I was 11 years old when my mother said I was ‘impure’ now that I got my periods. The idea of ‘impurity’ in front of God enraged the eleven-year-old me. I wanted to know if my Muslim and Christian friends were also told not to ‘touch God’ or go near him in the temple, mosque, or church during their periods.
I got around asking that question through a street play, Chakravyu*, in my undergraduate college years. A play through which we spoke about the cultural subversion of women and how every religion has its way of propagating patriarchy via religion and culture.
When we performed the play out in public, often, we would meet the gaze of someone religious who thought our street play too slanderous to their religion. We would meet their gaze even more vociferously by mixing a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan.
I am sad to share this, but I know deep down in my bones that I can no longer mix a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan**. I know performing such a play in today’s India would get my collegiate pals and me arrested or lynched even.
That is the India my country has grown to become.
I will not deny that we are an intolerant nation where Muslim friends are offered separate utensils in bigoted homes. Hindus feel superior because of their choice of eating meat or being vegetarian. But, despite the bigotry, I could never imagine that my country would become so intolerant to the point that one’s choice of eating meat would get them openly lynched.
When I started to make ‘A Pinch of Skin’ in 2011, I was deterred by many senior voices asking me not to take up such a polarising subject, especially since I am a Hindu girl, with my religion written all over my last name.
I chose not to listen to them, and I am glad.
During the shooting of A Pinch of Skin, over six months of shooting, I was always met with open arms, warm smiles, and offers to take me out for lunch by the people I interviewed because the people I met saw me as a human being first. Sans my last name.
I cry, thinking about what my country has become today.
What would happen if I were to shoot my documentary or perform Chakravyu with my collegiate pals in today’s India?
My Voices to End FGM/C story, The Medium, reflects my decade-long experience working on female genital mutilation/cutting, as the crescendo on Islamophobia increases in India and around the world.
I want to proudly say that those who believe in the xenophobic narrative don’t know what they are missing out on.
My own experience informs me that religion has nothing to do with a social norm. In one way or another, all religions attempt to control the female sexual experience, the very essence of patriarchy. And that is why FGM/C continues and is a lot more complex than what meets the eye.
Let’s leave religion and reading into the last names of people to stereotype.
*Chakravya: The word Chakravya is a mythological reference to the unbreakable cycle in the Hindu holy book of Mahabharata.
**Azaan: Azaan is the Urdu/Farsi word of the religious call to prayer, recited by the priest at a designated time of the day, usually early morning and early evening.
I have published several papers on the ethics of medically unnecessary genital cutting practices affecting children of all sexes and genders. When my writing touches on the sub-set of these practices that affect persons with characteristically female sex-typed genitals, I have received some pushback for using the term female genital cutting (FGC) rather than female genital mutilation (FGM).
An instance of such pushback came from a respected colleague in response to a paper of mine in Archives of Sexual Behavior, in which I argue against the use of ‘mutilation’ in certain contexts, as there is evidence that such stigmatizing language may have adverse effects on the very people who are meant to be helped. Given that this terminological issue is likely to keep coming up, I thought I would share parts of the reply I wrote to my colleague. I hope it can shed some light on at least one plausible way of thinking about such matters.
My colleague argued that my use of ‘FGC’ rather than ‘FGM’ is disrespectful because it goes against the recommendation of the 2005 Bamako Declaration adopted by the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children.
On the matter of disrespect. I have had many conversations with women who consider themselves circumcised, rather than mutilated, and even if they agree that medically unnecessary genital cutting should not be performed on persons who are incapable of consenting, primarily children, they insist that it is harmful, stigmatizing, and paternalistic for others to simply define their own modified genitals as mutilated (a term that implies disfigurement or even an intent to cause harm).
