa

Shame. Deceit. Confusion. On the first day, sitting around a large table in a light-filled room in the StoryCenter workshop space in Berkeley, California, these words were repeated over and over again by each woman sharing her story of being cut as a young girl. And in most cases, the story was disturbingly similar: a young girl is taken to a strange place by a female family member, she is not told what is going to happen to her except some euphemism that means nothing to her, the girl is cut by stranger, she experiences pain like she’s never experienced before and she is told never to talk about it again. But the experience stays with her…

Hope. Love. Protection. And then there were stories by women who, as girls, had been spared the cut and those who had worked through their trauma, so there were also inspiring words that came out of these stories which made the whole StoryCenter process a positive and uplifting experience that will stay with me for years to come.

When Sahiyo co-founder, Mariya TaherIMG_0907, first invited me to this workshop for US-based anti-FGM/C activists, I wondered what I would possibly talk about. As an activist for WeSpeakOut, I have told my khatna story in many different forums before, so what could I talk about now?  We were tasked with preparing a 300-word script outlining the story we wanted to tell and, for weeks, I vacillated between multiple topics.  I finally chose to focus on the reaction I received from my community, the Dawoodi Bohras, when I began to speak out about the secretive practice of FGM/C/Khafz/Khatna.

While describing my outline to my fellow workshop participants, I felt unsure that IMG_0953anyone would care about my story and whether it was a story that was even worth telling.  But when I finished, there was a pause, then someone said, “That was powerful.”

Over the next 2 days, I refined my story and built my video with much input from Amy, Orchid and the other participants who I, very quickly, would call friends.  Their opinions about word choice, sentence structure, and which images and videos to use made my story come to life in a way that I had not imagined!

At the end of the third day, I had a new creation.  Yes, it was still a little rough around the edges and needed some minor editing but it was a revelation to be able to produce a video of my story in 3 days that resonated with other people.  I’m proud of what I did, but prouder of the fact that it was a true team effort. After all, it takes a village!

What I took away from the Sahiyo StoryCenter experience is that there are people who understand my struggle of wanting to be part of a community while working to end one practice within it. They are people who understand that I am not trying to bash my community or shame it, people who will support me even though it may invite a similar reaction to what I have experienced.

As we share our videos, I hope people realize that, although they may find it hard to speak out, it is so incredibly beneficial to so many others who feel they have no voice. That is why I speak out.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Zehra:

Zehra PatwaZehra Patwa is the Co-Founder of WeSpeakOut, an organization that strives to work for equal rights for Bohra women in all spheres of life, specifically, on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) or khafz. She grew up in London and was educated at the University of Bradford Management Centre in the UK and the Université de Montpellier in France. Zehra serves on the Board of the Foote School and Co-Chairs MOSAIC, the Foote School’s multicultural affairs and diversity group. She recently joined the Board of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS). After discovering well into adulthood, that Type 1 FGM/C was practiced in her community and that she, too, had been subjected to it, she decided she could no longer keep silent.  Although she has no recollection of the practice being done to her, she is vehemently opposed to it and has been working with the WeSpeakOut group to expose the practice within, and outside, the community.

A Tradition That Branded Me

By Severina Lemachokoti

I chose to tell this particular story about my experience with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) because the story defines me, who I am, and shows what my culture/tradition branded me with. The story reflects the reality of what I went through and what I felt as a little girl. This is my other life that no one knows unless I share it with them. Sharing my story at the Sahiyo Stories workshop was a bit hard, but at the same time, it was a relief because I shared it with women who can relate to my hurt, women who have gone through painful and traumatic experiences as other FGM survivors. I felt comfortable and at ease with my sisters. I enjoyed the sisterhood, the courage, and passion that each of them embraced during the entire time. The storytelling process was smooth and very educative. I was able to revise my own story and put it in a way that I am confident will make a difference to our communities.

My advocacy on FGM is primarily focused on community education and the mental health of the survivors. As an activist, I believe that FGM will end when our communities are educated on the negative effects of FGM and find alternative ways of celebrating cultural practices without cutting girls’ genitalia. I am also aware that it is the right of each community to uphold their traditions and beliefs, but culture should not violate the rights of young girls in any way either. The mental health of survivors is a critical issue that needs to be looked into and addressed. Most of us are traumatized and still bear the pain of the cut even after so many years and it is necessary that survivors get healed in order for them to step up and talk about FGM in a way that can save other young girls who are at a risk.

