Reflecting on the critical intersections between anti-racism and female genital cutting

By Sarah Boudreau

In late July, Sahiyo held its webinar, Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher moderated the panel discussion that included four expert speakers: Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Sunera Sadicali, and Aissata M.B. Camara. The event included thoughtful commentary on the overlap between racism, oppression, culture, and FGM/C, as well as the struggles the panelists have faced while working to spread awareness and bring an end to FGM/C. 

Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM/C with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Hussein works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM/C around the world. Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Johari is a senior reporter with Scroll.in, where she covers gender and labour. She has been speaking out against female genital cutting since 2012 and is one of the five original co-founders of Sahiyo. Sunera Sadicali grew up in a family that was a part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only Bohras in the Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. Sadicali is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism. Camara is a professional with over a decade of program development and management, strategic planning, and relationship-building experience in non-profit, local government, and international affairs. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she was featured in The Guardian, PBS, RFI, Deutshe Welle and Brut for her advocacy to end female genital mutilation/cutting. Camara is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.

The four panelists, who are survivors of FGM/C, answered questions about how FGM/C intersects with other forms of oppression, including racism, violence, and “othering.” They also discussed the lack of legislation and law enforcement surrounding the practice, and challenges to passing laws to protect girls at risk. One notable part of the discussion occurred when Hussein made the point that survivors can become gatekeepers and have the opportunity to change the way that they are perceived. She relayed that when people hear about FGM/C, they may dismiss it and attribute it to cultural practice, but by naming FGM/C as child abuse rooted in patriarchy and oppression, survivors can draw attention to the issue for what it is in order to truly show people the harm being done.

Toward the end of the webinar, Camara discussed other movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter and how allyships must be formed in order to generate more traction in the media to spread FGM/C awareness. By teaming up with other survivors, resources, officials and organizations, more conversations about FGM/C can lead to change. 

In conclusion, the Critical Intersections webinar allowed panelists from diverse backgrounds to share their views on racism and FGMC. Several ideas were brought up about how to spark change and dialogue in both local communities and globally. But the common thread among all the speakers was that change is not always easy, but always worth fighting for. For the sake of women and girls everywhere, the future holds hope for justice, healing, and change.

Read the webinar transcript.

Remembering Egyptian feminist’s heroic fight against female genital cutting

By Madrisha Debnath

Despite the fact that the mother of Egyptian Feminist Movement Nawal El Saadawi died at aged 89 earlier this year, her fight against patriarchy lives on. Born in 1931, she was an Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, physician and a powerful feminist activist who fought against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) for many years. In her autobiography, she wrote as a survivor of FGM/C, “Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed.” 

She began her activism in her college days against the cultural institution of the state that promoted FGM/C. In her opinion, when religious institutions gain power, oppression against women of the region increases ,and she believed that women are oppressed under all religious institutions. She wrote 47 books on issues that women face in Egypt. Even as she spent three months in prison, she wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison with an eyebrow pencil on toilet paper. She is popularly known as the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World.

El Saadawi was the founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. She has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium; Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She won the North-South Prize from the council of Europe in 2004, Stig Dagerman Prize in 2011, and has been featured in BBC’s 100 women of 2015 to name a few.  

In 1972 she wrote the book Women and Sex in which she criticized FGM/C. Her book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism. The book was banned in Egypt and consequently she lost her job as the director general of public health for the Egyptian Ministry of Health. In 1980 she yet again wrote about her experience of undergoing a cliterodectomy in her book The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. She was the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers’ Association and was the Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, and Editor of Medical Association Magazine

As she graduated as a medical doctor from Cairo University in 1955 she observed that women’s physical and psychological problems are actually deeply rooted in the religious and cultural institutions they belong to. She connected oppressive cultural practices and norms of the society to the systemic oppression under the structures of class, patriarchy and imperialism. While working as a doctor in Egypt she became aware of the issue of domestic violence and inequalities that women face in their day to day life. After trying to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, she went back to Cairo and eventually became the director of the Ministry of Public Health. As a feminist and a doctor she was against male circumcision. In her view she did not separate cutting children from a physical or social point of view. In an interview to The Independent she said, “I am going to carry on this forever.” Her legacy will live on for future generations to consider.

Voices reflection: Feeling connected even when you may not be

By Anonymous

How do you associate yourself with a community you are not actively part of? How do you find comfort in a space that is familiar and foreign at the same time? How do you find answers and solace from strangers across continents? 

