Calling survivors of female genital cutting and health providers for a unique storytelling opportunity

Apply to be a storyteller here!

In November 2019, Sahiyo and StoryCenter will partner with The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health to host a digital storytelling workshop in Washington, D.C. Sahiyo is advocating for the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), while StoryCenter supports organizations in using storytelling and participatory media for social change.

The November workshop will focus on health and female genital cutting. With that focus in mind, Sahiyo extends an invitation to: 1) women over 18 years old, living in the United States, who have undergone FGM/C and who have a story to share about receiving healthcare in the U.S. or 2) health providers in the United States, of all genders (i.e. physicians, nurses, midwives, etc.) who have provided services to women who have undergone FGM/C.

Together these groups can highlight stories about the enduring impact of FGM/C on women’s health and/or inform health professionals of the kind of care and best practices health professionals need to be aware of when working with FGM/C survivors. The resulting short digital stories will be used to better educate health professionals on how to support survivors living in the U.S..

Sahiyo’s Inaugural Storytelling Workshop

In 2018, Sahiyo, in partnership with StoryCenter, launched an inaugural digital storytelling workshop. Nine women’s stories have since elevated the conversation about FGM/C in the U.S. and globally. The stories were distributed online and via media channels, as well as at live community screening events. They are being used as educational tools to support discussion among survivors within their communities, with a focus on challenging the social norms sanctioning FGM/C, and encouraging an end to the practice.

About Sahiyo:

Since 2015, Sahiyo has been advocating for the abandonment of FGM/C through dialogue, education and collaboration. Sahiyo conducted the first-ever international online survey of Dawoodi Bohra women on the subject of FGM/C. Read the full report here

About StoryCenter: 

StoryCenter creates spaces for transforming lives and communities, through the acts of listening to and sharing stories as a vehicle for education, community mobilization, and advocacy. They collaborate with organizations around the world on workshops in story facilitation, digital storytelling, and other forms of participatory media production. Individuals are encouraged to register for storytelling workshops. 

About The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health:

GWU has been working closely with survivors and health care providers to develop a living virtual educational toolkit (fgmtoolkit.gwu.edu).

If you would like to participate in the workshop, apply by October 1st via this link:  http://bit.ly/DC_VoicesEndFGMC.

View informational flyer here.

The Sahiyo Activist Retreat gave me insight on how to talk about FGM/C

By Alifya Sulemanji

Age: 45

Country of Residence: United States

I was looking forward to attending the second Sahiyo Activist Retreat as it is a great platform to meet more women who are standing up for the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). I was happy to meet women from different parts of the United States. It was a great experience to hear different views of women of all age groups. It is encouraging to see more and more women join every year. 

FGM/C has always been a very sensitive issue for me, as I had been through this atrocity myself and would never want another innocent child to go through it. 

As I mentioned in my prior post about the first retreat, I have a very vivid memory of being cut at the tender age of seven. It felt like my body was being violated. Even when I was just 7 years of age, I knew something wrong had been done to me as I was told that this thing was a dark secret I was not supposed to tell anyone about. As I grew up I found out that none of my other friends had this religious ritual done, and it confirmed that what had been done to me was wrong. In the past few years, I learned that many other women like me felt the same way. 

The Sahiyo Activist Retreat gave me insight into how I can talk to other pro-FGM/C people and how I can convey my thoughts on FGM/C to them in a positive way.

Sahiyo has created a strong platform for women like me to come out and express their grief and opinions to create awareness.

#MenToEndFGC: Sahiyo’s Male Ally Campaign Launches

The issue of female genital cutting (FGC) is usually told from a woman’s perspective – for obvious reasons. Women around the world have spoken up against this practice that has gone on far too long, and we commend those who have made their voices heard. At Sahiyo, we know that while a lot of progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that girls and women no longer undergo FGC. We know that more voices need to be heard, and that’s why we launched our male ally campaign.

Last month (July 2019), we issued a call-to-action for men to speak out against FGC. We know a lot of misinformation exists about FGC, and that men may not be aware of what goes on, or they may be misinformed about what FGC does to a child or a woman. We asked men to submit short videos, audio files, quotations, or blogs that share one thing in common: taking a stand against the practice of FGC and denouncing it.

The response we received was amazing. Dozens of men across the globe from North America to Asia, and to Africa, responded to our call. Many shared their personal experiences with FGC, involving their wives, daughters, sisters, or friends being cut. Others described why FGC needs to end and how harmful it is. Each one made their thoughts known and told us and everyone why the practice of FGC needs to end for girls and women worldwide. We greatly appreciate all of you who took the time to send in a blog post, video, quotation, or audio file.

