SEVEN, the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community, releases this month

SEVEN is being released in North America this September (Sept 5 Canada/Sept 29 U.S.). The novel sensitively addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity, intergenerational violence, religion and healing sexual trauma within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra (sub-sect of Shia Islam) community. This is the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community. Farzana is an engaging speaker on all of the above themes and issues.

About SEVEN: When Sharifa accompanies her husband on a marriage-saving trip to India, she thinks that she’s going to research her great-great-grandfather, a wealthy business leader and philanthropist. What captures her imagination is not his rags-to-riches story, but the mystery of his four wives, missing from the family lore. She ends up excavating much more than she imagined. 2016 is a time of unrest within her insular and conservative religious community, and there is no escaping its politics. A group of feminists is speaking out against khatna, an age-old ritual they insist is female genital cutting. Sharifa’s two favourite cousins are on opposite sides of the debate and she seeks a middle ground. As the issue heats up, Sharifa discovers an unexpected truth and is forced take a position. In an era of #MeToo, Doctor brings us a soulfully written book about inheritance and resistance. 

Sahiyo is giving away a copy of SEVEN to a lucky recipient! Sign up for our newsletter to find out how!

About the author: Farzana Doctor is an award-winning writer, activist, and psychotherapist. She is the author of four novels: Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and the forthcoming Seven. Farzana was recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now.” She is a founding member of WeSpeakOut.

SEVEN has already received excellent advance praise: “A brave and beautiful novel.”—Judy Rebick, author of Heroes in My Head

“Seven is an intimate, gutsy feminist novel that exposes the lasting, individual impacts of making women’s bodies fodder for displays of religious obeisance.”—Michelle Anne SchinglerFOREWORD Reviews

“Penetrating and subtle, SEVEN deftly explores loyalty in changing times, what it means and what you give up to be a part of a community, a marriage, and friendships. Sharifa is a sympathetic everywoman; her relationships fully realized and deeply felt in this immersive, absorbing portrait.”—Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift.

“A defiant and engrossing novel.”—Sarah Schulman, author of Conflict is Not Abuse.

“In her grand tradition, Farzana Doctor once again pushes us forward with nuanced, layered, inter-generational prose, to bring visibility to an important social issue. An urgent and passionate read.”—Vivek Shraya, author of I’m Afraid of Men and The Subtweet

Sign up for Sahiyo’s newsletter to win a copy of SEVEN!

Upcoming webinar: Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After FGC

By Cate Cox

Female genital cutting (FGC) often comes with a multitude of physical and psychological issues that can impact sexual functioning for many survivors. Yet, oftentimes too little attention is given to these problems.

On October 22nd, from 12 p.m.-1 p.m., Sahiyo will be hosting an inspiring webinar about FGC, sexuality, and its connection to mental health. During this webinar, we will hear from three expert panelists: Farzana Doctor, Joanna Vergoth, and Sarian Karim-Kamara, who will help to shed light on these subjects using their professional and personal experiences. 

Farzana Doctor is an award-winning Canadian novelist and social worker. Her work includes ​Stealing Nasreen​,​ Six Metres of Pavement​, All Inclusive​, and​ her latest novel, SEVEN​. SEVEN explores the often complicated relationship between modern and traditional customs, and the struggle to end the practice of khatna, or female genital cutting, in the Bohra community. Recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now,” Farzana’s novels explore complex topics, including loss, relationships, sexuality, gender, and racism. She is also the co-founder of WeSpeakOut and The End FGM/C Canada Network, two organizations dedicated to ending FGC.

Sarian Karim-Kamara is a community development worker and the founder of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife (KDLK). She is one of the leading campaigners and activists working to end the practice of FGC, and all other forms of violence against women in the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone. Sarian underwent FGC as a child in Sierra Leone and she has spoken bravely and openly about her own traumatic experiences to help raise awareness. She runs educational workshops for professionals and communities; as well as weekly support groups for survivors of FGC in Peckham, London. She also travels to Sierra Leone to run empowerment and educational workshops aimed at young people and communities. In 2019, Sarian won the Prime Minister’s Point of Light Award. In 2014, she received an award from her Sierra Leone community in London for her service to them as a Community Champion.

Joanna Vergoth is a licensed clinical social worker and certified psychoanalyst with 20 years of experience in the field. Throughout her career, she has focused much of her work on healing trauma and advocacy work. Over the past decade, she has become a committed activist to the cause of ending FGC. She first began as coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, and recently worked to establish forma, a nonprofit dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women and families affected by FGC, as well as offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy, and awareness training.

To hear from these amazing women please register for the event through the link below. Feel free to grab a beverage or a snack beforehand, and join us for what is sure to be an eye-opening and powerful conversation. This webinar is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register here: https://bit.ly/HealingAfterFGC 

This event is co-sponsored by Sahiyo, WeSpeakOut, End FGM/C Canada Network, forma, and Keep the Drums Lose the Knife.

Sahiyo address FGM/C education in webinar

On July 30th, Sahiyo teamed up with the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation and The Council of the Great City Schools to host a webinar, Learning about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in the Classroom: The importance of nationwide education as a tool for prevention. 

