Why one Bohra woman shared her experience with female genital cutting publicly

By Jenny Cordle

On February 5th of last year, one day before the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), Zahra Khozema, 24, shared her deeply personal story of having been cut as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra sect in Pakistan.

“Being part of the Bohra community is feeling like a part of something,” Khozema said. “Though we are scattered around the world, we’re tightly knit. You can find a Bohra person in a crowd because of the colorful ridas women wear. And I promise you even if you don’t know them, they will approach you. I could be stranded in any city, and if I saw a Bohra person (from their clothing) I would sigh in relief because I know they’d let me in their home, or help me in any way they could. We’re a big family and we refer to everyone as brother and sister.”

Despite being considered a progressive community, many members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam still prioritize female genital cutting, or khatna, for girls as young as 7 years old. The Dawoodi Bohra population comprises up to one million people in countries such as India, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Egypt, Tanzania and South Africa. Diaspora communities also live in Europe, Australia and the United States. 

“I hate that even though our community does so much good work, it’s small and not mainstream, and we’re only going to be remembered for this practice by people who don’t know Bohras in real life,” she said. 

Khozema, who currently resides in London, said this in reference to the 2018 U.S. case of a Michigan doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, who was initially charged with performing FGM/C on at least nine girls with the alleged help of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, his wife, Farida Attar, and five other residents of Michigan and Minnesota. Judge Bernard Friedman dropped the FGM/C charges, declaring the 1996 federal ban on FGM/C as unconstitutional, in what pro-khatna people may have considered a victory. But on January 5th of this year, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law criminalizing FGC in the U.S., stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice.

It was in reading about the 2018 case that Khozema realized that what happened to her was a source of buried trauma. 

“I will never stand by the practice, but I’m glad the case was an awakening for many Bohras like me to really think about the way we treat girls and women and why — because so many men didn’t even know about it,” she said. “A couple of my Bohra guy friends told me they stopped coming to the mosque after they read this story because they only found out about it then. These are men in their mid-twenties. That alone says a lot.”

Because of the secrecy surrounding the practice, Khozema was hesitant to share her experience with anyone. Her younger sister discouraged her from writing it altogether. But Khozema felt an urge to share it, despite potential repercussions. Many outspoken FGM/C activists face significant backlash within the Bohra community. This backlash can entail being ostracized, shamed, or having internet trolls harass those that speak out, claiming that speaking out is a “defamation of the faith, its leader and those who practice” khatna. Her piece was the most clicked-on story for Broadview Magazine in March of 2020. As she suspected, many women sought her out to share their stories of having been cut. 

“I wasn’t that surprised because 90% of the women I know have been through it,” Khozema said. “I was surprised that they just responded to my story positively. Non-Bohra friends assured me that this happens a lot in their own countries like India and Egypt.”

“A lot of people called me brave and strong for putting such a personal topic out there, but I honestly didn’t think it was,” she said. “I felt quite small and vulnerable, and even petty for not sharing it with the people who needed to see it the most — Bohra people my parents’ age.”

Khozema does not encourage women to share their stories if they are not ready. Instead, she encourages women and men to open up dialogue about khatna within their communities.

“I would encourage Bohra men and women to talk to their parents, and most importantly, new moms of girls,” she explained. “Ask them if khatna is something they’re considering and really ask why. ‘Do you really know why you’d do it to your daughter or are you just following blind tradition? Are you really willing to take your child to someone with scissors in a dark basement?’”

She said writing and sharing the piece did help her to heal in a sense.

“I spoke to so many people who assured me it was okay to write this,” Khozema said. “I also learned to face that some people will always be okay with it, and to know when to stop fighting with people who have made up their minds.”

After having written and shared the piece publicly, Khozema is in a better place and feels “lighter.” But psychologically and physically, the harm remains. “Intimacy, unfortunately, will always be difficult for me,” she said. “The shame I feel about not fully having control of my body will always be there.”

The United States has a law banning female genital cutting. What now?