We will be posting these submissions throughout August and September on our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages. If you missed the deadline for submissions or would like to add more of your thoughts, we will be using the hashtags #MenToEndFGC, #SahiyoMaleAllies, and #MenEndFGM in our posts. If you use these hashtags or tag @sahiyovoices in a post, we may repost it!

We know that we must stand together and unite to end FGC. These men stepping up and speaking out against FGC is a step in the right direction, and we hope it inspires more men to use their voices to help end FGC for all girls and women.

Why I feel Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat is a sacred space

By Anonymous
Country of Residence: United States
Age: 35

I knew that feeling of being surrounded by Bohra women, for two full days, chatting, laughing, crying and sharing experiences of what it means to be Bohra. That sense of community, that inspiration that came from hearing everyone’s stories, and that deep desire to want to make change happen for the better. I had experienced it at the first Sahiyo Retreat and was grateful to have the opportunity once again this year. 

The retreat is like a sacred space: a space where you can just let go, where you can heal and allow others to heal, where you can learn from each other, and together find solutions. The answers to solve problems in our community are all within, but talking to each other helps bring that clarity. 

I have been volunteering with Sahiyo for a few years now, and I felt that the retreat helped reinforce my commitment to continue to speak up against female genital cutting.

To read more articles about Sahiyo’s Activist Retreats, click here.

How the Sahiyo Activist Retreat helped me gain perspective from other khatna survivors

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Age: 32

I felt a strong need to participate in the Sahiyo 2019 Activist Retreat because I hoped to heal from my experience of FGM/C and to gain perspective from other women who had been victims of khatna as well. For the first time in my life, I openly discussed what happened to me and my own feelings about khatna. The memory of that day is still seared in my mind and will never escape me. And while I don’t truly care to open old wounds, I want desperately for survivors to find a way to move forward and stop this practice within our community. For me the retreat was an outlet to figure out how to never let this happen again. 

Sahiyo Activist Retreat

I remember when the news about the Detroit case first came out; I asked a friend of mine if she went through khatna. When she said no, I immediately thought, how lucky. The retreat gave me a new perspective on it all. Yes, she is lucky, but was it fair that she had to pretend it happened to her just to avoid repercussions for her family? After the retreat, I thought even though she was spared the knife, she still had to perpetuate a lie that every girl in our community had gone through this traumatic event. That, too, has a set of problems. 

The retreat taught me that issues surrounding khatna are more complicated than just making the act itself illegal. I also had an opportunity to see that women who weren’t cut still have an opinion and story to share. I believe that together, we can effect change. The retreat gave me a platform to understand how to discuss and teach others within the community to stop practicing khatna. The retreat also offered a platform to discuss solutions, whether small scale or large, and I think that is the best starting point when discussing such a heavy and complicated subject. I am so thankful to have a community of like minded women who care so much about effecting change. I look forward to nurturing these relationships and together working toward long-term, permanent solutions to ending khatna. 

The unexpected gift of attending the U.S. Sahiyo Activist Retreat and connecting with other survivors

By Anonymous

The Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat I attended in March of 2019 felt big to me. In the days after, I told people it blew me away, meaning that it occupied my thoughts as it was all I could talk about and think about for a while. There were parts of it that felt like group therapy, something I had not expected. I just had not expected how deeply moving it is for someone else to say, “That happened to me, too.” We all know that there is an entire social movement around the #metoo hashtag, but it is more than a hashtag. It felt like when you are doing an exercise, and the teacher comes up to you, adjusts you a little, and then the whole exercise changes. 

Sahiyo Activist Retreat

A lot of the time during the retreat, it felt like someone was reaching inside me and physically shifting an organ or two. For one other woman to say to me “I get a lot of urinary tract infections, too” just made me want to cry. The crazy thing is that other women have said that to me. Tons of friends have said that, but I always remembered thinking, “Ok, but you weren’t cut.” But this time, this one time, when the other woman said it, I suddenly felt a rush of gratitude and warmth and unparalleled comradery. I wasn’t crazy, and if I was, I wasn’t alone in being crazy. I just had no idea how moving it would be to be in a group where I could hear others talk about their experiences, for me to feel normal in being abnormal. 



