The complexities of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore: Part III

Tradition and patriarchal elements of FGC  

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the third in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This third installment explains some of the reasons the interlocutors provided for practicing FGC, including tradition and the control of female sexuality within patriarchy. Read part one here. Read part two here.

Reasons for FGC: Tradition

Many of my interlocutors allude to adat or Malay tradition when asked for reasons they practice FGC. They view it as a normalised and long-established cultural tradition, which is often performed without question. There are also some interviewees who believe this leads to the unity of the community and is intrinsic to the Malay identity. However, those who are unsupportive of FGC question the premise of this tradition and that if there is no rational or logical reason behind it, “it doesn’t make sense to blindly follow it.”

macro photography of purple flowers
Photo by Carissa Bongalosa on Pexels.com

According to Gabriele Marranci, “FGC is transmitted generation after generation as an ordinary act of Malay Muslim identity. It can be considered an integral part of Malay Muslim birth rituals and is linked to a specific Malay Muslim identity. Malay Muslims often say, “We do this because it is our tradition. It is something that all Malay Muslims share both here in Singapore and in Malaysia.” Indeed, many of my interlocutors also agree that this practice has been very much normalised in Singapore. “This is tradition: sisters, granddaughters, daughters all do it, said Fauziah, an interviewee. “This is a strong Malay tradition, we can encourage it, but don’t force. It’s a natural next step.”

This tradition is usually passed down a matrilineal lineage, with the grandmothers and mothers of the family encouraging and sometimes even forcing their children to cut their granddaughters. This could be due to the division of labour in Malay families, where women usually take care of matters concerning the children’s development and well-being, while the father provides the economic means to raise them. As such, many men would leave the decision-making regarding the execution of FGC to their wives. They might not even want to know anything about it. It is considered too insignificant for fathers to have a stake or say in the issue.

However, those who are against FGC view the unquestioning nature of this practice as symptomatic of a larger problematic trend of traditionalism within the Malay community. “People do not question or discuss this, and it is a problem that it is not critically discussed,” said Ermy, another interviewee. “People just do it blindly, and so this might cause harm and injury.” Many Malay families continue this practice in an inadvertent manner, and one that is continued not because it is “actively better” but because it is just not worse. As such, FGC is simply passed down and accepted rather than its rationale being questioned or challenged.

At the same time, I noticed that amongst those interviewed, younger people (around the ages of 20-40 years old) are unwilling to perpetuate FGC if the sole reason is tradition. “If it’s just based on tradition, it doesn’t make sense to do something like that,” Hanisah, a 38-year old teacher, said. “Culture is not important to keep if it is causing pain.” Many younger Malay Singaporeans do not view FGC as something that possesses active benefits, and therefore, they do not see the point or logic in continuing it.

Control of female sexuality within patriarchy

Seven out of my eight interlocutors who support FGC readily admit that the cut is important to control women’s sexuality. According to them, FGC is to “cut down on the girl’s sexual desires (nafsu).” They suggest that “by nature, women have a higher sex drive, and so this is to lower chances of sex before marriage.” When asked to explain precisely how FGC leads to lowered sexual desire, or how this relationship can be measured, most interviewees are uncertain. In fact, I had a rather drawn-out conversation (complete with drawings on both our ends), about how the removal of the clitoral hood actually reveals the clitoris more, and so that logically follows that it is more easily stimulated, and therefore, might lead to higher sexual satisfaction. Even though supporters of FGC might be unsure how FGC affects sexual desire, the principles they hold for that view is important to acknowledge.

Believing that FGC is important to control female sexuality might be reflective of the prejudices and biases against women in the Malay community. These traditional values may have arisen because women are traditionally seen as the bearers of morality in societies. As such, it is important within the Malay community to ensure that women uphold important societal values and any potential for deviance is weeded out as soon as possible.

(The fourth and final installment will provide an analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels.)  

Indiv - SazaSaza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations as much as possible.

 

My mother thought she was saving me with khafz

By Rashida

I can recall with crystal clear memory my mother taking me at around age 7 to a dilapidated old Chawl style building in a Bohra Mohalla in Bhendi Bazaar. My mom wore a dark orange saree with a green, white and light orange geometrical design. We climbed up broken wooden steps to go to the first floor on which there were several rooms with closed doors. We knocked on one of those doors and a lady quietly let us in.

grayscale photo of man woman and child
Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com

We sat down on the bare carpet and my mom greeted her with a salaam. The lady disappeared behind a curtained door. I know she came back with washed hands because my mom made me do the traditional salaam that we do to the elders, and her hands were wet and smelled of soap as I kissed them.

