Dear Maasi: “Did khatna impact my sex life or is it all in my head?”

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, 

I find that many survivors of female genital cutting (FGC) either have not experienced or been vocal about the negative impact of FGC on their sexual experiences. Am I in the minority? It feels that some of the impact may be in my head and not real. How can I explore that aspect of my personal experience?

Anam

Dear Anam,

Sex and khatna can be considered taboo subjects, which means that people can be very shy about sharing their true experiences. Let’s change that!

In previous columns, I’ve referenced recent research done by Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, that estimates around 30-35% of khatna survivors report a negative impact on their sexual lives:

  • fear, anxiety, shame, and difficulty trusting sexual partners 
  • low arousal, inability to feel sexual pleasure and over sensitivity in the clitoral area 

In conversations with women, I’ve also heard about sexual pain, which I addressed in depth in October’s column. In my own process of healing, I’ve needed to understand freeze responses and how to address them through mindfulness.

In the Sahiyo study, another 32% said they “didn’t know” if khatna had an impact on their sexuality, which raises questions for me. I think that most of us are not trauma-informed or sexuality-literate enough to answer this question because we often don’t know how to interpret and trust our feelings and sensations. All of this can lead to confusion and feeling like we’re imagining things.

For example, consider that trauma memories can be inaccessible, or fuzzy, or surreal-feeling:

“Trauma memories are often implicit, because trauma floods our brain with cortisol, the stress hormone, which shuts down the part of our brain that encodes memories and makes them explicit. Our implicit memories can be like invisible forces in our lives, impacting us in powerful ways.” (https://www.psychalive.org/making-sense-of-implicit-memories/)

These invisible forces are the living legacy of trauma. The traumatized part of us can remain on guard even if our adult self intellectually knows we’re safe. 

One way to explore this further is to learn more about trauma and sexuality. Review some of my past columns and peruse some of the short videos and article links. 

Many people find it helpful to talk with a trauma and sexuality trained psychotherapist who can help you to notice, understand and shift your responses. (Check out January 2021’s column for details on how to find someone with those skills.) 

Anam, I hope you’ll offer yourself the gift of this exploration and sexual healing. 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.

Dear Maasi: “How do I tell my husband I haven’t enjoyed sex for 15 years?”

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,

I have been married for 15 years and my husband is a decent, caring man, but we don’t talk about sex and I have not talked about my khatna experience with him. I don’t enjoy sex and am always on edge during it. I feel that I should cater to his needs as a loving wife, but this leaves me feeling empty. How do I start a conversation about my lack of enthusiasm for physical interaction without making him feel like he has done something wrong?

—Bilkis

Dear Bilkis

Thanks for writing in. Here are a few things I’d like to convey upfront:

  • You’re not alone. Women are given the message that it’s their duty to self-sacrifice and to defer to men’s needs. 
  • For many women, khatna has had a negative impact on their sexuality. See February’s column for more info. 
  • Many couples have trouble talking about sex. We don’t get enough sex education to allow us to speak neutrally or frankly about sexuality.
  • Talking about khatna is hard for most of us. Check out September’s column for more info. Consider using that as a guide for talking to your husband about it.
  • Trust your body. Those feelings of emptiness and being on edge deserve your attention. 

Here are some guidelines for initiating difficult conversations about intimacy: 

  • Start with finding a good time to talk when you are undistracted and relaxed.
  • Next, use a “love sandwich”. (Loving statements are the bread, the filler is the “problem”). Here is an example:
    • “I love you so much, and there’s something I want to tell you with the goal of making our bond stronger. I’m feeling nervous to say it but I want to tell you that I’m having difficulties with sex connected to khatna [and the fill in the problem.] None of this is your fault. We’ve been through so much in our relationship, and I’m confident that by sorting through this, we can solve this problem together.”
    • Consider putting it in writing if that is easier. Watch this video. At the 4.5-minute mark, Esther Perel, a psychologist, offers an example.
  • Allow your body to guide you as you move forward. Do you want to expand your sex life? Which sexual experiences (with or without your partner) have you enjoyed or might you like to try? Make a list of these so you can communicate them. 
    • Psychologist Esther Perel encourages us to offer invitations versus complaints. For example: “I really loved it when we [fill in the blank]. Want to do that again?” Or “I think if we [fill in the blank], I’ll feel more relaxed. Would you like to try that?” instead of “I don’t enjoy sex with you.”
    • Use mindfulness to help you pause when something doesn’t feel right and to deepen pleasure.
    • If you need some guidance on how to sexually “start again”, read or listen to the book Come As You Are. Do this together. Consider seeking a couples or sex therapist who is trauma-trained to help you further the conversation and help you brainstorm new approaches to sex.

Bilkis, it can feel vulnerable to open up this conversation, but vulnerability also builds intimacy and connection. Your decent and caring partner might initially feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. He might even question why it took you so long to say something. He might also feel incredible relief that the two of you are talking about something so important. Perhaps he’s wondered how to have this conversation, too. Remember sexual pleasure is natural, normal and 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.

Dear Maasi addresses questions about the clitoral hood and sexual pleasure

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.

This month we received lots of questions through our anonymous form. Dear Maasi will  answer two interrelated questions for February’s column about the clitoral hood and sexual pleasure:

Dear Maasi,

Can you please send us links to see how actually a circumcision is done? What part is snipped? The hood or half of the clitoris? 