I had always thought individual therapy was valuable, but I simply had no idea that a group can offer a kind of cathartic experience that is impossible to achieve by yourself. To be honest, I thought group therapy was for people who couldn’t afford individual therapy. But I was completely wrong. They are completely different and utterly valuable in their own ways. If you have been cut, and you are skeptical, and jaded, and private (like me), you can really trust that you can enter this space and never feel pressured to speak. You can speak when you are moved to speak. And even if all you do is listen, it is transformative and life-changing. 

In the weeks since the retreat, it also seems like I have been feeling all the feels. While I was there, it felt like a high. Even in the couple of weeks after it, I was finally openly dealing with a lot that had just been buried. I felt like I grew and stretched. I talked about it more than I ever had. But no matter what, it all still happened, and that can’t be erased. And there are moments I still feel fucked up and uneasy about it all. Maybe that is what I just have to learn — how to hold it all at the same time. 

The complexities of female genital cutting in Singapore: Part IV

Concluding thoughts on the practice in Singapore

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This fourth installment provides a final analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here

In this research, I have contextualised the type of cut, stakeholders involved, on-going discussions on FGC locally and internationally, and FGC’s hiddenness. I hope this allows for a deeper understanding of the specific and unique type of FGC and the situation surrounding it in Singapore. My discussion of the reasons for FGC in Singapore is also non-exhaustive, but to my interlocutors, cleanliness, religion, tradition, and the control of female sexuality, are some of the most pertinent to their lived experiences. To the best of my ability, I have tried to represent fairly the perspectives and opinions of the various people with whom I spoke. In her book, The Twilight of Cutting, Saida Hodzic accurately pointed out that “differently positioned women take a variety of political positions toward cutting/anti-cutting campaigns, and the larger governance of their lives.” In these concluding paragraphs, I will further explore the continuity of this practice, ways to encourage productive and meaningful discourse about it, as well as policy implications.

Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

FGC has been an unquestioned tradition in Singapore for centuries. I believe we need to place a critical lens on FGC and question the motivations of this practice. While taking into account the possible individual, family and social meanings that have been attributed to FGC, it is also important to question its necessity and impact on a young girl. I end most interviews by asking interlocutors if they think FGC will continue, and 70% of my interlocutors answered in the negative. Conversations about FGC and debates on it have been ignited, and more young parents are questioning the cut’s necessity. Once parental pressure is no longer a factor and this procedure has skipped a generation, FGC will be much harder to revive or continue. Sometimes the type of FGC done in Singapore does not leave visible scars or markings. Those against FGC have said that they know of young parents who choose to say their daughter has been cut even if she hasn’t, and no one is any wiser.

It is also important to take note of the vernacular languages that are used when discussing FGC, and determining the appropriate ways to debate FGC in the Malay community. Currently, the debates on FGC happen amongst specific circles of young Malays who are highly educated. It is important to engage with the older generation and those who may not have access to tertiary education about this practice. It is only in sincere conversations, which aim to listen, engage in dialogue, and not necessarily debate that perspectives will shift. 

When I first found out about the FGC performed on me when I was a baby, and questioned my parents about it, they insisted that it was mandatory and that they did it for my own good. They said FGC was necessary for “religious and health reasons, and so I won’t be adulterous.” These are similar to the reasons my interlocutors shared as well. As I went about my research, and interviewed religious leaders, medical practitioners, and feminist activists, I slowly clarified my parents’ beliefs, and today they no longer see it as mandatory (“though still good to do”), but I do think chipping away at their long-held beliefs has been successful. Similar to my interlocutor’s sharing that the language of female sexuality, children’s rights and consent is foreign or even “Western,” I think it is important that we find the right language and vocabulary to discuss these issues in Malay so that it is more readily accessible.

I hope to see more people and stakeholders engaging in these conversations. In particular, I hope this blog post would encourage medical practitioners, religious leaders, religious bodies and health ministries to enter the conversation about FGC in Singapore. From my ethnography, there are various undercurrents and rumors of the perspectives and policy positions engaged by these stakeholders. For instance, a medical practitioner said that there is a register of doctors who perform it and who have informally agreed to abide by a set of guidelines in order to standardize the procedure. However, neither this guideline nor register is publicly available. Having them come out with actual statements would clear various misconceptions about FGC’s necessity and its health and religious implications. 