The lady sat down across from us and I kneeled down to do the salaam. As I was finishing the salaam the lady pulled my pants down. My mom pulled me back, held my hands and covered my face with her sari and put her face in the sari folds so I could see her face, too. I felt a searing pain between my legs and I began to cry, and my mom made big scolding eyes (that’s how she always silenced me to show me her disapproval), and I reduced my crying to a slow whimper. I was very frightened and had no idea what was happening.

The lady squeezed the tip of my clitoris firmly with a ball of cotton soaked in red mercurochrome as a final move. She told me to keep that ball of cotton in place and not to touch it until it remained stuck to my clitoris. My pants were pulled up and I sat in my mom’s lap sobbing. The lady appeared again from behind the curtained door and was drying her hands now on a napkin. She pried open my clenched fist and forced two Parle G glucose biscuits into it, and I clutched them while clinging to my mom in a petrified state with the other hand. My Mom did salaam to the lady with an envelope filled with money and we began to leave.

I walked out very slowly holding my mother’s hand and we began to descend the staircase. My mom picked me up and carried me down. I remember that moment most vividly today because my mom had stopped carrying me since I was so tall and grown up. I was relieved and happy that she was carrying me because she had not done that in a very long time.

Mom then called for a passing taxi cab. We took taxicabs only for special occasions like a wedding or if we had too many people in a group. I looked up and asked her, “Mummy, we are going in a taxicab to uncle’s home? It is only half full?” And she just smiled and asked me to eat the biscuits.

The taxicab drove us to my uncle’s home (my mom’s brother) and as I was playing outside a few hours later, I overheard my mom talking quietly to my aunts (her sister and sister-in-law). “Oh, I thought Rashida would cry and scream,” she said. “She was so good, and look she is already running around. You cannot even tell it has happened. I was told she would shout and kick her feet. But she is all okay.” Mom said she was relieved that the deed was done.

Later that afternoon, I told my mom about the bloody ball of cotton that was still loose and lying around in my underwear and she threw it away for me. My brothers were playing around and my 11-year-old brother asked me, “What happened to you? Did somebody do something to you?” He must have overheard the adults talking. He does not remember this incident. I just ran away too scared to answer.

The community is getting regressive and male-dominated and under the influence of clergy clout. Despite FGM/C education, the social pressure to follow the diktats is palpable, real and fearful. Social boycott and fear of Laanat holds back the followers in shackles of complete submission.

The issue of equality is a blatant cover-up. The clitoral hood is clearly called “Haram ni Boti” in all sermons and all discussions that are held privately in the community. “This piece of flesh has to be taken out or the girl will be sexually promiscuous.” The Sabak or lessons given by the priests and their wives at the mosques, preach to the parents and especially to the mothers that “your daughters will have an extramarital affair or pre-marital sex if you do not do this. Save your family’s name by doing khafz.”

I do not hate my mother for doing FGM/C to me. She was an educated woman of her times with a BSc, B.Ed., and an M.S. in Chemistry. She was a teacher and retired as principal of her school. She was a victim of this procedure, too.

My mother thought she was saving me. I am sure there was a lot of social pressure from the family and community. My only conversation with her was a casual single comment she uttered as she overheard my friend complaining about health issues her young daughters were facing. My mom quietly said, “We do a procedure to our girls that prevents urinary tract infections in young girls.” I was embarrassed and knew she was referring to FGM/C. So I said, “No, mom, that is wrong and not true!” Mom just walked away. My friend had no idea what we were talking about.

We had no conversation about FGM/C or what happened to me at all thereafter. My mom passed away very young at 61 years of age and I will never have my questions answered. I love my mother dearly and she will be the strongest woman I will know in this lifetime.

I do know that my mom would support my anti-FGM/C stance today if she were alive, provided that my father would not stop her. My dad would be very angry with me today if he knew I was opposing the Syedna in any shape or form.