By Hunter Kessous

On January 5th, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law, upon being passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously. The federal law criminalizes female genital cutting (FGC), a form of gender-based violence against young girls, which involves medically unnecessary partial or total removal of the external genitalia. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 500,000 girls and women have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGC in the United States alone. Globally, that number rises up to 3 million girls at risk per year, with a total of over 200 million girls and women having been cut. The STOP FGM Act strengthens the opposition to FGC by stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice. Additionally, government agencies, such as the Departments of Education and Justice, will be required to report to Congress on the estimated number of women and girls who have undergone or are at risk of FGC in the U.S., and on efforts to prevent the practice. They will also give a report on the actions they take toward educating the community and preventing FGC from continuing. 

Advocates and policymakers have been working toward this goal for so long that it was concerning when the new law didn’t garner a lot of media attention. This could be because the U.S. has technically had a law against FGC since 1996—emphasis on technically, because for the past two years, the Department of Justice has refused to enforce the law. The only intact portion of the law has been a ban on taking a minor out of the U.S. to be cut, a practice known as vacation cutting. In 2018, a Michigan doctor was taken to court for the mutilation of over 100 girls. The judge dismissed the charges and ruled that Congress did not have the authority to pass the FGC law by associating it with the Commerce Clause, claiming that there is nothing “commercial or economic” about FGC. The STOP FGM law clarifies that FGC is, in fact, linked to inter-state or foreign commerce, thereby confirming Congress’ power to make FGC illegal. Since that pivotal case over two years ago, young girls are now protected against FGC under federal law. 

Although there is reason to celebrate, activists aren’t putting their feet up anytime soon. As far as policy goes, there is still more work to do. Despite the federal law, state laws against FGC are a necessary tool. Federal and state laws each protect girls in different ways. The federal law against FGC will be put to use if the crime involves interstate activity, such as transporting a girl to another state to be cut. We need state laws against FGC to protect girls in cases of local criminal activity, as was recommended by the judge in the aforementioned Michigan court case. To date, there are still 11 states which do not have any laws against FGC. In the states that do have anti-FGC policies, action must be taken to make these laws more comprehensive. Several states do not clarify that cultural/ritual reasons and alleged consent may not be used as a defense for performing FGC on a minor. Few states have legislation which includes a provision for community education and outreach, which is a key component of prevention. 

In addition to improving state laws, even more can be done at the federal level. Policy from the Department of Education and Health and Human Services requiring FGC education in schools can go a long way toward prevention. 

“While we celebrate the signing of H.R. 6100 and the recent Massachusetts law, we must continue to advocate for not only the criminalization of FGM/C, but a Federal Education Law,” said Angela Peabody, founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation and political lobbyist. “It is imperative for every child in the United States to be knowledgeable about the practice of FGM/C. Even though several states have included an education clause in their laws, a federal law would cover all states. The schools already teach Family Life Education; therefore including the study of FGM/C in the FLE curriculum is not a difficult task. Virginia is already in the process of doing that.” 

Virginia has incorporated education about FGC into their school curriculum for middle and high schoolers in which they learn “the dangers of FGC, the criminal penalties, and the rights of the victim.” Education such as this serves to increase awareness, put an end to the thinking that FGC is not an American issue, and give a voice to the next generation of activists. 

The current law criminalizes FGC, and calls on several government agencies to enact programs that will protect girls and create public awareness. The law left the guidelines for these agencies vague, which leaves room for experts and advocates to guide these departments. There are many ways, for example, that policy can support girls and women living in the U.S. who have already undergone FGC, or those who will be cut in spite of the new law. Survivors face a range of physical and psychological complications. These include, but are not limited to, infection, fistulas, birth complication, sexual dysfunction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Policy could go a long way to alleviate these burdens. For example, survivors of domestic violence are permitted to enroll in an ACA healthcare plan at any point during the year, rather than just during the open enrollment window. A policy such as this being applied to FGC survivors and their dependents would be a great step toward increasing access to healthcare. Yet, many of the less expensive healthcare plans do not provide counseling services, and this may not be apparent until after the plan has been purchased. Therefore, another area where legislation could protect FGC survivors is by creating federally funded programs to provide needed health care services, which may be lacking from their current healthcare plan, at subsidized rates or at no cost. There was an effort to pass a law which would include protections for survivors of FGC in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. The bill passed through the House, but sadly reached an impasse in the Senate. 

