Dear Maasi: a sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

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

Dear Maasi,

In an October 22nd webinar about sex and mental health after khatna, you talked about different kinds of psychotherapy that are helpful for survivors. I think I might want to see a psychotherapist to talk about khatna (FGC), but I don’t know where to start.

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

There are many paths to healing, and psychotherapy is one of them. I’m a big believer in its efficacy, and not just because I am a psychotherapist—I found psychotherapy very helpful in working through my own khatna-related emotional and sexual trauma.

None of my psychotherapists had heard about khatna, or had been trained in counseling survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) before working with me. Only two had a basic knowledge of FGM/C from their own reading, and this was about Types III or IV. I expected that; it’s only since 2015 that there’s been any widely held public discourse around khatna. While more therapists are getting better trained, it’s fairly rare to find an experienced FGM/C trauma therapist. Therefore, it was up to me to take some initiative in my own therapeutic journey. 

Here are some tips:

Seek out a psychotherapist who has at least five years of experience working with survivors of sexual trauma. 

Of these, look for someone who has training in a model or approach that goes beyond standard “talk therapy,” which tends to focus on cognitive understandings. Because trauma gets housed in the body, it’s important to directly address the unconscious and the body. A few examples of approaches that can be helpful to trauma survivors are (but not limited to): Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, Mindfulness, and EMDR.

Interview a few therapists. (Most will offer a free half-hour consultation for this purpose). Besides asking about their knowledge, experience and approaches, tune into your gut regarding “match” or how connected you feel with the person. Your relationship with a psychotherapist is an important part of the process.

Gather information about khatna for context around the practice. Send some links so the therapist can do their own reading and learning. It’s good for them to process the information and their own reactions before working with you so that you can feel free to open up. 

Here’s a piece I wrote to share with people: Seven Things Not to Ask a Khatna Survivor

Here are two deeper dive khatna resources:

Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra Community

The Clitoral Hood A Contested Site Khafd or Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in India

Resolving the trauma of khatna can help us live happier, more fulfilling lives. Anonymous, I wish you well in your healing journey!

Maasi 

Dear Maasi: a new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

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

Dear Maasi,

In many Bohra families, sex is seen as a duty that a woman performs. To even have conversations about your own pleasure is so difficult. When I talked about khatna and its impact on sexuality, my mother asked me, “Why are you the only one who has a problem with this?” My question is how do you articulate this need to not just want to submit? 

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

You’re addressing two powerful taboos—talking about sex and questioning women’s role in sex. Good for you! 

I think that sex-negativity and misogyny are pervasive and global, and not limited to Bohras. In other words, all around the world sex education is dismal or non-existent, and women and non-binary people learn that sex is shameful, not to be discussed, and not for our own pleasure. In a heterosexual context, we learn that sex is to be “given up” for male partners, and only after marriage.

Khatna, a form of female genital cutting and sexual trauma that is secretive and intergenerational, reinforces these ideas. I can see how it would be challenging to talk to your mother, especially if she hasn’t considered and challenged outdated notions about sexuality. 

If I were in your kitchen with you and your mom when she asked this question, I might coach you to say something like this:

“But mom, it’s not just me. I’m not the only one who is questioning this. I know this might be uncomfortable for you, but I encourage you to think more deeply about how khatna impacts us.” 

If she’s open to hearing more, you might share some research: 

—In a Sahiyo survey conducted in 2017, 35% of respondents reported that FGC had affected their sex life, and of those, 87% felt that it had been impacted negatively. 

—In a 2018 WeSpeakOut study, nearly 33% of respondents said the same. 

You might also share your personal experiences with her, but beware that learned sex-negativity can lead people to be judgemental, and Anonymous, you don’t need that. Seek out friends and others who might be supportive. Watch survivor stories.

It’s also good to correct our own sex misconceptions by collecting as much sexual health information as possible. I highly recommend Come As You Are, a book by Emily Nagoski, and Sex With Dr. Jess, a podcast that offers practical sex advice combined with good psychotherapeutic knowledge. In my last column I also recommended the Sex Gets Real podcast episode in which activist and writer Mariya Karimjee discussed her research and personal experiences with sex and dating. My recent novel, Seven, takes up issues of Bohra women’s sexuality, including infidelity, lack of orgasms, and khatna, and there’s even a scene where my protagonist tried to talk to her mother about sex.

Knowledge is power, Anonymous. And with that knowledge, you’ll be able to articulate—to yourself and others—why it’s our birthright to experience sexual pleasure.

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.

Dear Maasi: a new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new 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, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexualities and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi,

How do you navigate being a public advocate on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) while being so exposed and having your identity conflated with such a deeply personal issue? This is particularly tough in the world of online dating.  

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

This is a great question, and I think many survivors who have chosen to be “out” in the public realm have had to grapple with this situation. To be clear, it is a choice to be a public advocate, and everyone has to make the choice that’s best for them.