They explain that their loving parents, however misguided, did not intend to cause them net harm, just as, for example, Jewish parents who authorize that their sons be circumcised do not intend to harm them, but rather, take an action that is sincerely believed to appropriately integrate the child into an ancestral community. They recognize that, in their own communities, both male and female genital cutting practices are widely seen as improving the genitalia, including aesthetically, which is contrary to the very notion of mutilation. I may not agree with that interpretation myself, but it is not my position to tell these women (or their brothers) that their altered genitals are ugly or disfigured rather than, as they see it, aesthetically (or in some cases, culturally or religiously) improved.
I will ask: Were these leaders democratically elected to express the considered opinions of their constituents, or were these leaders self-appointed? At the very least, they cannot have been authorized to speak on behalf of countless Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern women who have been affected by ritual forms of female genital cutting.
In any event, I face a choice. I can disagree with the conclusion of these African leaders who seem to feel qualified to speak on behalf of millions of other women, including non-African women, and impose an entirely negative and stigmatizing interpretation of all of their altered genitalia regardless of how those women see their own bodies. Or I can show respect to those women who have shared their stories with me, as well as all the women in various reports and testimonies who have expressed strong objections to the term ‘mutilation’ being forced on them, and who would simply like to have the room to be able to evaluate and describe their own genitals as they see fit.
One woman explained her feelings: “In my opinion, the word ‘mutilation’ used in reference to [what happened to me] is a degrading and disempowering term that strips women of their dignity and self-worth. Basically, it is a label that has the power to negatively influence one’s self-identity. If you understand labelling theory you will understand how damaging/influential a term or classification can be to an individual.”
She continued with her experience: “Having just about survived my ordeal of forced body alteration I was very aware of the violation to my body. However, the introduction of the term ‘mutilation’ into my consciousness affected me mentally and physically. It made me view myself as an ugly, mutilated, and frowned-upon member of society. There started my journey of self-hate, which presented itself in many forms, including bulimia and social anxiety, to name but a few. To be called the ‘mutilated’ girl by health professionals stripped me of any dignity and covered me in shame on numerous occasions. Thankfully, I no longer see myself as a victim or survivor of ‘FGM’ – I refuse to allow that term to take away my power or to define who I am.”
Faced with the choice between respectfully disagreeing with the analysis and conclusion of a group of leaders whose qualification to speak on behalf of others I do not know, versus showing respect to those women, such as the one quoted above, who have asked for the right to determine their own victim status (including whether they regard their genitals as mutilated or otherwise), I choose the latter.
Referring to “the event” and “the torture” is using singular language to refer to a plurality of quite different events carried out in different ways by different groups for different reasons. As you know, the World Health Organization (WHO) uses the term FGM to refer to a dozen or more practices, ranging from nicking of the clitoral hood, which does not remove tissue. In many communities, for example in Malaysia, it’s often done by a doctor with sterile equipment and pain control, through to excision of the external clitoris with a rusty implement and no pain control followed by infibulation, as occurs in some rural parts of Northeast Africa, for example.
It is entirely accurate to say that all of those quite different interventions are medically unnecessary acts of genital cutting; and I argue that all of them are morally impermissible if carried out on a non-consenting person. I have written about labiaplasty, a common procedure in Western countries. I tend to think it is morally permissible for an adult, fully-informed woman to decide that she wants what she regards as a cosmetic alteration to her genitals. I would not presume to tell my friends who have undergone what they see as cosmetic labiaplasty that they are victims of genital mutilation. Rather, I would accept their interpretation of their own bodies as having been enhanced.
What this suggests to me is that the sheer alteration of healthy genital tissue is not inherently mutilating. Rather, a person could interpret altered genitalia in a wide range of ways, including as improved or enhanced. This is the majority way that persons with altered genitalia regard their own bodies, as far as I can tell from reading the primary and secondary literature on this topic. What makes medically unnecessary genital cutting morally wrong is its being done non-consensually. It does not matter if it is mutilating or not – that is up to the person who is affected to decide. What matters is that it should be that person’s own choice.