My story is not very different from those of other survivors, but at the same time, I

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Severina with Lena Khandwala at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

believe I am unique and so my story is unique because of the painful experience and feelings that I had during the cutting. My hope is that my story and the stories of my other sisters will change our communities. I am looking forward to working with various organizations and individuals to see that our girls are free from FGM across the world. I will basically do my activism work till the end of my days, and advocate for supporting the mental health of FGC survivors across the world.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Severina:

17904081_1414046985328334_8283055367043356965_nSeverina Lemachokoti is an anti-FGM campaigner, a human rights defender and a gender activist from the Samburu community in Northern Kenya. Severina graduated from Wichita State University, Kansas State with a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies, with focus on Community Psychology, Sociology and Women Studies. She was the Cultural Ambassador- Kenya, at Wichita State University and participated in various activities that fostered diversity and inclusion. She worked as a graduate research assistant in the Criminal Justice department and also worked at the graduate office as a receptionist. Severina is a professionally trained teacher and holds a bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology and a higher diploma in psychological counseling. As one of the survivors of FGM, Severina uses her own experience to educate young girls from Kenya and her community to say “NO” to FGM and other harmful cultural practices. She has helped in changing the lives of young girls and women in her community through mentorship programs in schools and churches. Severina worked as a program officer for the ANTI-FGM Board, a government body under the ministry of gender to implement the ANTI-FGM act of 2011 and the 2010 constitution of Kenya to protect the rights of young girls in Kenya. Severina is a member of various organizations in Kenya and Africa that defend the rights of young girls and has spoken in various conferences including the UN on the rights of young indigenous girls and women.

Sharing My Story of Female Genital Cutting with Other Survivors Comforted Me

By Leena Khandwala

I chose to tell my story of FGC to highlight how after more than three decades, my experience of being cut is still traumatizing and vivid. Everything about it — from the deception leading up to it and the silence around it — make for an unspeakably horrifying experience.

Supporters of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) often try to distinguish the type of cutting that is practiced in the Bohra community from other types of cutting practiced by different cultures.  They claim that the practice in the Bohra community is simply to make a small and benign scrape or nick in the clitoris that causes no harm, and, in fact, may enhance sexual pleasure among women. Through my digital story, I hope to portray the violence and trauma I experienced when I was cut and how it has followed me for the rest of my life.

Participating in this workshop was an important step in my life-long process of coming to terms with my cutting. After finishing law school, I chose to work with women fleeing gender-based harms. One of my first cases involved a woman seeking asylum because she was vehemently opposed to genital cutting and feared that she would be unable to DSC_0074protect her minor daughter from being cut if she had to return to her home country.

In addition, I worked with many other women fleeing various forms of gender violence and found this work to be extremely cathartic. This workshop was a new step along that continuum because it enabled me to muster the courage to find my voice and share my own story.  In that sense, it has helped me shed the shame that has lingered with me to this day as a result of being cut.

There is a strong sense of comfort from shared community experiences. Sharing this story helped me because it reminded me that there are many other people who have gone through similar experiences. I also got to hear and experience multiple other perspectives.  

It was inspiring to see how so many women have channeled their pain and outrage into advocacy for change and are working to ensure that future generations of girls are protected from being cut.  

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Leena:

IMG_1881Leena Khandwala has been practicing immigration law for well over a decade. She is a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, where she assists low-income New Yorkers in applying for a wide range of immigration benefits. Prior to joining The Legal Aid Society, Leena was employed with Brooklyn Defender Services where she was part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which was aimed at providing universal representation to all immigrants in detained removal proceedings. Prior to joining the nonprofit world, Leena was an associate with Claudia Slovinsky and Associates, PLLC, a small boutique law office. Leena has also been a Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic and the Civil Litigation Clinic at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, and a fellow at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Leena received her J.D., cum laude, from Fordham University School of Law in 2004. She was a Stein Public Interest Scholar and a Crowley International Human Rights Scholar. She grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, where she did her Masters in Business Administration at the Institute of Business Administration, in Karachi.