It is through experiences and stories. That’s what Sahiyo and Storycenter’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) program brought to me. The Sahiyo team reached out to me, asking if I would like to share my story of FGM/C through the participatory storytelling project. At first, I was excited at the opportunity, but then I was apprehensive. Did I have a story to tell? 

I was raised in the Bohra community, and knew about FGM/C. My curiosity to understand the practice pushed me to focus my Master’s thesis on FGM/C.  While I had the opportunity (with Sahiyo’s help) to understand FGM/C from an academic perspective, I never really gave myself a chance to reflect on my own experiences and feelings about the practice, except that I was vehemently against it. 

The Voices project gave me the opportunity to do so. I could not join the live workshop due to the difference in time zones, but watching recordings of the workshop made me feel connected to the other women. I heard their stories, empathized with them, and dug deeper within myself to find my own story and voice, as well. 

I learned more about FGM/C – a practice I understood, did not undergo, but still felt deeply connected to. I dedicated time to understanding my own relationship with FGM/C – one of not being a survivor, but one of being affected by it. I learned more about women like me, and also very different from me, and we all shared something in common. I felt closer to the global  community of voices against FGM/C. 

Thank you, Sahiyo, and the participants of the workshop for sharing your stories and helping me find mine!

UnChained At Last: The United States’ Child Marriage Problem webinar reflection

By Cate Cox

On June 17th, UnChained At Last held their webinar, “The United States’ Child Marriage Problem.” Founded by a survivor of forced marriage, Fraidy Reiss, UnChained At Last is the only U.S.-based organization working to end forced and child marriages through direct advocacy and services. During this webinar, they explored their work and research into ending child marriage. At this event, they were joined by advocate Chelsea Clinton, author and influencer Blair Imani, bipartisan state Senators Julia Salazar (New York) and Katrina Shealy (South Carolina), Dr. Yvette Efevbera of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and survivor and advocate Patricia Abatemarco.

Globally, 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday. In a study conducted by UnChained At Last, they found that between 2000-2018 approximately 300,000 children were married across the United States, the majority of whom were underaged girls marrying adult men. The marriages documented involved girls as young as 10 years old. Also, 60,000 of all documented marriages involved a couple where the age difference between the two would constitute statutory rape if they were not married. Child marriage predicates a multitude of physical and mental health issues: abuse, lack of education, and poverty. Yet, public understanding of the severity of child marriage in the U.S. is very limited. 

Like many types of gender-based violence, including female genital cutting (FGC), child marriage in the U.S. is upheld through complicated systems of patriarchy, economic survival strategies, cultural norms, and legislative inaction. Both Senators Salazar and Shealy agreed that culture and shame are a major cause of the continuation of the practice. Within communities with a history of child marriage, many are unable to understand the multi-layered harms of this practice, and many survivors say their parents forced them into marriages to avoid communal shame from pregnancy or rape. These notions of shame and cultural necessity undermine many forms of gender-based violence, forcing girls to sacrifice their autonomy and future or risk ostracization. 

Yet, the thousands of girls forced into marriage across the U.S. are often unable to access support services to escape dangerous situations. Being underage, in many states they cannot hire a lawyer, file for divorce, go to a domestic violence shelter, file a protective order, and other life-saving support systems if they become trapped in abusive situations. The irony of this is astounding, girls are old enough to be wives but not to be divorced. This loophole traps girls in cycles of violence and destroys families.  

At the beginning of this webinar, UnChained At Last shared their heart-wrenching video: The Girls You Have Destroyed, filmed by survivors of child marriage. By highlighting the stories of survivors (not unlike the Voices to End FGM/C videos by Sahiyo) they were able to show the real impact of this issue and highlight its deeply personal effects on women and girls. 

UnChained At Last staffers explained that they are working state-by-state to outlaw the practice of child marriage, since only five states including New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, have an outright ban on marriages involving persons under-18. There is no federal law against it. In order to push for legislative change, the approach of Sahiyo and other organizations to outlaw FGC in the United States mirrors that of UnChained At Last. Both are using a state-by-state approach, while simultaneously pushing for legislation at the federal level. While there is now a federal law, the STOP FGM Act of 2020, and 40 states with state-specific laws, it took the tireless work of activist across the U.S. to implement the most, seemingly inarguable, protections for girls against FGC. 

In better news, UnChained At Last found that the number of child marriages in the U.S. decreases every year. However, the speakers still stressed the continued importance of raising awareness about this issue. They highlighted that while U.S. foreign policy may condemn child marriage as a human rights abuse, we still allow it to be practiced on our soil. Speaker Blair Imani explained that the notion that child marriage is a “far away problem that requires faraway solutions” is one of the major barriers to addressing this issue in the U.S. 

