“Talking about Female Genital Cutting (FGC): A Study” is a research study undertaken to explore the way communities talk about FGC, the challenges of having such conversations, and the attitudes toward movements and campaigns on FGC. The study is authored by Reetika Revathy Subramanian and funded by Grand Challenges Canada. The project has been led by Vasavya Mahila Mandali from 2019-20 in association with Sahiyo India.
This multi-disciplinary study investigates communication attitudes and challenges for having a conversation/s on khatna or FGC. It adopts a mixed-methods approach using an in-depth qualitative survey and feminist focus group discussions, both anchored online, to explore the links between the need for privacy and feminist-led advocacy in the existing public conversations and contestations on the practice of FGC in India and globally.
The findings of the research seek to explore a connection between the need for privacy and feminist-led digital-safe spaces.
The survey questionnaire for this study is open to all Bohras above 18 years of age, and it is available in three languages:
In early 2019, I had the pleasure of joining the Sahiyo team as a Social Media Intern. I remember being a bit nervous, as working fully remote at a new company was something I had never done before. Both my supervisor, Lara Kingstone, and the co-Founder Mariya Taher, were extremely friendly and supportive during the onboarding process. Over time, their passion about ending female genital cutting (FGC) became contagious, to the point where I found myself actually looking forward to doing the work.
At the time, I had a very busy schedule where I was finishing up my senior year of college, doing a concurrent internship in Boston, all while working full-time. Despite this, I found that working for a cause that would change so many lives for the better gave me a sense of fulfillment that I wasn’t expecting. To be honest, I miss this feeling. This is one of the things I thank Sahiyo for because I now know that it is possible to have a job that you can actually be excited about. The dreariness of your typical 9-5 cubicle life that we see in the media, or the idea of hating your job, but enduring it so you can at least enjoy the weekend, doesn’t have to be true for everyone. Many of us can find meaning and enjoyment in our work.
Working with Sahiyo gave me direction, hope and inspiration for my future. On a more practical level, my internship also gave me tools that allowed for me to transfer easily into a role as a marketing specialist at a Boston–based company after graduating with my B..A. While I know that it is rare to land your dream job the first time, I am glad that I at least have an idea of what type of work I can look for in the future because of my experiences with Sahiyo.
One of my favorite things I did while at Sahiyo was work on a digital campaign where survivors could tell their stories. This was a powerful experience where women from all over the world came together to share their experiences and take a united stand in ending this practice. I was also responsible for writing and scheduling out the content which helped cultivate my creative, strategic and organizational skills. Overall, I am extremely thankful for this opportunity and am glad I can still be a part of this organization in a volunteer capacity. I would highly recommend this internship to anyone who is looking to develop their marketing skills and are passionate about making the world a better place through elevating the lives of others.
SEVEN is being released in North America this September (Sept 5 Canada/Sept 29 U.S.). The novel sensitively addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity, intergenerational violence, religion and healing sexual trauma within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra (sub-sect of Shia Islam) community. This is the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community. Farzana is an engaging speaker on all of the above themes and issues.
About SEVEN: When Sharifa accompanies her husband on a marriage-saving trip to India, she thinks that she’s going to research her great-great-grandfather, a wealthy business leader and philanthropist. What captures her imagination is not his rags-to-riches story, but the mystery of his four wives, missing from the family lore. She ends up excavating much more than she imagined. 2016 is a time of unrest within her insular and conservative religious community, and there is no escaping its politics. A group of feminists is speaking out against khatna, an age-old ritual they insist is female genital cutting. Sharifa’s two favourite cousins are on opposite sides of the debate and she seeks a middle ground. As the issue heats up, Sharifa discovers an unexpected truth and is forced take a position. In an era of #MeToo, Doctor brings us a soulfully written book about inheritance and resistance.
About the author: Farzana Doctor is an award-winning writer, activist, and psychotherapist. She is the author of four novels: Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and the forthcoming Seven. Farzana was recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now.” She is a founding member of WeSpeakOut.
SEVEN has already received excellent advance praise: “A brave and beautiful novel.”—Judy Rebick, author of Heroes in My Head
“Seven is an intimate, gutsy feminist novel that exposes the lasting, individual impacts of making women’s bodies fodder for displays of religious obeisance.”—Michelle Anne Schingler, FOREWORD Reviews
“Penetrating and subtle, SEVEN deftly explores loyalty in changing times, what it means and what you give up to be a part of a community, a marriage, and friendships. Sharifa is a sympathetic everywoman; her relationships fully realized and deeply felt in this immersive, absorbing portrait.”—Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift.
“A defiant and engrossing novel.”—Sarah Schulman, author of Conflict is Not Abuse.