These recommendations are just a few of the ways policy can protect girls and women from the harmful effects of FGC. The STOP FGM law is an excellent step toward ending gender- based violence in the U.S. But there is much more that we, as a country, can advocate for regarding increased prevention against FGC and improved support for survivors. This work is not entirely in the hands of legislators and government agencies. Most of our public servants are not experts on FGC. It is up to activists to guide the next steps that our local and federal agencies take toward ending FGC and supporting survivors.

One way that folks can get involved in this movement is by reaching out to the U.S. End FGM/C Network, an interagency group of grassroots organizations, survivors, healthcare providers and policymakers. Additionally, it is up to all of us to hold agencies accountable. We must encourage our officials to take FGC action seriously, to put it on their meeting agendas, and to allocate funds in their budget towards ending FGC and supporting survivors.

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 

Art, Activism, and Healing webinar: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting

By Cate Cox

Across the world, millions of women and girls are at risk of female genital cutting (FGC). FGC can have severe physical and psychological impacts that last a lifetime. As the painful effects of FGC are brought to light more and more, activists and therapists alike are looking for more ways to support survivors and protect future girls from this practice. Art is an underutilized tool to create awareness about this issue and support survivors’ healing.

As an organization whose mission is to use storytelling to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing, Sahiyo is one of the key advocates for utilizing art as a means of supporting these effectors. From the Voices To End FGM/C campaign, the #MoreThanASurvivor collages, and the Faces for Change project, art and activism have long been part of Sahiyo programming. 

On January 19th, 10 a.m. EST, Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, Art, Activism, and Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting. During this inspiring event, you’ll hear from four expert panelists, Owanto, Andrea Carr, Sunera Sadicali, and Naomi Wachs, as they discuss art and its role in supporting survivors’ healing, how activists and survivors alike can use art to make a change in their communities, and working toward prevention efforts to end female genital cutting. 

Following the vein of one of our previous webinars, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing, the speakers will first introduce their work and their personal journeys related to this subject and then we will have a question and answer session led by Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher. 

To hear more about how art can help you as a survivor and/or an activist, please register for the event. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register Today: https://bit.ly/ArtActivismAndHealing 

Owanto is a multi-cultural Gabonese artist born in Paris, France. She was raised in Libreville, Gabon, and later moved to Europe to study philosophy, literature, and languages at the Institut Catholic de Paris in Madrid, Spain. Her multidisciplinary practice emerges from a 30-year career where she explores a variety of media, including photography, sculpture, painting, video, sound, installation, and performative works. Her practice enables her to engage with consciousness through the notion of memory, both personal and collective.

Andrea Carr has worked across a broad spectrum of the performing arts, bringing vitality to global ecological and social themes. Embracing change along the way, her work often distills into designs that move between art installations and immersive environments. Her work has been included in the U.K. representation of the World Stage Design Exhibition, in the Aesthetica Art Prize anthology, and in the ‘Designers Lead’ section of the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) 2019 exhibition at the V&A. Andrea is also studying Process Orientated Psychology. She works from her Peckham Studio, her ‘dream palace,’ where she goes to ground her ideas, make models and mock-ups, and as a space for collaboration.

Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and later moved to Lisbon. She grew up in a family that was part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only members in Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. She underwent female genital cutting, or khatna, at the age of 8 in Pakistan, while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine at the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. Since 2015, she has lived and worked in the south of Sweden with her partner and three lovely kids. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012, with a focus on women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism, and healthcare activism.