Khatna Isn’t Black Or White, Just Like My Story

Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation in the Bohra community is not black and white, just like how survivors and non-survivors’ stories are not black and white. This idea resonated the most with me during the Sahiyo Stories workshop held in Berkeley, California at the beginning of May. Sahiyo Stories allowed me to explore the complexities of FGM/C and see the strength of the women who advocate to end the practice worldwide.

As the workshop’s logistics coordinator and a Bay Area native, I was heavily involved in turning this project from a seed of an idea to a fully-formed weekend workshop. I watched the workshop take unexpected turns and grow into something much larger than what was originally planned.

The workshop included women from different backgrounds and communities. We had varying ages, ethnicities, and cultures, yet our common experiences and passions bound us together.

I remember fighting back tears as we shared a space around a table and told our stories.

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Maria Akhter with Zehra Patwa at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

For those ten minutes, we were allowed to feel vulnerable, insecure, afraid and seek advice, support, and shared empathy from others.

I have not undergone khatna, and I was the only one in the group who had not. My digital story touches on how I sometimes feel like an outcast around Bohra women, regardless of whether or not I know they have undergone khatna. In the Bohra community, so many practices and customs are normalized on a large scale that you are left wondering if you are different for something that has or has not happened to you.

More importantly, in my story, I touched on my mother’s empowering decision not to have me undergo khatna. The decision wasn’t formed alone. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all instrumental players in choosing to spare our family’s daughters from a harmful tradition. My video explores the newfound gratitude I began to feel for something I did not know I needed to be grateful for.

By the end of the workshop, I realized that khatna, advocacy, traditions, women and human rights are not all black and white. Instead, they are layered and multi-dimensional, thus making these matters far more intricate than just taking a stand one way or another. My experience is not black or white either, and the Sahiyo Stories workshop was the most empowering avenue for me to explore that gray area.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Maria:

MariaAkhterMaria Akhter joined Sahiyo as an activist last year after becoming more aware of the activist community working to end FGC. She hopes to use her narrative to spread awareness about families and individuals choosing to stand against FGM. Maria has used her skills of blog-writing and communication to create communication material for Sahiyo and create positive social change. She currently works as an associate publicist for a publishing company in Berkeley. As a Bay Area native, she enjoys spending her free time hiking and exploring the Bay, trying global cuisines, and traveling.  

 

Why I Chose to Tell My Story About Female Genital Mutilation at the Sahiyo Stories’ Workshop

By Renee Bergstrom, EdD

I chose to tell my story of FGM because I am aware that being silenced is a universal issue for those who have experienced it. When I read my story the first day at the StoryCenter, I was surprised that my voice cracked with emotion. Our sisterhood developed quickly from the strength of shared history in spite of differing cultures, and I felt so privileged to be included. The world needs to hear all our voices in order for this female injustice to end.

The storytelling process was beautifully orchestrated and we were guided to compose our messages for the greatest impact. All apprehension regarding telling my story dissipated. Before my story became public knowledge, my advocacy was focused on developing and distributing brochures in collaboration with my Somali friend Filsan Ali. Pregnant infibulated Somali women give this bilingual brochure to their physicians and midwives to plan safe labor and delivery and prevent unnecessary C-Sections.

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Renee Bergstrom at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

In 2016, the time was right to share my story because so many young women were standing up to their political, cultural and religious leaders, matriarchs, and patriarchs. Instead of being seen as a Western woman imposing my beliefs on another culture, I am supporting their efforts. Recently, other white Christian women from North America have contacted me with their FGM stories, thus my current advocacy plans involve listening, but also connecting these women with resources and opportunities to share their stories.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Renee:

Version 2Renee Bergstrom, EdD, is an educator who advocates for relationship-centered medical care. She and her husband, Gene, have been married 53 years. They have three children, ten grandchildren and one great-grandson. They live in a dynamic art town in Midwest America where they are very involved in the community. Renee loves to read, watercolor paint, weave, garden and bike. She has been an advocate for women’s justice throughout her life.

