Voices reflection: Feeling connected even when you may not be

By Anonymous

How do you associate yourself with a community you are not actively part of? How do you find comfort in a space that is familiar and foreign at the same time? How do you find answers and solace from strangers across continents? 

It is through experiences and stories. That’s what Sahiyo and Storycenter’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) program brought to me. The Sahiyo team reached out to me, asking if I would like to share my story of FGM/C through the participatory storytelling project. At first, I was excited at the opportunity, but then I was apprehensive. Did I have a story to tell? 

I was raised in the Bohra community, and knew about FGM/C. My curiosity to understand the practice pushed me to focus my Master’s thesis on FGM/C.  While I had the opportunity (with Sahiyo’s help) to understand FGM/C from an academic perspective, I never really gave myself a chance to reflect on my own experiences and feelings about the practice, except that I was vehemently against it. 

The Voices project gave me the opportunity to do so. I could not join the live workshop due to the difference in time zones, but watching recordings of the workshop made me feel connected to the other women. I heard their stories, empathized with them, and dug deeper within myself to find my own story and voice, as well. 

I learned more about FGM/C – a practice I understood, did not undergo, but still felt deeply connected to. I dedicated time to understanding my own relationship with FGM/C – one of not being a survivor, but one of being affected by it. I learned more about women like me, and also very different from me, and we all shared something in common. I felt closer to the global  community of voices against FGM/C. 

Thank you, Sahiyo, and the participants of the workshop for sharing your stories and helping me find mine!

UnChained At Last: The United States’ Child Marriage Problem webinar reflection

By Cate Cox

On June 17th, UnChained At Last held their webinar, “The United States’ Child Marriage Problem.” Founded by a survivor of forced marriage, Fraidy Reiss, UnChained At Last is the only U.S.-based organization working to end forced and child marriages through direct advocacy and services. During this webinar, they explored their work and research into ending child marriage. At this event, they were joined by advocate Chelsea Clinton, author and influencer Blair Imani, bipartisan state Senators Julia Salazar (New York) and Katrina Shealy (South Carolina), Dr. Yvette Efevbera of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and survivor and advocate Patricia Abatemarco.

Globally, 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday. In a study conducted by UnChained At Last, they found that between 2000-2018 approximately 300,000 children were married across the United States, the majority of whom were underaged girls marrying adult men. The marriages documented involved girls as young as 10 years old. Also, 60,000 of all documented marriages involved a couple where the age difference between the two would constitute statutory rape if they were not married. Child marriage predicates a multitude of physical and mental health issues: abuse, lack of education, and poverty. Yet, public understanding of the severity of child marriage in the U.S. is very limited. 

Like many types of gender-based violence, including female genital cutting (FGC), child marriage in the U.S. is upheld through complicated systems of patriarchy, economic survival strategies, cultural norms, and legislative inaction. Both Senators Salazar and Shealy agreed that culture and shame are a major cause of the continuation of the practice. Within communities with a history of child marriage, many are unable to understand the multi-layered harms of this practice, and many survivors say their parents forced them into marriages to avoid communal shame from pregnancy or rape. These notions of shame and cultural necessity undermine many forms of gender-based violence, forcing girls to sacrifice their autonomy and future or risk ostracization. 

Yet, the thousands of girls forced into marriage across the U.S. are often unable to access support services to escape dangerous situations. Being underage, in many states they cannot hire a lawyer, file for divorce, go to a domestic violence shelter, file a protective order, and other life-saving support systems if they become trapped in abusive situations. The irony of this is astounding, girls are old enough to be wives but not to be divorced. This loophole traps girls in cycles of violence and destroys families.  

At the beginning of this webinar, UnChained At Last shared their heart-wrenching video: The Girls You Have Destroyed, filmed by survivors of child marriage. By highlighting the stories of survivors (not unlike the Voices to End FGM/C videos by Sahiyo) they were able to show the real impact of this issue and highlight its deeply personal effects on women and girls. 

UnChained At Last staffers explained that they are working state-by-state to outlaw the practice of child marriage, since only five states including New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, have an outright ban on marriages involving persons under-18. There is no federal law against it. In order to push for legislative change, the approach of Sahiyo and other organizations to outlaw FGC in the United States mirrors that of UnChained At Last. Both are using a state-by-state approach, while simultaneously pushing for legislation at the federal level. While there is now a federal law, the STOP FGM Act of 2020, and 40 states with state-specific laws, it took the tireless work of activist across the U.S. to implement the most, seemingly inarguable, protections for girls against FGC. 

In better news, UnChained At Last found that the number of child marriages in the U.S. decreases every year. However, the speakers still stressed the continued importance of raising awareness about this issue. They highlighted that while U.S. foreign policy may condemn child marriage as a human rights abuse, we still allow it to be practiced on our soil. Speaker Blair Imani explained that the notion that child marriage is a “far away problem that requires faraway solutions” is one of the major barriers to addressing this issue in the U.S. 