Naomi Wachs has a B.S. in Theater from Northwestern University and a Masters in Social Work (A.M.) from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. While at S.S.A., her concentration was in clinical social work with a focus on art-based methods, LGBTQ affirmative practice, and trauma-informed practice. From 2015-2017, as a German Chancellor Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation under the guidance of Tobe Levin von Gleichen, she explored art-based practices as a tool for trauma healing and restorative dialogue with immigrant and refugee communities affected by FGM/C and other forms of gender-based violence. Currently, Ms. Wachs is a psychotherapist at Connections Health in the Chicagoland area where she works with individuals, couples, families, and groups with anxiety, depression, trauma, eating disorders, and relationship and identity concerns. 
This event is sponsored by Sahiyo.

Reflection on Addressing FGC in the Clinic: A Dialogue between Survivors and Healthcare Professionals

By Sandra Yu 

On December 8th, 2020, Sahiyo hosted a webinar featuring several health professionals and  survivors of female genital cutting (FGC) to discuss the necessity for trauma-informed care and cultural competency. The event was an eye-opening and invigorating conversation as the panelists discussed the failures of the current medical system and necessary next steps to improve systemic care for survivors of violence. 

Renee Bergstrom and Sarata Kande, two outspoken advocates against FGC, provided unique and moving perspectives about how cultural competency and vulnerability are key to providing better care. The juxtaposition between their Voices to End FGM/C videos and their spoken statements on the panel about their past experiences with healthcare professionals was truly powerful. 

“Once it’s done to you, you are forbidden to ever mention it to anybody,” Kande said. “But when you share your story, it feels good.” 

In response, Deborah Ottenheimer, M.D., detailed how she identifies and speaks with survivors of FGC in an inclusive, vulnerable, and caring manner. Karen McDonnell, Ph.D., a public health specialist and creator of the The George Washington University FGM Toolkit, also addressed the critical need for providers to learn about FGC from a public health perspective, expanding on the treatment of FGC as a subsector of gender-based violence. Mariam Sabir, a Sahiyo volunteer and 4th-year medical student, gave an unsettling glimpse into the current state of medical education surrounding FGC as she described her interactions with peers and faculty on the topic. 

The central theme that arose was the importance of communication, whether it’s between healthcare providers, communities, the general public, or patient-doctor interactions. McDonnell speaks to the creation and normalization of the language used to describe genitalia. Having the right vocabulary to communicate about female genitalia is the first step to having genuine conversations about FGC. Communication between a patient and their doctor is even more crucial for building trust. Knowledge is not enough to make a person feel safe and comfortable.

Bergstrom and Kande alluded to their individual experiences grappling with healthcare providers that fail to embrace vulnerability. Building trust and allowing for vulnerability in the clinic are learned skills that are often overlooked in medical education. The culture of silence surrounding the practice of FGC is pervasive, but we are moving toward a future where silence does not need to be the norm, especially in the clinic where trust is paramount to care. 

Watch the recording of this event here.

Read the transcript here.

Is the United Kingdom backing out of its commitment to end female genital cutting amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Olivia Bridge

In the midst of a global pandemic set to the backdrop of Brexit, ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) appears to have slipped down the United Kingdom (U.K.) Government’s priority list. Yet, as campaigners and charities are acutely aware, abuse  thrives in silence behind closed doors – and women and girls disproportionately pay the price. 

One form of abuse that charities fear is on the rise is female genital cutting (FGC), a practice which has affected more than 200 million women and girls worldwide, with a further 68 million more estimated to be at risk in the next ten years. It is said that every seven seconds, a girl somewhere around the world faces the potentially agonizing pain and trauma of being cut.

What is FGC?

The World Health Organisation defines FGC as a procedure which involves the “partial or total removal or the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” There are four types of FGC that vary in severity, but all types are recognised as child abuse and a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. In some cases, anaesthetics and antiseptics aren’t used, meaning not only is the initial cutting procedure traumatic, potentially life-threatening and painful, but survivors are at increased risk of blood infections, hemorrhaging and infection throughout their lives, and can face issues with urination, menstruation, pregnancy and penetration.

