Survivor of Mumbai: Plight to End Female Genital Cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

(An alias was provided to protect the survivor’s identity and family.)

There was once a girl who was seven-years-old in Mumbai, India. She and her mother visited a woman so that she could have her “khatna” done. Her mother was an educated woman and later a principal of a school. Today, she was having done to her daughter what her mother had done to her. The mother did her research too, because the woman they visited was known to be quick and effective. There were claims that she inflicted the least amount of pain possible. The little girl paid her respects to the woman who would do the khatna without quite knowing why she was there. Before she knew it, she felt the pain. Then the woman guided her to the sink to wash her hands and pressed two cookies in her small palm–cookies that had been a favorite treat until then.

After the procedure was over, the mother carried the girl down the stairs. She was considered a “big girl” at the time and hadn’t been carried in ages. They got a taxi as well, despite the family being poor. The mere presence of the taxi testified to the importance of the event, not to mention the trouble she would have walking back to her uncle’s house. The mother spoke with an aunt there, saying she thought her daughter would cry for hours; but she seemed fine now, though. However, she was far from fine. Fatima wouldn’t talk about this event for another four decades.

closeup photo of yellow taxi
Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

As an adult, Fatima gained the courage to speak up about FGC. Three years ago, when Masooma Ranalvi started to advocate against the practice, Fatima found her voice. A survey by Sahiyo was also done, which revealed that no one spoke about the practice, but continued it even though the community that practiced it was considered educated and progressive. Female genital cutting (FGC) was a generational secret that about 80% of the surveyed population underwent. There is an understandable cause for worry within the community if one does not undergo it. Skipping out on the procedure could lead to a handful of issues, including a loss in social standing, or the local clergy harassing parents if you’re in the United States with your family back in India. Families persuade their women to have their daughters cut they believe to purify them and prevent promiscuity. Some succumb to the pressure, while others lie that the procedure was done so the constant nagging can subside. There’s also the option of vacation cutting (sending the girl away on a “vacation” for her to be cut) for those in America. Even all the way in Detroit, a personal shame makes it so that one may only talk about it amongst their closest friends. Fatima knows another woman, a lawyer in Houston, who went to Pakistan at age seven in order to be cut. It’s believed by some to be the ideal age because the girl is young and submissive, but old enough to remember what was done to her and continue the tradition when she has daughters.

Fatima is happily married with her husband and has two adult children, both boys. However, if she ever had a daughter, she would not have let her undergo FGC. A friend of hers commented on this once, claiming she was fortunate to not have to deal with female issues, like urinary tract infections. Fatima’s mother was visiting at the time and overheard their conversation.

Her mother said something along the lines of, “Oh, our girls don’t get infections because we have this done to them,” referring to FGC.

The friend did not know of FGC and probably would have asked more if Fatima didn’t interject. “That’s not true,” she told her visibly shocked mother. “Let’s not talk about it now.”

Unfortunately, the time to talk about FGC never came for Fatima and her mother. When thinking about her late mother, Fatima believes that she would be upset with herself in learning that while her mother had the intention to genuinely help Fatima, the incident only harmed her at seven-years-old, and still does today.

Fatima doesn’t have any physical problems as a result of being cut, but the trauma from the event still resides within her. After all these years, she remembers the pain. She believes that she lives a relatively normal and happy life, but the memory of being cut is there.

She can’t talk about it without crying, even though she doesn’t want to cry. “Why was this done to me?” Fatima said that she didn’t want her tears to weaken the message to end cutting. Fatima wants FGC survivors to open up, speak up, and get the help they need. The next generation needs to be protected and supported. Fatima said that even with leading a relatively normal life, the trauma is still there. “I will never be a full woman. I will never know [the] full sex experience, and I will never know how it feels to be uncut.”

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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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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.

 

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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.

Moving Beyond Cultural Relativism to a Call for Action to End Female Genital Cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

Earlier this year I had no idea about female genital cutting (FGC). None whatsoever. I mean, events happen all the time around the world and I’m not aware of the dozens of happenings that occur day-to-day. But for FGC to go on without so much as a whisper of this harmful practice, I thought was rather strange.

I learned about FGC when I was given an assignment during my junior year in high school. It was a Pre-Senior Project, which was essentially a practice before our year-long project we had to do for our final year of high school. Ideally, we were to choose a topic that pertained to our passions or a problem related to us on some level. I was at a loss for what to choose. Everyone around me jotted down several potential ideas, but my ideas were comparatively vague. By day two or so, I sat with my teacher to make a final decision. My teacher wrenched out my distaste for injustice and helped me narrow the target of people who undergo it. She typed online in the search bar something along the lines of “issues involving women and children” and there it popped up–female genital cutting.

I was appalled when I first learned about it. To reiterate, I had no idea this tradition existed and I wondered how it continued to go on. Why did women and men subject their daughters to this? What was the appeal? I dug deeper, finding out the reasons behind FGC. In some communities, while the intention was to keep daughters clean or marriageable, it was done at the cost of carrying out a potentially traumatic procedure that could leave the woman or girl with a handful of health issues afterward.

However, the concept of cultural relativism impeded criticism and questioning, while justifying the tradition. The idea that because one has not lived in a certain community or society, they can’t truly pass judgment on the cultural practices of others. Two people living in two different places across the world from each other naturally grow up with different experiences. Who is to say that another’s culture and traditional practices are objectively wrong? What is considered wrong when it comes to culture? Outsiders may feel as if they do not have a voice in regard to scrutinizing FGC because it’s an issue beyond their homes. Therefore, proponents of FGC claim that the divide or differences between two groups is too great to judge each other. Admittedly, I initially agreed with the notion of cultural relativism. Who was I to criticize people who carry out FGC in their communities when I knew nothing of their lives? Even so, remaining in place and staying quiet, doesn’t sit well with me, especially if I could be a person who brings awareness to FGC being a human rights violation. The excuse of cultural relativism shouldn’t be used when people are being harmed.

I continued researching FGC for my project the next school year, my senior year in high school. This time, the project had to be more extensive, including a longer research paper, another presentation, and some sort of final product. This ranges from documentaries to creating design plans. With all this work I was doing, I thought maybe I could make some sort of difference. I needed a mentor for guidance, one who is an expert on the topic. I sent out an email or two before finding Mariya, a co-founder of Sahiyo. The organization specializes in advocacy regarding FGC, even working with affected communities to diminish the practice. By sharing the stories of women involved with FGC, a wider audience becomes aware of the issue with a deeper understanding. With the combined efforts of multiple organizations and people from different walks of life, the perception of practicing communities will change. Then, I believe, FGC will become part of the past.

Over the course of my project, I hope to improve my advocacy skills and fully understand the issue that I’ve been invested in for the past couple of months. So far, researching FGC and looking into multiple perspectives has encouraged me to consider my own views on the topic. By the end, I will have figured out my ethical priorities. For the rest of my blog posts, I want to look into a handful of countries where FGC is practiced and talk about the circumstances around them. Until next time!

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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.