I run in full marathons and ran my first marathon at age 46. In total, I have run seven full marathons, including those in New York, Chicago, and Washington, and plan to continue running until I die. Running brings me peace of mind and strength. I truly believe I am the oldest woman of Indian heritage still running in marathons and the only Bohra woman my age running, yet I do not feel that the community acknowledges this accomplishment. I am considered a rebel for this act of running as well as for my stance against FGM/C. I will turn 51 soon and will be running the Philadelphia marathon in November of this year, and it will be my eighth full marathon.

My mom used to say, “There should be hope in life. If there is no hope, there is no life.” I hope to see a law banning FGM/C in India. There is no mention of this practice in the Quran and it actually predates Islam. I hope to see the practice of female khatna/FGM/C stopped globally.

 

Featured

Discovering female genital cutting in my community

By Mariam Sabir

Country of Residence: United States

With so many issues in the world that need to be addressed, we have to pick and choose our battles, whether it may be poverty, education, inequality, or gender violence. The majority of people choose something that they can most relate to via personal or cultural experiences. With this first blog I will write about my personal journey of discovering female genital cutting (FGC) in 2011 and why it took me eight years to finally do something about it.

Bohra women

My sister is my confidant, as I am hers. I was 17 years old when my sister pulled me aside urgently to talk to me about something she could not fathom. She had just discovered FGC. I was still in high school and did not grasp the gravity of the situation. A few years later, I was sitting in my healthcare ethics course in undergrad and my professor breezed over the topic of female genital cutting. My mind started to spin. This could not possibly be what my sister was talking about? I called her immediately after class and she confirmed it. I was enraged as though I was hearing it and truly understanding it for the first time. It felt like a conspiracy. No one in the community talked about it. How many of my cousins, friends, and aunts had gone through this and had never spoken of it?

I was desperate to talk to someone about this. Surely there must be somewhere I could go to get more information. I called the first person that came to mind, my mother. I could sense her discomfort in talking about this subject. She told me it is a Bohra custom, a social norm within our community that people feel compelled to perpetuate without questioning, even by my grandmother as well. My mother admitted that it was a traumatic experience, but did not want to indulge further.

I was not satisfied. I called my aunt. My aunt is more liberal and expressive; she writes poetry and is an activist in her own ways. Surely, she would have more to say about this. She told me it was done supposedly to moderate a woman’s sexual urges to prevent premarital or extramarital affairs. To my dismay, this was the end of our conversation.

My attempt to gather information seemed like an impossible task. I did not know where to go or who to talk to, so I pushed my thoughts aside until that summer when I went back home to Dubai. I was curious to see how much Bohra men knew about this. I met up with an old Bohra friend and told him what I had discovered. He immediately said, “Well, men get it done, too.” I was disappointed. I told him that male circumcision and FGC were not equivalent, that FGC was much more psychologically and sexually damaging for a female. He continued to defend the custom saying there must be a reason why Moula (the leader of our community) recommends it. There must be a long-term benefit from the procedure that we don’t know about. I was in disbelief. How could he not think it was wrong? I was left more confused and angry after that conversation. Was I making this a bigger deal than it needs to be? Why is no one else speaking up about this?

I attended medical school and the more I learned about female anatomy, the more upset I got thinking about FGC. I felt powerless until I heard a friend talking about Sahiyo. I was shocked and relieved. It was comforting to know that I share the same views as many other women. Up until then, I felt like my emotions of anger and distrust were out of proportion and unjustified. There was finally a safe space to discuss FGC, gather information and truly understand its origins.

Through Sahiyo, I learned more about how we can create awareness and discussion about such a sensitive and taboo subject. In retrospect, I wish I had handled the conversation with my Bohra male friend differently. It was presumptuous for me to think he would understand what women went through. Afterall, it is our body, not his. I wish I had the tact and knowledge to educate him about the long-lasting effects of FGC, to tell him that it is not a small-community problem but a human rights issue. That taking a child at the age of seven and altering her anatomy forever is not okay. That depriving a woman from experiencing pleasure during sexual activity is not okay. That potentially causing severe pain and complications for women’s reproductive health is not okay. That tampering with God’s creation of a perfect body is not okay. That perpetuating patriarchal standards by continuing this practice is not okay.

All the secretiveness around this topic should be a red flag for everyone who blindly follows this practice. So let’s question it. Let’s drop the secrecy. Let’s drop the shame. Let’s create awareness. Let’s educate each other.