While watching this webinar, I could not help but notice the similarities between the work to end child marriage and our work here at Sahiyo to end female genital cutting (FGC). From the intergenerational norms to the dismissal of the issue as a foreign phenomenon, the problems at hand are very similar. Both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last have struggled to make people aware of the severity of these issues within the U.S., and the urgency to address them. While discussing legislative action, one of the speakers in the UnChained webinar remembered speaking to a state legislature who told her, “Is it really that bad if a girl marries her rapist?” I was immediately drawn back to similar arguments advocates against FGC have heard such as, “It’s just a prick,” or, “It’s not that bad.” The severe harms caused by FGC and child marriage to women and girls are routinely dismissed, and survivors are left without support systems. 

At the same time both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last stress the importance of uplifting survivors’ voices, both for their personal healing and to create legislative change. Through tireless work, they and Sahiyo are making the world a safer place for girls, and are championing a world free of violence against women. 

You can watch the full webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKlqmMqePks 

Voices reflection: Forging bonds

By Arefa Cassoobhoy

Every Wednesday evening for six weeks earlier this year, I logged on to my computer for a video meeting with 12 other women for the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) digital storytelling workshop hosted by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. I did this to create a video that motivates others to speak up and stop this useless and harmful practice forced on young girls in the United States and elsewhere. We were from around the globe and while our stories all centered on FGM/C, each of us had a unique experience and outlook. I didn’t expect so quickly to forge a bond between the women in the group, but I did. The space was safe for us to share our experiences, hear each other’s comments about our project, and feel the compassion radiating through the group. 

Beyond the topic of FGM/C, I learned about the art of digital storytelling, as each week we added layers narrating our script, adding visual images, audio elements and video. I was amazed and inspired by the video drafts the other women shared along the way. Some had utilized beautiful photography or incorporated digital art tools, and crafts like crochet to convey their story. I recorded painting henna on my hands. What started as a simple conversation shared with the group developed into a digital story that I hope will influence others to protect their daughters from FGM/C. 

My experience of learning about female genital cutting: An outsider’s perspective

By Madrisha Debnath

Not belonging to a community where female genital cutting (FGC) is practiced, I have often faced questions on how I can understand how the practice could occur if I am an outsider and the religion or culture I grew up in never condoned it. Interestingly, those who have questioned me have been peers at my university, who also did not come from FGC-practicing communities. But, each of us have grown up in a certain cultural community that has performed certain traditions or norms for generations. In other words, the societies we live in have constructed certain social norms and practices that are followed by its members to keep it going. Therefore, understanding this perspective, one can relate to the practice of FGC according to their own social position and be reflexive in terms of their subjectivity. 

When I first learned about female genital cutting, I was shocked by the physical pain a child undergoes to fit into the heterosexual matrix regulated by the institution of marriage. Not knowing anything about the practice or having experienced it, but being a female with a clitoris, I could not bear the distress of understanding how painful it must be to be cut at the site of more than 8,000 sensory nerve endings. 

I kept on watching and re-watching documentaries, the narratives on FGC, and listening to survivors’ stories. The more I listened to their stories in an attempt to understand the social process, the more I felt the survivors’ trauma. I tried to understand the agency of the women, particularly the role of a mother or grandmother taking part in the very system that regulated their own body. Why is it that the mother, the one who could possibly be the most sympathetic toward the child, could subject her daughter’s body to FGC? 

According to the stories of the survivors, even in cases when the memory of the cut may be repressed, the “body memory” can remember the pain. The effect of the trauma may be repeated every month as the girl hits puberty, during intimacy, and again potentially through her future daughter’s experience with FGC. The first thing I could relate to culturally from my own social construct was how the institution of marriage itself works. In my opinion, marriage is actually a relation from a man (the father) to another man (the husband), whereby the woman is transferred as the symbol of lineage. When the occasion of marriage takes place, generally a change in location takes place for the woman, as her guardianship is being transferred. 

I recently attended my brother’s wedding in India whereby the next morning my sister-in-law had to leave her house and come to our place of residence. Although belonging from the groom’s side, I was supposed to be rejoicing and welcoming my new sister-in-law. But I couldn’t hold my tears as the bride left her family. Being a girl, I could not withstand the final moments of my sister-in-law departing from her mother. The bride and her mother burst into tears. The ritual of Kanyadaan, or giving away the female child with the virtue of generosity and charity, performed by the father of the bride to her husband, ensures her transfer from her father’s family to her husband’s family as a symbol of lineage. 