“In her grand tradition, Farzana Doctor once again pushes us forward with nuanced, layered, inter-generational prose, to bring visibility to an important social issue. An urgent and passionate read.”—Vivek Shraya, author of I’m Afraid of Men and The Subtweet
Female genital cutting (FGC) often comes with a multitude of physical and psychological issues that can impact sexual functioning for many survivors. Yet, oftentimes too little attention is given to these problems.
On October 22nd, from 12 p.m.-1 p.m., Sahiyo will be hosting an inspiring webinar about FGC, sexuality, and its connection to mental health. During this webinar, we will hear from three expert panelists: Farzana Doctor, Joanna Vergoth, and Sarian Karim-Kamara, who will help to shed light on these subjects using their professional and personal experiences.
Farzana Doctor is an award-winning Canadian novelist and social worker. Her work includes Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and her latest novel, SEVEN. SEVEN explores the often complicated relationship between modern and traditional customs, and the struggle to end the practice of khatna, or female genital cutting, in the Bohra community. Recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now,” Farzana’s novels explore complex topics, including loss, relationships, sexuality, gender, and racism. She is also the co-founder of WeSpeakOut and The End FGM/C Canada Network, two organizations dedicated to ending FGC.
Sarian Karim-Kamara is a community development worker and the founder of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife (KDLK). She is one of the leading campaigners and activists working to end the practice of FGC, and all other forms of violence against women in the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone. Sarian underwent FGC as a child in Sierra Leone and she has spoken bravely and openly about her own traumatic experiences to help raise awareness. She runs educational workshops for professionals and communities; as well as weekly support groups for survivors of FGC in Peckham, London. She also travels to Sierra Leone to run empowerment and educational workshops aimed at young people and communities. In 2019, Sarian won the Prime Minister’s Point of Light Award. In 2014, she received an award from her Sierra Leone community in London for her service to them as a Community Champion.
Joanna Vergoth is a licensed clinical social worker and certified psychoanalyst with 20 years of experience in the field. Throughout her career, she has focused much of her work on healing trauma and advocacy work. Over the past decade, she has become a committed activist to the cause of ending FGC. She first began as coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, and recently worked to establish forma, a nonprofit dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women and families affected by FGC, as well as offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy, and awareness training.
To hear from these amazing women please register for the event through the link below. Feel free to grab a beverage or a snack beforehand, and join us for what is sure to be an eye-opening and powerful conversation. This webinar is open to anyone who wishes to attend.
Sarrah is an undergraduate student still exploring what she wants to study at Stanford University. She is passionate about women’s rights and health, especially female genital cutting (FGC). This will be her first time working with a nonprofit organization, and she is excited to create change and uplift voices with the Sahiyo team.
1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?
I began following the Sahiyo instagram account and learning about their mission last year, when I became curious to learn more about FGC within my community. Since then, I have actively followed Sahiyo and its work, and when I saw the opening for internships in February I thought I’d shoot my shot. Since May of this year, I am officially a development intern for Sahiyo, and could not be more excited to work with this incredible team to make an impact for an issue I care deeply about.
2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?
As a development intern, my work is primarily focused on expanding Sahiyo and securing grants and funding opportunities so Sahiyo can do the meaningful work it does.
3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?
I am still relatively new to Sahiyo, but already Sahiyo has impacted my life because I know I am contributing to a larger mission to create a greater change in the world. I am inspired by the passion I see in those I work with, and happy knowing my work has real meaning.
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 would say take the leap! When first considering applying to Sahiyo, I didn’t think I had the skills necessary to be a development intern, I was scared that I wouldn’t live up to what was asked of me, and I was even a little nervous about being involved with a nonprofit working on such a taboo subject. But I took a leap, applied, and got the position, and I am so happy I did. Though sometimes I feel lost, there is a whole team of wonderful people who want to support you and help you learn. It is really comforting and inspiring to see others who feel the same way as you and simply want to protect future generations of girls.
The Population Council hosted a fascinating webinar, Using Research to Understand and Accelerate The Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). It was the second of two webinars from a series titled, Evidence to End FGM/C: Research to Help Girls and Women Thrive. The most recent webinar reported some of the findings of a research consortium that began in 2015 and culminated this year. The research spanned eight countries and concluded with how initiatives to end FGM/C may be optimized.
Dr. Matanda spoke on the use of data to inform programming. His research spanned Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal, and sought to map hotspots for FGM/C. The data pinpointed the areas of each country in which FGM/C is most prevalent. Dr. Matanda’s findings also reveal how factors relating to a girl’s mother influence the likelihood that she will be cut. The results varied by region, but some of these factors included the mother’s ethnic group, her beliefs surrounding FGM/C, and if she herself was cut. The most important takeaway from Dr. Matanda’s research is that considering only national data masks local variations. He recommends linking regional data to subnational policies and efforts to prevent FGM/C from occuring to future generations of girls.