 

 

Volunteer Spotlight: Sakina Sharp

Sakina Sharp is a corporate attorney and co-founder of a domestic violence organization in San Antonio. Sakina is vice president and managing attorney at USAA, which is a financial services company. She has been a practicing in-house attorney for 20 years, specializing in insurance regulatory law and consumer privacy. Approximately 8 years ago, she co-founded a nonprofit in San Antonio, Awaaz, to serve South Asians who are survivors of domestic violence. She served on the board for 7 years. She recently joined Sahiyo as a volunteer.

1) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

Early this year, I discovered Sahiyo when searching for an organization that advocates against female genital mutilation/cutting. This issue has been on my mind for decades and at the same time, it was hidden under the surface. I did not know, realize or understand that there were so many other Bohri women who felt the same way I do, and were doing something about it. I found Sahiyo on Facebook, and was taken aback. I felt like I found a forum to express my hidden story. I wanted to share my experience, and I thought getting involved with Sahiyo would be a way to do it. My first involvement was attending the annual retreat. The conversations in the retreat were very powerful. They helped me process my own experience. I had a hidden story inside me for many decades. The retreat allowed me to express it and then verbalize it into a blog.

2) What opportunities have you been involved with at Sahiyo?

I attended the annual retreat a few months ago. The experience was impactful. Since then, I volunteered to be the newsletter coordinator. I also draft the legislative and regulatory updates, allowing me to apply my legal training to my volunteer work.

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

My involvement has helped me express myself and feel part of a bigger cause. I feel like I do my little bit to give a voice to an important gender-violence issue, which I personally have not been able to express in public. Perhaps if each one of us does our bit, we can encourage just another person to speak up, and then that person encourages another, and we eventually make a systematic change.

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

Sahiyo provides a very safe place to advocate against FGM/C. Each of us can volunteer in our own ways. We can be private advocates, talking to our family members and friends, or pubic advocates, talking to the larger community by attaching our names to our stories. Whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it, Sahiyo is there to provide the tools we need to tell our stories. And, if we just want to listen, and do it anonymously, Sahiyo provides a venue for that as well. My advice is to reach out as you are not alone.

 

Why I care about khatna: Reflections from the 2019 Sahiyo Activist Retreat

By Alisha Bhagat

I first found out about female genital cutting, or khatna, in my community in my twenties; my mother told me it had been done to her. At the time I was shocked. I thought this was something that happened to other people in far off places, not to my mom or Nani or Masi. It was only after talking to other Bohra women that I realized that I was not unusual in knowing a survivor. Every woman in our community is a survivor or knows a survivor.

As I began talking to people about khatna, I started to receive some pushback. Even people who admitted the practice was outdated and unnecessary were uncomfortable speaking about it. In the grand scheme of things, I was told, this is so small. It’s such a small pinch of skin. It’s just a moment in a girl’s life. It’s not indicative of who we are and all the good things we have done and built.

Copy of DSC_0120.jpg
Alisha Bhagat

But I believe the opposite, it is precisely in small moments that we show what we value and who we are. Khatna is more than a cut, it is the manifestation of so many other underlying problems.

As activists we focus on khatna for a few reasons. First we believe this practice itself is traumatic, unnecessary, and has long lasting implications for women’s health and sexuality. It is a straightforward violation of bodily autonomy. Second, the culture surrounding it speaks to the way in which we are shamed, silenced, diminished, threatened, and put in our places.

Earlier this year I attended the Sahiyo Activist Retreat. This retreat help me see how khatna is part of a large system. Just as there are many factors that perpetuate this practice (culture of shame, silence, and devaluation of female sexual experience) there are also many ways in which we have leverage to act.

The retreat highlighted different areas in which we can act to both support survivors and end this practice through the legal system, the medical establishment, in our places of worship, our homes, and our families. At the foundation of all of this is storytelling. Without survivors and allies sharing their stories, the topic remains shrouded in silence.

My hope is that the retreat will help grow our community of activists. And that there will be other safe spaces for people to talk, share stories, and connect. Most importantly, for us to create new models of being in the world, creating new spaces and communities.

 

Joint Press Release: ENDING FGM/C BY 2030: Uniting forces to make FGM/C a practice of the past

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 11.38.35 AM

Download Press Release as PDF

JOINT PRESS RELEASE: 

ENDING FGM/C BY 2030: Uniting forces to make FGM/C a practice of the past

2nd June 2019, Vancouver (Canada)

3.9 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) every year. On the 2nd June 2019, for the first time ever, NGOs, grassroots and survivor-led organizations from around the world came together at the Women Deliver conference around a common goal: to end FGM/C by 2030 and to support survivors of the practice. This is our Call to Action.