Communities who practice FGC claim it is linked to tradition, faith and ideas around gender roles, insisting girls must preserve their virginity. Many families believe FGC to be a rite of passage for their daughters, and in some communities, it can go hand-in-hand with other practices, such as breast ironing and forced marriage. 

FGC is a global issue involving at least 92 counties, including the U.K. Despite landmark legislation making those facilitating the practice to be punishable for up to 14 years in prison, girls born to families of these regions in the U.K. are at a heightened risk of being taken abroad under the false pretense of a special ceremony.

How prevalent is FGC in the U.K.?

In the mere five years that the U.K. has been recording data, 24,420 women and girls have been identified by the National Health Service (NHS) as having undergone FGC, with 6,590 being treated in the year up until March of 2020 alone. 205 victims or survivors were U.K.-born.

In total, it is estimated 137,000 women and girls are living with its effects in England and Wales. But many believe the official figure to be the tip of the iceberg considering most survivors (80%) go undetected until they come into contact with midwives or obstetric services. But some women may never come into contact with the NHS at all, including women who don’t have Indefinite Leave to Remain or any form of secure immigration status, in part, either because they are unaware of the support available, or they fear  immigration enforcement.

What is the COVID-19 impact?

However, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have ramped the practice around the globe. A policy briefing by the Orchid Project in September illuminates the extent, noting, “COVID-19 related lockdowns are being seen as an opportunity to carry out FGC undetected,” across East and West Africa; and “economic hardship is driving increased rates of FGC because of parents seeking ‘bride prices.’” 

Other research conducted by UNFPA anticipates that as a result of coronavirus disruptions to FGC prevention programmes, as many as two million more cases could take place in the next ten years that would otherwise have been avoided. As such, it estimates a one-third reduction in the progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating the practice by 2030.

Campaigners attribute the rise to mass school closures, a decrease in access to support and health information, and the economic situation forcing girls into marriage for families to secure a dowry. Indeed, as joint research points to prove, whenever girls are stifled from education, they become increasingly more vulnerable to abusive practices.

For this reason, campaigners fear the true scale of gender-based violence is yet to be realised as the U.K. creeps in and out of lockdown and restrictive measures are tweaked every few weeks. Kate Agha, the Chief Executive of Oxford Against Cutting, said, “With the rise in harmful traditions overseas, practicing-communities in the U.K. will come under increased pressure from family abroad to ensure they are part of the group and upholding cultural traditions based on honour.” 

What is the UK doing about it?

The U.K. has remained determined to end FGC, setting a deadline to prevent it from occurring for good by 2030, in line with many other countries. 

Progress has been commendable. FGC has been outlawed in several Western countries including the U.K., Canada, Spain and New Zealand, among others, including 19 African countries. To date, the U.K. remains the largest donor to support the end of FGC globally, helping 10,000 African communities and assisting six African nations with a budget and new laws to criminalize it.

However, amid these trying times, progress seems to be stalling and commitment stuttering behind if the U.K. is to realistically facilitate the end of FGC in the next ten years. For instance, despite being against the law for thirty-five years and a whole host of civil protections and laws being introduced in 2003, there has only been one successful prosecution, which took place in February of 2019. Meanwhile, charities claim social workers and even healthcare practitioners aren’t always trained and equipped to safeguard and handle victims or survivors with there being greater emphasis on support post-procedure than preventing it from happening in the first place. Due to a shocking knowledge gap in Lancashire hospices that emerged in August, medics are now receiving extra training. But how many more remain ill-equipped?