While watching this webinar, I could not help but notice the similarities between the work to end child marriage and our work here at Sahiyo to end female genital cutting (FGC). From the intergenerational norms to the dismissal of the issue as a foreign phenomenon, the problems at hand are very similar. Both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last have struggled to make people aware of the severity of these issues within the U.S., and the urgency to address them. While discussing legislative action, one of the speakers in the UnChained webinar remembered speaking to a state legislature who told her, “Is it really that bad if a girl marries her rapist?” I was immediately drawn back to similar arguments advocates against FGC have heard such as, “It’s just a prick,” or, “It’s not that bad.” The severe harms caused by FGC and child marriage to women and girls are routinely dismissed, and survivors are left without support systems. 

At the same time both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last stress the importance of uplifting survivors’ voices, both for their personal healing and to create legislative change. Through tireless work, they and Sahiyo are making the world a safer place for girls, and are championing a world free of violence against women. 

You can watch the full webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKlqmMqePks 

Voices reflection: Forging bonds

By Arefa Cassoobhoy

Every Wednesday evening for six weeks earlier this year, I logged on to my computer for a video meeting with 12 other women for the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) digital storytelling workshop hosted by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. I did this to create a video that motivates others to speak up and stop this useless and harmful practice forced on young girls in the United States and elsewhere. We were from around the globe and while our stories all centered on FGM/C, each of us had a unique experience and outlook. I didn’t expect so quickly to forge a bond between the women in the group, but I did. The space was safe for us to share our experiences, hear each other’s comments about our project, and feel the compassion radiating through the group. 

Beyond the topic of FGM/C, I learned about the art of digital storytelling, as each week we added layers narrating our script, adding visual images, audio elements and video. I was amazed and inspired by the video drafts the other women shared along the way. Some had utilized beautiful photography or incorporated digital art tools, and crafts like crochet to convey their story. I recorded painting henna on my hands. What started as a simple conversation shared with the group developed into a digital story that I hope will influence others to protect their daughters from FGM/C. 

Sahiyo volunteer spotlight: Research intern Madrisha Debnath

Madrisha Debnath is a graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi with a masters in geography. Her research interests are in the area of feminist geography, geography of bodies and embodiment. Having a female body, she is passionate to understand the cultural practice of FGC and the process of cultural embodiment. She is grateful to Sahiyo for upholding feminist values and thus being culturally inclusive, and looks forward to making a meaningful contribution as a research intern at achieving Sahiyo’s aim.

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

I had come to know about the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) in the African context from feminist literature that I was referring to during my master’s course in geography of social wellbeing concerning gender disparity. I had randomly searched for whether the practice was prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. This is when I came to know about Sahiyo and the petition they had initiated against the practice. I was inspired by how a counter feminist space was created by Sahiyo enabling women to come together and speak up against such patriarchal norms and practices. I had approached Sahiyo via email and was interviewed for the position of research intern. I was inspired by the active role Sahiyo had taken in the movement around “my body, my choice” and shared my views on body politics during the interview.

2. What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

My work with Sahiyo includes analysing transcripts, and writing articles and reflections on webinars on FGC. I am working closely with the core team members in performing thematic analysis on survivors’ accounts for Sahiyo’s storytelling project.

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

Aspiring to be a researcher, working with Sahiyo has helped me in developing an emic perspective on FGC by gaining sensitive cultural interpretations and working closely with the community facing the issue. I have learned a lot from Sahiyo’s storytelling program on how to normalize talk around such sensitive issues and deal with them from the grassroots level. I also loved the democratic work culture of the organization that gives space for dialogue and participation without feeling overburdened. 

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

In my opinion, if anyone is motivated to do a certain task, the will comes from within. It is not easy to break the silence on the taboo of FGC, or for that matter any social problems, but if we start we can contribute to at least some changes and contribute toward building an equal society.

Voices reflection: A journey of self discovery

By Lola Ibrahim

Storytelling is an important aspect in ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and finding closure for survivors emotionally and mentally. You are able to pour out all of these random thoughts and feelings you bottled up for so long. It gives you the opportunity to begin the healing process and start a journey of self discovery.

I participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop because I know sharing my story would help me heal, and inspire people to make a change. The storytelling workshop was fun, entertaining, and the message was delivered in a subtle, but effective way.

I know my voice can make a difference.  My pain can help others understand what FGM survivors go through. For a long time I didn’t have the courage to face myself. Telling my story opened my vulnerability; and it’s okay to be vulnerable. The experience was therapeutic for me. I was empowered. I was transformed. I met a group of strong women who, like me, share the passion to end FGM. To those who are interested in participating in a Voices workshop, I say go for it. It is a journey of self discovery.

