On Nov 4, 2019, Sahiyo’s co-founder Mariya Taher took part in a round-table session at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss the Voices to End FGM/C project. Participants were able to view a sample of the digital stories created by survivors. They were also able to learn how by utilizing participatory storytelling methods, we can educate communities, health professionals, and policymakers on female genital cutting. For more information, visit APHA’s website.
By Maryah Haidery
Country of Residence: United States
Last month, the Columbia University South Asian Feminisms Alliance organized a panel discussion in New York City to discuss female genital mutilation (FGM) in the broader context of human rights. I was honored to represent Sahiyo at this panel alongside Maryum Saifee, an FGM survivor and career diplomat with the United States Foreign Service; Aissata Mounir Camara, Co-founder of the There Is No Limit Foundation; and Shelby Quast, Americas Director of Equality Now. The event was scheduled for a frigid Friday afternoon and I was only expecting a handful of people to attend. But when I finally made my way to the School of International and Public Affairs, I was pleasantly surprised to find the room was packed with students and reporters interested to hear what we had to say.
The event began with a screening of three short videos highlighting Maryum’s, Aissata’s, and my personal history with FGM. After some brief introductions, we began a very impassioned hour-long discussion about our individual experiences as activists. Maryum began by stressing that it was important to view FGM as not just a cultural or medical issue but as a fundamental violation of human rights, including the right to live a life free from violence – especially gender-based violence. Shelby was particularly insightful about the legal implications of overturning the federal constitutional ban on FGM in the Detroit case and the subsequent appeals process. Aissata was passionate about informing the audience that FGM was “not just an African problem” but a growing problem here in the U.S., and one that affects all types of women regardless of ethnicity, age, religion and socio-economic status.
Keenly aware that I was lacking the extensive background and experience of my fellow panelists, I nevertheless tried my best to represent Sahiyo by discussing some of my recent initiatives, as well as some of the issues inherent in this sort of work. In keeping with the theme of the event, I discussed the challenge of framing FGM as a human rights issue. Some people hesitate in calling FGM a violation of human rights because they view rights through the lens of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the idea that right and wrong is subjective and varies based on culture. According to this view, definitions of human rights based on “Western” ideas, such as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can only apply to people from “Western” cultures, and different standards should be used to judge the practices of people from “non-Western” cultures like Dawoodi Bohra Muslims. Unfortunately, many politicians who have this view feel that supporting a ban on FGM may appear culturally insensitive.
I told the audience that although I felt that such views were understandable and often well-meaning, they were fundamentally flawed. This is because concepts such as “right and wrong” and “human rights” are not subjective but objective. They are based on the things that humans need in order to live and flourish. While it might be true that the human rights guaranteed in the UN’s Declaration of Rights are based on “Western” ideas, they are universal and meant to apply to all humans, not just the ones born in the West. So, if you adopt a culturally relativist position and contend that universal human rights don’t extend to certain Muslim women, then you are essentially arguing that you don’t think that certain Muslim women count as “human.” It’s not hard to see why this would be wrong.
At the end of the discussion, we responded to several questions from the audience. It was heartening to see how engaged everyone was. Someone asked how important we thought changing the existing laws would be for ending FGM. I answered that while laws could be important in underscoring our nation’s commitment to protecting the rights of little girls, laws alone would probably not result in changing the culture. That is why engaging with people and educating them is also so important. Shelby emphasized that laws were helpful in bringing exposure to previously taboo practices. But she also warned that it was important to ensure that laws were implemented in ways that helped communities instead of targeting them. Several people were interested in finding out what they could do to help end the practice in their communities. Maryum urged audience members to educate themselves on the issue and pursue creative solutions. Camara agreed. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “Educate yourself. Break the silence. Find your talent and join in.” After the event, nearly everyone took home information on how they could support the various organizations represented, find upcoming Zero Day of Tolerance Activities, or sign a petition to ban FGM in Massachusetts. It was a day that seemed to exceed all expectations.
Each year, the Global Women P.E.A.C.E. Foundation hosts a 5K Walk Against FGM in Washington, D.C., and activists working to end FGC around the world come to participate. This year, the event was extended to 2-days and commenced with a Global Woman Awards ceremony on Friday, Oct 26th at the Milken Institute of George Washington University. Two of the award recipients, included Maria Akhter and Severina Sangurikuri, two women who took part in the U.S. Sahiyo Stories project. They each received a Global Woman Awards from the Global Woman Peace Foundation in the categories of Student Ambassador and Survivor Activist respectively.