Medical anthropologist Dr. Yoder responded to Dr. Matanda’s research, remarking that Kenya was the only country of the three where the level of education of the mother was found to have an effect on the risk of a girl being cut. He proposes modernization, the shift from traditional and rural to secular and urban, as an explanation for Dr. Matanda’s findings. I believe that Dr. Yoder’s theory illuminates a need for ongoing research on this subject that correlates the changes in Kenya’s social, economic, and political growth to changes in the continuation of FGM/C.
Following Dr. Yoder’s analysis, Wahba presented her research on the intersection of FGM/C and gender in Egypt. Hers was a qualitative study with multiple intriguing findings. One discovery that I found especially important was that conflicted mothers have been turning to doctors to decide on their behalf whether or not their daughter should be cut. This could be a result of the increasing medicalization of FGM/C in Egypt. Another interesting finding was that if either one of the parents, whether it be the mother or the father, does not want their daughter to be cut, then she will not undergo FGM/C. While many programs working to end FGM/C target the mother as the decision maker, Wahba’s research clearly shows that mothers are not the only influential group. For this reason, more anti-FGM/C programs should shift their efforts to also educate fathers and doctors, particularly in regions with high rates of medicalization.
Diop followed Wahba’s presentation to provide analysis of the research. Diop feels strongly that FGM/C is rooted in gender inequalities, yet not nearly enough programs acknowledge this fact. She claims many programs that address cutting are gender blind, focusing too much on the consequences of FGM/C in their approach rather than the root causes for why FGM/C continues in the first place. Diop’s comments were a strong call to action for all advocates to take a gender transformative approach in order to achieve abandonment of FGM/C.
More information about this research project can be found here.
Having decided to pursue law at the age of 15 years old, I was excited yet unprepared to know about the society that we live in. For the past four years, I have gathered enough evidence through lectures, presentations, and discussions over coffee about the horrors of which any society is capable. One such day one of my professors decided to speak about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and asked two of my peers to give a presentation on it.
The projector was switched on, lights were switched off, and my two peers took center stage to introduce the class to the topic. At the end of the presentation in a class where several hands routinely raise eager to question presenters, there was pin-drop silence. The professor smiled at the horrid, silent expressions of my classmates and broke the silence to facilitate a discussion. Gradually, all of us formed a consensus that FGM/C is harmful and needs to stop.
After class, I went home and started researching the practice and ended up watching a documentary, The Cut: Exploring FGM by an Al Jazeera correspondent. I read various articles where I learned FGM/C was practiced widely among the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, and this practice was known as khatna.
My heart sank as I realized that a very close friend by the virtue of being from the community must have undergone FGM/C. As a concerned friend, but with pre-conceived notions and as a judgmental being, I went on to tell my friend that I would always be there to support her through the injustice inflicted upon her. To my surprise, (but should have seen it coming) my friend defended it, stating the various reasons that she had been fed through the years of why it was important for girls to undergo it in the Bohra community. I was shattered. However, I tried not to force my opinions about the practice on her.
While speaking to a few more (girls and boys) I concluded that the reason behind the practice not being spoken about is because it mainly revolves around female sexuality and religion. The reason that men/boys in the Bohra community did not talk about it or oppose it was that they thought it’s a girl’s issue; whereas the girls who went through it might have felt the need to defend it. And to speak of it publicly, would mean that they would be betraying their religion, especially if they talk about it to an outsider, a Jain like myself.
Gradually, I started reading stories about FGM/C through initiatives by organizations such as Sahiyo. Fortunately, it made me realize that as an outsider to the community, it is easy for me to be outraged and criticize any practice which is detrimental to the well-being of girls and women. However, when one grows up with the practice being justified, it takes a lot more than common sense to defy and disobey the practice that has been ingrained in the community for generations
Now my friend has condemned the practice and shared her plight due to khatna, which is when I decided to write my dissertation on harmful practices like FGM/C, where women need to be uplifted without antagonizing the communities which uphold these practices.
Khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) within the Dawoodi Bohra community, is not a distinct or unique ritual. It has a context and it is important that Bohra women (and men) understand that context if they are to free themselves holistically, not only from the ritual itself, but from all that promotes it.
Khatna is an imposition of a patriarchal system, a male-controlled system, that seeks to assign a gendered role or designated place for women and imposes rules and regulations to maintain these assigned roles. For women, that role is strictly within the family unit where her duty is first and foremost that of caring for her family, especially the husband or parents; giving birth, including ensuring the survival of humanity; nurturing the progeny; and upholding and promoting this culture and these customs which are largely defined by the patriarchs.
No boy child has his destiny mapped out at birth within the Bohra community, but the idea of a girl child choosing and planning her destiny is considered as entirely secondary and trivial to her so-called God-given role. In this era of the internet and women’s liberation globally, it has seemingly become even more imperative for the patriarchs to keep their women (who, of course, they may consider as their property) in their place.