The subject was heavy, but my heart felt light: My experience at Sahiyo’s StoryCenter workshop

By Salma Qamruddin

Female genital cutting (FGC) sounds like a distant and antiquated practice, especially to those living in the US. Americans think FGC happens in remote African villages or in times of yore, but not locally and not now. Unfortunately, this is simply untrue. Sahiyo is an organization dedicated to opening up the conversation around modern FGC practices. Their 3-day workshop, Sahiyo Stories, invited women to break the silence around FGC by transforming each woman’s personal FGC story into a short film. These are my experiences attending Sahiyo Stories…

Unlike many of the other attendees, I am new to the sphere of activism. Although I’m just beginning to speak out against female genital cutting (FGC), Sahiyo Stories was a transformative point in my activism journey because it helped me refine my voice and allowed me to work among some of the trailblazers of FGC activism whose work is genuinely driving social change. From Severina Lem who has traveled the world working to unravel tradition-based cutting practices, to Renee Bergstrom who has created invaluable resources for victims of FGC to get proper medical care, and to Mariya Taher who co-founded Sahiyo with the goal of dismantling the practice through storytelling, every woman I met amazed me with their confidence and drive.

Though these accomplished women came from all places and all walks of life, our connection to one another was sparked almost immediately. Because we had to open our hearts to discuss such a personal subject matter, we all had to let our guard down by design. All of us carried trauma that few other people could relate to; it was refreshing to finally be in a room where everyone genuinely understood the pains we’d all experienced. From strangers to sisters, the respect and love in the workspace was tangible.

While preparing for Sahiyo Stories, I read up on what information was already available on FGC. Sahiyo partnered with a healthcare research firm to identify the biggest challenges facing activists speaking out against female genital cutting (FGC). Reading through the report, I was surprised how closely my journey to activism perfectly aligned with the “standard” journey for most activists. On one hand, I felt validated that I was not alone on my path and that there were others whose struggles were harmonic to mine. However, my story also felt less special. The goal of Sahiyo Stories was supposed to present unique experiences with FGC, but if I am a “cookie cutter” activist, what did I have to say that hadn’t been said? Even though I was not very confident in what my story brought to the table, I decided to share my first “a-ha” moment about FGC; the time when I realized that I had been cut.

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Salma and other participants during Sahiyo Stories Workshop

Despite entering the workshop with some insecurity, the process of putting my story onto paper, editing the script and illustrating the words was cathartic. In order to translate my thoughts into a digital story, I had to boil my experience down to its core and dissect why this story matters to me. It was a process that involved deep reflection. As my story started to come alive, my confidence grew with it. One of the most beautiful moments for me was when speaking with Orchid, a Sahiyo Stories facilitator who believed that, “everyone has the best voice for their own story”. Both Orchid and Amy, the two StoryCenter staff members, had an incredible talent for pulling out the real meaning from a story and empowering us through the process. Even though the subject was heavy, talking through my story with them made my heart feel light.

Though the process of creating digital stories was helpful, the highlight of Sahiyo Stories was the screening of the completed products. We sat together, laughed together, and cried together as we watched the digital stories for the first time. The room was a stirring pot of emotions. As we watched each person speak their truth, we felt their emotions and their pain. Their words resonated with us, not only because we could all relate to FGC, but because the struggles were tied to themes that all humans experience: isolation, grief, family, tradition, and healing. The power of what we had created was instantly recognizable. Being a survivor of FGC is a multi-faceted experience. It affects so much more than just anatomy. Even though all of these stories are tied together by the common thread of FGC, they capture so many different components that no story is alike. Personally, when my story was screened, I felt a rush; it was proof that my voice is unique. It was validation that I, along with every person who has a desire to speak out, has something valuable to offer by sharing their voice.

Overall, Sahiyo Stories served as the catalyst in my personal journey down the road of activism and I’m excited to see what comes next…

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Salma:

SalmaSalma Qamruddin works as a scientist based out of Chicago and is new to the world of activism. She works at calling attention to current FGC activist efforts through digital platforms and serves as the current Social Media Intern for Sahiyo. She hopes that Sahiyo Stories can be a tool that takes us one step closer to an open and honest conversation about the prevalence of cutting in this day and age.