FGM/C is happening on every continent except Antarctica: it is a global issue that needs a global response, which is why we have come together – across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America – to build a unified platform for action. Together, we represent no less than 38 countries from all regions of the world. The time has come to make FGM/C a global priority, in the same way the community responded to urgent global epidemics, such as HIV/AIDs.

FGM/C is a violation of the human rights of women and girls and must be ended in all its forms. Whole communities must be mobilised and empowered at the grassroots level if we are to end FGM/C – women and girls, men and boys, traditional and religious leaders, health workers, law and policy makers. During the opening plenary of the Women Deliver conference, His Excellency Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, committed to end FGM/C in Kenya by 2022. We welcome this and call on all global leaders at the conference, and beyond, to commit to end FGM/C.

To put an end to the harmful practice of FGM/C, we will work in partnership with each other, all communities, governments, donors, multilateral bodies and others to end the practice by 2030 in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) determined by the UN. Together, we will challenge the social and gender norms by addressing the root causes of gender inequality at the community level, including gender stereotypes, unequal power relations, and negative social norms. Because this is what holds the continuation of FGM/C in place: control of the female body, of women’s sexuality and of their freedom to decide for themselves.

We must also acknowledge our current failure in providing adequate support systems for FGM/C survivors. We need to provide security and protection, targeted research and resources to enable health and emotional wellbeing as well as post-trauma support. We also need to better understand and respond effectively to adaptations to the practice which continue to violate women’s rights, such as medicalization, cross-border practices, and lowering the age at which FGM/C is carried out.

Investment is needed in increased and better research into what is working, and what is not working, to end FGM/C. Funds should be more flexible, sustainable and accessible for communities. We need an integrated, intersectional approach to ending FGM/C, recognising the connections with other forms of gender-based violence and linking with existing movements. We are focused on coming together and working collaboratively to address what existing gaps there are, making sure that FGM/C is a practice of the past.

 

Signatories:

What is FGM/C?

It is estimated that 3.9 million girls and women underwent the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in 2015 alone (source: UNFPA). FGM/C

comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female

genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

FGM/C is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruelty, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the

procedure results in death.

 

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 11.37.34 AM  

Further Women Deliver blog posts:

  

I still don’t get why my mom took me there: A Bohra survivor of female genital cutting speaks out

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: India

Age: 31

Many communities across the world continue to practice female genital mutilation (FGM). In India, it’s mainly the Bohras, a sub-sect of Shias who practice FGM, also known as khatna. The clitoris and/or labia of little girls is cut or mutilated with the belief that it would curb their sexual desires and stop premarital sex. Many of the women performing khatna have no medical qualifications and are typically women who have learned to perform the cutting from their ancestors. Many midwives perform this in the name of salwaat (or blessings). But they hardly know why they are doing this.

afterglow art backlit bokeh
Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

When you are a child, your parents and grandparents are people you trust the most. They tell you about not interacting with strangers or not allowing any stranger to touch you in your private areas. Still it’s your close family who takes you for khatna, allowing a complete stranger to touch you inappropriately and cut your clitoris. It’s like being betrayed by the people you believe in and trust the most.

I am writing this to share my experience. At the age of six, I was taken out by my mom like any normal day, although most of my childhood memories haven’t made as strong of an impact as this one. We reached a stranger’s place. I went inside the house with my mom. My trousers were removed and then I was told to lie down. I felt extreme pain in my private area. I could feel, although I was instructed to look at the ceiling. I was doing that, and within a few minutes, my mom said, let’s leave. I was still experiencing the pain. The pain was terrible when I urinated.

I never really understood why my mom took me there. I still don’t get it. Why do something terrible to a girl which can leave a psychological scar in their mind which never heals?  In fact, when I became a teenager, I asked my mom why she allowed this khatna to happen to me. The answer I got was tradition, and that it prevents cancer. Then the other question which immediately popped up for me was, “Why only us?” Later I found out it’s mostly done to curb the sexual desire of girls. This practice ultimately leads the girls to mistrust the people they are supposed to trust the most.