FGM/C affects over 200 million girls and women globally, with many more at risk of undergoing the harmful practice each year. FGM/C can cause lifelong physical, emotional, and psychological harm, yet the public is still lacking in understanding the global scope and severity of the issue. In fact, a multitude of misconceptions surround FGM/C. In this educational webinar, we debunked common misconceptions, and explored the use of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGM/C prevention. We heard from advocates and organizations on why and how FGM/C should be taught in schools and the power of public policy to make this a reality.

Speakers included Mariya Taher, co-founder and U.S. executive director of Sahiyo; Hunter Kessous, programs intern of Sahiyo; Angela Peabody, president and founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation; Gabriela Uro, Council of the Great City Schools; and Richard Black, former Virginia senator.

Find the full recording of the webinar on YouTube here

Kessous also wrote a blog on addressing FGM/C in the college classroom

Find the full powerpoint and transcript of the webinar here.

Digital advocacy on female genital cutting in the time of COVID-19

By Miranda Dobson

“For many parents in the Bohra community who are thinking about having their daughters undergo female genital cutting, the delay that COVID-19 has caused is likely not a big deal, as it can happen any time from age 7. There is no time limit.”

Aarefa Johari is a co-founder of transnational organisation Sahiyo, based in Mumbai, India

“For those who are unsure about whether or not to cut their daughters, this delay could mean there is more time to debate, and hopefully they may change their minds.”

Sahiyo works with Asian communities, with a special focus within the Dawoodi Bohra community, which is largely concentrated in India and Pakistan, but also dispersed globally across Europe, North America and Oceania. Sahiyo focuses on ending female genital cutting (FGC), often known as female genital mutilation (FGM), and within the Bohra community as khatna by engaging in a variety of storytelling programs to help elevate dialogue on the issue and build awareness of its harms 

How is COVID 19 affecting the practice of female genital cutting?

Fellow co-founder Mariya Taher, based in Boston, U.S., explained that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on female genital cutting in the North American Bohra community and other FGC practising communities is likely similar. 

“It’s difficult to know if FGC is happening more or less right now. Broadly we know that gender-based violence is rising. Domestic violence is rising. The thing that is most immediately concerning is that necessary support services aren’t in place. 

“There is a poor response from law enforcement, and things like mental health services which were already lacking for survivors of FGC, are even more vital now and just not in place. This is likely the most difficult hurdle right now.” 

Mariya outlined how the pandemic is also affecting progress around ending FGC at a more structural level. 

“In Massachusetts where I am, the state law against FGC has been delayed because there are more pressing things to look at right now. Legislation is not a solution in itself but a necessary step towards change, and needs to be supported by community outreach.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, much of Sahiyo’s work involved working with activists and community members through in-person retreats and Thaal Pe Charchas – conversations over food.

Sahiyo is adapting to the crisis

In the current climate, Mariya, Aarefa and fellow co-founders, Priya Goswami and Insia Dariwala, have needed to pivot and work increasingly through technology and digital spaces. 

“A strength of Sahiyo’s is our digital presence,” Mariya added. “We’re able to still connect with community members in that way, and we held our first ever digital activist retreat in April, which was supposed to be in New York in person.

“It was an experiment and we also had men attending for the first time, which was really cool. What surprised me was how engaged people were, and how much they wanted to talk about FGC, at a time when so much else is going on. I think it was very cathartic at a time when people just need an outlet more than anything.”

Pivoting to digital advocacy

Sahiyo has been able to work to their strengths as communicators at this time, and use digital spaces to convey messages, and to great success. They’ve held webinars with over 300 people in attendance, and continue to share survivor stories on their social channels through a project with StoryCenter called Voices to End FGM/C

Aarefa shared how Sahiyo India is likely to follow suit. 

“We had planned to have some community events at this time, which haven’t been possible. These could now happen virtually as a way to reach out to people. It’s encouraging how well this went in the U.S.”

Sahiyo India has also recently launched the first iteration of an exciting new app. 

“It’s called Mumkin, and it’s about making difficult conversations possible. We’re excited to be rolling it out at a time when digital advocacy and communications are so important.”

Aarefa and Mariya both recognised how COVID-19 is likely to affect communities and their work going forward on a range of levels. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that we’re living in this altered reality. We can’t just talk about FGC without talking about COVID – it’s not relatable and it doesn’t feel authentic because it’s the issue that everyone is facing,” Mariya told us. 

“In general, we’re seeing a shift in the social sector. COVID will be a focus for a lot of grants for a while. That’s really important and should be the case. I hope though that it doesn’t mean organisations will force-fit COVID into their work. Of course it’s vital, but it shouldn’t relegate other issues, particularly gender-based violence, which we know is being driven by barriers pandemic responses have put up.” 

(This interview was carried out via video conferencing and written by Orchid Project’s Senior Communications Manager, Miranda Dobson, speaking to Mariya Taher and Aarefa Johari, co-founders of Sahiyo. The piece was originally published on Orchid Project’s website.)

 

Utilizing Participatory Storytelling to Educate – A session at APHA 2019

1On 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.

Female Genital Mutilation: A Human Rights Issue?

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.

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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.  

Global Women P.E.A.C.E Foundation 5 K Walk Against FGM

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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.

California Thaal pe Charcha allowed me to share my experiences through storytelling

By Anonymous

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 IMG_2198month 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!

Inaugural screening of Sahiyo Stories in California

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 Photo 2.jpgcreate 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:

Aarefa Johari and Masooma Ranalvi discuss FGC at We the Women Bangalore

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.