Here’s what Maria has to say about receiving her award:
I am thrilled, honored and humbled to receive the Global Woman Award in the Student Ambassador category from the Global Woman Peace Foundation. With boundless support from friends, family, and the hardworking activists in Sahiyo and other organizations working to end FGM/C, I’ve been able to turn my quiet interest in activism into a bold passion and lifelong commitment to a cause I hold near and dear to my heart. Receiving this award reinforces and challenges me to continue working in new ways to break the silence around FGM/C and end the practice for future generations.
The 5K Walk, scheduled for October 27th was at the last minute cancelled due to severe winds and rains. Yet, prior to the walk, people still gathered to listen to the guest speakers such as FGC survivor, Lola Oje from Nigeria who shared that she refuses to allow her beautiful daughter to be subjected to FGC. To learn more about the event, visit ‘A Mini United Nations Convenes in Washington, D.C.’
I grew up in India, and when I moved to California a few years ago, I didn’t know anybody from the Bohra Jamaat (congregation). The Sahiyo ‘Thaal pe Charcha’ event came at a time in my life when I had been thinking a lot about sharing through storytelling. What a powerful tool it is to get people together and find ways to let go, heal and learn from our shared experiences. Sitting in a room full of Bohra women, sharing a meal in a thaal (a large circular steel dish), and exchanging laughs and a few cries too, I felt a strong sense of belonging. I soon learned that we all had very different upbringings outside of our Bohra lives, yet very similar experiences as women within the community.
My mother had her storytelling circle − her group of women friends who met once a month at each other’s homes, shared a meal together and talked about their lives. She always came back from those gatherings with a glow on her face, as if a heavy burden had been lifted off her shoulders. She felt safe within that group, and the group was built on trust, love, respect, and compassion for each other.
As one of the facilitators of the California Thaal pe Charcha event, I was hoping to create a similar space for all our participants. I knew it would be a challenge since this was the first time we were all meeting, and it takes time to build trust and friendship. But it was heartwarming to see everyone feel so comfortable right from the beginning. The rest of the afternoon was full of rich and insightful discussions about what it meant to grow up Bohra in California, the multiple lives and identities that a woman has to balance, what we value about the community, the pressures, daily challenges and barriers that women faced within the community.
Interactive activities throughout the afternoon allowed participants to share something unique about their lives, and think about what community and freedom meant to them. And just when we needed a break to take in a few deep breaths, and process everything that we had discussed, we were treated to a hot cup of ‘chai’ that warmed our hearts and minds!
We ended the afternoon with many questions, dreams, and hopes in our minds. And I think that is the magic of such gatherings. It pushes us outside our comfort zones but allows us a space to share, to feel important, to know that our voices, our thoughts, and perspectives are appreciated and heard, and most importantly, a reminder, that we are never alone.
I look forward to many more gatherings where we can learn and grow together.
Read more reflections on the Bay Area TPC here!
On October 19 in Oakland, California, Sahiyo, in collaboration with StoryCenter, Asian Women’s Shelter, Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence hosted a screening of Sahiyo Stories that included a behind the scenes short film documenting the women’s experiences in creating their digital stories.
Sahiyo Stories involved bringing together nine women from across the United States to create personalized digital stories that narrate experiences of female genital cutting (FGC). These nine women, who differ in race/ethnicity, age, and citizenship/residency status, each shared a story addressing a different challenge with FGM/C. Some women who had only recently discovered they had undergone FGM/C were grappling with its emotional and physical impacts, while others were invested in advocacy to prevent it from happening to more girls. The collection is woven together with a united sentiment and a joint hope that the videos will build a critical mass of voices from within FGM/C-practicing communities, calling for the harmful practice’s abandonment.
A panel discussion on female genital cutting followed the screening, and the greater connection FGC has to gender-based violence.
To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:
On October 7, Sahiyo co-founder Aarefa Johari and We Speak Out founder Masooma Ranalvi participated in a panel discussion on Female Genital Cutting in India, at the We the Women summit organised by veteran journalist Barkha Dutt in Bangalore. Prominent human rights activist Srilatha Batliwala moderated the discussion.