Nothing works better than religious persuasion, but it so happens that nowhere in the Holy Quran is khatna mentioned, let alone made mandatory. So the patriarchs have concocted a variety of restrictions: women’s dress code is ordained for them; the baggy and unsightly rida is designed to make them feel ashamed of their bodies and to limit their movements; if women must work outside the home, it has to be in family circles or at most in a Bohra environment; if widowed, she must observe total seclusion for four months; associating or travelling with strangers is frowned upon, and so on.
Khatna confers absolutely no benefit, medical or moral, to the girls who are cut. It can be traumatic with long-lasting effects both physical and psychological. It is one more such tradition, which at a very young age instills into the girl child that she is tainted and impure, and hence, it is normal for her to be violated and controlled. Is it surprising then that as adults, most Bohra women meekly accept the various restrictions placed on them.
But women are the greatest defenders of the practice, we are told. True, very true – and some of those women are doctors and the like, educated, so to speak.
Sahiyo has done, and is doing sterling work in exposing the harmful practice of khatna, and encouraging opposition to it. The rejection of khatna must be a step in the liberation of Bohra women.
I had the opportunity to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C project with Sahiyo, StoryCenter and The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in November 2019 where a diverse group of survivors and health professionals shared their experiences with FGM/C.
I am currently a fourth-year medical student at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine. I will be applying for residency this year to Family Medicine in the hope to provide a form of care that encompasses all factions of patients’ lives.
Meeting and listening to the stories of these wonderful women empowered me to discover my role in ending FGM/C. My role, I determined, was to increase awareness among health professionals. It is vital that physicians learn to identify survivors during a woman’s physical exam and learn how to approach this sensitive subject with discretion.
While having no past experience in presenting FGM/C to the public, I decided that perhaps a poster presentation would be the best initial step.The American Academy of Family Physicians National Conference which is attended by thousands of medical students and residents every year seemed like the perfect opportunity to spark discussion amongst the family physicians who see their patients regularly for annual physicals. My colleague, Zahra Qaiyumi, and I wanted the poster to be engaging while also conveying the statistical data related to FGM/C and a description of the project itself. However, just like the project, it needed to have a personal touch which is why I decided to use pictures of real participants from the project itself, as well as their dialogue.
Due to COVID-19, the conference shifted to a virtual platform where our poster was displayed in the “Poster Hall” for any member of the conference to view at any time. Although I was unable to engage in lively discussions about FGM/C the way I had imagined, this is just the start to what I hope will be several more medical conferences and presentations.
(Trigger warning: Below is one woman’s account of her experience with female genital mutilation in the United States. This story is deeply disturbing and may be triggering for some. We thank her for being brave and sharing her story with us.)
My experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) was not due to any religious belief, nor was it a cultural practice, as is most FGM. It was intended only to be cruel and torturous. For most of 16 years of my childhood I was ritually, sexually abused.
On my 13th birthday I was taken to a barn where my “fixing” ceremony would be performed. I was secured to a table and feet stirrups with chains and straps, leaving me unable to move any part of my body. I saw the blade as he prepared to cut me. All of a sudden, I felt a burning pain. It was so excruciating I don’t have words to describe it, other than feeling like I was on fire. He either stitched me or cauterized me almost all the way closed. He let my legs drop then he strapped them together. I was still unable to move. I was left alone in that position, in and out of consciousness, for a couple days.
The man that called himself my father did this to me and said, “Now no one will ever want you.”
It wasn’t until almost 43 years later when a doctor explained to me exactly what happened; that my clitoris had been cut out, that my labia had been removed, and that I had been mostly stitched closed. Until then I only knew I had been hurt, and was ruined.
Although I know I may not “fit” into the typical category women who have undergone FGM, I want what happened to me to be known because there are other women who have been hurt like me. But, ritual abuse is just not talked about. I want to be a voice for them, so that they know these survivors are not alone, and that there is help and hope.
What is ritual abuse?
In a 1989 report, the Ritual Abuse Task Force of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women defined ritual abuse as “Ritual abuse usually involves repeated, prolonged sadistic abuse, especially of children, over an extended period of time (sometimes years). It is almost impossible to imagine the realities endured by victims of ritual abuse: multiple abusers with systematic motives coordinated with the sole purpose of perpetrating and maintaining a cycle of abuse. It is carried out in contexts where children are in groups, and within families or groups of families.
The physical abuse is severe and can include beatings, electroshock, torture (even death), confinement and/or forced ingestion of drugs, blood, and feces. The sexual abuse is painful, humiliating, and sadomasochistic– intended as a means of gaining dominance over the victim. The psychological abuse is devastating and involves the use of ritual indoctrination. It includes mind control techniques which convey to the victim a profound terror of the cult members – most victims are in a state of terror, mind control and dissociation. These activities are kept secret from society at large, as they violate norms and laws.