Finally, my work is dedicated to the human rights argument that all non-consenting individuals, whether female, male, or intersex, have a fundamental moral claim against any interference with their genitals that is not medically necessary. That means that I believe that medically unnecessary intersex genital cutting is wrong, as is such cutting of the penis, when either is done without the informed consent of the affected person. And so, since I write about all medically unnecessary genital cutting practices, which includes alterations of the vulva that are less severe than penile circumcision as it is commonly performed in my country, I cannot go around calling one set of procedures ‘mutilations’ based on the sex of the person to whom they happen, while using a different term for another set of procedures. So, I choose to use the entirely accurate, non-stigmatizing language of ‘medically unnecessary genital cutting’ in all cases, leaving 100% of the leeway to each individual to determine for themselves.
It is not my place to speak on behalf of others about their bodies. Nor do I think it is the place of these African leaders to speak on behalf of millions of women who may not agree with them. Moreover, as I argue at length in the paper I sent around, there is very good reason to think that the language of mutilation is stigmatizing and harmful. Since it is not necessary to stigmatize women’s bodies in order to ground the ethical claim that cutting children’s genitals is morally wrong, if not medically necessary, I choose to use non-stigmatizing language.
Brian Earp is an American bioethicist, philosopher, and interdisciplinary researcher. He is currently Associate Director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy at Yale University and The Hastings Center, and a Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
The aim of Sahiyo’s third annual Activists’ Retreat in the United States was to continue to work toward building a network of U.S.-based Bohra activists against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by strengthening relationships with one another, sharing best practices, and providing tools for activists to utilize in their advocacy work moving forward. Below, a participant shares their experience from the virtual Activists’ Retreat.
Why did you want to attend the virtual retreat?
The main reason was because I had attended the in-person retreat in 2019. I made it a goal to keep attending. In 2020, I was planning on going to the in-person one. I wanted to participate. I have a personal experience with FGM/C. It was kind of a big deal that I attended in 2019 and it was quite eye opening. There was a lot about the issue I didn’t really know or understand and going was quite an experience in a good way, in a positive way, and I just wanted more. It was definitely something I want to continue to learn about. Apart from my own experience, I don’t know much about it as far as facts and figures are concerned, tangible facts. It was very helpful. It was interesting to understand. It was an emotional rollercoaster. There’s so much more to do and learn.
What have you learned or most enjoyed at the virtual retreat?
The biggest thing I enjoyed was seeing all these new people. I was proud to see so many more people join this. I had an idea that a lot more people were going to join. But seeing so many people attend and engage was really nice. It was really cool to see people not let the virtual aspect of it simmer everything down. Newer people were still engaging and wanting to learn more about it. Men joined this time, and it was cool to see them engage and ask questions and try to understand. It’s never something that people talk about within our own age group.
How and why are you involved in the movement to end FGC?
To be totally honest, I am still trying to figure out the how part. Maybe it’s part of my personality. I get very overwhelmed by so many things. Just the fact that I attended the retreat and I’m so glad I did—going there was a huge step for me, in general. As much as I enjoyed it, I was able to participate in something I hadn’t before. Toward the end, I felt like I could do a little bit more. I attended the retreat with friends and there was more confidence to participate in something like the retreat because we had a level of comfort. And we all agree that a group like Sahiyo is doing good work.
How do you think this virtual retreat will inform your work as an individual and/or activist?
It definitely showed us that it’s a lot easier to connect with more people this way. One thing I noted after the in-person one—I know that they had calls after the in-person retreat. Attending this virtual retreat, you definitely don’t have an excuse to not interact or reach out to people who attended. In that sense, it was encouraging to see that people were in completely different parts of the country and we could attend. We’d never met before and interacted in person. I wish that we had more time. Action planning was really informative.
What work are you doing currently or hoping to do in the future?
I think the most immediate thing that I feel like I could do, and I had offered to participate in that part as well. We have physicians in our family and I know 100 percent that they would advocate against FGM and we were trying to figure out how to put together a network of physicians and informing or coming up with informational texts to [explain] what happens with your body. Most people I know who have undergone it, just plain and simple [don’t know] the effects of it. My reaching out to some of the physicians of our family to help out with that is an immediate goal. I know some people that are my age. We’ve briefly spoken on the subject and I would really like them to join the next retreat. These couple of things are things I could actually do something about.