Many believe the U.K. is silently withdrawing from its commitment altogether as it emerges that the Home Office has slashed funding from The National FGM Centre which, since its inception in 2015, has safeguarded 742 girls and supported 341 survivors. The centre reserves the power to issue protection orders for girls at risk, instruct the police on when to intervene and has trained at least 18,000 professionals, including teachers, social workers, police officers, lawyers and doctors. Yet this year, the centre will receive a mere £432,000 in funding – a drop in the ocean compared to the £2.7 million it was awarded five years ago. The Home Secretary is in the midst of attempting to deport an 11-year-old girl to her native country, Sudan, where she is sure to undergo FGC, in a move which lawyers claim mocks domestic FGC laws and protection orders. Fortunately, the girl was spared deportation in the eleventh hour by an FGC protection order, but her future remains uncertain.

As the futures of girls around the world hang on a thread and women become the collateral damage to COVID-19, the government must ensure it does not bulldoze over years of ground-breaking progress toward ending FGC. Without serious, unwavering commitment to ending the practice, women and girls will continue to be violated and stripped of their basic human rights.(Olivia Bridge writes for Immigration News and the Immigration Advice Service.)

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Isabel Panno Shepard

Isabel joined Sahiyo as a Communications Intern. She studied cultural anthropology and human rights at Duke University. She is interested in the use of alternative media for social justice and believes in a multimedia approach to storytelling. Her work aims to center experiences and expressions of girlhood across communities and individuals. She joined Sahiyo to empower those affected by FGC through listening to, elevating, and advocating on behalf of their stories.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I joined Sahiyo as a communication intern a couple of months after I graduated from Duke University last spring. When I came across the job listing and read about programs like Voices to End FGM/C, I wanted to be a part of Sahiyo’s mission to end FGC through survivor-centered advocacy and collective storytelling. So, I sat down, wrote my application, interviewed, and here I am!

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

One of my favorite parts of being a Sahiyo intern is that I’ve been able to work on a wide variety of projects that introduced me to a lot of awesome Sahiyo staff, interns, and volunteers. Beyond the intern standard pack of tasks (think MailChimp, Doodle Polls, and Google Calendar), I’ve assisted with and participated in a storytelling workshop on the intersection of FGM/C and global systems of oppression, created storyboards from Voices workshops, and even drafted a few official organization policies.

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Sahiyo has grounded in me such a profound respect for the power of story. It’s an honor to witness the vulnerability and strength of the women (and men) who come together to speak out about FGC through their experiences both shared and not. This community has taught me that stories can unite us, heal us, and empower us – as long as we respect and make space for one another.

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Slow down and listen.

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.

Upcoming Webinar: Addressing Female Genital Cutting in the Clinic

By Sandra Yu

Female genital cutting (FGC) is an often overlooked issue in medical curriculums, and medical care for survivors is rarely a topic of discussion. As part of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Sahiyo is hosting a webinar to inform individuals about the necessity for trauma-informed care for survivors of female genital cutting.

Join Sahiyo for “FGC In the Clinic: A Dialogue between Survivors and Healthcare Professionals” at 6 p.m. EST on Tuesday, December 8th. This panel discussion aims to gather the perspectives of clinicians and survivors as they discuss their in-clinic experiences. Renee Bergstrom, EdD, and Sarata Kande will be speaking about their experiences in connection to receiving medical care related to FGC. Karen McDonnell, PhD, Dr. Margaret Dow, and Dr. Deborah Ottenheimer will respond and discuss the current state of healthcare for survivors of gender-based violence. Mariam Sabir, a fourth-year medical student, will speak about her advocacy for supporting survivors in healthcare settings. Zahra Qaiyumi and Sandra Yu will moderate.

Renee Bergstrom, EdD works toward ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by sharing her survivor story as a white, Midwest American. She is a retired patient educator who now focuses her energy on the art of weaving. 

Sarata Kande is a student, entrepreneur and youth advocate for inter-African committee. She is a survivor of FGC and loves to share her story. She dedicates her time as an advocate and an interpreter.

Margaret Dow, MD is a laborist at Mayo clinic, where she serves as Clerkship Director. She works with medical students, peers, and the community in education and advocacy for survivors of FGM/C and in trauma-informed care practices, as well as practices that promote equity in healthcare.