It’s not in that instant you realize what happened, but gradually the memory becomes too vivid. Just because something is practiced for generations doesn’t mean it should go on without questioning its existence. People have to change their thinking about existing rules and guidelines to follow in the name of customs. The problem is that if you come out of the shadows and rebel, you may be thought of as an outcast. It’s not us we are afraid of but people we know. Family and friends will be treated differently as well. I believe in taking small steps of at least opening up about what you feel will help you to let go of that which you are suppressing. That will ultimately will give you the confidence of coming out of the shadows and facing the light.

Sahiyo Stories screened at Academy of Communications in Healthcare Workshop

By Renee Bergstrom, EdD

On January 30, 2019, I presented the workshop: Patient Engagement through Brief Focused Videos featuring the Sahiyo Stories at the Academy of Communication in Healthcare (ACH) Winter Course in Scottsdale, Arizona. ACH endeavors to promote empathy and better communication among health care providers, patients and families.

auditorium chairs comfortable concert
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I prepared throughout my adult life to someday share my story to advocate to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). This groundwork included learning through formal education, plus strengthening the emotional, social and spiritual foundation of my being. The purpose in showing the Sahiyo videos was two-fold: to promote deeper understanding of female genital mutilation’s impact on survivors, and to discuss the storytelling process and the feasibility of ACH engaging patients’ trauma stories through focused videos.

Three women attended the workshop I hosted, including the president of the organization who is a nurse midwife. After the workshop, their evaluations were positive.

“I think this was a powerful video that was personal to Renee,” a participant said after watching my video. “It provided an example of what might be possible to create for patients through ACH. That would be an entire different brainstorm session. This video was so impactful that it was hard to move on in this session.”

“Pre-work (writing story) was very helpful and heightened my receptivity/engagement.”

I found it crucial to share Sahiyo’s work with the very caring doctors and nurses who are fellow faculty members and have placed the link to the Sahiyo stories on the ACH library page.

Unknown

 

Renee 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 has been an advocate for women’s justice throughout her life.

When I found out my friend had undergone female genital mutilation

By Amy Vaya

Country of Residence: Bahrain

The first time I ever heard about female genital mutilation (FGM), I was 20 years old. A friend told me about a book she had read called ‘Desert Flower,’ by former model Waris Dirie, who had undergone the procedure as a girl.

Even as she described it, I found myself utterly unable to comprehend such cruelty. Why on earth, I thought, would someone need to do that to another human being, much less a three-year-old child? I hunted down the book and raced through it in a matter of days, learning about her story with a growing sense of horror.

Dirie thought it was normal to feel pain every time she urinated, because she had never known anything else. She never even realised she was missing body parts until, as a young woman, she saw her female roommate’s naked body. Both women wept. I wept.

download (1)All these years later I still remember that book because it was so shocking to me that such a thing is practiced anywhere in the world. And then I put it out of my mind.

It wasn’t until quite recently that the subject resurfaced in my life. A dear friend, who was just a passing acquaintance at the time, had posted online about how she had suffered FGM as a child. My mind raced back to this book and I was thunderstruck. It was one thing for it to happen to Waris Dirie in the 1960s in Somalia. It is quite another for it to happen in the 1990s, in the country where I live!

I became extremely upset. Even though I did not know her that well, this became personal. She had been raised exactly as I had been, gone to similar schools, had mutual friends, and had similar interests. Our lives overlapped so much except for this one glaring fact—her bodily integrity had not been respected. She had been violated in the worst possible way.

I watched videos about the Bohra community in which they discuss khatna with pride and I was disgusted. I thought of the other Bohra friends I’d had through my life and suddenly couldn’t see them the same way anymore. I felt like the women had been mutilated, whether they saw themselves that way or not. I was surprised at the men’s position. Perhaps they were ignorant of the fact this was even happening. The alternative–that they were deliberately inflicting this cruelty on their women–was just too much for me to stomach.

hijab muslim street woman
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

I was so upset I spoke to my mother about it. And would you believe it, at her age, that was the first time she was ever hearing about FGM? That should tell you how little this subject is spoken about among communities.

If we don’t talk about it, we can’t know it’s happening. And if we don’t know it’s happening, we can’t possibly stop it.

FGM should never have begun, and it certainly has no place in the 21st century. Let’s be clear–the aim of FGM in my opinion was never ‘cleanliness’ or any medical benefit–it is purely to reduce or remove a woman’s sexual pleasure, and I fail to see how that benefits anyone.