My personal goal is to have women at every table where decisions that affect them are being made, a future free from stigma, stereotypes, misogyny, patriarchal practices and armed violence. A future that is peaceful and sustainable with equal rights and opportunities. A future free from all harmful traditional practices. 

To all FGM survivors like me, I leave you with one of my favourite quotations:

“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and twice as beautiful as you’d ever imagined.” – Rumi

Practitioner and advocate training: Best practices for working with survivors of gender-based violence

In June Sahiyo partnered with Hidden Scars to host a training for practitioners and advocates working with survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and female genital cutting (FGC). 

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a reality for many women and girls. The World Health Organization reports that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. Yet, GBV often remains hidden and shrouded in silence and shame. At the core of providing better prevention, protection, health, and social support services for women and girls are stronger data, enhanced research, and community engagement. Our presentation explored how practitioners can provide trauma-informed care to survivors of GBV, using FGC as a case study. We also provided resources for clinicians and other front-line professionals who may come in contact with women impacted by both, and who are looking to better understand how to provide better care. 

While Sahiyo’s expertise is in addressing FGC, we acknowledge that FGC is a form of gender-based violence and child abuse. Our team felt that many of the lessons that can be learned about how to help survivors of FGC could also be applied to all forms of GBV. Like other forms of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, FGC is a learned behavior of childhood, and is often surrounded by a culture of silence and shame, and is a form of generational violence. However, GBV can also include childhood marriage, rape, sexual assault, honor crimes, domestic violence, and other crimes against women. While we used FGC as a case study, our goal was to create a training that would allow practitioners to provide better care to all survivors of gender-based violence. 

During this event, we provided an overview of FGM/C and GBV, as well as shared videos from our Voices to End FGM/C project. These videos helped our audience better understand the complicated emotions and experiences survivors go through, and to begin to think about how they as providers can better support them in their journey toward healing. We also shared tools such as the George Washington University FGM/C Toolkit, Mumkin, and other resources that are available to help them and their organizations think about how to provide better care to surviors.

Finally, in order to facilitate conversations and help our guests practice communicating with survivors, we also hosted mock conversations. These conversations were held with the goal to help practitioners become more comfortable speaking with survivors and to practice having productive conversations with patients.

We strongly encourage anyone who works in healthcare or provides direct services to survivors of GBV or FGC to watch the recording of this event on our YouTube page, or check out these additional resources below: 

Dear Maasi talks about clitoral anatomy

Dear Maasi is a column about everything you wanted to know about sex and relationships but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, and is for all of us who have questions about khatna (female genital mutilation/cutting or FGM/C) and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexualities and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi, 

I’ve been hearing that the clitoris is much bigger than the external pea-sized part we mostly hear about. This gave me some hope as a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting. Does this mean I can have orgasms more easily? I’ve only had a few in my life, and I’ve been sexually active for twenty years.

Fatema

Dear Fatema,

I felt the same way when I first saw a 3-D depiction of the clitoris, which is far larger than a pea! In fact, it is wishbone-shaped and is about 10 centimeters from the tip of the glans to the end of one of the 4 legs. Watch this 1 minute video to get a better idea of its appearance. 

Globally, sex education has been dismal. We don’t learn about sexual pleasure, communication, consent, or boundaries; and this is especially true for those of us born female. Although the 3-D model shown in the video has been around for over a decade, most people are unaware of it.

Pro-FGM/C advocates believe that a girl’s sexuality can be controlled by cutting external genitalia. Among Bohras the target is the clitoral hood, but many survivors also report damage to the glans. While FGM/C is medically unnecessary, potentially dangerous and often traumatic, these cuts damage only a very small part of the clitoris (think of the tip of the iceberg analogy). 

So what does this mean for a survivor’s ability to experience pleasure? Well, it’s complicated… and hopeful. 

Here are a few things to consider, Fatema:

1) First, I want to emphasize that sexuality doesn’t have to be genitally, or orgasm, focused. We can feel pleasure through all parts of our bodies as well as through our minds. Even if you’d like more orgasms, broadening our concept of what’s erotic can be helpful. Watch this 2-minute video by Psychologist Esther Perel to get a sense of this or watch this longer video on erotic intelligence.

2) Trauma often gets stored in our bodies as stress responses that can interfere with pleasure. This can be true for people who haven’t experienced FGM/C, as well. You may have to untangle and heal the emotional trauma to enjoy more pleasure.

3) It is hopeful that even if one part of your clitoris may have been harmed, there are internal parts that can be accessed for pleasure. Read this short article on learning about what kind of touch might work for you.

Fatema, enjoy your 10 centimeter-long clitoris! Sexual pleasure is our birthright.