People assume so many things about us FGM/C survivors, don’t they, Anonymous? It’s such a stigmatized issue, that people don’t understand that we are all different. We remember differently. We have different symptoms. We have different sexual functioning. We have different religious beliefs and connections to our families and communities. In other words, you can’t assume anything about an FGM/C survivor. And yet people do. These assumptions create shame and can be entirely inaccurate.

Many of us, at the time of the original trauma, were told, “This is nothing; don’t cry,” and “This is a secret; don’t talk.” Therefore, speaking publicly about how FGM/C is harmful can seem wrong or shameful.

At the same time, as kids, we probably didn’t understand what was happening to our bodies; and as a coping strategy, children tend to blame themselves rather than the trusted adults. Thinking it’s our fault creates shame.

All of this to say that FGM/C can leave us with a lot of shame. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

I’ve been an activist since 2015, but I was super nervous about being public. I admired and envied my activist sisters who could openly discuss their survivor experiences. While they were the best role models and supporters, I couldn’t follow their examples. When I tried, I’d dissociate, feel exhausted and unwell; my body signaled a big “no” to me. I wasn’t ready.

The hitch was that I was finishing a novel about FGM/C in my community, and I knew that I’d be asked about my personal connection to the issues at festivals and in media interviews. Despite the dread I felt, I knew I had to work through my anxieties and become ready. But this wasn’t a simple process. I returned to therapy. I did mock interviews where friends asked the most intrusive questions, and I had to sort out my boundaries and decide how to answer. I had to challenge my own beliefs and stereotypes about what it means to be a survivor. I wrote Seven Things Not to Ask A Khatna Survivor, both for myself,my friends and readers. Still, I was nervous.

And then something unexpected happened at the beginning of my book tour. I didn’t feel dread. My body began to say yes to public speaking. I saw the questions that came my way as opportunities, not intrusions. I haven’t stopped talking about it since I started, over three months ago. And I’ve been fine. Better than that, I’ve felt liberated from the shame. 

This is a long way of saying that people will continue to make assumptions about me—and to conflate khatna/FGM/C with my identity, perhaps for the rest of my life—and because I have no shame about it, I no longer care. 

I have a feeling that this works similarly with any marginalized identity or experience we hold. When we surface and work through our internalized shame about being racialized, or women, or Muslim or fat or poor or disabled or queer or older or depressed or chronically ill, we liberate ourselves.

The process of moving from shame to liberation will look different for each of us. I think the first step is acknowledging any shame you might feel. Here are a few questions to ask yourself (and while doing so, notice your emotions and your body’s response):

-What myths or assumptions exist about FGM/C survivors? List them. Which do I believe, even a little bit?

-Is the cut to my genitals shameful? Are my genitals shameful? In what ways?

-How do I feel if a neighbour or a colleague or a stranger knows I am a survivor? 

This brings us to online dating. It’s standard practice to Google a potential date and to scan their social media profiles. There’s probably no way to escape people knowing about us before they meet us.

Mariya Karimjee talked about her experiences with dating, sex and being a public advocate on the Sex Gets Real podcast (Jan 29, 2017). At about the 48-minute mark, she describes the two kinds of men she’s met through online dating: the first who is “totally freaked out” by what they assume to be her “baggage,” and the second who imagines himself as someone who can “fix her with his magic penis.” We can assume that both these types of men are not worthy of anyone’s attention, Anonymous! 

A third type of date might be someone who understands that psychological and sexual trauma is common and their aftereffects varied. They don’t make any assumptions about us. This is the sort of person you can have interesting, complex and intimate conversations about your experiences, including those about being an FGM/C survivor and advocate. Check out September’s column for some tips on how to have these conversations.

I’m hopeful that as we continue to do our advocacy, we’ll normalize conversations about FGM/C, and more people—including our neighbours, colleagues and potential dates—will be this kind of person. While you search for them, I hope that you will be shameless in the best kind of way.

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 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.

Dear Maasi: A new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. In the Bohra context, Maasi means auntie. We welcome you to send your questions to info@sahiyo.com. Please feel free to use a pseudonym if you’d like.

Dear Maasi,

I’m 26 and have had three serious relationships in my life (two guys, and most recently with a woman). I like intimacy, but penetration (with anything) often hurts. I sometimes have avoided sex altogether and this has caused tension in my relationships. I saw a doctor who said everything ‘down there’ was normal. But honestly, I feel really abnormal.

I had khatna, and I’m wondering if it had an impact on me. But this makes no sense to me because they cut my clitoral hood—they didn’t harm my vagina, right?

—Freaked-Out Fatema

Dear Fatema,

First off—I want you to know that everything you’re talking about is normal, and not uncommon.  

There are many reasons why penetrative sex can hurt, including dryness due to hormones, vaginal infections, injuries, and conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or endometriosis. 