I would urge the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to replace the fatwa it removed with a new one, so that religiously, the Muslim community can be assured of the ruling for FGC. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association (MHPA) also have a responsibility to the larger Singapore community to ensure our safety and health. Because all doctors are registered and regulated under MOH, it is up to MOH to determine if FGC is aligned with the medical oath to do no harm. At the same time, it would be interesting to find out the positionality of medical practitioners performing FGC. Do they believe it to be necessary? Do they abide by the guidelines stated, especially given the spectrum of FGC that my interlocutors underwent? What are their specific reasons for performing FGC? Silence only breeds confusion. It is definitely time for the religious and health authorities to step up and clearly state their positions on FGC in Singapore. There is the very real fear that if FGC were banned in Singapore and practitioners disallowed from practicing it, this would lead to FGC being performed underground, where conditions are much less hygienic and can be more harmful. But, if the relevant authorities can counter the health, religious and female promiscuity reasons given for FGC, this practice will be regarded as unnecessary and might no longer be practiced here.

According to Hodzic, “Hahn and Inhorn testify to the persistence of one of the founding principles of applied medical anthropology, which is the notion that anthropology can and should provide cultural knowledge necessary for improving public health and health care.” I hope this research has provided a holistic, balanced, and informative understanding of the reasons for FGC in Singapore, and will be useful for religious leaders, medical practitioners, activists, and especially Malay women as we continue to critically analyze and discuss this practice.

Saza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations. 

Sahiyo’s Second Annual Retreat: A Space for Healing and Reflection

By Maryum Saifee

In late March, I participated in Sahiyo’s Second Annual Retreat for survivors and allies in the campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM). Attendees from the first retreat commented on how the program had more than doubled in size to over 20 this year. As an FGM survivor who reluctantly stumbled into this advocacy work three years ago, it made me reflect on how far we — as in the Bohra community — have come in such a short time.

Maryum Saifee

Before 2016, only a handful of survivors had publicly shared their stories and many were anonymous blog posts. The intense community backlash for speaking out has prevented many from being able to share their stories. Even at the retreat, most of the attendees preferred to stay behind the scenes. Through the tireless dedication of the organizers (Mariya Taher, Zehra Patwa, Alisha Bhagat, and others), Sahiyo created a safe space for these survivors and allies to heal, recharge, and strategize on how to harness the power of our collective to make change. 

Thanks to Sahiyo — which has a foothold in both South Asia and the United States — we are seeing momentum build toward a transnational movement where dozens of survivors are sharing their stories breaking the culture of silence around FGM. For decades, the spotlight on FGM has almost exclusively centered on sub-Saharan Africa. Now, as more survivors from non-African communities speak out, we are seeing this is much more pervasive than we previously thought. In Indonesia for example, UNICEF estimated that nearly 50% of girls and women are cut before 14 years of age.  

In addition to providing a space to connect with one another and forge bonds of solidarity, we also had the opportunity to connect with other faith communities working to end gender-based violence. Linda Kay Klein, a feminist who was brought up as an evangelical Christian, discussed her recent book Pure, and the challenges she has faced with speaking up in her community. There were many parallels between her struggles and our own. Both the Bohra and evangelical communities are insular and tend to ostracize those who question authority.

During a coffee break, I had the opportunity to chat with Linda on the idea of doing an interfaith storytelling collaboration. Her talk was timely, as a member of the evangelical tradition from Kentucky had just broken her silence as an FGM survivor, reinforcing that FGM transcends race, religion, and geography.

As advisory board chair of Sahiyo, I felt privileged to see the organization’s work in action.  Far too often, there is a martyrdom culture among activists where they feel the need to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Sahiyo’s commitment to annual retreats are critical in sustaining the activists who are the fuel behind the movement to end FGM. It was an honor to participate. I look forward to reconvening next year to continue learning from this amazing network of sister warriors.   

Thankful to be connected with so many incredible Bohra women

By Zehra Patwa

I wasn’t a newbie, I had attended this retreat last year and I recall the immense healing power and strength of spending over two days with ten other Bohra women sharing our deepest feelings about a secret practice that had touched all our lives. When I had the opportunity to help organize the 2nd Annual Sahiyo Activist Retreat, I jumped at the chance! This year the number of attendees had doubled from 11 participants in 2018 to 21 participants in 2019, with many first timers. The retreat seeks to build upon the growing network of Bohra women in the United States who want to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). 

Copy of IMG_1572.jpg
Sahiyo Activist Retreat 2019

Being in the activism field to end FGM/C for a few years now, I have had time to work through my experience and define how I feel about it. What was interesting to me was hearing women speaking out about this practice for the first time as they worked through their personal experiences. It reminded me so much of how I felt when I first started to talk about this issue, yet these women were so eloquent and inspiring in the way they talked about it. It gave me strength to hear so many women express so many different viewpoints. 