Have you attended a Sahiyo retreat in the past, and, if so, what was it like to attend this virtual activist retreat in comparison to the in-person retreat?
The virtual retreat went a lot better than I expected. It’s so easy to mute yourself and turn your video off versus to participate. There was way more participation than I expected and good conversations. I still think the in-person one made me feel like you are part of this community. There was a sentiment there that everyone was sharing and the organizers, the way they set it up—it wasn’t super formal. People were comfortable and friendly. Just the experience of it was very comforting and safe; and I think that made a really big difference overall for the weekend. They did this over the virtual retreat, too, and they did what they could, and that was very well appreciated.
To learn more about the 2021 Activist Retreat, take a look at our Report.
Before I participated in this year’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) workshop, I had seen blurbs from previous years. In my head, the Voices program was an in-person workshop where a community of people got together to share their stories. However, COVID-19 happened, and this in-person experience was transformed into a virtual series. I was nervous going into the workshop. I missed the first two live sessions because of time-zone differences, and when I finally made it to a live session, the community already knew each other. Yet, I was embraced with much warmth and found myself comfortable to share my story almost immediately.
A part of the Voices program is to tell your stories through a video narrative. It is almost paradoxical that I chose somewhat chirpy tunes and colorful images to accompany my story of coming to terms with khatna, or female genital cutting as it is known in the Bohra community. Though I was sharing a narrative I have hidden in the crevices of my mind for years–a story I am just weaving together, a fact that still brings me pain– I wanted to emphasize the radiance and calm that came with healing. I wanted to leave the viewer on an upbeat note–a note of hope.
This coming together of a community of women sharing stories, tears, joys, aspirations, dreams, fears, and sacrifices was healing. The film editing is over, the written drafts are ready to be published, but the cathartic part of this workshop will live on in me. Coming together with this community has allowed me to come to terms with myself. Something in me was always reluctant to voice my story before the workshop. I wrote about it, preferred to text about it, but refrained from talking. My voice is louder; I am more willing to share; and maybe I will have a conversation face-to-face one day.
My fight against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) can be traced back to the day my mother and sister had a discussion with me on how young girls from the age of 7 are subjected to FGM/C or khatna, as it is known in the Bohra community. They explained it in simple terms, as I was still in school and unfamiliar with the practice, and guided me on how to approach the subject. They educated me on who conducts this act and where it is conducted and for what reasons. They told me that it was taboo to talk about it freely and also to never ask if anyone had been subjected to khatna.
After hearing this from two people that are close to my heart, I trusted their word and never asked anyone about it. I had no idea little girls were subjected to such pain and trauma. They are children, after all. Aren’t they supposed to play with dolls and fight for the window seat on the bus ride home? Why are people insisting on controlling girls from such a young age? Why are they putting them through this mental trauma? Why isn’t anyone speaking up against it? All these questions were flooding my mind and all I wanted was someone to tell me this isn’t happening anymore. To think I was hurt and frustrated would be an understatement. I was angry and sad at the same time. I thought this is a tradition that had been shunned and looked down upon by many communities around the world. But to my misery that was not the reality.
The next time I came across the word khatna in one of the books in The Princess Trilogy by Jean Sasson, it brought me to tears. At that point I knew I had to do something to raise awareness against it or simply make it known to people that it is a violation of a girl’s body. I read up about female genital mutilation/cutting and learned about how its roots were traced back to Egypt. I learned about the four types and how there is no scientific evidence to help women medically in any way.
Being a student of law, I have the opportunity to speak up and back my reasoning with legal knowledge. FGM/C infringes upon the girl child’s human rights, such as the right to bodily autonomy, equality, right to life and personal liberty, which includes the right to be free from any form of violence.