To the parents: If you think it will help you control your teenage daughter’s raging hormones better, think again. She is going to be a sexually mature adult for a lot longer than she is going to be an unmarried teenager under your roof. Do you really have the right to alter the rest of her life? Is ‘tradition’ even meaningful or important if it adversely affects the quality of life so much?

To the men: I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps you don’t know this is going on among your womenfolk. If that is the case, then learn about it, and protest it. And protest it you must, because this does not benefit you. Do you really want to marry a woman who may never enjoy sex with you? Do you really want to be in a marriage where your wife never initiates sex because it doesn’t feel good or is downright painful for her?

To the women: Keep going and be strong. You deserve to not have body parts removed without your consent. It is such a basic human right; it should go without saying. Your body is inviolable and you deserve for it to be respected as such.

For survivors and their doctors: An online tool about female genital cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

One day, fifteen years ago, while Karen McDonnell was teaching reproductive health at George Washington University (GWU), a student of hers was absent from the class. While that may not seem out of the ordinary, it was quite strange for this particular student. He was a diligent medical doctor from Guinea who attended the university for a Master’s in Public Health. He never missed a class before. Upon his return, Karen asked him if everything was okay.

He told her that he had almost lost his wife.

His wife had given birth to their first child, but when she was young, she underwent female genital cutting (FGC), and it caused complications during the delivery. No one knew how to properly care for her at the hospital while she delivered, and she nearly bled out. In short, those caring for her were unprepared for her case.

“This isn’t something I was interested in yesterday,” Karen said, alluding to the years she’s spent on this project and reflecting on how far she’s come in understanding FGC. She remembers hearing about it in undergraduate school. Back then, FGC was simply an issue mentioned in passing during class. For the students in her graduate school at that time, it may not have seemed like there was anything to be done about it. “It’s a cultural practice, you can’t change culture. So let’s make it safer,” Karen said the instructors told students. The best solution at the time was medicalization, perhaps even providing clean blades. Karen knew that it still didn’t seem right and didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. The blade may be cleaner, but the potential health issues would remain.

woman in pink headscarf stands in front of silver imac
Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

Karen pressed on working at George Washington University, spending decades focusing on domestic violence in her work. But the incident with her student sparked the motivation for advocacy. “That student changed my life in opening my world to [FGC].”

Since then, Karen has worked with the former students and current students to educate others about how to care for those who have undergone FGC. She simply started by talking more in-depth about the practice with her students so they were made aware of the topic. Then two years ago, when the Office on Women’s Health came out with a funding mechanism for a medical project, Karen thought, Finally, we’re getting some attention here! They began working with survivors and RAHMA: a DC-based organization that addresses the stigma around HIV/AIDS in the American-Muslim community, as well as advocates against FGC. The team at GWU was awarded the health-focused funding to do work on a project that would teach other health practitioners how to give provisional care for those who have undergone FGC. Thus started the development of an online toolkit to educate women and healthcare providers on a topic that was once shrouded in secrecy. This toolkit is intended to be easily accessible and resource-filled with proper terminology and answers to questions that aren’t usually asked.

The members of the team include a variety of survivors, advocates, health professionals, and others on-board with the multi-year program. In-depth interviews were conducted for both survivors of multiple countries and health-care providers that worked with survivors. The interviewers asked a myriad of questions: Tell us your experience? How did you get involved? If you had a toolkit, what would you want in there? What would you want providers to know? What do you want women to know?

What’s even better is that women are coming forward with the willingness to share their stories, thanks to increased awareness and support from organizations such as Sahiyo that encourage them to do so. A turning point for these women had to do with their health: they started questioning why they had urinary infections and trauma they’ve carried since childhood. Beginning this conversation was the first step.

The online toolkit is useful for survivors, their doctors, and others in the community. It will have an optimized search and curated content, which ensures that the information is scholarly, reliable, accurate, and useful for the website visitors. While doctors would ideally ask their patients about certain conditions that affect them, this resource can potentially fill in their gaps of knowledge when interacting with their patients. Additionally, the kit would cover essential concepts for survivors to ask health professionals. The team plans to have a community tool section that can be used by men and religious community leaders.

Karen and many others are making a difference by working on this resource for survivors and their doctors. By understanding the complications that accompany their condition, it will ensure they receive proper support.

More on Brionna:

Brionnabiopic

 

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.