—Maasi


About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor: Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality. Find out more about her at http://www.farzanadoctor.com. Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

Voices reflection: Finding my voice

By Hunter Kessous

When I first joined Sahiyo’s team as an intern, I was told to take a look at the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) project on YouTube to get a glimpse of how Sahiyo uses storytelling in its approach to ending FGC. I was probably only expected to watch two or three videos, but I watched every single one in a single sitting. The bravery of every survivor who so beautifully shared their story was enthralling and inspiring. 

Several months later, my mentor at Sahiyo suggested I join the upcoming Voices workshop. Advocates and allies were being welcomed into the program for the very first time. I was hesitant. What place did my story about misguided professors have amongst the breathtaking, moving stories of survivors? I joined the workshop regardless, and I was open with the group about the sense of imposter syndrome I had. My fellow participants, activists and survivors alike, were very encouraging and some even shared my same concern. The most important thing was that we were all united by a common goal: to raise awareness about FGC and hopefully end the practice. Through this shared desire, we built a supportive network, and I soon felt less like a participant in a workshop and more like a member of a community. 

My biggest takeaway from joining this community was finding my voice in speaking out against FGC. I gained confidence in sharing my story about the issues of FGC education in college, because I was assured that it is a story worth sharing. It can be frightening to talk about an issue that is so taboo and to challenge higher authorities. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed the Voices workshop to become a better advocate for women’s rights. I’m excited to share my Voices video and continue speaking out against FGC. 

Voices reflection: Revealing my hidden narrative

By Absa Samba

When I signed up to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C online digital storytelling workshop, I starting thinking about what story I would tell. So many incoherent ideas ran to my mind. It wasn’t until I attended the first session that I knew what story I wanted to tell. During the session, we watched sample stories that really centered my idea.

I have shared my experience as a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting many times, but it wasn’t until this workshop that I realized that there was a part of my story that I had never shared. It was the opportunity to be surrounded by people with both an interest in ending the practice of FGM/C and lived experience that gave me the confidence to share this part of my story. When I speak about my experience as a survivor of FGM/C, people ask, “Why would anyone subject a person to an inhumane practice?” As an activist, I ask myself why I cannot convince some of my family members, the people I love, about the harmful effects of this practice.

The opportunity to participate in the workshop created a space for me to be vulnerable and feel supported while sharing the space with people who are doing just the same. Together, we learned, shared, supported and healed.

Addressing Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Cutting

Although female genital cutting (FGC) is not limited to any one community, misconceptions rooted in racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have still negatively impacted the movement to end FGC – as well as survivors themselves. In our work to end FGC, we must use an intersectional approach to support the needs of all women impacted by FGC and bring about substantial change. First coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the term intersectionality was created to help us understand “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” An intersectional approach to all social movements is crucial to address the intersecting oppressions that impact different communities. 

On July 29th at 1 pm EST Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, “Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Cutting.” This webinar will explore the intersection of anti-racism work and the work to end FGC. Four expert speakers, including Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Aissata Camara, and Sunera Sadicali, will explore intersectionality and FGC in a panel moderated by Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. These renowned activists have worked in the field of FGC prevention and survivor support, exploring the critical intersections where this form of gender-based violence meets systemic racism. Our guest speakers’ experiences will expand the conversation on how FGC survivors and advocates for change often have to push back against racist narratives in their work and in their journey toward healing, as well as how systemic racism can delay substantial change on this issue.  

During this webinar, you’ll be able to be a part of the discussion about how we can all become better educated and better advocates in the journey to end systemic racism and FGC. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Register Today: https://bit.ly/CriticalIntersectionsWebinar 

Leyla Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Leyla works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM around the world. As Leyla reminds us, FGM is a practice of oppressing women and controlling women’s sexuality. It’s not an African issue, it’s not an Asian issue; it’s a global issue that requires a global investment in women.

Aarefa Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Aarefa is a senior reporter with Scroll.in, where she covers gender and labour. She has been speaking out against female genital cutting since 2012 and is one of the five original co-founders of Sahiyo. Sahiyo is an organization founded on the belief that storytelling in all forms can create positive social change and help empower communities to abandon the practice of FGC.  

Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and moved to Lisbon when she was 2 years old. She grew up in a family that was a part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only Bohras in the Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. Sunera underwent khatna (FGM Type I) by age of 8 in Pakistan while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine by the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012 in women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism and healthcare activism. Sunera is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism.

Aissata M.B. Camara is a professional with over a decade of program development and management, strategic planning, and relationship-building experience in non-profit, local government, and international affairs. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she was featured in The Guardian, PBS, RFI, Deutshe Welle and Brut for her advocacy to end female genital mutilation/cutting. She has received numerous awards, including the New York State Assembly Certificate of Merit, Knights of Pythias Medal of Achievement, the Hackett Medal for Oratory Excellence, and the Jo Ivey Boufford Award. Aissata is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.