After the young girls are cut, they may die, or bleed continuously and/or develop an infection, which violates their right to have a healthy life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Justice Chandrachud also stated, “One has supreme authority over genitalia. It is central to one’s identity, dignity and autonomy.” The recognition of the harms of FGM/C is increasing day by day as many are filing petitions, raising their voices and sharing their stories with the help of nongovernmental organizations. I have the opportunity to voice my thoughts against the practice with the help of Sahiyo, and for that I am eternally grateful. The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai said, “There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”
I say stand up. Raise your voice and help put an end to FGM/C.
Kristel Mendoza Castillois currently an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut majoring in Communications. She strongly believes in the values of consent and a woman’s right over her own body, which is why she’s excited to work with the team at Sahiyo. She looks forward to creating social change to help enforce our mission of empowering girls and women all around the world.
1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?
I was searching for internships and came across Sahiyo’s listing. After reading and learning more about their work, I became completely interested in being part of their team. I interviewed, chose Sahiyo’s internship, and started working in the communications department as a social media intern in February of 2021.
2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?
As a social media intern, I mostly create content that is relevant to Sahiyo’s online presence, as well as sharing it on all social media platforms. I also create social media reports to track campaigns and Sahiyo’s overall growth on social media.
3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?
I was not that well-informed about female genital cutting (FGC) until I came across all the information on Sahiyo’s website. Ever since then I have learned a lot about the topic. As part of my internship, I have been tasked to post content about Sahiyo’s campaigns such as the behind the scenes of Activists’ Retreats, or the ongoing Voices To End FGM/C 2021 project. I have been able to watch and listen to so many people’s stories and that has made me want to keep supporting and working with Sahiyo to bring an end to FGC.
4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?
I encourage people to become an ally or share their own stories if they have them. Sahiyo is a great organization filled with many great people that can provide the support or all the resources that you need. By supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC you are working toward making the world a safer and better place for girls all around the world. The good thing is that there are so many ways in which you can support Sahiyo’s mission.
Being anonymous does not mean that I am powerless.
Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have a name, or an identity.
Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have words.
Being anonymous does not take my freedom away from me.
Behind that anonymous, is a mind and a body. Whole. Full.
Circling around joy and grief, pain and laughter, love and fear.
Sometimes broken, other times repaired.
I’ve waited many years to share my life’s experiences as a Bohra woman through a story. I’ve held my chest tightly closed, hidden with memories of being a girl in this world dominated by male power. I’ve longed to scream from a mountain top and tell them to just stop. These men, these systems, that continue to harm us and break us and tear us apart.
This short story is my beginning. An opening of my chest.
Through this storytelling workshop organized by Sahiyo and StoryCenter, I was ushered into a safe women’s circle that I had been waiting for all my life. I wish I could describe to you the experience that I had in my mind and body during the six sessions that we had together, building our stories for the world. One by one, we brought images and symbols that served as metaphors for pain and trauma that we had all experienced in so many different ways.
I remember closing my eyes to listen to the voice recordings and be immersed in every single word. I remember turning inward gently, raw and tender, and really seeing that courage rising. I remember that care and love that we all felt for each other even though we had never met. Our shared challenges brought us together, making our collective voices stronger and louder.
I offer you my story with both humility and hope. There is a lot I share in four minutes, and yet it is not enough and feels incomplete. I hope that this film inspires you to learn more about FGM/C and find ways to support this work. I hope it inspires you to support us as we navigate and stand up to the day-to-day battles we continue to face.
On July 17th, Sahiyo’s Development Assistant Sarrah Hussain and Programs Coordinator Catherine Cox spoke at a panel discussion on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) hosted by the Future Shakers Initiative (FSI). This event, The Pre-summit of #EndFGM Global Conference, was the prelude to the conference. The summit was an online webinar convening international speakers and advocates to share ideas and prepare for the in-person conference.
As part of The Pre-summit of the #EndFGM Global Conference, Hussain and Cox were joined by Dr. Ibidapo Fashina, Abayomi Sarumi, and Damilola Amoo, moderated by FSI founder, Tobi Olanipekun. During the two-session event, this group of activists and change-makers convened over Google Meet to discuss their roles in challenging FGM/C, and how to build global bridges to advocate for the end of the practice. This inspirational panel of speakers explored the health consequences of FGM/C; the justifications and social norms underpinning the practice; and how we all can become better activists in empowering our communities to end the practice.