Before leaving her father’s family the daughter performs kanakanjali, which involves paying off her mother’s debt. But is it possible to pay off a mother’s debt? The mother, who had once undergone the same rituals and practices, may have once felt the pain of leaving her family aside, but now it is her daughter who has to undergo the same practices. How can the mother hold her tears? She had to once leave her family and now her daughter is undergoing the same practice.

There have also been counter spaces of resistances within the communities against these norms. For example, in my community now, female priestesses are challenging the perception that a priest could only be someone who is male since the female body was not considered to be “pious” for performing rituals because of the taboo of menstruation associated with them. Challenging this perception, the female priestesses are performing marriage rituals without the norm of kanyadan. The women are advocating marriage to be a union between two equals and that one cannot be given away as a gift to another. The rituals that are being performed by the female priestess simply denote the union of two families, where the bride is not considered as a “gift” since she is not a commodity which can be simply given away. 

Drawing a parallel between the norm of marriage and the transference of guardianship of the woman from the cultural institution I belong to, to that of how FGC can continue is how I can understand how rituals or practices can continue generation after generation. We perform them because they have been performed by others before us in our communities. 

The questions that I’m left with are whether there is actually any choice by the girl or woman herself to undergo the practices whether in the example of marriage I gave or by the girl who undergoes FGC?  And in the case of FGC, is it the mother or the grandmother who chooses to facilitate the practice to be performed on their daughter, or is it the performative nature of tradition that keeps the practice going, being repeated and recited again and again?

Sahiyo volunteer spotlight: Research intern Madrisha Debnath

Madrisha Debnath is a graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi with a masters in geography. Her research interests are in the area of feminist geography, geography of bodies and embodiment. Having a female body, she is passionate to understand the cultural practice of FGC and the process of cultural embodiment. She is grateful to Sahiyo for upholding feminist values and thus being culturally inclusive, and looks forward to making a meaningful contribution as a research intern at achieving Sahiyo’s aim.

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

I had come to know about the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) in the African context from feminist literature that I was referring to during my master’s course in geography of social wellbeing concerning gender disparity. I had randomly searched for whether the practice was prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. This is when I came to know about Sahiyo and the petition they had initiated against the practice. I was inspired by how a counter feminist space was created by Sahiyo enabling women to come together and speak up against such patriarchal norms and practices. I had approached Sahiyo via email and was interviewed for the position of research intern. I was inspired by the active role Sahiyo had taken in the movement around “my body, my choice” and shared my views on body politics during the interview.

2. What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

My work with Sahiyo includes analysing transcripts, and writing articles and reflections on webinars on FGC. I am working closely with the core team members in performing thematic analysis on survivors’ accounts for Sahiyo’s storytelling project.

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

Aspiring to be a researcher, working with Sahiyo has helped me in developing an emic perspective on FGC by gaining sensitive cultural interpretations and working closely with the community facing the issue. I have learned a lot from Sahiyo’s storytelling program on how to normalize talk around such sensitive issues and deal with them from the grassroots level. I also loved the democratic work culture of the organization that gives space for dialogue and participation without feeling overburdened. 

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

In my opinion, if anyone is motivated to do a certain task, the will comes from within. It is not easy to break the silence on the taboo of FGC, or for that matter any social problems, but if we start we can contribute to at least some changes and contribute toward building an equal society.

Voices reflection: A journey of self discovery

By Lola Ibrahim

Storytelling is an important aspect in ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and finding closure for survivors emotionally and mentally. You are able to pour out all of these random thoughts and feelings you bottled up for so long. It gives you the opportunity to begin the healing process and start a journey of self discovery.

I participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop because I know sharing my story would help me heal, and inspire people to make a change. The storytelling workshop was fun, entertaining, and the message was delivered in a subtle, but effective way.

I know my voice can make a difference.  My pain can help others understand what FGM survivors go through. For a long time I didn’t have the courage to face myself. Telling my story opened my vulnerability; and it’s okay to be vulnerable. The experience was therapeutic for me. I was empowered. I was transformed. I met a group of strong women who, like me, share the passion to end FGM. To those who are interested in participating in a Voices workshop, I say go for it. It is a journey of self discovery.

My personal goal is to have women at every table where decisions that affect them are being made, a future free from stigma, stereotypes, misogyny, patriarchal practices and armed violence. A future that is peaceful and sustainable with equal rights and opportunities. A future free from all harmful traditional practices. 