IMG_1255Although we all had similar khatna (FGM/C) experiences, we all came from different kinds of families, with differing attachment points to the Bohra community and yet, we related so easily to each other. I felt like I could really be myself in a very honest and open way which is not how I always feel when I attend community events. I am so thankful to be connected with this incredible group of strong Bohra women, and I am grateful to Sahiyo for providing a platform to meet in person.

 

(Editor’s note: Zehra attended last year’s retreat and was on the planning committee for the retreat this year.)

 

The complexities of female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore: Part III

Tradition and patriarchal elements of FGC  

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the third in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This third installment explains some of the reasons the interlocutors provided for practicing FGC, including tradition and the control of female sexuality within patriarchy. Read part one here. Read part two here.

Reasons for FGC: Tradition

Many of my interlocutors allude to adat or Malay tradition when asked for reasons they practice FGC. They view it as a normalised and long-established cultural tradition, which is often performed without question. There are also some interviewees who believe this leads to the unity of the community and is intrinsic to the Malay identity. However, those who are unsupportive of FGC question the premise of this tradition and that if there is no rational or logical reason behind it, “it doesn’t make sense to blindly follow it.”

macro photography of purple flowers
Photo by Carissa Bongalosa on Pexels.com

According to Gabriele Marranci, “FGC is transmitted generation after generation as an ordinary act of Malay Muslim identity. It can be considered an integral part of Malay Muslim birth rituals and is linked to a specific Malay Muslim identity. Malay Muslims often say, “We do this because it is our tradition. It is something that all Malay Muslims share both here in Singapore and in Malaysia.” Indeed, many of my interlocutors also agree that this practice has been very much normalised in Singapore. “This is tradition: sisters, granddaughters, daughters all do it, said Fauziah, an interviewee. “This is a strong Malay tradition, we can encourage it, but don’t force. It’s a natural next step.”

This tradition is usually passed down a matrilineal lineage, with the grandmothers and mothers of the family encouraging and sometimes even forcing their children to cut their granddaughters. This could be due to the division of labour in Malay families, where women usually take care of matters concerning the children’s development and well-being, while the father provides the economic means to raise them. As such, many men would leave the decision-making regarding the execution of FGC to their wives. They might not even want to know anything about it. It is considered too insignificant for fathers to have a stake or say in the issue.

However, those who are against FGC view the unquestioning nature of this practice as symptomatic of a larger problematic trend of traditionalism within the Malay community. “People do not question or discuss this, and it is a problem that it is not critically discussed,” said Ermy, another interviewee. “People just do it blindly, and so this might cause harm and injury.” Many Malay families continue this practice in an inadvertent manner, and one that is continued not because it is “actively better” but because it is just not worse. As such, FGC is simply passed down and accepted rather than its rationale being questioned or challenged.

At the same time, I noticed that amongst those interviewed, younger people (around the ages of 20-40 years old) are unwilling to perpetuate FGC if the sole reason is tradition. “If it’s just based on tradition, it doesn’t make sense to do something like that,” Hanisah, a 38-year old teacher, said. “Culture is not important to keep if it is causing pain.” Many younger Malay Singaporeans do not view FGC as something that possesses active benefits, and therefore, they do not see the point or logic in continuing it.

Control of female sexuality within patriarchy

Seven out of my eight interlocutors who support FGC readily admit that the cut is important to control women’s sexuality. According to them, FGC is to “cut down on the girl’s sexual desires (nafsu).” They suggest that “by nature, women have a higher sex drive, and so this is to lower chances of sex before marriage.” When asked to explain precisely how FGC leads to lowered sexual desire, or how this relationship can be measured, most interviewees are uncertain. In fact, I had a rather drawn-out conversation (complete with drawings on both our ends), about how the removal of the clitoral hood actually reveals the clitoris more, and so that logically follows that it is more easily stimulated, and therefore, might lead to higher sexual satisfaction. Even though supporters of FGC might be unsure how FGC affects sexual desire, the principles they hold for that view is important to acknowledge.

Believing that FGC is important to control female sexuality might be reflective of the prejudices and biases against women in the Malay community. These traditional values may have arisen because women are traditionally seen as the bearers of morality in societies. As such, it is important within the Malay community to ensure that women uphold important societal values and any potential for deviance is weeded out as soon as possible.

(The fourth and final installment will provide an analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels.)  

Indiv - SazaSaza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations as much as possible.