Other common reasons for pain are vaginismus (where the vaginal or pelvic floor muscles spasm or clench upon penetration) or vestibular vulvitis (inflammation around the nerves around the vaginal opening). These can be linked to trauma. More on this in a bit.

I recommend that you get a second medical opinion. Many doctors are not comfortable with sexuality, and as a result, are not thorough enough in their assessments. Look for one who has experience with sexual difficulties. I highly recommend listening to Episode One of the Bodies Podcast for a deeper dive into this issue. 

As for your question regarding the links between khatna and your pain, khatna does involve cutting the clitoral hood, and sometimes also the clitoris, rather than the vagina. Still, there is research to suggest that this cut can affect sexuality: in a Sahiyo survey conducted in 2017, 35% of respondents reported that FGC had affected their sex life, and of those, 87% felt that it had been impacted negatively. In a 2018 WeSpeakOut study, nearly 33% of respondents said the same. I highly recommend reading some of their quotations that describe pain, triggers, and trauma (pages 47-60) — it might feel validating.

Trauma is the outcome of a distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope and make sense of the experience. Most survivors describe khatna as a distressing, confusing and painful experience that sometimes involves a significant amount of denial, gaslighting or lies from older, trusted relatives. 

I’d say khatna fits the definition of trauma.

Our minds and bodies can hold trauma in ways that sometimes feel indirect or confusing. Take a look at this comic to understand what I mean. It makes sense to me that our vulvas and vaginas might hold tension from khatna. Speak to a trauma-informed therapist to understand if khatna might have impacted you in this way. 

Fatema, I want you to know that it’s possible to recover and heal from this. You have a right to a pleasure-filled sex life! 

—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 www.farzanadoctor.com.  

Order her newest novel, SEVEN, which addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity and khatna within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

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.

Dear Maasi: a new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. In the Bohra context, Maasi means auntie. We welcome you to send your questions to info@sahiyo.com. Please feel free to use a pseudonym if you’d like.

Dear Maasi,

I’m forty and divorced, but I’ve recently met someone nice, a non-Bohra, and we’ve grown close. Should I tell him about my experience with khatna? How do I start that conversation? Is it even important to dredge up that old trauma?

Divorcée Duriya

Dear Divorcée Duriya,

Hurray for your new relationship! It makes sense that you’re trying to figure this question out. Let me start by saying that sharing personal information is always your choice, and there are some pros and cons to consider.

Let’s start with the benefits:

Benefit #1: Sharing your vulnerabilities can build intimacy and trust.  I think this is especially true for trauma because it often happens in a context of secrecy, shame and isolation. Talking with a loved can be corrective; it breaks the silence and you can feel less alone. 

Benefit #2: When our loved ones understand how a trauma can trigger us emotionally, physically or sexually, they can be better allies in our healing. 

Here’s an example: Once in a while a certain kind of touch causes me to have a freeze response. My partner is attuned to me, knows about khatna, and will help me pause and get grounded again.  

Consider what triggers might exist for you, and then educate your loved ones on how to support you.

CAVEAT: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

This takes us to the potential drawbacks:

Drawback #1: If your loved ones are not skilled at being compassionate and/or don’t understand that khatna can be traumatic, they can inadvertently minimize or invalidate your feelings, or judge you. This can feel re-traumatizing, especially if you’re not prepared for it. 

One way to mitigate this is to share information before sharing your story.  I wrote this blog post for that reason. Check out the Sahiyo blog and WeSpeakOut website for more useful articles and videos.

Drawback #2: Talking about trauma—even with someone supportive—can leave us feeling raw or overwhelmed.  If you think this could happen for you, make sure you have ready access to someone who can help, for example, a good friend or counsellor. One way to test this is to rehearse what you might say, and notice what feelings arise.

How to start the conversation:

There are many ways to talk about khatna. Here’s a guide. Skip the steps that don’t apply to you and edit to your own style.

  1. Preamble: 

There’s something I’d like to share with you. It’s a personal and vulnerable thing to talk about.

I’m telling you because you’re important to me. 

I just need you to listen and later I can answer any questions you might have. 

Is this a good time to talk?

  1. Give them some info about the practice in general, but not too much: 

My community practices a form of genital cutting called khatna. It happened to me when I was a child. It’s a taboo subject and is considered traumatic. 

  1. Tell them the personal impact (this part can vary widely, so this is just an example): 

I’m okay, but sometimes thinking about it can upset me, and every so often, in some sexual situations, I find myself getting tense. 

  1. Tell them what you need from them (this part can also vary widely): 

I don’t need you to say or do anything right now.

I wanted to share this with you because it’s a part of my life experience. And it might help you understand why I react in certain ways.

  1. Offer to give them resources so they can learn more: 

If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them. I can also point you to some articles and videos if you’d like.

Well, Divorcée, I really hope that your new beau works out! If you decide to tell him, may it be a healing experience for you.

—Dear 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 www.farzanadoctor.com.  Pre-order her newest novel, SEVEN, which addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity and khatna within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

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.