Deborah Ottenheimer, MD is the Director of the Women’s Holistic Health Initiative at Harlem United/ URAM, Nest Community Health Center where she is focused on immigrant health as well as the development and implementation of a multispecialty medical service for women and girls affected by FGM/C. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Ottenheimer spends a significant portion of her professional time assisting asylum-seeking women who have suffered human rights violations. Dr. Ottenheimer is an active member of Physicians for Human Rights, and serves as faculty at the Human Rights Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the Weill Cornell Clinic for Human Rights, and the CUNY School of Medicine Human Rights Collaborative aiding survivors Gender Based Violence, including female genital cutting, domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking in their applications for asylum. She has published and lectured extensively on human rights violations against women, with a focus on FGC. She has also worked in Haiti, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo, helping to improve the health and lives of women in low resource settings.

Karen McDonnell, PhD is a public health program evaluation and implementation specialist with over 15 years of experience working with community groups, public health agencies, and health care systems both locally and globally to ensure the health and well-being of women and children. McDonnell’s expertise lies in using mixed methods to look at complex public health issues and programs. Her most recent work is leading a team to evaluate gender-based violence in immigrant communities, development, and testing of a community-centered FGM/C prevention project, evaluating the National Domestic Violence Hotline/loveisrespect Helpline and evaluating multi-systems changes in the Clinical Translational Science Institute with Children’s National and The George Washington University. 

Mariam Sabir is a fourth-year medical school student at the American University of the Caribbean. She aspires to become a family physician that provides comprehensive care. She became an avid Sahiyo supporter when she discovered how prevalent female genital cutting is, particularly in her very own community. While rotating through different fields of medicine such as obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics and family medicine, she discovered her passion for educating health care professionals on how to provide culturally sensitive care for women who have undergone FGC.

Zahra Qaiyumi completed her undergraduate education at The University of Maryland, studying physiology, neurobiology, and Spanish. Afterward, she pursued a Master’s degree in Physiology at Georgetown University. She then moved to the Bay Area and participated in neurobehavioral research while working with adolescents diagnosed with ADHD at the University of California San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school at the Frank H. Netter M.D. School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University.

Sandra Yu is an undergraduate student at Vassar College studying biochemistry and philosophy. She is interested in public health policy and expanding womens’ healthcare access in underserved populations. She was drawn by Sahiyo’s mission to end FGM/C through powerful storytelling, and she hopes to contribute to Sahiyo’s platform to grow and empower the community.

Register here: bit.ly/addressing-fgc-in-the-clinic 

Facebook updates: https://fb.me/e/3QaNwkvWE

Sahiyo participated in key virtual events with global organizations in October

October was an incredibly busy month for Sahiyo, and we were honored to take part in many events to highlight the issue of female genital cutting (FGC) to various audiences in a multitude of virtual events including a medicalization webinar with #EndFGM Media Campaigns, Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar with StoryCenter, A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C, Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference, North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child, and Taboo Conversations with RAHMA.

#EndFGM Media Campaigns: Medicalization Webinar

On October 13th, the Global Media Campaign to End FGM and UNFPA hosted a webinar exploring effective media campaign strategies and approaches to work toward countering a growing trend of medicalization within practicing communities. Speakers included Dr. Amr Hassan, Diana Kendi, Ayotomiwa Ayodele, Hoda Ali, Dr. Mariam Dahir, and Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. To watch a replay of this webinar, visit https://fb.watch/1yN240JQra/

Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

In honor of the International Day of the Girl, the U.S. End FGM/C Network hosted an event on October 13 titled, “Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Eliminating FGM/C,” as a means to raise awareness and foster important dialogue around ending the harmful practice of FGM/C. The webinar focused on recent developments around the adoption of federal and state-level legislation to end FGM/C in the U.S. and where future policy efforts should focus; common barriers to developing and implementing effective FGM/C abandonment programs (i.e., lack of funding, data, awareness, etc.) and how the community can overcome them; and solutions for prioritizing FGM/C abandonment on the global stage. To watch a recap, view here.