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous

Khatna, aka female circumcision, aka Type 1 FGM/C, involves cutting the clitoral hood. Other Types involve cutting or doing harm to other parts of the genitalia. Have a look at this diagram

However, there isn’t standardization because 1) each body is different 2) most khatnas are done by amateur cutters 3) khatna often happens under duress (think about how precise a cut would be if the child squirms or resists).

I’ve heard of survivors who have scars on their hood, no hood at all, or a partial hood. Some khatna survivors report that the nub of the clitoris was cut. Learn more about the parts of the clitoris here.

The best way to understand what parts of your genitals were cut is to use a hand mirror to have a  good look. If it’s hard to see, you might ask a trusted medical professional, partner or family member to describe what they see. For example, under bright lights, my gynaecologist was able to detect a thin scar on my hood. But do keep in mind that some survivors have no detectable scars at all.

—Maasi

Dear Maasi,

It’s said that khatna increases the sensuality of the clitoris, and it directly affects the sexual appetite of the female subject in a positive way. How true is it? How does FGC impact pleasure and orgasm?

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

I have heard pro-khatna advocates sharing the opinion (or shall I say myth?) that a cut to the clitoral hood improves pleasure and orgasm. 

Some survivors have said that khatna has no impact on their pleasure. I haven’t heard of anyone who thinks khatna improved their sex life, but I wouldn’t argue with them if they felt this way. Psychosexual functioning is very individual and impacted by physical and emotional factors, including trauma.

For many survivors, khatna was a sexual trauma. Sexual trauma can impact a survivor’s ability to trust and to experience sexual comfort and pleasure.

—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. They experienced many different emotions: 

  • Fear, anxiety, shame, depression, low self-esteem, difficulty trusting people 
  • “Low sex drive, inability to feel sexual pleasure, difficulty trusting sexual partners, and over sensitivity in the clitoral area were some of the problems identified by several women.”

The clitoral hood has an important function. It protects the sensitive clitoral tissue from over stimulation and irritation. There are also glands in your clitoral hood that produce a lubricant that helps the hood move smoothly over your clitoris.

Globally, one of the main arguments for FGM/C is to control sexuality. In recent years, those who resist the #endFGM movement have come up with all kinds of arguments about why it is “good” for girls and women. I’ll bet that this “increased pleasure” argument is one such fiction.

—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 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:

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.

Stay Tuned: Sahiyo’s More Than a Survivor Campaign for the #16daysofactivism

November 25th marks the start of 16 Days of Activism, a collective and global time-period to observe and spread awareness on gender-based violence. 

During this year’s 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Sahiyo is highlighting our More Than A Survivor campaign. Sahiyo understands that being a survivor of female genital cutting (FGC) is just one moment of an individual’s life and only one part of who they are as a person. Yet, oftentimes, being labeled as a survivor can prevent people from seeing a person in any other context beyond survivorship.

With over 200 million women affected by female genital cutting (FGC) across the globe in over 92 countries, Sahiyo looks to spotlight the women who have boldly come forward to share their stories, and to recognize them and their identities through our #MoreThanASurvivor campaign. This campaign captures the multidimensional interests of female genital cutting survivors, and transcends the “Victim-Survivor” binary. 

Our campaign,  #MoreThanASurvivor, explores our individuality and shows the world what makes us unique. After all, who we are is made up of all the moments in our lives, not just one. 

In aiming to show different aspects of the person, we will be creating a mosaic to represent different moments of an individual’s life. 

We plan to run #MoreThanASurvivor during 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, starting November 25th (International Day of Elimination of VAW) to December 10th (Human Rights Day), 2020.

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.

Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A reflection of the fireside chat with Farzana Doctor

On October 4th, Sahiyo partnered with acclaimed Canadian author and WeSpeakOut cofounder Farzana Doctor to host Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A Fireside Chat. During this intimate conversation, we had the opportunity to hear from Doctor about her latest novel, Seven. Compelling and passionate, Seven follows the journey of Sharifa, a woman trying to better understand her past of having undergone female genital cutting (FGC) in order to move forward. The first of its kind, this novel takes an unflinching look into the reality of the fight to end FGC, or khatna, as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

During the conversation with Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo, Doctor explored how the book was influenced by her own family history and experiences, and the delicate line she had to walk while trying to discuss such a difficult topic. Particularly powerful was her explanation of how writing the book, and her activism in general, has helped shape her understanding of khatna. While Seven certainly condemns the practice, Doctor also works to show the complexities that come with practices like khatna, such as the fact that the perpetrators are sometimes victims of the practice, as well. While the book specifically looks at the practice of khatna, its overall message about the importance, albeit difficulty, of trying to end the cycles of shame and violence that burden women speaks to the reality of women everywhere.  

After the formal Q&A, the guests had the opportunity to ask Doctor questions about her writing process, activism, and to share their own experiences. While Farzana Doctor was the main speaker of the event, participation from all who attended was really what helped the chat flourish. The fireside chat proved not only to be an opportunity for guests to learn about Doctor’s work, but a chance for them to expand their community and share their experiences in the fight to end FGC globally. Attendees were from the United States, India, and Germany.

From exploring the intricacies of sexuality, marriage, female friendship, cultural norms, and the ongoing fight to end khatna, Fiction, Truth, and FGC: A Fireside Chat with Farzana Doctor was an eye-opening and educational event. For those who were unable to attend, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the link to the event recording and transcript of the formal Q&A portion of this event is attached below.

Listen to the formal Q&A portion of this event.

Read the full transcript of the event.

Purchase Seven via the following links:

United States: bit.ly/orderSevenUS 

Canada: bit.ly/orderseven

Audiobook: bit.ly/sevenaudiobook