The event was attended by more than 200 people in Bangalore and was streamed live on social media. Ranalvi and Johari shared their personal experiences of being subjected to FGC and discussed various aspects of the problem from the need to engage with the community to end the practice and the significance of a law against it.
You can watch the complete video of the discussion here.
The event was a follow up to a similar We the Women summit in Mumbai in December 2017, when Sahiyo co-founder Insia Dariwala spoke about the practice along with Mubaraka and Zohra, two survivors of FGC. You can watch last year’s video here.
In a unique event bringing together activists working to end Female Genital Cutting and various stakeholders from civil society organisations, WeSpeakOut organised a two-day symposium at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai on August 1 and 2. The symposium, titled “Strategy-building Workshop on FGM/C in India”, was organised in partnership with TISS, Nari Samata Manch and Sahiyo.
More than 40 activists, survivors, and researchers participated in the workshop, including women and men from various sub-sects of the Bohra community from different parts of India, feminists, academicians, and heads of several women’s rights and human rights organisations in the country. There were also international participants from Equality Now, a US-based organisation working to end FGC globally and Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, an NGO working to end FGC in Kenya.
Over two days, the workshop nurtured stimulating and productive discussions on various aspects of FGC and discussed strategies to advocate against the practice from the perspectives of law, health, community engagement and working with the youth and with men. The workshop was also an opportunity for activists from the community and those from outside the community to learn from each other.
On April 12-13th, the Dickinson Law’s FGM Legislation Project hosted a conference, “Crafting Legislative and Medical Solutions to Address Female Genital Mutilation Locally and Internationally,” at Dickinson Law. This conference aimed to educate the public, lawyers and medical professionals about the legal, social, psychological and medical consequences of FGC. Experts and practitioners gathered to address the medical implications for women who have undergone it, the need for legislative action, and cultural competencies and prevention. Sahiyo Cofounder, Mariya Taher participated in a panel session, “Effective FGM Prevention and Survivor Advocacy.” A live stream of the event can be found here. On April 13th, a working group gathered to create and discuss an optional protocol to the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women that focuses primarily on Female Genital Cutting.
On March 16, Sahiyo partnered with Women in Film and Television International India to organise its first-ever on-ground storytelling event in Mumbai, India. The event, titled “Storytelling with Sahiyo”, featured four critically-acclaimed Indian film actors who performed narrative readings of the personal stories of four Female Genital Cutting survivors. The event was led and hosted by Sahiyo co-founder Insia Dariwala, along with WIFT founder Petrina D’Rozario.
The actors — Rasika Dugal, Sobhita Dhulipala, Plabita Borthakur and Dolly Thakore — read the stories of survivors Fatema, Insiya, Samina and an anonymous mother who regrets getting her daughter cut. The stories highlighted the different ways in which FGC affects women who are cut and the difficult decisions that mothers often have to make when they are caught between tradition and the desire to protect their daughters.
After the emotional readings, which left some audience members in tears, three of the survivors present at the event were felicitated by the actors. This was followed by a panel discussion with the survivors, who talked about why they decided to share their stories and what kind of backlash they face in the community for speaking out.
The event also included a second panel discussing Women and their Changing Narratives, in which women filmmakers Insia Dariwala, Priya Goswami, Petrina D’Rozario, Tanuja Chandra and Dolly Thakore discussed the mainstreaming of women’s issues through the medium of film.
On Feb 27th, Sahiyo’s Mariya Taher attended a roundtable discussion in DC on FGC and Mental Health hosted by the Wallace Global Fund and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) Although the global development community has increasingly acknowledged the adverse physical health complications that can result from FGC, there has been little action to address its psychological impact. The roundtable served as a first step to bring together experts from bilateral and multilateral agencies, donor institutions, academia, policy-makers, civil society and program implementing organizations in the United States to gain a better understanding of FGC and mental health, as well as to drive a collaborative, coordinated and appropriately sized response across the globe.
Throughout the day, the panelists and attendees discussed the short and long-term mental health of survivors and activists who engage additional barriers when advocating to end FGC. In addition, dialogue about research needs, support programs, and prevention in connection with mental health occurred. Mariya served on a panel to discuss the findings of Sahiyo’s Needs Assessment. Sahiyo had recently partnered with a healthcare market research consultancy to conduct primary market research with activists speaking out against FGC, in an effort to better understand activists’ challenges and hopes for the future.
To learn more about this research, visit Sahiyo’s website.