The U.S. End FGM/C Network is a collaborative group of survivors, civil society organizations, foundations, activists, policymakers, researchers, healthcare providers, and others committed to promoting the abandonment of FGM/C in the U.S. and around the world.

Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar

Since 1993, StoryCenter has collaborated with individuals, grassroots groups, and organizations to centralize first-person stories in social justice efforts. The current political reality demands ever-more creative approaches to advocacy. On Oct 14th, in this one-hour free webinar, StoryCenter defined their approach to advocacy with an eye toward clarifying what kinds of stories are effective at community, institutional, and policy levels. They then highlighted research on the role that sharing and listening to personal stories can play in advocacy, and presented a case study of how they have worked with Sahiyo on the Voices to End FGM/C project to position digital storytelling as a key advocacy strategy. 

A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C 

On the 14th of October, Cinema for Peace organized a screening of A Girl from Mogadishu together with the University of Southern California. The event included a panel discussion on FGM/C, taking Ifrah’s case as seen in the film, and its current state in the U.S. where 11 states still don’t have laws against it

Democracy, Populism, Coronavirus & Enduring Patriarchal Traditions

The first webinar in a series for the Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female bodies contested, invaded defended and owned, this October 15th webinar focused on the persistence of the practice of ‘female circumcision’ and how their encoded cultural undergirding raise critical issues of systemic injustice in the body politics cross-culturally. Speakers included Leyla Hussein OBE, Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher, Ghada Khan, Julia Antonova, Habiba Al-Hinai and Chiara Cosentino. The event explored the following topics: 

  • What weaknesses have come to obstruct efforts to end female genital mutilation?
  • How have governments’ mis/management of the pandemic exacerbated existing fault-lines of gender precarity?
  • How has progress in challenging and abolishing FGM practices been vitiated by widely applied government policies and measures that embrace lockdowns of large parts of public government services, curfews, household quarantine and mandatory individual isolation?
  • How has opposition among members of minority communities in Western societies – when it comes to governments’ FGM policies, deeply felt subtexts of prejudice and popular scapegoating – been appropriated and instrumentalized to serve populist exclusionary aims that demonize entire marginalized cultures?
  • What does the failure of enforcement of anti-FGM legislation uncover about political will, identity politics, the hierarchy of suffering and about inter-/national feminist ambivalences?

Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference 

Council of the Great City Schools held its 64th Annual Fall Conference virtually in October. Under the banner “Championing Urban Education,” the conference gave big-city school superintendents, board members, senior administrators and college deans of education a forum to discuss issues and share information and best practices to improve teaching and learning. On Oct 16th, Sahiyo participated in a panel event, Unmasking Danger: Identifying High-risk Situations for Urban Students, in which the issues of trafficking and female genital cutting were brought to light and the need to take into consideration that students may be at risk or affected by them. A resource guide created by Council of the Great City Schools on FGM prevention for U.S. schools was also discussed. The guide helps schools to put policies in place to support and identify at risk students. 

North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child

On October 23rd, speakers from around North America and Europe joined in on a virtual meeting to draw attention to the issues of child marriage and female genital cutting. The event was organized by the core group of the Europe and North America CSW/NGO Caucus, including Ulla Madsen, Mary Collins, Zarin Hainsworth, Daniela Chivu, Patricia Masniuk, Luci Chikowero and Nina Smart. Invited FGC Speakers included Isatu Barry, Dr. Ann-Marie Wilson, Mariya Taher, Chiara Cosentino, Angela Peabody. Child Marriage Speakers included Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, Honorable Jackie Weatherspoon, Dr. Rochelle Burgesse, Kate Ryan, Dr. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, and Beverly Bucur.

Taboo ConversationsOn October 28th, RAHMA organized a Facebook Live Discussion in partnership with Sahiyo & Global Women Peace Foundation to discuss female genital cutting in the U.S. and the importance prevention work needing to be done, as well as ways to support and empower women and girls affected by FGC. View the recording here.