To all FGM survivors like me, I leave you with one of my favourite quotations:

“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and twice as beautiful as you’d ever imagined.” – Rumi

Practitioner and advocate training: Best practices for working with survivors of gender-based violence

In June Sahiyo partnered with Hidden Scars to host a training for practitioners and advocates working with survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and female genital cutting (FGC). 

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a reality for many women and girls. The World Health Organization reports that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. Yet, GBV often remains hidden and shrouded in silence and shame. At the core of providing better prevention, protection, health, and social support services for women and girls are stronger data, enhanced research, and community engagement. Our presentation explored how practitioners can provide trauma-informed care to survivors of GBV, using FGC as a case study. We also provided resources for clinicians and other front-line professionals who may come in contact with women impacted by both, and who are looking to better understand how to provide better care. 

While Sahiyo’s expertise is in addressing FGC, we acknowledge that FGC is a form of gender-based violence and child abuse. Our team felt that many of the lessons that can be learned about how to help survivors of FGC could also be applied to all forms of GBV. Like other forms of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, FGC is a learned behavior of childhood, and is often surrounded by a culture of silence and shame, and is a form of generational violence. However, GBV can also include childhood marriage, rape, sexual assault, honor crimes, domestic violence, and other crimes against women. While we used FGC as a case study, our goal was to create a training that would allow practitioners to provide better care to all survivors of gender-based violence. 

During this event, we provided an overview of FGM/C and GBV, as well as shared videos from our Voices to End FGM/C project. These videos helped our audience better understand the complicated emotions and experiences survivors go through, and to begin to think about how they as providers can better support them in their journey toward healing. We also shared tools such as the George Washington University FGM/C Toolkit, Mumkin, and other resources that are available to help them and their organizations think about how to provide better care to surviors.

Finally, in order to facilitate conversations and help our guests practice communicating with survivors, we also hosted mock conversations. These conversations were held with the goal to help practitioners become more comfortable speaking with survivors and to practice having productive conversations with patients.

We strongly encourage anyone who works in healthcare or provides direct services to survivors of GBV or FGC to watch the recording of this event on our YouTube page, or check out these additional resources below: 

Dear Maasi talks about clitoral anatomy

Dear Maasi is a column about everything you wanted to know about sex and relationships but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, and is for all of us who have questions about khatna (female genital mutilation/cutting or FGM/C) and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexualities and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi, 

I’ve been hearing that the clitoris is much bigger than the external pea-sized part we mostly hear about. This gave me some hope as a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting. Does this mean I can have orgasms more easily? I’ve only had a few in my life, and I’ve been sexually active for twenty years.

Fatema

Dear Fatema,

I felt the same way when I first saw a 3-D depiction of the clitoris, which is far larger than a pea! In fact, it is wishbone-shaped and is about 10 centimeters from the tip of the glans to the end of one of the 4 legs. Watch this 1 minute video to get a better idea of its appearance. 

Globally, sex education has been dismal. We don’t learn about sexual pleasure, communication, consent, or boundaries; and this is especially true for those of us born female. Although the 3-D model shown in the video has been around for over a decade, most people are unaware of it.

Pro-FGM/C advocates believe that a girl’s sexuality can be controlled by cutting external genitalia. Among Bohras the target is the clitoral hood, but many survivors also report damage to the glans. While FGM/C is medically unnecessary, potentially dangerous and often traumatic, these cuts damage only a very small part of the clitoris (think of the tip of the iceberg analogy). 

So what does this mean for a survivor’s ability to experience pleasure? Well, it’s complicated… and hopeful. 

Here are a few things to consider, Fatema:

1) First, I want to emphasize that sexuality doesn’t have to be genitally, or orgasm, focused. We can feel pleasure through all parts of our bodies as well as through our minds. Even if you’d like more orgasms, broadening our concept of what’s erotic can be helpful. Watch this 2-minute video by Psychologist Esther Perel to get a sense of this or watch this longer video on erotic intelligence.

2) Trauma often gets stored in our bodies as stress responses that can interfere with pleasure. This can be true for people who haven’t experienced FGM/C, as well. You may have to untangle and heal the emotional trauma to enjoy more pleasure.

3) It is hopeful that even if one part of your clitoris may have been harmed, there are internal parts that can be accessed for pleasure. Read this short article on learning about what kind of touch might work for you.

Fatema, enjoy your 10 centimeter-long clitoris! Sexual pleasure is our birthright.

—Maasi


About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor: Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality. Find out more about her at http://www.farzanadoctor.com. Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.