During the event, the speakers had the opportunity to answer critical questions such as, “What human rights does FGM/C violate?” and “How can young people challenge FGM/C?” Our team highlighted how FGM/C is practiced on young girls without consent and is a violation of the rights of girls. FGM/C also violates a person’s rights to health, security, and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the right to life, as this practice can result in death. We additionally stressed Sahiyo’s belief in the power that storytelling can create change, spark healing, and inspire individuals and communities to advocate for the abandonment of FGM/C. We believe that highlighting and amplifying the voices of survivors can be a powerful way to challenge FGM/C, the norms of silence and shame that often keep women from speaking out, and to give space for survivors to heal.
During the question and answer session at the end of the event, one guest asked how modern technologies are being utilized to help end FGM/C. Sahiyo speakers highlighted the initiative, Mumkin, an app that was created by Sahiyo’s co-founders Priya Goswami and Aarefa Johari. This is an app that uses artificial intelligence to help activists practice having difficult conversations around FGM/C. We encourage all of our allies to download this app in order to help them practice having critical conversations around FGM/C.
The Pre-summit of the #EndFGM Global Conference was an eye-opening exploration of the many issues and concepts surrounding FGM/C, as well as the need for global connections and idea-sharing to foster a global community dedicated to ending FGM/C and all forms of violence against women and girls. The #EndFGM Global Conference will be taking place in-person in Nigeria later this year.
It is safe to say that the day I underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) was by far the worst day of my life. I grew up in a country that is infamous for the high rate of FGM in the region in Egypt. I was cut at the age of 10. I have always been very concerned about women’s rights and gender equality. This passion and concern was what inspired me to produce documentary work that brings this crime to light. For me, projecting a story visually through photography offers a medium to expose the ugly truth, to tell a story, or to spotlight underrepresented groups of people. I want to protect every girl who could be cut from this painful experience, which is an outright violation of women’s rights.
Through the Voices to End FGM/C workshop, I was able to express my feelings and speak freely about my experience. I really would like to thank Mariya from Sahiyo and Amy from StoryCenter for supporting me throughout the virtual digital storytelling workshop.
I became a lawyer 12 years ago because I wanted to help people who had been wronged get legal justice. If I had left that conversation and did nothing, knowing the risk millions of girls face, and knowing that the law was not even on the side of survivors or those at risk, I would be betraying my own sense of justice and morality. I strongly believe that if you have a platform which you can use to further amplify the voices of survivors, you should use it.
For these reasons, I stepped outside of my comfort zone to make this video for the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) project. As lawyers we are trained to advocate based on principles of law and fact, and under no circumstances are we to become the story, so for me this digital storytelling workshop was a new and uncomfortable space to step into. I remember feeling like I did not belong in the beginning. Honestly, it was the courage of the survivors impacted by FGM/C who participated in the workshop that really gave me the strength to stay with it. It’s hard to tell someone else’s story, but even more difficult having to look within yourself. It opens you up to vulnerability and fear, which I learned dissipates when surrounded by allies.
In doing this work, I started understanding the why of it all for me. In my life my pursuit of justice on behalf of others was always fueled by the desire to give to others the legal recourse to justice that I did not have and which I could not give to others in my childhood. In participating in the workshop, I recognized that although we did not have the same shared experience that caused us harm and pain, like some of the other participants I knew that feeling of powerlessness as a child and to have the consequences of that follow you throughout your life. I understood all too well that feeling of disappointment and perhaps even betrayal by the people closest to you and yet, part of you still wants to protect them.
I have always tried to live my life to be a light for others. It is my hope that this video will be a light of inspiration to others to take action and a light to survivors and those at risk to know that they are not alone. They have allies that see them, hear them, and stand with them in this fight to bring about survivor-centered solutions guided by principles of human rights for every child at risk.